The market strength of fine-art photography is riding the rails of a more confident economy, if AIPAD's 35th annual Photography Show New York is any indication. Held again in the historically rich confines of the Park Avenue Armory on April 16-19, AIPAD (The Association of International Photography Art Dealers) boasted official tallies that topped previous ones.
This year, a reported record 89 exhibitors were on hand, while attendance peaked at more than 12,000, up from 11,500 last year--a distinction without much of a difference, perhaps, given the desire of springtime-starved New Yorkers to see and be seen, yet a sign that looking at and acquiring investment-quality photography is as strong, and probably stronger, than ever.
In these media-saturated times, the measure of success lies less in attendance numbers than in the vitality of the red carpet, and this year the celebrity names on hand at the opening gala and private previews were impressive: Chris Rock, Gary Oldman, Blythe Danner, Jessica Lange, Elliott Erwitt, Lee Friedlander, Vera Lutter, Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor led the luminary list, and while exhibitors vary in their willingness to disclose what they sold and for how much, things--especially the vintage works that only grower scarcer by the year--were selling. Major collectors and museum curators were in evidence, including mega-collector Thomas Walther, attending AIPAD for the first time in nearly a decade. The show of his collection at the New York Museum of Modern Art was on display through AIPAD, and many attendees took advantage to see this block-buster of a photography exhibit, "Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909–1949".
AIPAD President and Chicago gallery owner Catherine Edelman said, "I think the show looked terrific. It seemed that more dealers paid attention to how their works were displayed, creating a more pleasurable experience for the viewer. We did well. Surprisingly, Sunday was our best day, as we sold five videos and two large Ysabel LeMay pieces. But overall, I thought there were serious people on the floor ready to collect."
Edelman noted, "We try to bring work that no other dealer represents. I was excited to share Sandro Miller's Malkovich project with the AIPAD public. It received more than 250 posts this past Fall, and I was eager to see how the photography collector world would respond. We sold numerous pieces, which was lovely. We also did well for Gregory Scott, whose video-based pieces are gaining an audience at AIPAD. Ysabel LeMay, Daniel Beltra and Keliy Anderson-Staley had strong sales as well."
At San Francisco's Paul M. Hertzmann Inc. booth, vintage modernism from the likes of Edward Weston--a selection of nude studies--and Minor White were sparking interest and sales. "This year's a much bigger gate," Hertzmann observed. "And there's been a lot of great response. Museum curators actually bought some pictures!" he added wryly. The gallery also showed a rare 1935 Ansel Adams print, "Burned Stump and New Grass, Sierra Nevada." And another San Francisco gallery, Scott Nichols, offered a 12-print group of Adams's iconic 1941 "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico."
Business and interest was brisk at the booth occupied by Alex Novak's Contemporary Works/Vintage Works of Chalfont, PA. A veteran of AIPAD, Novak was quick to acknowledge that this year's event was as well managed and well attended as any in recent years. "We're seeing stronger sales and more serious people than last year," he noted, "including strong sales to institutions in the U.S., although only one sale yet to an international art museum, which speaks to the current strength of the dollar. That could be a bit worrisome going forward for U.S. dealers and galleries. We do have some other images going out to a Canadian institution on approval and sold major pieces to two European photo dealers here. I do think this show is the one that is a 'must' for museum curators and their collector groups and acquisition boards."
Novak added that a substantial number of prints and photographically illustrated publications in the $10,000 to $25,000 range had been ordered, along with a more expensive and rare vintage print by Manuel Alvarez Bravo--his famed parable of an optician's shop--one of only two such vintage prints that Novak was aware of in the horizontal format, which sold after the fair to a major collector who saw it there and reserved it. Novak also showed a rare vintage Alvarez Bravo of "The Washerwomen Implied" that came from the same January 1940 Mexican Surrealist exhibition as Optical Parable.
There were also a lot of browsers at the gallery's many bins, with their countless prints spanning Novak's large holdings, and on the company's iPad Air. The images extend from the earliest days of photography, including Cameron, Nègre and Le Gray, to the modernist treasures of Atget, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Munkacsi, Kertész, Weston, Bing and others. Prices on photos ordered during the show ran from a low of $400 and up, so there were images available for nearly any budget. Of course, Novak had a number of six-figures and near six-figure masterworks on his walls and even in the bins and closet.
Novak was especially keen on a couple of early 1900-era prints of famous sculptures by Auguste Rodin hidden away like gems in his booth's closet. The rare vintage shots were taken, not by Rodin's usual photographer with whom he had had a falling out, but instead by an amateur, Jean Francois Limet, who typically tended to the patinas on the master's sculptures. According to Novak, Limet employed his patina products in making these prints, which exhibit a rich sepia quality.
Novak also enthused over other prints that haven't sold yet, including Martin Munkacsi's Cat on the Attack; Baron Adolph de Meyer's waxed platinum print of Aida, a Maid of Tangier; Caldesi & Montecchi's The Serenade; Edward Weston's Maud Adams with Century Plant; Louis Vignes' Umbrella Pines (Chemin de Damas, Beyrouth, Lebanon); and an extensive group of vintage Paris nude distortions by André Kertész (one of these did sell at the show).
Novak mentioned some of the images that he saw in the show. "I was really knocked out by Richard Moore's oversized exhibition prints by Dorothea Lange, and I thought the Cameron in the Quarich booth was a killer."
Among the handful of official sales highlights, an early image by William Henry Fox Talbot sold for $40,000 at Hans P. Kraus, Inc.'s booth, along with Giuseppe Enrie's 1931 image of the famous Shroud of Turin, and work by Hill & Adamson, but prices are less the point at a show like this than the overview it provides of what fine-art photography stands for in 2015.
It doesn't, apparently, stand for the sort of corrosive, political charged art witnessed at last year's show, when Robert Heinecken's 1971 image sequence of a Cambodian soldier holding severed heads as combat trophies was a frightening mix of Warholesque printing and Vietnam-era anti-war spirit. This year, Heinecken's fearless iconoclasm was instead represented by his erotic 1978 lithography--photomontages of autoeroticism, lesbianism, and fetishism--on display at Petaluma, CA's Barry Singer Gallery. More genteel was the gallery's print of W. Eugene Smith's 1946 children silhouetted along a pastoral path, "Walk to Paradise Garden" (sold).
Indeed, the confrontational side of AIPAD 2015 seemed more sold on such eroticism and on a softer-edged acknowledgement of civilization and its discontents, especially the inequality that is, at root, the theme of every elitist art fair. Still, a close look revealed that painful struggle can be quietly conveyed with a camera lens. Thus, the most movingly political works on display were, arguably, Dawoud Bey's black-and-white diptychs from his 2013 "The Birmingham Project," which were prominently featured by Chicago's Stephen Daiter Gallery.
Growing up in Queens, New York, Bey had been traumatized by images of the dead and mangled African-American children victimized by white supremacists who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, on Sept. 15, 1963. Bey's austere, matter-of-fact 2013 diptychs pair a present-day youngster the same age as one of the murdered children, with men and women who are the ages the boys and girls would be if they were alive today.
"Some of them remembered the explosion, and had a direct connection to that morning," said Bey, who was on hand to discuss his work at the Daiter booth. Finding subjects who were the right age and also residents of Birmingham took him five arduous months, through fliers, barbershop visits, even via Craigslist. But he was already looking past his 50th anniversary memorializing of that tragedy: "I'm working on a group of new photos in Harlem, about the rapid transformation Harlem is going through." In other words, he's chronicling the gentrification that is another measure of social inequality.
Photography imbued with as much social consciousness as Bey's is rare enough, and so the majority of the booths at AIPAD weren't competing on that level, but there was much to see and consider, and good timing always helps. At the Fahey/Klein Gallery booth, Ken Devlin noted that there was a lot of interest in Phil Stern's 1961 shot of Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy at dinner, taken after a lean Sinatra had just lit JFK's cigarette. The recent two-part Sinatra documentary on HBO brought the image into sharper than usual relief. And Devlin was proud of the large-format archival pigment prints by Berlin artists Billy & Hells, new to AIPAD, whose enigmatic portraiture blends old-master painterliness with deceptive digital and postmodern attitude.
Similarly, the Peter Fetterman Gallery of Santa Monica, CA, had some new large-format work by New York's Stephen Wilkes, who made a strong impression last year with his color-saturated illusory realism. Wilkes sets up his camera from a high vantage in the world's great locales and captures, through a day-long sequence of as many as 1,500 photos--the span of morning to evening--melding people and scenes from the many photos into a single conflation of time and space. This year, his standout images included breathtaking views of Yosemite, Central Park in autumn, and, especially, of animals on the Serengeti plain (an image so new it was being shown to interested collectors only by way of, yes, once again, an iPad).
At the Charles M. Schwartz Ltd. booth, the venerable New York gallerist said that there had been considerable interest in early Japanese ambrotypes of the 1866-67 civil war era. Just as interesting, though, were Schwartz's collection of 74 early hard images featuring domestic portraits of western families with their dogs, unusual in that pets tended not to stay still long enough for the lengthy exposures required by early cameras. These domestic rarities included Relievo ambrotypes and daguerreotypes.
Schwartz noted that there had been sales of several of his vintage distressed daguerreotypes and ambrotypes that had been digitally scanned and re-framed--a postmodern highlighting of age and imperfection.
As for international artistry and galleries, the Lisa Sette Gallery of Phoenix filled its booth with the large-scale, warmly conceived work of Luis Gonzalez Palma, whose portraiture of people of Mayan descent in his native Guatemala exudes a kind of magical realism, collaged in painted surfaces and mixed media. In a wholly other vein, the Tokyo-based Taka Ishii Gallery showed classic 1960s and 70s work by Katsumi Watanabi, famed for his images of bar hostesses, drag queens and underworld figures in Tokyo's Shinjuku section.
Generating high interest and curiosity were the large-format creations of Chinese artist Zhang Wei at the 798 Photo Gallery, of Beijing. Wei makes the most of digital capabilities by shooting multiple images of Chinese faces, and then combining features into single images of canonical western faces--most impressively, a seeming portrait of a bare-shouldered Abraham Lincoln, and portraits of Tudor-era European woman. A close, abiding look at these images subtly reveals the ethnic mix, while the larger message is a subtle affirmation of universal humanity. Though Wei transcends politics, another 798 artist, Yu Xiao, addresses China's cultural uniformity with images of school children in rows, their brightly colored clothing and wonderfully animated expressions affirming their individuality. Such international modernism--the high craft and meaningful scope of it--provided a welcome juxtaposition to the familiar vintage American and European works that tend to dominate AIPAD.
Oakland's Richard Moore Photographs generated strong buzz and intense browsing with a collection of Dorothea Lange's great FSA (Farm Service Administration) images from the 1930s, when she photographed her immortal "Migrant Mother" in California at the height of the Great Depression. A recent PBS documentary about Lange may have boosted general interest in the artist's work and remarkable life, noted the gallery's Susan Moore. "We acquired a number of her prints from two different sources," Moore said. "We're ready to sell, and people are very receptive." Moore sold the two oversized Lange's, which had been priced in six-figures.
After the show Richard Moore told us that he had sold eight of Lange's photographs, but "we still have a remarkable mounted 1930s print of a speaker at a microphone from the series Lange photographed during the San Francisco General Strike of 1934 priced at $28,000. he noted that "we had our most successful AIPAD show ever and had wonderful interactions with collectors, curators and artists during the show."
Moore lauded the AIPAD management, "AIPAD made great efforts to accommodate all members who applied to exhibit in 2015. While this resulted in more booths than previous years, I felt the overall look of booths and curation of works by exhibitors was better than ever." Pointing out some booth highlights from other exhibitors, Moore said, "Stephen Bulger Gallery had a great Cindy Sherman Film Still image that I had never seen, and Gitterman Gallery had an early modernist Sonya Noskowiak composite that was very unususal. I believe both were sold."
The London/Munich Daniel Blau Gallery was showing a number of newly discovered photos from the 1930s, of New York burlesque dancers, by Margaret Bourke-White, the great Time-Life photographer who enjoyed one of the medium's first great female careers. Contrasting while yet complementing Bourke-White's vintage images were austere contemporary works by Sofia Valiente, whose haunting series of color photos focuses on the sex offender population of Miracle Village in Palm Beach County, FL.
Tucscon, AZ gallery owner Terry Etherton said, "We did well and sold a range of images in a range of prices. I thought that our early split-toned Misrachs were amazing. We also had some very rare Robert Franks, one of which is still in play. We did sell photographs by Lyon, Arbus, Callahan, Siskind, Winogrand and others. I thought the show looked great and attendance was impressive, but I don't think we need to go to 8:30 on Thursday again next year."
Etherton was also enthusiastic about what he saw around the show: "I loved the Weston nude of Tina Modotti in Tom Gitterman's booth—a really great unpublished image. I also loved Scott Nichols's grid of cancelled Moonrise and the grid of Lerski's in Howard Greenberg's booth."
New York City gallerist Tom Gitterman reported, "We had a good fair and sold a nice range of material from Lois Conner platinum prints to a great Adolf Fassbender vintage exhibition print of White Night, as well as a Jun Morinaga from his 1960s series, River: Its Shadow of Shadows. We also sold a Sonya Noskoviak that places her in a more European avant garde dialogue, several Eliot Elisofon prints, a Peter Hujar, Eugene Smith, Richard Avedon, a couple Ferenc Berko prints and some others. We have continued interest in our prints by: Edward Weston, Minor White, Garry Winogrand, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Emmett Gowin. I was impressed to have so much interest in Oliver Gagliani's work, and it looks like we are selling several of his after the show."
Gitterman continued, "I think the fair continues to look professional and well managed. However, I think the increased amount of booths did not benefit the fair. I think the fair would benefit from allowing larger booths and fewer dealers. I think the amount of images are just too great and become inundating to those new to AIPAD."
As ever, such powerful women photographers were standouts amidst the show's displays. New York's Edwynn Houk Gallery showcased Sally Mann's 1990 print, "The Perfect Tomato," as if in anticipation of the mainstreaming of Mann's work that may follow the release this month of her highly touted memoir, "Hold Still" (Little, Brown). And vintage images of stylish femininity were well-represented by London's Eric Franck Fine Art, with a display of Norman Parkinson's classic fashion shots of the 1930s and '50s, along with a stunning 1955 print of gamin-like Audrey Hepburn amidst pink blossoms.
The Lee Gallery, of Winchester, Mass., highlighted a number of strong images, especially vintage Karl Struss shots: a platinum "Japonesque" print from 1919 and a 1911 view of Herald Square. More timely, perhaps, was the gallery's showcasing the first of Nicholas Nixon's justly famed annual portraits of the four Brown sisters, which have become emblematic feminist icons of individuated sisterhood and New England soulfulness. Nixon began the series in 1975 and it is in its 40th year (sparking a recent major article in the New York Times). Owner Mack Lee evocatively twinned a print of that first portrait (it sold quickly this year) with a 1971 Mike Mandel street image of four unrelated people on a bench.
"To me, this show represents the greatest selection of classic and vintage photography," Lee observed. "I've heard a number of people say that Paris Photo doesn't have as much of a selection of classic, vintage and 19th-century work. For collectors of that material, this is the show."
All the same, AIPAD's blend of strong modern and contemporary work with the vintage and 19th-century rarities makes it the sort of cornucopia that sparks memorable sightings at almost every turn. Gallery 19/21, of Guilford, CT, presented Stephen Shore's 1970s street photography that conveys a lot of vision with a simple framing of street corners: on one hand, the near-empty, arid town centers of Montana and Saskatchewan; on the other, the Euro-cultured architecture of 21st and Spruce streets in Philadelphia. On an adjacent wall: Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1948 images of Chinese children offset by a 1961 shot of a Texas carnival, with its "two-headed baby" tent.
This year, though, there seemed notably less emphasis on sheer scale for scale's sake than on quality images, whether vintage or representative of the leading edge of technique. At Portland, OR's Charles A. Hartman Fine Art, for example, another new-to-AIPAD artist, Cory Arnold, offered his archival pigment prints, which, while not overwhelming in their size, possessed a powerful visual energy, especially his kinetic close up of a veritable Mt. Fuji of an ocean wave. And nearby, on the outer perimeter of New York's Howard Greenberg Gallery booth, a wall of Joel Meyerowitz's prints showcased the sheer elegance and humanism of the master's style and technique.
One could spend hours getting close to such photography, despite the thousands of images competing for attention all around. Indeed, one could be forgiven for stalling near the entrance to the exhibit hall, where Minneapolis's Weinstein Gallery greeted visitors with stunning Annie Leibovitz prints: a 2010 color textural study of an Annie Oakley target, and a 2009 image of Niagara. Nearby in the same booth, a Robert Mapplethorpe nude study was riveting in its poignancy and provocation. And on the front wall was a massive Vera Lutter clock face. Weinstein Gallery made numerous sales, including a very large Vera Lutter image that approached six figures.
Once again, AIPAD's Saturday session was enhanced by a day-long series of public programs held in one of the Armory's cavernous old meeting rooms, but the high-ceilinged space yielded poor acoustics, which made it difficult to hear the various speakers very clearly, so attendance was spotty and numerous walk-outs were noted. A shame, since at least one of the sessions, "Photography and its Reproductions," was both interesting and sparked some good debate while photographer Mary Mattingly was interviewed by ART21 associate curator Wesley Miller.
For the "Photography and its Reproductions" session, Lev Manovick, professor at the Graduate Center of CCNY and director of its Software Studies Initiative, exhibited the dense graphs and data patterns he puts together from the many thousands of selfie photographs posted publically to the Internet--visual metaphors for the vast pointillism of the digital age. Next, digital photography artist Kate Steciw described how she combines planes of digital imagery into neo-cubistic artwork.
Finally, Carol Squires, curator at the International Center of Photography, attempted to tie things together by showing a varied sampling of Internet-posted selfie photos. She drew comparisons to iconic modernist photography, arguing that the selfie had begun to represent a freshly democratic blossoming of photographic vocabulary, reference levels, and self-expression. Audience members countered with observations and questions. Value judgments flew freely. AIPAD would be wise to make sure next year's Saturday program is better sited within the Armory, to maximize its appeal and overcome the technical issues.
Ultimately, though, sales are the most objective measure of AIPAD's success, and the official statements that came a week after the show offered typical testimonial detail: "We had one of our best AIPAD shows in our history and sold over 25 photographs, including work by Garry Winogrand, Earlie Hudnall, Jr. and Carlotta Copron to collectors and institutions," noted Missy Finger of PDNB Gallery, of Dallas. "Our booth was different this year, more 'classical', showing mostly black and white, nothing real contemporary. Despite the lack of color, sales were brisk, especially for Earlie Hudnall, Jr. Nine of his photographs sold, mostly vintage prints priced at $5,500 each. Three sold to a New York institution. There was much buzz about collecting African-American artists and images of African-American people/culture. There is not much good material available by African-American photographers, which explains the heightened interest."
Missy Finger continued, "The show looked its best ever! Every booth was filled with treasures and installed beautifully. I heard nothing but compliments. The exhibition of Grete Stern photographs at Vasari was quite impressive…so were the prices!"
The Von Lintel Gallery, of Los Angeles, said it had sold 12 photographs by Klea McKenna and 14 by Farrah Karapetian, among others, and had to "rehang the booth twice." Scott Nichols Gallery noted that it was "busy all the time" and sold a photograph by Ansel Adams for $63,000. Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco, reported "a steady stream of well-seasoned collectors" and sold nearly 30 photographs including work by Gordon Parks for $21,000 - $11,000.
"There was a very impressive variety of material reflecting the growth of the photography medium and market," reported Monroe Gallery, Santa Fe, which sold 25 images including a Bill Eppridge for $20,000 and a Stephen Wilkes for $15,000.
Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York, sold work by Robert Frank, Rachel Perry Welty, Zanele Muholi, Olivo Barbieri, and Hellen van Meene; and commented that it was a "very good show." Gallery Fifty One, Antwerp, Belgium, sold work by Seydou Keita from between $9,500 and $25,500.
Alan Klotz Gallery, New York, had a "very good" show and sold more than 25 photographs including an important Margaret Bourke-White image and an abstract Jaroslav Rossler.
Klotz told us, "Significant for me is that we sold an equal number of vintage and contemporary work. The last two years it was 2/3 vintage over contemporary. Oddly enough our best work remained unsold: our Irving Penn, Cameroon Couple did not sell for 1/3 off the price quoted by the Penn Foundation, and for just about half of what a major west coast gallery offers it for. A rare vintage Walker Evans of a London Cab Rank at Waterloo Station didn't find a buyer at $27,000. A unique Robert Frank photomontage made up of movie stills, signed and inscribed is also still available." Klotz did sell 11 vintage Lewis Hine's photographs and a group of contemporary work new to the show, including Alida Fish's image transfers on oxidized aluminum plates and Andrew K. Thompson stitched prints on canvas.
Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn, sold 13 works by Helen Sear, who is representing Wales at the Venice Biennale with a solo show, and a number of works by Max de Esteban and Jim Naughten.
Throckmorton Gallery, New York, noted, "We received an overwhelmingly positive response from the public about how the 35th edition of AIPAD was certainly the most beautiful as well as most exciting as it has ever been. We sold works by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Tina Modotti, Lucien Clergue, Graciela Iturbide, Mario Algaze, and Flor Garduno."
Several galleries returned to AIPAD after an absence of several years or more: Galerie Esther Woendehoff, Paris, for example. "We got a lot of compliments and were very pleased with sales."
Deborah Bell Gallery, New York, sold a 1971 print by Vito Acconci for $18,000 and an Yves Klein image for $9,500, among others. Deborah Bell noted, "It's great to be back. The show has developed so beautifully since the last time I did it in 2011."
The easy yet logical conclusion is that the market and the appetite for fine-art photography bodes well moving toward 2016 and, time flying as it does, another AIPAD show. For global buyers and sellers, the vagaries of currency---and the probability that interest rates will soon be rising as an inflation hedge--inevitably complicate their decisions. But the art prevails, as it should, and if nothing else, AIPAD 2015 proved that photography's past and present are coexisting beautifully and importantly--so long as we continue to give them a close look and, perhaps, a closer reading.
Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005.
He currently reviews books and exhibits for both the E-Photo Newsletter and U.S.A. Today.