though Evelyne Daitz is fond of puns, this one was unintentional. When she named her early summer group show "Clothes Off," she didn't know it would also be the Witkin Gallery's closing exhibition. As Witkin's owner and director since the 1984 death of founder Lee Witkin, Daitz was determined to match his 15 years in the photo business with 15 of her own. Having met that goal and seen Witkin through to age 30a record for a public photo gallery in New Yorkshe's ready to retire to private dealing. She'll retain a few artistsnotably Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Pierre Vergerand has already been finding new homes for others. (Brazil's Mario Cravo Neto will go to Yancey Richardson; Jerry Uelsmann had already been lured away by Laurence Miller.) Though Witkin has not been an active player in the current high-stakes photo market, it helped create that market, and has a solid reputation at an important, if conservative, end of the business that few younger gallerists are serving.
For now, Daitz is preparing for the gallery's closing July 2 with decidedly mixed feelings. "It's bittersweet," she says, but she won't much regret withdrawing from a scene that little resembles the one she entered in 1976 when Witkin hired her to take charge of his photo sales. Daitz and her husband Howard, now a private photo dealer, were early customers and friends of Witkin's when he was virtually the only game in town. She joined the gallery upon its move to 57th Street and took it to Soho after Witkin's death from AIDS, maintaining a sense of classic traditionalism in the face of an exploding and decidedly unconventional market. Though Daitz shows young contemporaries like Cravo Neto and Robert Flynt, "trendy, far-out" work is not for her, and cutthroat competition is not her style. "I think I reached the point when I just saw the whole field of photography changing," Daitz says. "It's just packaging, just business and money now." "Everyone keeps saying, 'It's the end of an era,"' associate director Jill Seymour notes. "But in this case the cliché is true."