Michael G Wilson has been the man behind every James Bond movie since Moonraker in 1979. But the 74-year-old hasn’t limited his role to being producer or executive producer. Wilson has also notched up no fewer than 18 cameos in 007’s various adventures, as pall-bearer, doctor, man in a corridor, police chief, army general, casino gambler, Nasa technician, Greek priest and Soviet security council member. Wilson cuts a similar figure in the world of photography: hugely influential, yet content to remain an eminence grise. Since the 80s, his enthusiasm for collecting photographs has grown enormously, in tandem with the prices such works can now fetch at auction. This once underpriced commodity has now spawned a legion of speculators, dealers and collectors. These days, it’s not uncommon for a print to go under the hammer for more than a Turner watercolour.
Some collectors have singular obsessions, hunting down photographs of hands, merry-go-rounds, trees, people with their eyes shut, birds or eggs or both. Among their burgeoning ranks are a few who have become patrons in their own right, keen to enlarge the history of photography and the photography of history. Simon Baker, in post since 2009 as the Tate’s first curator of photography, would certainly put Wilson in this category, saying he has “been transformative for the Tate’s photography”. In fact, Wilson’s collection now numbers 11,000 images, making it three times bigger than the Tate’s. It is constantly on loan in Britain and overseas: the recent, hugely praised exhibition of William Eggleston portraits at the National Portrait Gallery was largely sourced from his collection.