Sarasotans Warren and Margot Coville ate a lot of soup in the 1980s.
Looking at hundreds of photographs all day long at auctions was tiring, so, instead of going out for dinner, the photography collectors would stop at a deli for soup and sandwiches to take back to their hotel room. As a hobby, the Detroit residents frequented New York City to attend fine-art auctions for many decades.
The couple recently donated 1,700 photos from their collection to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Seventy-five mostly journalistic-style photos spanning 1888 to 2001 are being exhibited in the “Warren J. and Margot Coville Photography Collection” through Feb. 3. Although Warren Coville has the photography background, Margot Coville played a large role in developing the collection.
“Margot and I really did all the purchasing together, and it was a very important and pleasurable part of collecting because we would do it together,” Warren Coville says.
Margot Coville bought her husband the first photo in the collection as a birthday present in the mid-’70s, a Yousuf Karsh portrait of cellist Pablo Casals. It’s in the exhibit.
“That sparked my interest in collecting,” he says. “Every day I would stop on the way home from work at a gallery in Birmingham, Mich. As (the gallery) had exhibitions, I would buy images from those exhibitions by various photographers.”
In the beginning, there wasn’t a purposeful emphasis on photojournalism, but some of the photography he collected from large “lots,” (collections of photos from lesser-known photographers) were editorial photos. And Coville did have one intention:
“One of the areas we began to target was the Clarence White School of Photography,” he says. One of Warren Coville’s favorite photographers, Clarence White, founded the famous school in 1914. Since then, many of the school’s alumni have developed names for themselves.
Warren Coville’s collection features work from these students, whom he’d follow throughout their careers. He’d get to know the photographers, such as Ansel Adams and Walter Rosenblum, at their personal exhibitions.
The collection took a lot of time, careful planning and documentation. Warren Coville would study auction catalogs and make plenty of calls to his curator before making a selection.
“Nothing was bought in a rush,” Warren Coville says. And the homework continued after the photo became his.
“Every time I bought a photograph, I would research it and learn the history that surrounded that particular photograph,” he says. “It gives you an opportunity to broaden your knowledge of many areas.”
But his interest in photography wasn’t only in the lessons a photo could teach. His love of the art began when he bought his first camera, an 828 Bantam, at age 13. The now 87-year-old remembers the excitement he felt seeing an image appear underneath the developer solution for the first time.
In high school, Warren Coville worked in the dark room at a portrait studio for two years, assisting a photographer on yearbook shoots, lugging his bags around. He also took photos for the school newspaper.
His photography experience continued into adulthood. Warren Coville was one of 15 to 20 men in the Army Air Corps photo-tech unit during World War II. He took aerial photographs with a handheld crank camera and also from an automatic camera mounted to the belly of a B-17 bomber. He’d capture the bombs striking the target.
“You’ll see a picture of our photo tech unit (in the exhibit),” he says.
Following the war, Warren Coville was a portrait photographer in a small studio when he met Bill Davidson, who owned a pharmaceutical company. The duo opened a photo-finishing lab in 1956 — Guardian Industries.
“The first year we were in business we did $56,000,” Warren Coville says. “And when I retired (in 1985), we did $110 million — we were the third-largest finisher in the United States.”
Aside from being a former owner of The Detroit Pistons, Warren Coville is known for his contributions to charitable causes.
In 1987, he formed the “I Have a Dream Foundation” at Roosevelt Elementary School, the inner-city Detroit school that Warren Coville attended. He promised 78 fifth-graders that if they graduated high school, he would pay for their higher education. Fifty-three graduated, and 35 went on to college.
“We still now, as a result of Facebook, keep in touch with 10 to 15 of them,” he says.
He is on the board of Asolo Repertory Theatre and occasionally sponsors conservatory students. A handful of students celebrated Thanksgiving at the Covilles’ home this year.
The Covilles continue to be loyal patrons of the arts and provide assistance when they see a need. They thought photography was something the museum was lacking before their donation.
“They needed it,” he says.