In "Finders Keepers," the photography show that opened this week at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London (until Jan. 31), there is an arresting image of a woman's face, almost entirely obscured by her hand. The softness of the black-and-white image—with its muted grays and blacks, and the pearly gleam to the finger nails and the one visible eye—evokes the sensual beauty of the woman, teasingly hidden from our view.
This is a portrait of Ida Fuchs, a famous dancer in 1930s Germany. The picture was taken by a fashionable photographer of the time, Baron Wolff von Gudenberg, and appeared, garishly colored, as the cover of Das Magazin in December 1930. But, as Mr. Hoppen explains, "When we got this, it was virtually a black sheet of paper."
Tilting the silver gelatin print to the light, however, it was clear there was an image behind the dirt. Several weeks of careful cleaning revealed "this most extraordinary picture," Mr. Hoppen says. "I love the fact that she is hiding her face with her hand, and layered on that was soot, and layered on that was oxidation. It is still a dark picture, but there is something mysterious about it—was there some extraordinary relationship between dancer and photographer?"
For Mr. Hoppen, this scent of a story, as much as the particular quality of the individual print, is what makes a great photograph. "In a sense, the social history behind photographs is what makes them interesting, beyond the fact that they start life as beautiful photographs," he says.
This photograph is just one of 130 images that Mr. Hoppen has selected from his own collection to go on view in a show celebrating his gallery's 20th anniversary.
What is notable about his collection, besides the trophy pictures—that classic Richard Avedon fashion picture, "Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, August 1955," or the kimono-clad woman eating watermelon, in Nobuyoshi Araki's "Colourscapes, 1993"—is the range of bizarre and beautiful images you have probably never seen. "Some of them taken by chance, some of them by amateurs, some by well-known photographers," Mr. Hoppen says.
On the advice of Tate Modern photography curator Simon Baker, Mr. Hoppen has arranged the images according to the order in which they were acquired, emphasizing their marvelous heterogeneity. Here is a man smiling benignly, covered with bees; here, an autopsy of a crocodile. There is a surreal image by Irving Penn of a bloodshot eye in a white, powdered face, having mascara applied. And there hangs a painterly image by Russian photographer Boris Savelev of his wife, from 1988.
An anonymous press photograph of a house that has just been struck by a tornado, with a woman in a white dress stepping out from the chaos, is followed by a perplexing 1930s image by German photographer Friedrich Seidenstücker of a woman laughing while lying across a table, apparently having her skirt ironed against her.
“The social history behind photographs is what makes them interesting, beyond the fact that they start life as beautiful photographs.”
There are, however, few purely abstract images or landscapes. "I am drawn to people. I am curious about what they do, how they breathe, how they sleep," says Mr. Hoppen. "Photography reflects that because it infiltrates all our lives."
Mr. Hoppen, born in 1957, has collected photographs for more than 30 years. His fascination with photography began when, as a young boy, drawn to buttons and dials, he was given a Box Brownie camera. He went on to study photography at Goldsmiths College and the London College of Printing.
In 1992, however, he abandoned his career as an editorial photographer—"I was somebody who used a camera to make a living, but I did not make pictures. That is the distinction," he says—and set up as a dealer, with a gallery in Chelsea.
Since then, he has shown and sold the work of Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Jacques Henri Lartigue, as well as mounting pioneering shows of photographers from all over the world—from 1930s and '40s New York lowlife photographer Weegee to contemporary Swedish photographer Denise Grünstein.
He has made a specialty of Japanese photography, and on show are vintage prints by Daido Moriyama and Shomei Tomatsu, among others. Mr. Hoppen has no favored period or style. As he puts it, "Photography is in its infancy. The rules are still being made up, the technology is changing in front of our eyes."
What drives him is his own obsession with images. "Photographic images feed me. I never get tired of them," he says. "They change the way you look at something. They change your point of view."