The midtown Manhattan offices of the Gilman Paper Company are reached by riding a one-storey escalator from the lobby of the tower block. 'It's on the first floor because I like seeing people,' says Howard Gilman, whose legendary collection of early photographs is on show publicly for the first time. He's sitting in his corner conference room and looking out at the frenetic street scene along the Avenue of the Americas. 'We're making paper for people, not for the sky.'
His office, with floors of steel and walls of blond wood and glass, is sophisticated, but the atmosphere is more relaxed than daunting. Quite a few of the junior staff wear black T- shirts and jeans. 'Happy Birthday to You' is belting out from behind the doors of one of the dining rooms. Not that Howard Gilman, aged 69, favours the casual look himself. He is dressed in a finely tailored grey suit with a mauve silk handkerchief plumply crushed into its breast pocket.
'How did I get to the top?' Gilman asks, beating me to the question. 'It was tough,' he laughs. 'I was the president's son.' The president hadn't been born penniless either. Isaac Gilman, the current chairman's grandfather, is a figure straight out of capitalist mythology. In 1884 he arrived in America, an illiterate 14-year- old with dollars 100 between himself and destitution. He soon began collecting used newspapers and selling them as wrapping paper, which wasn't otherwise available. 'He was an early recycler,' his grandson says with a smile.
He had a genius for business, too, which his son, Charles, inherited. Isaac died a well-off man; it was Charles who made the family very rich. He was not only hard working; he was also cultivated. When Howard was a child, the musicians Piatigorsky and Heifetz were regular visitors to the house. At the age of four, Howard was bouncing on the knee of Sol Hurok, the impresario who brought the Bolshoi Ballet to the USA. And high culture wasn't the only kind around the Gilman house. The movie business was still centred in New York and the Warner brothers and the Selznicks also dropped in.
Not surprisingly, given this background, Howard Gilman developed a desire to express himself artistically, too. But as far as other people were concerned he didn't have a talent to match. 'I played the piano and I was absolutely awful,' he reports. 'It was so bad the police came once to tell me to stop practising.' When he sent out his writing, rejection slips came back. These tales are told with rueful good humour. Any young man would be hurt by such failures but today Howard Gilman seems neither a bitter nor a reluctant businessman.
'I really enjoy the business. Oh yes I do. I enjoy it because I'm personally involved. I don't think I'd enjoy it if I was just facing figures all day long.' And he's found ways of indulging his creative longings. He helps artists - he looked after Baryshnikov when he first arrived in the United States, and Mark Morris has worked out new dance works at his 7,000 acre White Oak plantation, the location of the Gilman Paper Company plant - and he collects.
It didn't begin with photography. In the early Seventies, Gilman employed Pierre Apraxine, who has worked at the Museum of Modern Art and the Marlborough Gallery, to be his curator and the two began to build a collection of minimal art and architectural drawings. But then in 1977, Apraxine took a trip to France and saw Baldus's Afternoon in the Park, an evocative group photograph taken at the Chateau de la Faloise in 1857, and he was smitten.
'I was dumbfounded to find that that type of masterpiece was for sale,' he says now. 'I thought that surely they'd been locked in museums for a long time.'
Apraxine immediately grasped that if such a work could still be bought in France - 'which jealously guards its patrimony' - early photographs of such exceptional technical quality and beauty probably would be available in the US and Britain too.
Gilman already contained photographs by Robert Frank, Brassai and Walker Evans and now he and curator set out to buy 40 great examples of 19th-century photography, 'just to anchor what we had in the 20th century'. But soon it began to grow, with the collector choosing to concentrate on photography's first 100 years. 'Even we didn't realise the extent to which we were going to be able to find these treasures,' Gilman recalls. 'But as we got further and further along I thought we really are doing something that will be a discovery of sorts.'
The decision to concentrate on early photography protected Gilman from importuning contemporary photographers. 'It was convenient,' he allows. 'I could very easily say, 'You're so lucky that we're not going to collect you - you're alive]' ' It also fitted in with his commitment to conservation (he sponsors a wild animal breeding centre at the White Oak Conservation Centre, recently sponsored a symposium on the environmental crises in Eastern Europe and plants two trees for every one that he cuts down). 'It's such a fugitive art,' he says. 'The images disappear if they're not properly taken care of.' And it allowed him a certain artistic satisfaction as a collector.
'I want to be better, not bigger,' he says. 'Early photography, like minimalist art, is on the cutting edge. I always think that not being able to be as grand as some other people' - he mentions the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations in comparison - 'we should try to be more adventurous. I like to be the innovator. And to try to let the public see that something they're not aware of has value and merit.'
That lack of awareness played into his hands at first. Apraxine assures that 'I didn't have carte blanche', but he did have deeper pockets than many against whom he was bidding. And in the Seventies, most people thought of early photographs as a lot of faded, dull sepia prints. The prices were relatively cheap, though by the end of the decade they were beginning to rise fast. He was instrumental in this. Apraxine says that while a fine print of Roger Fenton's interior of Salisbury Cathedral cost about dollars 9,000 in 1981, it might cost dollars 50,000 or dollars 60,000 now, maybe more.
Last year Howard Gilman had a triple heart bypass. This has not made him decide to retire. On the contrary. 'I'd like to invent another 12 hours in the day,' he says. Well then, has he narrowed his range of activities? 'That might be more mature,' he allows, 'but I can't. I'm having too much pleasure and satisfaction out of everything I'm doing.'
Howard Gilman has no family. Though the minimalist art collection was sold in 1989, he doesn't intend to do the same with his photographs. What are his plans for its future? 'We would always want it to continue to have a life outside our very private, and some might consider selfish, life,' he says. Is he thinking of building his own museum?
'No,' says Howard Gilman. 'I don't like monuments.' But when asked if the collection will one day be given to an existing institution - a couple of museums do have their eyes on it - the answer is: 'It will always be seen in one form or another.'
Howard Gilman is a private man, all right. And canny with it.
'The Waking Dream' is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York until 4 July
It can be seen as part of the Edinburgh International Festival at the City Arts Centre, Edinburgh from 7 August until 2 October