Photographer-turned-filmmaker Alexi Tan almost lost his entire photographic archive because of an expired credit card.
This past June, photographer and self-professed flea market hound Henry Leutwyler was browsing a Manhattan market when he came across boxes of prints, negatives and contact sheets on a merchant’s folding tables. Leutwyler noticed the boxes were marked with the photographer’s name: Alexi Tan.
Leutwyler remembered Tan’s work from the 90s, and wondered how his archive ended up for sale at a flea market. A quick Google search confirmed the Tan was living in Hong Kong and directing films and commercials after transitioning from still photography.
Leutwyler thought: maybe Tan’s archive had been auctioned off by a storage facility. Leutwyler, himself a customer of Manhattan Mini Storage, where many New York photographers store archives, had heard cautionary tales of the company auctioning off contents of storage rooms when owners fell behind on or forgot to make payments. He was right.
In Tan’s case, he’d gone to China to shoot his first feature film, not realizing the credit card on which he made automatic payments for his storage would expire while he was away. Though Tan says Manhattan Mini Storage was within their contractual rights to do what they did, “I’m not sure by principle it’s the right policy,” he told PDN via email.
By the time Tan had realized his mistake, his archive was gone—auctioned off to the highest bidder. According to Leutwyler, the flea market merchant told him he had purchased Tan’s archive from another vendor, who’d bought it at auction from Manhattan Mini Storage.
“I pretty much tried to see the whole experience in as positive light as I could,” Tan recalls. “Since I was starting a new career in film, I thought to myself, to lose my photography work this way must mean something? It almost felt like my whole experience in New York was erased.”
When Leutwyler discovered Tan’s archive at the flea market, he was unable to reach him immediately, so he discreetly snapped a couple of photos on his iPhone and headed home. Leutwyler was able to find contact information for Tan through a stylist both he and Tan had worked with. Leutwyler dashed off an email and promptly heard back. “Alexi was thrilled,” Leutwyler says.
The next week Leutwyler went back to the flea market and haggled with the merchant, who was asking $35 each for chromes and $25 for prints. After some back and forth, Leutwyler was able to fill four plastic bins with Tan’s archive for $800.
Tan then arranged for a friend, fellow photographer and filmmaker Stephane Sednaoui, to reimburse Leutwyler and store the boxes until Tan could arrange to retrieve them.
Then in early September Leutwyler was at the same flea market when he saw more of Alexi’s work being sold by the same vendor. He sent images to Tan and the pair communicated on a course of action. Leutwyler then tried to purchase film reels from Tan’s days as an NYU Film School student, and a series of black and white prints of a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Despite hostility from the merchant, Leutwyler was able to acquire more of Tan’s archive, including the DiCaprio prints.
“I couldn’t even begin to describe the feeling to see these lost works once more,” Tan says. “It really feels like part of me came back, in a good way. My photography was the foundation for what I do now as a filmmaker. So to describe the feeling to have them back, in one word: Unbelievable.”
While Tan praises Leutwyler for rescuing years’ worth of work that he thought he’d lost forever, Leutwyler says he was just showing professional courtesy and looking out for a member of the photography tribe—something he hopes others would do for him. Leutwyler also believes photographers who use Manhattan Mini Storage or other storage facilities for their archives should be cautious.
“It could happen to anybody,” Leutwyler says.
“I am forever grateful to Henry, a stranger with a kind heart, and to my friend, Stephane Sednaoui, who is storing the photographs in his studio in the meantime,” Tan says. “Coincidentally, the whole recovery has been so impactful, I’ve decided to put up an exhibition of these works in China next year and donate the proceeds to charity.”
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