ROBERT FRANK (American, b. Zurich, Switzerland, 1924)
U.S. 90 En Route to Del Rio, Texas
Gelatin silver print
Executed in 1955 / printed c. 1970
13 1/4 x 8 7/8 inches
Pre-sale est.: $80,000-$120,000
Price realized: $266,500
SOTHEBY'S, N.Y.: "Photographs", N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #182
Illustration courtesy SOTHEBY'S IMAGES LTD., 2010

2010 Fall Photography Auctions in New York

By Brian Appel


Aside from the triumph of the once-in-a-lifetime $12.5M, mega-huge 480-lot Polaroid Collection bankruptcy sale at Sotheby’s in New York in June, and the $7.5M, 65-lot Richard Avedon “white-glove” sale for the artist’s Foundation at Christie’s in Paris last month (Avedon’s largest), photography sales continue to play catch-up to the heady levels achieved at its peak in the spring of 2008.

This fall, only two photographs clocked in at over $200,000 at the rostrum. At the height of the market 2 ½ years ago, an astounding 34 photographs hit that bellwether.

Sotheby’s
Proving that photographs don’t have to be beautiful in a conventional way, Robert Frank’s elegiac photograph, “U.S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas”, from his gritty but romantic history-making cross-country 1955-1956 road trip photo-essay, “The Americans”, easily walked away with the top price paid this season at the Sotheby’s sale.

The exceedingly rare 13 ¼ by 8 7/8 inch print of the photographer’s exhausted wife Mary and son Pablo as seen through the front windshield of the family’s car as it sits to the side of a lonely stretch of highway at dawn, is the final image of a chain of 83 images that form a powerful, cinematic-like essay that to this day still resonates with viewers as the ultimate visual commentary on America in the 1950s.

Despite the fact that the print was executed 15 to 20 years after the original exposure was made and lacks the visceral and emotive sheen—and the luxurious use of dense blacks— that “vintage” Frank images from this series display, the photograph went on to command $100,000 beyond its pre-sale high estimate ultimately trading for $266,500.

A “vintage” print of this image—a photographic print made in close proximity to the execution of the exposure—sold at Phillips de Pury & Company’s “27 Exceptional Photographs” sale on April 24th, 2007 for just over half a million dollars proving that there is always a deep pocket or two for the dwindling supply of truly exceptional works that come up for sale perhaps once every decade.

MAN RAY (a.k.a. Emmanuel Radnitzky, 1890-1976)
Still Life Composition with Chess Set, Plaster Casts and A L'Heure De L'Observatore-Les Amoureux
Gelatin silver print hinged to board
Executed in 1935-1936
6 3/8 x 8 3/4 inches
Pre-sale est.: $50,000-$70,000
Price realized: $170,500
SOTHEBY'S, N.Y.: "Photographs", N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #140
Illustration courtesy SOTHEBY'S IMAGES LTD., 2010


Man Ray’s “Still Life Composition with Chess Set, Plaster Casts, and A L’Heure De L’Observatoire—Les Amoureux” from 1935-36, was the second highest lot of the sale trading at double its $70K high estimate.

Taken in Man Ray’s Rue du Val-de-Grace studio before his then-new painting entitled “A L’Heure de l’Observatoire-Les Amoureux” was sent to New York for Alfred Barr’s “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at MoMA in late 1936, the 6 3/8 by 8 ¾ inch gelatin silver print juxtaposes this painting (one of his most celebrated) overtop a dark grey couch with a white plaster cast of a woman’s head and nude torso (cut at mid-thigh). A Man Ray designed chess set—an homage to Marcel Duchamp perhaps—rests on a table at the bottom left side of the frame.

The painting—prominently illustrating his ex-lover’s lips as they float in the sky like some wondrous UFO—is without doubt a respectful or reverential nod to Lee Miller the prominent model and fashion photographer with whom he had painfully broken up with in 1932. The lips take on a polyvalent signification—perhaps including the role of fetish—where they become a direct link with the creator’s psyche.

The central act of photography, the artist’s choosing and eliminating of elements in the frame, the isolation of unexpected juxtapositions and the all powerful central vantage point that provocatively shows us an unlikely sense of the scene while withholding its narrative meaning is operating here in spades in Man Ray’s strange and radiant photograph.

The artist’s disruption of academic composition alone—pictorial space is first rendered ambiguous, then paradoxical and finally fragmented—makes strong references to Surrealism and conventional wisdom and habit. Even the simplest things in the photograph unveil exciting questions that tests our belief that the lens is impartial. Our faith in the ‘new objectivity’ of photography and the tangible presence of reality is challenged.

Sotheby’s lot notes point to the artist being “well ahead of his time in introducing a puckish self-referentiality” and to the work’s embodiment of a “nearly Post-Modern sensibility” as though “it was made well before Modernism had run its full course.” Man Ray’s keen sense of aesthetic balance and his ability to use imagery to reach the subconscious and translate a story or ideas onto a visual picture should also be noted.

Despite the fact that Man Ray made at least six different variants of this picture—the shifting element in each is the form on the sofa—“Still Life Composition” attracted a gaggle of bidders pushing the take-home price to $170,500 (with buyer’s premium).

EDWARD STEICHEN (American, 1879-1973)
Wind Fire Therese Duncan Acropolis
Palladium print
9 5/8 x 7 5/8 inches
Executed in 1921 / vintage print
Pre-sale est.: $120,000-$180,000
Price realized: $146,500
Sotheby's, N.Y.: "Photographs", October 6, 2010
Lot #40
Illustration courtesy SOTHEBY'S IMAGES LTD., 2010


Although photography was becoming widespread in the early years of the 20th century, it was not considered an art form. Photography was considered to be amateur and that there was nothing to it, unlike painting and sculpture. It wasn’t until a movement called “pictorial photography” did photography as art become accepted.

Pictorialism rejected the point-and-shoot approach to the medium and embraced exotic, labor-intensive processes such as gum bichromate printing which involved hand-coating artist papers with homemade emulsions and pigments, or they made platinum prints which yielded rich, tonally subtle images.

Soft focus, special filters, lens coatings and heavy manipulations in the dark room were the methods used to “advance” the true mongrel status of photography as a medium.

Pictorialism mined the influence of Whistler and Japanese prints and photographs were often affixed on mounts of softly textured paper which were in turn fastened to one or more additional mounts of harmonizing or contrasting colors and of increasing size. Prints so mounted were often signed with a monogram, and they were almost invariably exhibited in large frames.

Edward Steichen’s “‘Wind Fire’ Therese Duncan, Acropolis” is a late example of “pictorial photography” complete with sections of the image in soft focus, a blending of the dress with the sky and an overall fuzzy quality that is associated more with paintings than with photography.

Steichen was on holiday in Venice in 1921 at the same time as the dancer Isadora Duncan who was on her way to Greece with her dance troupe. With the promise that Steichen would be able to make motion pictures of her dancing on the Acropolis, Isadora persuaded him to accompany her. Although Isadora did pose for a few photographs at the Parthenon, it was with her pupil and adopted daughter Therese that Steichen produced this extraordinary image. From Steichen’s own words in his 1963 memoir “A Life in Photography”:

"She was a living reincarnation of a Greek nymph. Once, while photographing the Parthenon, I lost sight of her, but I could hear her. When I asked where she was, she raised her arms in answer. I swung the camera around and photographed her arms against the background of the Erechtheum. And then we went out to a part of the Acropolis behind the Parthenon, and she posed on a rock, against the sky with her Greek garments. The wind pressed the garments tight to her body, and the ends were left flapping and fluttering. They actually crackled. This gave the effect of the fire."

A gelatin silver contact print of this image was traded at Christie’s London in the fall of 2007 for $81,884. The palladium print—a printing process which involves more hands on human intervention—reached $146,500 (with buyer’s premium) at the sale, the third highest lot of the session.

IRVING PENN (American, 1917-2009)
Cigarette #69 (In Four Parts)
4 platinum-palladium prints mounted on board
Executed in 1972 / printed 1977
60 x 44 3/4 inches
Ed.: '37/46'
Pre-sale est.: $100,000-$150,000
Price realized: $134,500
SOTHEBY'S, N.Y.: "Photograph", N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #188
Illustration courtesy SOTHEBY'S IMAGES LTD., 2010


When Irving Penn, known for his handsome photographs of celebrities and food for fashion magazines and ad agencies was given a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1975, it was for a series of close-ups of cigarette butts.

Utilizing his signature minimalist off-white background and buttery-soft natural lighting with subject matter that represents the antithesis of his fashion and commercial commissions the artist was possibly suggesting that “seeing” is clearest in offbeat or trivial subject matter.

The work received mixed reviews from critics at the time.

“One might guess,” commented John Szarkowski—the director of the museum’s Department of Photography from 1962-1991—“that [Penn] has only rarely enjoyed more than a cursory interest in the nominal subjects of his pictures. For him the true subject has not been haute couture, but line, tone, shape, and patter and the photographic intuition that will define their just relationship.”

For Penn, challenging the traditional idea of beauty by presenting prints of trash rescued from Manhattan streets served to enlarge vastly his (and our) notion of what is aesthetically pleasing.

“I admit,” Penn himself is quoted as saying, ”that I find decay fascinating… In these pictures [of cigarette butts] the subject matter is simply a catalyst, differing from previous work of mine where the subject was itself usually the reason for the picture. For me this is a new experience.”

In 1975, photographer Richard Avedon saw The Museum of Modern Art exhibition "Irving Penn: Photographs of Cigarettes", and shortly afterward purchased fifteen of the prints, each number one in the editions.

EDWARD WESTON (American, 1886-1958)
Dunes, Oceano
Gelatin silver print
Executed in 1936 / probably printed in the 1940s
7 5/8 x 9 1/2 inches
Pre-sale est.: $70,000-$100,000
Price realized: $134,500
SOTHEBY'S, N.Y.: "Photographs", N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #119
Illustration courtesy SOTHEBY'S IMAGES LTD., 2010


The technical perfection of Weston’s photographs—impeccable lighting, skill of composition, clarity of subject, precision of focus, masterful print quality—referred by some as “Westonian”, is in full tilt here in this image taken in the largest and most dramatic coastal dune area in California.

The Sotheby’s catalog notes that this print came originally from the collection of Walter Colman who was a successful industrialist and talented amateur photographer.

His interest in photography led him to write to Edward Weston for technical and aesthetic guidance. While it was hardly uncommon for Weston to be asked for advice by aspiring photographers, few took Colman’s approach of sending a check along with the letter.

This print, an ocean of sand dunes in rich inky blacks and iridescent, shimmering highlights that some say resemble waves, backs, buttocks or breasts, hammered at $110K ($134,500 with buyer’s premium). Other prints of this image have made it to the block before, most recently at Christie’s in the fall of 2008 for $98,500 (with buyer’s premium) and Phillips de Pury in the spring of 2007 for $90K (with buyer’s premium). A “vintage” print of this image sold at Sotheby’s for $241K in the fall of 2007. Prints of this image were selling in the $25K-$35K range in 1999.

WILLIAM EGGLESTON (American, b. 1939)
Graceland
A portfolio of 11 dye-transfer prints
Executed in 1983 / printed 1984
22 14 x 15 1/4 inches or the reverse
Ed.: 31 plus 4 AP's
Pre-sale est.: $80,000-$120,000
Price realized: $134,500
SOTHEBY'S, N.Y.: "Photograph", N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #229
Illustration courtesy SOTHEBY'S IMAGES LTD., 2010


“Graceland”, a portfolio of eleven dye-transfer color prints that were the result of an invitation to photograph Elvis Presley’s mansion on the out-skirts of Memphis provided the artist with an opportunity to engage his Southern sensibility with the home of “The King.”

William Eggleston’s ‘snapshot’ photography—an engagingly democratic approach where all subject matter including the most banal is as important as the most exceptional—startled the international art world in 1976 when the curator of Photographs at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), John Szarkowki, mounted a retrospective of his work accompanied by a fully illustrated exhibition catalog called William Eggleston’s “Guide”.

The exhibition also confirmed color photography as a significant art form, and cemented Eggleston’s position as a leader in the field.

Graceland, like any house, constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability. To distinguish all these images would be to describe the soul of the house; it would mean developing a veritable psychology of the house.

Covered with gilt and mirrors, the eight interior shots of Graceland reveal a psychic state where every corner in the house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space suggests a mausoleum; an exclusive, above-ground burial chamber for the rich and famous frozen in the 1960s.

The portfolio brought $134,500 (with buyer’s premium). The last time this body of work was offered in New York was at Phillips de Pury & Co. in the fall of 2006. It sold for $114,000.

ANSEL ADAMS (American, 1902-1984)
Grand Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Gelatin silver print flush mounted on wood
30 5/8 x 45 1/8 inches
Executed in 1942 / printed 1960s
Pre-sale est.: $150,000-$250,000
Price realized: $338,500
CHRISTIE'S, N.Y.: "Photographs", #2395
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #12
Illustration courtesy CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD., 2010


Christie’s
By the time of his death in 1984 Ansel Adams was acknowledged as the creator of the single most lucrative image in the history of photography—“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”—an image he took in 1941. But, as early as 1950, Adams had become the most famous of all landscape photographers.

The impact of the present recession has apparently not affected the Adams market. On June 21st of 2010, a mural-sized “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park” from 1938—printed in the 1950s or 1960s—was taken home from the “Photographs from the Polaroid Collection” sale at Sotheby’s for $722,500 establishing a new world record for the lensman. “Grand Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming” from 1942—printed in the 1960s, felt the tailwind of this spectacular sale with a pretty good one of its own taking home the largest price of the entire photography fall auction season with a $338,500 payday. One of only six in the 30 5/8 by 45 1/8 inch size, the gelatin silver print, flush-mounted on wood exceeded its high pre-sale estimate by $30K.

It’s of great interest that this Adams image—a people-less landscape photograph taken with the utmost commitment to clarity of line and form with an emphasis on the greatest depth of field and clarity of focus—would triumph (at least in the purchase price) over the season’s second highest image at the podium, Robert Frank’s rough-edged, jaundiced, improvised image of his exhausted family in his late-model car down a lonely stretch of road. It’s almost as if the market were telling us that these two polar opposite images that illustrate their own ideal of “beauty” can find a place at the top of the heap in post-war photography.

MAN RAY (a.k.a. Emmanuel Radnitzky, 1890-1976)
Nude with Shadow (solarized)
Solarized gelatin silver print
11 1/4 x 9 inches
Executed in 1927
Pre-sale est.: $70,000 - $90,000
Price realized: $146,500
CHRISTIE'S, N.Y.: "Photographs", #2395
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #31
Illustration courtesy CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD., 2010


Man Ray’s “Nude with Shadow (solarized)” from 1927 is said to take its inspiration from the classicist painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ and his famous “The Turkish Bath” from 1862. Both images feature voluptuously beautiful women with their backs to the spectator.

Ingres was one of Man Ray’s first idols. While still in New York, he had been introduced to the work of the master by Marius de Zayas, the influential Mexican artist, writer and gallery owner, who alerted him to the evolution of modernism in French art from the classicism of Ingres extending straight through to Matisse. Both artists play with the idea of woman, but do not degrade her. It possesses the woman, makes her—almost—into an object, yet maintains respect for the classically surrealist reverence of the female form.

There is more than one version of how Man Ray “invented” solarizing or the “edge-reversal method”. Lee Miller, the blonde, blue-eyed model from Poughkeepsie who came to Paris to work for Man Ray as his assistant (and soon to be lover) took credit for the discovery. As she liked to tell the story, a mouse ran over her foot when she was in Man Ray’s darkroom and she screamed and turned on the light. In the tanks at that instant were a dozen or so of nearly ready negatives. After they’d been “flashed”, the unexposed sections of the negative, which had been black, were developed turning white. But the background and image couldn’t heal together so there was a line left which Man Ray called “solarization”.

This partial reversal of the negative into a positive image by a short exposure to light during development is a physical phenomena due to extreme over-exposure, and known since 1862 when the French scientist Sabattier stumbled on it and named it the Sabattier effect.

Man Ray subtly seized credit for the discovery six years after the Lee Miller “accident” when his first full length collection, “Photographs 1920-1934,” was published by James Thrall Soby.

Man Ray’s imaginative use of solarization (also referred to as ‘edge-reversal method’) made it into a perfect Surrealist medium in which positive and negative occur simultaneously, as if in a dream.

Christie’s lot notes for this image establishes provenance and the important circumstances around which the print date was secured:

"The collection stamp on the back of this print indicates that it was at one time most likely in the collection of Marcel Natkin who wrote several books on the art and technique of photography in the 1930s. He included this image in a chapter titled “’Stylized Nudity’ Man Ray” in his 1937 book, “Photography of the Nude”. This print is identical in size, tonality and texture to the print, currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, that belonged to James Thrall Soby and was reproduced in Man Ray’s monograph published by Soby in 1934. Apparently these two prints were made at the same time on the same paper. The MoMA print, however, is mounted on board with a label on the verso dating the image to 1927."

The photograph came with a $70K-$90K low/high pre-sale estimate. It hammered at $120K ($146,500 with buyer’s premium).

ROBERT FRANK (American, b. Zurich, Switzerland,. 1924)
Trolley -- New Orleans
Gelatin silver print
9 3/4 x 15 1/8 inches
Executed in 1955 / printed 1970s
Pre-sale est.: $100,000 - $150,000
Price realized: $134,500
CHRISTIE'S, N.Y.: "Photographs", #2395
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #21
Illustration courtesy CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD., 2010


Taken in 1955, the same year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man at the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the straight-ahead gaze of Frank’s camera in "Trolley - New Orleans" captures the flip side of the American dream in the 1950s South. Transcending the distinction between media image and aesthetic object—between art and photojournalism—to make from a single pregnant moment a complete and enduring image—Frank’s superbly layered photograph is a stand-in for what many believe is his life’s crowning achievement.

One would be hard pressed to acquire a more succinct representation of the big issues of fear, alienation and isolation facing Americans at the height of the cold war. The widespread belief that American Communists were conducting atomic espionage for the Soviet Union fueled paranoia and broadened the gap between the rich and the poor, blacks and whites, and leaders and followers. This on top of a race to see who could launch the world’s first satellite into space all served as a concrete reminder of one of the most disquieting periods in American history.

“Trolley—New Orleans”, a photograph that follows in the tradition of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, served Frank as an important avenue for expressing himself politically. The policy of compelling racial groups to live apart from one another—going to separate schools, the use of separate social facilities, etc. was perfectly captured symbolically by Frank’s sharp lens as he walked up to that trolley and pointed his Leica at this perfect site of institutionalized Southern racism.

The photograph is actually composed of five portraits. Starting from the front of the trolley and reading left to right we have the face of the bespectacled Caucasian man in a suit whose head is hidden behind the light reflected off the glass of his half pulled down window giving him the appearance of being actually whiter than white. The light creates an illusion of a veil or hood over his face increasing his untouchability and anonymity.

The middle-aged Caucasian matron immediately behind him is dressed in a high collared severe black cloth coat with what can only be described as a scowl on her face. Her expression is illustrative of someone looking at an uninvited outsider (Frank himself) and sending out the unmistakable message of ‘you don’t belong here’ or worse.

The center window and the center of the photograph show a five or six-year-old Caucasian boy with a suit and white shirt and bowtie and his younger sister (perhaps two) also in her Sunday best looking out at Frank’s camera. Their expressions are the most hopeful in the photograph filled with an open curiosity—his is much more intense than his younger sister. But when you look at their hands you can see what’s in their hearts. The boy’s right hand is wrapped firmed around the white vertical bar separating one compartment from the other but is closest to the disdainful woman’s seat directly in front of him and connecting him to her. The little girl’s hands are both ‘in the air’. She has, as yet, not really found her ‘rudder’. Although her body language faces directly at Frank, her gaze is diverted slightly to something just off to the lensman’s left. Her mouth is slightly open. Perhaps she is in the middle of saying Mama.

The fourth window in the trolley always elicits the most commentary from critics and enthusiasts alike. The African-American man in work shirt is turned directly at Frank’s camera with an expression that can be interpreted as equal parts exhaustion, resignation, loneliness, and despair. There is something incredibly sad about the potential of this proud and glorious face that has been drained of light—it is a face that only Frank could have caught on film and perhaps is the symbolic failed promise of America that people at the time just couldn’t come to terms with.

The final window (they could also be looked at as separate frames on a contact sheet) is a portrait of an African-American woman looking out to camera right—oblivious to Frank’s presence. Her eyeglasses reflect the light/white from the sky making her eyes impossible to see. Is this the face of someone who has ceased wrestling with the fractured realities of a life brought up in an environment that says if you’re black and a woman you have no relevance?

Reading the image from left to right we see a hierarchical descent—white man, white woman, white children, black man, black woman—all isolated from one another and all seated as if ranked by birthright. The trolley is of course a metaphor for the world as Frank saw it on the brink of annihilation. The passengers on this vehicle are all part of a family that has no relevance except as a collective lie.

Frank’s camera captured the profound tensions he saw in all strata of American society during the outwardly optimistic 1950s and did so with an uncompromising purity that almost masks the bite that his images possess. Frank’s sad song about America tells us that no matter how different we seem to be from one another we are all on a journey through time together—each of us occupying our own space but sharing a destiny and destination.

On Oct. 17, 2007, Christie’s sold a “vintage” 8 by 10 inch print of “Trolley—New Orleans” that was either used in the making of the gravure printing plates for the first French, Italian and American editions of his seminal 83-image book “The Americans”, or a very rare print used in the final stages of preparation.

Frank printed in unnumbered editions and some sources have estimated that no more than 20 prints exist. A tiny number of “vintage” prints exist within that number. Incipient oxidation in the areas of greater silver density is a good indicator of an older print. Subtle silver-mirroring can be a highly valued aspect of a print’s condition. It is a signifier of age and authenticity and can be a beautiful addition to a print’s aesthetic.


Although no photograph is an original in the sense that a painting always is, there is a large qualitative difference between what could be called originals—prints made from the original negative at the time (that is, at the same moment in the technological evolution of photography) that the picture was taken—and the subsequent generations of the same photograph.

The vintage “Trolley—New Orleans” sold in 2007 offers visual pleasures which are not reproducible. It spiraled to $623,400 in heated bidding. The print sold this fall was a 1970s “printed later” version where a careful examination of the print reveals there is more of a ‘coolness’ in the highlights and less depth and warmth overall when compared to the vintage “original”.

The separation of the print’s execution date from the moorings of its original exposure by 20-odd years—and with it the attendant disconnection with what was happening historically—make the print less valued by connoisseurs. It sold for a much more modest $134,500. But part of the built-in interest of photographs, and a major source of their aesthetic value, is precisely the transformations that time works upon them, the way they escape the intentions of their makers. Given enough time, many photographs do acquire an aura, or if one may anthropomorphize, a soul.

In recent decades, photography has succeeded in somewhat revising, for everybody, the definitions of what is beautiful and ugly. Thus, while fashion, food and celebrity photography is based on the fact that something can be more beautiful in a photograph than in real life, it is not surprising that some photographers who serve the former are also drawn to the non-photogenic.

In the early 1970s, Irving Penn progressively dedicated more time to his private, uncommissioned work in which he abandoned the lavish elements of his magazine still lifes to make clear, powerful pictures of unexpected, miscellaneous detritus.

As Susan Sontag has stated: “The most enduring triumph of photography has been its aptitude for discovering beauty in the humble, the inane, the decrepit.” Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of photography, its main effect, and here is Sontag again, “… is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation.”

Irving Penn’s sixteen lots at Christie’s chalked up $1.1 million in sales equaling almost 20% of the house’s $5.6 million total. His work, “Mouth (N.Y.)” from 1986; “The Palm of Miles Davis (N.Y.)” from 1976; “Lorry Washers, London” from 1950 and “Rag and Bones, London” from 1950 all appeared in Christie’s top ten.

Rich in tonal distinction and elemental in construction, I regret these extraordinary photographs were unavailable through Christie’s to run in this article because of copyright restrictions.

Phillips de Pury & Co.
Phillips had the largest offering of images this season with 410 lots available for sale. 156 lots failed to find buyers. Compare that to Sotheby’s who offered 262 lots and failed to sell 66 lots or Christie’s offering 349 lots with 87 failing to sell. Pre-sale estimates at Phillips ran from a low of $3.8 million to a high of $5.4 million (pre-sale estimates do not include buyer’s premiums). Phillips grossed a total of $4 million including buyer’s premium. Sotheby’s pre-sale estimates ran from $4.3 million to $6.5 million and accomplished just under $5 million. Christie’s pre-sale estimates ran from $4.5 to $6.8 million and sold $5.6 million. Per lot averages at Phillips hit $15,700 as compared to Sotheby’s $25,361 and Christie’s $21,265.

Irving Penn has long been recognized as one of the great portrait photographers of the 20th century. Since the 1940s he has recorded notable figures from literature, the visual and performing arts, and other fields. He made many of these portraits for “Vogue”, where his pared down, frank compositions helped define the look of the magazine and also established an important aesthetic for modernist photography.

Irving Penn’s portrait “Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes” is a prime example of what the catalog suggests is a repudiation of the pictorialist modes in photography “ … by eschewing lavish interiors and contrived narratives”. His 1957 portrait centers on Picasso’s cyclopean eye “… paying homage to the Cubist style that the artist was instrumental in popularizing.”

The image—printed in 1978 as edition number ‘26/45”—was expected to bring in $80K to $120K. It took a commanding lead in the house’s top ten almost doubling its low pre-sale estimate with a $150K payout at the hammer ($182,500 with buyer’s premium).

During the early years of Richard Avedon’s career the lensman made his living primarily by advertising. His real passion however was the portrait and its ability to express the essence of the subject.

Brigitte Bardot, the original sex kitten and 1960s icon of liberated sexuality, shot to stardom in the 1956 Roger Vadim film “And God Created Woman”. She is depicted here by Avedon in a high key print that bleaches her skin throwing her features—especially her pouting mouth and her seductive, far-apart, sexually confident eyes—into even greater prominence. The devout minimalist photographer used a double exposure on her hair to give the image movement, sensuality and an exotic context without resorting to the cliched strategies of displaying her curvaceous, celebrated body.

Executed and printed in 1959, “Brigitte Bardot, Hair by Alexandre, Paris Studio” managed second place in the Phillips top ten lots bringing $140K ($170,500 with buyer’s premium).

The print suffered a slight drop in price from another image of the same edition which sold as part of the Gert Elfering Collection sale at Christie’s, N.Y. (lot #33). It realized $181,000 at the peak of the market in the spring of 2008.

Surprisingly, considering Bardot’s iconic status as a 1960s idol, it was not until 1974 that Andy Warhol was to appropriate this image for one of his synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas portraits. The second most actively traded artist after Picasso made eight paintings in total of Bardot. Most recently, one was traded in London in the fall of 2007 for $10.6 million.

Both of the above images, as well as Penn’s “Chef, New York” below were unfortunately unavailable for reproduction because of copyright restrictions at this time.

A circa 1970s print of Robert Frank’s “Trolley—New Orleans”—another one—this time slightly larger (an embarrassment of riches not seen in a decade or more) made the third top image at the house with a $130K hammer ($158,500 with buyer’s premium).

Irving Penn’s “Chef, New York” from 1951 printed in 1967 in a tiny edition of six landed fourth at the house with $110K at the hammer ($134,500 with buyer’s premium). This image is part of approximately 250 large-format portraits made in a burst of enthusiasm over the course of 1950-1951.

Francis Hodgson, in an article in the Financial Times last year does a fine job in describing the body of work that this image is part of:

"Photographed in great detail on a plain canvas background by natural light only, the pictures have a serial continuity which leaps out, although they were made in three separate studios. In each the subject wears his work clothes, sometimes with one or two props of their trade. There are almost no seated figures, and very few women. Penn asked single sitters to stand alone, and photographed them at full length. They are not overtly political. They take their place in a long visual tradition of “petits métiers”, which goes back to the 18th century “Encyclopedia” of Diderot and d’Alembert. The Enlightenment view that other people’s skills are interesting in themselves and worth attention whatever their social status is strongly present in these pictures. By taking ordinary people out of context and bathing them in his churchy light, Penn gave them an opportunity to be seen as great. Each is described by his trade, not by a name. Each is invited to represent more than just himself: his trade, but also his caste, his tribe."

Every detail in “Chef, New York” becomes potentially meaningful. Reading these details becomes irresistible. The sharp creases in the pants of his cooking whites, the rakish angle of his chef’s hat, the long blade of his knife tucked into its shealth and fastened to his waist by the string of his apron, to the way he holds the large pot in his left hand and the serving fork in his right; all provide clues to the sitter who stands before us.

JOHN BALDESSARI (American, b. 1931)
Life's Balance (With Brushes)
Two color coupler prints flush mounted to board
(i) 14 x 15 in. (ii) 22 x 15 in.
Pre-sale est.: $30,000-$50,000
Price realized: $97,300
PHILLIPS de PURY & CO.; "Photographs", NY040210
Oct. 8, 2010
Lot #301
Illustration courtesy PHILLIPS de PURY & CO. IMAGES LTD., 2010


John Baldessari and his work are often discussed in the context of conceptual art and its linguistic theories. Since the beginnings of this genre in the 1960s, he has been regarded as one of its cofounders.

Given the proximity and dominance of the film industry within the artist’s Southern California locale, as well as Baldessari’s keen interest in French structuralist filmmaking, a reading of his images as part of a sequence similar to film stills, like language, is to be constructed only from context.

In “Life’s Balance (With Brushes)” the artist has utilized a compositional method of juxtaposing images that have no logical or rational connection. It is almost as if the artist’s desire is in keeping the “true meaning” of the images out of consciousness. It is an artistic strategy that casts doubt on the validity of images but opens up new avenues.

The bottom image of the diptych produces a strong feeling of displacement; two men whose faces are partially concealed by white disks are looking in the direction of a pitcher filled with paint brushes. One man is touching the tip of a brush. In the top image, a man whose head is cropped off by the frame of the camera is holding what appears to be a thin sheet of gold leaf commonly used for gilding. There is a scale in front of him balancing some weights. What is the relationship of the man in the top image with the men in the bottom image? What is the relationship of the two men below? What symbolic functions do the measuring scale, goldleaf and painting brushes have to do with the meaning of this artwork? Could the title be a clue to the variety of emotions one can bring to the work? One thing is certain. The viewer can spend a lot of time in front of these pictures and remain helpless in terms of knowing how to deal with them.

The last time this work appeared at auction was at Christie’s in 1996. It brought $8,050. This time out the color coupler print diptych reached $97,300.

THOMAS STRUTH (German, b. 1954)
Paradise 23, Sao Francisco de Xavier, Brasil
Color coupler print, Diasec mounted
87 x 68 inches
Executed in 2001
Ed.: '9/10'
Pre-sale est.: $60,000-$80,000
Price realized: $86,500
PHILLIPS de PURY & CO., "Photographs", NY040210
Oct. 8, 2010
Lot #375
Illustration courtesy PHILLIPS de PURY & CO. IMAGES LTD., 2010


Thomas Struth belongs to a small but highly influential group of artists—including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Candida Hofer, and Axel Hutte—who emerged some 20 years ago from the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie and radically altered our perception of the photographic image.

In contrast to Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky, two of the high profile German photographers who were also students of the famed Bernd and Hilla Becher at the academy, Struth does not process his work digitally—combing and removing parts of pictures or creating entirely different pictures in the final product is not his approach. Struth approaches his subject matter with much consideration and gravity, chooses the “perfect” moment to make his exposure and fixes it on film. Montaging or altering the negative before printing is to Mr. Struth the destruction of the indexical link between picture and reality. In his mind, the joy of the uniqueness of the medium of photography—its relationship to reality—would be decimated. Mr. Struth almost never crops his images post exposure and he edits his film judiciously. In our consumer age of ironic distance where the viewer suspects both the reality of the photograph and the intentions of the photographer, Thomas Struth is the restorer of the “objective” world. It’s true—the surfaces of Mr. Struth’s photographs reflect what was actually in front of the camera.

This large scale photograph—the one here spans approximately 7 ¼ feet high by 5 ½ feet wide—unfolds and spreads out; it presents a very pure phenomenological aspect. Consciousness becomes “uplifted” in contact with the image that, ordinarily is “in repose”. The image is no longer descriptive, but resolutely inspirational.

The spiritual potency of the image with its overpowering effect of nature and the diminishing proportion of Mankind engulfs viewers as if they were experiencing the sensation of walking into the entrance to a church with a pointed barrel vault. The dense forest seems to morph into substantial cruciform columns, the capitals of which, in the form of very simple foliage motifs are all very finely carved.

It is a strange and surreal viewing experience. The space we love—the unsullied natural forest—is unwilling to remain permanently enclosed within its boundaries. It deploys and appears to move elsewhere without difficulty; into other times, and on different planes of dream and memory.

Re-Cap
Buyers at the top of the photography market always point to the stellar “integrity” of the objects they acquire and the sensation of serenity that comes from having images with a “feeling of history” on their walls. What few collectors go on record with admitting is that extraordinary purchases also function as astute vehicles to “park your extra dollars” especially when many other collectors and dealers retreat to the sidelines during times of economic volatility. Even the cynical and disaffected agree that you just can’t pay too much for a masterpiece.

In today’s “soft” fine art photography market—as opposed to the market for contemporary artists who work with photography—sourcing exceptionally rare, fresh-to-market images for an increasingly discerning (and cautious) photo-literate audience is the challenge for the auction houses going forward.

NOTE: Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled #153” sold at the Philippe Segalot curated “Carte Blanche” sale at Phillips de Pury & Co.’s uptown salesroom in New York on Nov. 8th for $2.8M. The color photograph (one from an edition of 6) was a new auction record for the artist.

Thanks go to www.artnet.com for extending their ‘Price Database’ to track previous prices on some of the photographs referenced in this article.

PLEASE NOTE: Final prices for the 2010 fall sales include the commission paid to the auction house: 25% of the final bid price of any lot up to and including $50,000, 20% of the excess of the hammer price above $50,000 and up to and including $1,000,000 and 12% of the excess of the hammer price above $1,000,000. Pre-sale estimates do not include commissions.


Total Sales Fall 2010
$14,530,091 [Spring 2010: $17,883,815]


SOTHEBY’S: $4,970,754 (Pre-sale est.: $4.3M-$6.5M)
[Spring, 2010: $5,081,265]
“Photographs” / N08669 / Oct. 6, 2010 / 262 lots offered / 196 lots sold / 66 lots bought in (passed) / $25,361 per lot average [$25,925 spring, 2010]

CHRISTIE’S: $5,571,537 (Pre-sale est.: $4.5M-$6.8M)
[Spring, 2010: $9,331,875]
“Photographs” / #2395 / Oct. 6 & 7, 2010 / 349 lots offered / 262 lots sold / 87 lots bought in (passed) / $21,265 per lot average [$34,365 spring, 2010]

PHILLIPS de PURY & CO.: $3,987,800 (Pre-sale est.: $3.8M-$5.5M)
[Spring, 2010: $3,470,675]
“Photographs” / NY040210 / Oct. 8, 2010 / 410 lots offered / 254 lots sold / 156 lots bought in (passed) / $15,700 per lot average [$14,166 spring, 2010]


TOP 15

1) ANSEL ADAMS (American, 1902-1984)
Grand Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Gelatin silver print executed in 1942 / printed c. 1960
30 5/8 x 45 1/8 inches
Pre-sale est.: $150,000-$250,000
Price realized: $338,500
CHRISTIE’S N.Y.: “Photographs”, #2395
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #12


2) ROBERT FRANK (American, b. Zurich, Switzerland, 1924)
U.S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas
Gelatin silver print executed in 1955 / printed c. 1970
13 ¼ x 8 7/8 inches
Pre-sale est.: $80,000-$120,000
Price realized: $266,500
SOTHEBY’S N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #182


3) IRVING PENN (American 1917-2009)
Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes
Platinum-palladium print executed in 1957 / printed 1978
19 5/8 x 19 ½ inches
Ed.: ‘26/45’
Pre-sale est.: $80,000-$120,000
Price realized: $182,500
PHILLIPS de PURY & CO. N.Y.: “Photographs”, NY040210
Oct. 8, 2010
Lot #22


4) IRVING PENN (American, 1917-2009)
Mouth (New York)
Dye-transfer print executed in 1986 / printed 1992
18 ¾ x 18 3/8 inches
One from an edition of 28
Pre-sale est.: $100,000-$150,000
Price realized: $176,500
CHRISTIE’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, #2395
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #46


5) RICHARD AVEDON (American, 1923-2004)
Brigitte Bardot, Hair by Alexandre, Paris Studio
Gelatin silver print executed in 1959 / printed 1959
23 ¼ x 20 inches
One from an edition of 35
Pre-sale est.: $100.000-$150,000
Price realized: $170,500
PHILLIPS de PURY & CO., N.Y.: “Photographs”, NY040210
Oct. 8, 2010
Lot #64


6) MAN-RAY (American, 1890-1976)
Still Life Composition with Chess Set, Plaster Casts, and ‘A L’Heure De L’Observatoire – Les Amoureux
Gelatin silver print hinged to board
Executed and printed 1935-1936
6 3/8 x 8 ¾ inches
There are 6 variants from this series; all unique
Pre-sale est.: $50,000-$70,000
Price realized: $170,000
SOTHEBY’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #140


7) ROBERT FRANK (American, b. Zurich, Switzerland, 1924)
Trolley—New Orleans
Gelatin silver print executed in 1956 / printed 1970s
12 1/8 x 18 ¾ inches
Pre-sale est.: $100,000-$150,000
Price realized: $158,500
PHILLIPS de PURY & CO., N.Y.: “Photographs”, NY040210
Oct. 8, 2010
Lot #47


3-WAY TIE
8) MAN-RAY (American, 1890-1976)
Nude with Shadow (solarized)
Solarized gelatin silver print executed and printed 1927
11 ¼ x 9 inches
Pre-sale est.: $70,000-$90,000
Price realized: $146,500
CHRISTIE’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, #2395
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #31

IRVING PENN (American, 1917-2009)
The Palm of Miles Davis (New York)
Gelatin silver print executed in 1986 / printed 1992
19 ¾ x 19 ¼ inches
One of an edition of 9
Pre-sale est.: $30,000-$50,000
Price realized: $146,500
CHRISTIE’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, #2395
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #45

EDWARD STEICHEN (American, 1879-1973)
‘Wind Fire’ Therese Duncan Acropolis
Palladium print executed and printed in 1921
9 5/8 x 7 5/8 inches
Pre-sale est.: $120,000-$180,000
Price realized: $146,500
SOTHEBY’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #40


5-WAY TIE
9) WILLIAM EGGLESTON (American, b. Memphis, Tennessee, 1939)
Graceland
A portfolio of 11 dye-transfer prints executed in 1983
Printed in 1984
22 ¼ x 15 ¼ inches
An edition of 31 plus 4 artist’s proofs
Pre-sale est.: $80,000-$120,000
Price realized: $134,500
SOTHEBY’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #229

ROBERT FRANK (American, b. Zurich, Switzerland, 1924)
Trolley—New Orleans
Gelatin silver print executed in 1956 / printed 1970s
Pre-sale est.: $100,000-$150,000
Price realized: $134,500
CHRISTIE’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, #2395
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #21

IRVING PENN (American, 1917-2009)
Chef, New York
Executed in 1951
Platinum-palladium print / printed 1967
Ed.: ‘6/6
Pre-sale est.: $30,000-$40,000
Price realized: $134,500
PHILLIPS de PURY & CO., N.Y.: “Photographs”, NY040210
Oct. 8, 2010
Lot #55

IRVING PENN (American, 1917-2009)
Cigarette N0. 69 (In Four Parts)
Executed in 1972
A composition of 4 platinum-palladium prints
(mounted to one board) printed 1977
60 x 44 ¾ inches
Ed.: ‘37/46’ in various formats, one of 7 in this oversized four-print format in platinum metals
Pre-sale est.: $100,000-$150,000
Price realized: $134,500
SOTHEBY’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #188

EDWARD WESTON (American, 1886-1958)
Dunes, Oceano
Executed in 1936
Gelatin silver print / printed c. 1940s
7 5/8 x 9 ½ inches
Pre-sale est.: $70,000-$100,000
Price realized: $134,500
SOTHEBY’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #119


10) IRVING PENN (American, 1917-2009)
Lorry Washers, London
Executed in 1950
Platinum-palladium print / printed 1967
19 3/8 x 14 ¾ inches
Ed.: ‘1/36’
Pre-sale est.: $40,000-$60,000
Price realized: $128,500
CHRISTIE’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, #2395
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #16


2-WAY TIE
11) DIANE ARBUS (American, 1923-1971)
Xmas Tree in a Living Room in Levittown, L.I.
Gelatin silver print executed in 1963 / printed 1963
12 x 12 ¼ inches
Pre-sale est.: $100,000-$150,000
Price realized: $122,500
SOTHEBY’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #190

MANUEL ALVAREZ BRAVO (Mexican, 1902-2002)
Los Agachados
Gelatin silver print executed in 1932-1934 / “probably printed” 1940s
7 3/8 x 9 5/8 inches
Pre-sale est.: $50,000-$70,000
Price realized: $122,500
SOTHEBY’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #129


2-WAY TIE
12) PETER BEARD (American, b. 1938)
Lion’s Pride, Southern Serengeti Nr. Ndutu for the End of the Game / Last Word from Paradise
Annotated by the photographer and by artists Mathenge Kivoi and E. Mwangi Kuria in ink and with extensive illustrations in colored gouache, tempera and inks on the gelatin silver print and with a fabric collage element, framed 1976 / printed in 2001
50 ¼ x 78 ¼ inches
Pre-sale est.: $100,000-$150,000
Price realized: $116,500
SOTHEBY’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #251

ANDRE KERTESZ (American, b. Budapest, 1894-1985)
A Portfolio of 10 Photographs: New York-Susan Harder and Orminda Corp., 1925-1939 / printed in 1981
Each approximately 4 x 3 ¼ inches in a small folio
Pre-sale est.: $35,000-$55,000
Price realized: $116,500
SOTHEBY’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #161


3-WAY TIE
13) WILLIAM EGGLESTON (American, b. 1939)
Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi), 1971
Dye-transfer print printed 1999
14 ½ x 22 inches
Ed.: ‘10/15’
Pre-sale est.: $50,000-$70,000
Price realized: $104,500
CHRISTIE’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, #2395
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #4

DOROTHEA LANGE (American, 1895-1965)
Drought Refugee from Polk, Missouri, Awaiting the Opening of Orange Picking Season at Porterville, California
Gelatin silver print 1936 / hinged to a modern mount 1936
9 3/8 x 7 inches
Pre-sale est.: $20,000-$30,000
Price realized: $104,500
SOTHEBY’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #95

IRVING PENN (American, 1917-2009)
Rag and Bones, London, 1950
Platinum-palladium print / printed 1976
16 ¾ x 13 inches
Ed.: ‘24/32’
Pre-sale est.: $30,000-$50,000
Price realized: $104,500
CHRISTIE’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, #2395
Oct. 7, 2010
Lot #213

 

3-WAY TIE
14) ANSEL ADAMS (American, 1902-1984)
Portfolio V11
New York: Parasol Press, 1976
11 gelatin silver prints and one Polaroid print
Approx. 19 ½ x 15 ½
The Aspens, oversized 18 x 22 ¾ inches
Polaroid print 3 ½ x 4 ½ inches
A total edition of 115
Pre-sale est.: $80,000-$120,000
Price realized: $98,500
SOTHEBY’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, N08669
Oct. 6, 2010
Lot #62

WILLIAM EGGLESTON (American, b. 1939)
Untitled, 1972
Dye-transfer print / printed 1996
12 ½ x 17 7/8 inches
Ed.: ‘Vol. 11 8/15’
Pre-sale est.: $50,000-$70,000
Price realized: $98,500
CHRISTIE’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, #2395
Oct. 7, 2010
Lot #203

WILLIAM EGGLESTON (American, b. 1939)
Untitled (Near Glendora, Mississippi), 1970
Dye-transfer print / printed 1999
14 3/8 x 21 ¾ inches
Ed.: ‘10/15’
Pre-sale est.: $40,000-$60,000
Price realized: $98,500
CHRISTIE’S, N.Y.: “Photographs”, #2395
Oct. 7, 2010
Lot #48


15) JOHN BALDESSARI (American, b. 1931)
Life’s Balance (With Brushes)
Two color coupler prints, flush-mounted to board
Executed and printed in 1996 (unique)
36 x 15 inches
Pre-sale est.: $30,000-$50,000
Price realized: $97,300
PHILLIPS de PURY & CO., N.Y.: NY040210
Oct. 8, 2010
Lot #301

 

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