By Alex Novak
The "Quillan" photography sale at Sotheby's New York last Spring was highly controversial in many ways, some of which were noted in Stephen Perloff's earlier article in our July 24th issue of the E-Photo Newsletter.
One of the most controversial items in the sale was lot 43, the highly debated 19th-century "Leaf", which was reportedly attributed first to William Henry Fox Talbot, and then later in an essay by academic Larry Schaaf to possibly either Thomas Wedgwood or James Watts. You can imagine the joy of Sotheby's and its PR machine at getting this information and being able to hype the price of this object, which in 1989 sold for under a thousand dollars ($900.90 to be precise) by the same auction house to New York photography dealer Hans P. Kraus, Jr. At this earlier auction in London, Kraus reportedly bought six photograms in all out of a mixed album of 24 images. The album was dated 1869 by its original owner, reportedly English watercolorist Henry Bright.
"The range is pretty wide," Sotheby's Denise Bethel told several reporters. "When we thought it was Talbot, we gave it a $100,000 to $150,000 estimate. Now with this other possibility…it's certainly far more valuable." So much so that Sotheby's put a "Price on Request" notation on the lot, which has never been used in the last ten years or so for anything under seven figures in value in the photography area.
Sotheby's Denise Bethel also told the press that Sotheby's, in reevaluating the photo, was relying on the expertise of Larry J. Schaaf, a leading photo historian and Talbot expert. She said Schaaf based his hypothesis on the "W" inscription; the photo's connection to the Bright family; and the fact that it doesn't resemble a Talbot.
But Schaaf was hardly explicit about the attribution, using very vague--but at the same time encouraging--language even in follow-up interviews, like the one when he was interviewed by the New York Times, where he stated: "The reason that I got so excited about this was that it was the most solid, indicative collection I've seen. I'm fully prepared for 'The Leaf' to have been made by Henry Bright, or by his father, after the 1790s. But I've never seen a story that fits together so neatly."
All this was certainly very interesting but doesn't tell the whole story (which is hardly neat at all), nor does it explain how Sotheby's could ascribe such a high valuation to such a potentially historical print on as slim a description as a "possibility", as Bethel herself called it, without further extensive research.
There was considerable disagreement by much of the photo history community with Larry Schaaf on this matter. While I respect him, his rationale that this print could have been made by Watts or Wedgwood (or, as a throw-away: Sir Humphry Davy) seemed to be based on the most meager of arguments. Basically Schaaf, as noted by Bethel, argued that because there was an inked 'W' on the print and some members of the Bright family perhaps once knew the Wedgwood and Watts families (although no actual proof of a meeting or a specific relationship with Thomas Wedgwood by any member of the Bright family was ever made), that it follows that these prints could be the lost precursors of photography. This slender "evidence" of such an important historical matter seemed to many in the field to be research by innuendo, and the context in which it was presented (as a selling tool with no peer review) appeared to do a disservice to both the history of photography, Larry Schaaf's own fine reputation as a photo historian, and even Sotheby's New York expert group's usually good repute as the most knowledgeable auction house about 19th-century photography.
Schaaf's further connection with the former owner and dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. also lent some concern as to his sense of balance on these prints. Besides his purely academic work, Schaaf works for Kraus and usually researches and writes most of his catalogue information. They also work very closely together on other elements of English photography. This is a financial connection not noted by Sotheby's or its PR department, nor by the general press. And, while I don't really think that was the reason for Schaaf's essay, I do think the lack of transparency gives the situation an even more tawdry appearance than necessary. Schaaf did point out to me that he was not paid by anyone to write this essay, and wrote it to merely insure that nothing happened to what he considered to be a valuable and fragile historical artifact, even if of unidentified authorship.
As noted earlier, Schaaf, when interviewed in the New York Times, stated: "I'm fully prepared for 'The Leaf' to have been made by Henry Bright, or by his father, after the 1790s." In fact, Schaaf later told me that he strongly urged the auction house and consignor to pull the leaf from auction in order to do further research, but the consignor was apparently initially resistant to this idea. At the very least Schaaf was more forthright about the distinct possibility that this lot might not be as important a piece as the Sotheby's PR mill was making it out to be. Sotheby's sought and received coverage for this photogram not only in the New York Times, U.S.A.Today and many other major U.S. newspapers and magazines, but also in international publications such as Paris' leading newspaper, Le Monde. To say overstatement was the axiom of the day is, in fact, to understate.
Let's look at some of the quick question marks that set off the photo history community. For example, I have personally owned what is probably one of the earliest photographic images on paper, probably an example of Talbot's early experiments from Geneva that he made in 1834. These were considered to be the first images produced photographically and fixed. This cliché-verre (a print made by placing photographic paper beneath a smoked glass plate on which a design has been scratched) was barely discernable and could only be seen from a raking angle. Understand that this print was actually salt fixed, unlike the Wedgwood or Watts experiments that had no fixing at all. Wedgwood himself noted that his images faded completely from view. So how then were these very striking, dark and dramatic plant photograms by Wedgwood or some other precursor to photography, such as Watts or Davy? How had they survived with such strength of image after over 200 years, when their proposed creators noted that the images they made faded disappointingly after a few hours, despite some unsubstantiated statements by Samuel Highley in the 19th-century to the contrary? (In the next article, Talbot expert Michael Gray poses virtually the same question, as have numerous others. He also poses several other rather devastating questions and their answers.)
More to the point, when this group of plant photograms were sold by Sotheby's in 1984 for such small amounts, Sotheby's experts then noted that the 'W' was an 'N', and was similar to a mark made by Talbot partner and fellow photographer Nicolaas Henneman to indicate which side of the paper was pre-sensitized. The catalogue dated the prints then to "1840-45", although a number of auction observers at the time thought that the prints were actually made later by a much more amateurish method. It was still a little strange that Sotheby's made no reference to its own earlier 1984 catalogue description and that there was now another interpretation of the inked letter on these prints.
In addition, Schaaf's linking the Bright family to Thomas Wedgwood seems to have more in common to the pop culture game of six degrees of Kevin Bacon than true research that would link Wedgwood directly to the Bright album images, as Michael Gray's article points out.
In my own opinion, just from some quick observations, the prints are likely to be from a period somewhere between the 1840s and 1860s. Michael Gray's article even provides some intriguing information that the creation date of these photograms is more likely to have been at the tail end of this period. The Bright album was apparently put together in 1869 and contained a number of images of known dates from about the mid-1840s to the 1860s (although one cliché-verre now attributed by Schaaf to John Herschel was said by Schaaf to be from 1839, but no further reference or evidence of this was provided in his essay). If the Henneman notation is correct, then perhaps they could have been made by one of Talbot's relatives or friends, although even that may be in question, according to Gray; and Schaaf himself now says, that "this leaf, and its companions, do not fit into the corpus of known works by Talbot and his circle."
It is also virtually impossible, according to the evidence that Gray lays out, that this print could be by Wedgwood, Watts or Davies. Thus the value is considerably less than implied by Sotheby's in its publicity or catalogue. An anonymous amateur photogram (or one produced by a Bright family member) from the 1850s-1860s might not be that much more valuable than what Hans Kraus paid for it in 1989; even if one were to put a zero on the end of that figure, you would still be only looking at a little over $9,000. If by a member of the "School of Talbot", the photogram might be in mid-five figures, but certainly not in the seven figures that was implied by Sotheby's by its "Price on Request" notation or the words of its own photography expert to the press.
After numerous top photo historians and academics began questioning the Schaaf essay and Sotheby's attempts at tying this image to pre-photo history, Sotheby's knew it had a major problem on its hands. A belated attempt was apparently made to get the Getty Museum to test one of its images from the Henry Bright album, but the equipment to do this was in transit to Europe when the call was finally made just days before the auction. Plans are still in the works for testing of prints from the album at the Getty, although they have been delayed because of "equipment problems" that were suffered on the trip back from Europe. We will be bringing you the results of these tests after they have been completed. However, many top conservators do not feel that such testing could be definitive, although perhaps a fixing agent of some sort might be detected to indicate that the print was made later, well into the 19th century instead of made at the tail end of the 18th century. Also, testing for the sizing agent might provide more evidence for dating the object, as noted in Gray's article below. It appears to be more likely though that such testing can rule out an early date rather than substantiate it.
On April 2nd, just five days before the auction and after much questioning by the photo history community, Sotheby's decided to pull the lot. Here's how Denise Bethel described the situation in a press release sent out to the media: "Following the publication of the catalogue for the sale of The Quillan Collection, scholars across the field of photography have entered into a spirited and lively dialogue about the possible origins for the "Leaf". Dr. Larry Schaaf’s essay, which comprised our copy for the lot, has inspired and attracted much discourse. This conversation has revealed new areas of research, which will be explored in the coming months. While we had hoped to present the Leaf at auction in the context of The Quillan Collection, a carefully curated group of photographs, the possibility of a definitive conclusion regarding this early photogenic drawing is even more exciting."
Well, perhaps, or perhaps not, depending on your definition of "more exciting". In the following article by Talbot expert Michael Gray, he sets out some very "definitive conclusions" that clearly rule out this print being made by Wedgwood, who died in 1805, or Watts, who died in 1819. He further questions any connection to Talbot.
One wonders why such basic research wasn't done by Sotheby's for what was being billed--or certainly heavily implied--as a photo history milestone before publishing such flimsy justification for a price-boosting attribution, at least by implication. While research is difficult for any auction house, when an implied seven-figure price tag and the rewriting of photo history hangs in the balance on what appears to me and others to be just guesswork, I think some better due diligence would have been in order.
In my opinion this event reveals once again the weakness of the auction system in vetting controversial material under the duel pressures of time and financing. The safer track might have been to publicize the item as an anonymous photogram, date unknown, although I suppose the auction house can claim that it did just that with all the disclaimers popping up in the Schaaf essay and the way Sotheby's carefully wrote up the entry for lot 43. But when the auction house also claims in its publicity, etc. that this "might" be something of crucial and unique historical importance, and handles it as it were, I think it has a duty to take a bit more care than it did here on the research--or lack thereof.
While this article has singled out one auction house, I would be remiss not to point out that Sotheby's is no more culpable than any of the other auction houses in addressing issues of authenticity and proper dating. In fact, in my opinion, Sotheby's usually brings more expertise and care than most of the others to these issues, and in this case even sought additional outside help and ultimately pulled the print (although its future still remains a bit of a mystery). That's the scary part. It's just that I feel the PR hype got a little away from Sotheby's; it and Larry Schaaf were both also saying one thing (no attribution, no dating of the object) and implying something else (that it was an item of historical importance and that there was evidence that Thomas Wedgwood was the creator); and that, coupled to the fact that all auction houses don't currently provide any substantive backstops or guarantees when they make very human mistakes in their listings, gave one pause here. That's not to say that Sotheby's actually made a mistake in its very carefully worded entry here.
Because of the controversial nature of this issue, I would be happy to add and publish responsible comments and responses to these articles in this newsletter as an online follow-up. Such responses may be subject to editing for length and grammar.
Given the cautionary tale above, you may decide that some new care is in order. As the auction houses note, albeit very discretely, in their own catalogues, and collectors and curators keep ignoring at their peril, buying at auction is clearly on a "Buyer Beware" basis. When the auction houses sold primarily to the trade and experienced collectors, it was one thing; but one would think that when the auction houses expanded their business to the inexperienced general public and went full retail that they would have backed their sales with a guarantee of what they were at least claiming in their catalogue descriptions and condition reports, but such is not the case.
I urge all my readers to actually spend some time and read the backs of the catalogues for the term of conditions. I think most of you will be quite shocked with how little the auction houses stand behind their own words. In fact, except for the name of the photographer (and the title of the work at some auction houses), virtually nothing is guaranteed by the auction houses, including most of their descriptive language on lots, their condition reports and their personnel's verbal statements. And even the meager piece of information that is guaranteed is subject to numerous caveats that nearly make such guarantees impossible to enforce.
Is there an alternative? Maybe. I would suggest that you find a gallery or dealer who you trust and who is willing to guarantee the work that they sell you. Perhaps this is not as exciting as standing up in an auction or calling in on the phone and setting a new record for the world to see, but then you might not be stuck with a very expensive pig-in-poke that was overhyped later.
At the very least, if you are going to bid in an auction, then get some real professional third-party help in evaluating and buying at that sale, and don't just depend on the people at the auction house, whose job it is to sell the item. Most of the auction house personnel usually mean well, but many do not have the same level of expertise as many dealers and appraisers. Further, time constraints on cataloguing and issuing condition reports often lead to mistakes that the auction house will not take financial responsibility for.
By Michael Gray
It is especially important, particularly in view of the speculation on pre-photo history generated by the appearance of the recent photogenic botanical leaf specimen offered for sale at Sotheby's New York last April (Lot 43), to take a more circumspect and measured approach concerning its attribution. While there is no doubt that the Bright Album images are an interesting and enigmatic survival, it appears doubtful that they are the early precursors to the photography medium, as we will see below.
There are several fundamental lines of inquiry to follow and in this specific case we have the benefit of seeing four of the group of six images from the Henry Bright album, which was the source of the Sotheby's lot, being botanical specimens; this makes it possible for us to draw upon the specialized knowledge of expertise outside of the photographic domain. Besides the photograph in question formerly at auction, two images from this group of six (including the specimen referred to immediately below) are now to be found in the Getty collection in Malibu, plus one in the Metropolitan Museum collection, New York.
Examination of the Subject Matter for Dating Clues
The specimen most valuable to the research in dating these prints and the most interesting, in my view, is Getty 84.XP.927.7, which, on the photograph that was kindly sent to me by Weston Naef, bears the inscription on the verso in pencil, 'Acer palmatum'. I can confirm this, having consulted Steven Falk's "Catalogue of Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull Trees" from which I have been able to determine that it was a frond from an Acer Palmatum Rubra (Japanese Red Maple or Acer Japonicum Rubra), first introduced into the United Kingdom from Japan circa 1820, according to Falk.
If this information is correct then it would rule out any possibility of Sotheby's Lot 43 "photogenic drawing" having been made by Thomas Wedgwood or by any other individual prior to this date, given that the images in the group all appear to have been made at approximately the same time. This specimen, according to Larry Schaaf in the notes in Sotheby's recent catalogue, was "one of six photogenic drawings that were in an album belonging to Henry Bright, titled in manuscript on a paper label on the cover 'Knoll Lodge, 1869'." And, all were "purchased by dealer Hans P. Kraus, Jr., who subsequently attributed the work to William Henry Fox Talbot" or by collector Michael Wilson, whose two images are now at the Getty.
Image Appearance and Chemical Earmarks
Close examination of the Getty Acer Japonicum Rubra image reveals that the end of the uppermost frond of the stem on the right is of a much weaker density than the main stem of the plant, so it appears that there are two distinctly separate areas of density for the same image. This in my view is not without significance, as it introduces the possibility of after-development or treatment--and, not necessarily by the original maker--and opens up the intriguing possibility that the image might have been intensified either shortly afterward or much later (but prior to 1984 when auctioned) by some as yet unidentified individual.
The density and depth of color of the Bright prints is deeper and stronger than any of the surviving specimens made by W. H. F. Talbot, circa 1834-35. This is the factor that concerns me most. The Bright prints have none of the characteristics to indicate that they have been halide-stabilized. They do look more like images that have been well-fixed with hypo.
I also believe these Bright prints to have been float-coated. The two circular shaped aberrations on both upper corners of Sotheby's Lot 43 are--in my experience--what happen with a novice's first attempts at sensitization by floatation. The fact that this characterizes all of the specimens that I have been able to study in person leads me to the conclusion that these images were made sometime between 1850 and 1858 (1860 at the latest). [Editor's note: all the photograms showed such signs when published in the 1989 Sotheby's catalogue.]
The final problematic issue for me is the nature of the paper upon which the Bright album images are printed. It is a wove paper and of a type that could not have been made before 1809 at the earliest. (I suspect that its manufacture date is even later, perhaps in the early, or even mid to late 1850s). The paper is thin and the fibers are very even and tightly bonded, the surface on both sides is smooth, and it is the equivalent of about 150-180 gsm, so the paper is most probably machine made. GSM is defined as the gram weight of one square meter of paper. This means that the higher the gsm, the more paper density and weight.
James Whatman was the first in the UK (and the world) to make what today we know as wove paper in about 1757. Until then all papers were mould made, by hand, and had the characteristic linear makings of the brass or copper wires impressed within the sheet. James Whatman, drawing upon the skills of the weaving industry, was able to make a much finer mesh that enabled him to make a paper where the impression of the mould no longer affected the localized thickness and texture of the paper. With this innovation watercolor artists were able to lay down a wash that was even and without the regular grid that the earlier laid paper imparted to their works. However, even then, this paper was still very rough and was a much heavier product (equivalent to 250-400 gsm or more).
Peter Bower, a colleague and founding member of the Society of Paper Historians notes: "The first attempt at a paper machine to mechanize the process was patented in 1799 by Frenchman Nicholas Louis Robert, but it was not a success. However, the drawings were brought to England by John Gamble in 1801 and passed on to the brothers Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, who financed the engineer Bryan Donkin to build the machine. The first successful machine was installed at Frogmore, Hertfordshire, in 1803." It should be born in mind that other sources indicate an even later date of 1807 for the establishment of a papermaking machine.
Bower goes on to further state that: "The paper was pressed onto an endless wire cloth, transferred to a continuous felt blanket; and pressed again, it would have been cut off the reel into sheets and loft dried in the same way as hand-made paper. In 1809 John Dickinson patented a machine that that used a wire cloth covered cylinder revolving in a pulp suspension, the water being removed through the centre of the cylinder and the layer of pulp removed from the surface by a felt covered roller" (later replaced by continuous felt passing round a roller). Note that the patent was not taken out until 1809, and it would have taken at least five to ten years before this new innovation would have made serious inroads into the paper market. [See British Association of Paper Historians' website at: http://www.baph.org.uk , and, in particular, "The Whatmans and Wove (Velin) Paper" by John Balston, http://www.wovepaper.co.uk/ , in which he gives a comprehensive account and history of the development in a three-volume work.]
Prior to the introduction of the continuous web Fourdrinier paper-making machine, it was virtually impossible to make paper with any degree of continuity with regards to obtaining an even thickness and consistency across individual sheets, and even consistency of distribution of sizing within individual sheets. Peter Bower's account of the development and introduction of the Fordrinier continuous web paper-making machine demonstrates that, for the first time, a manufactured paper could successfully be used for photographic purposes. Although this machine was originally a French invention, its development and manufacture could only have been possible at this time in England, not least of all because of the tumultuous events that were taking place in France during this period. For the first time it was possible to produce a paper that was thin and had a high wet strength, and--most importantly--that the gelatin sizing was evenly and consistently distributed throughout the whole sheet. Then, and only then, could wove paper have been suitable for use by Talbot circa 1834 and for its subsequent uses in photography.
In spite of all claims made regarding the superiority of hand-made over machine-made paper; photography was a completely different ballgame where even machine-made papers posed problems. Most of the trouble that Talbot had (and all other practitioners had at this early period) was obtaining a suitable paper for photographs. It was possible to discover a paper that worked well, but more often than not, when returning to the same supplier a second seemingly identical batch could fail miserably. There was no reliable way of obtaining consistency of supply. Even as late as the mid-1850s, Thomas Sutton, upon discovering a paper made by W.T. Hollingsworth of Maidstone (the area where most paper mills were located) which gave outstanding results, went to enormous lengths to track down and buy as much as he could from that particular 'make'. We know this from an article and advertisements that appeared in 'Photographic Notes'.
Bear with me for the last time, and, I admit that I am straying into a now more subjective mode. The nature and quality of the paper used to make the prints from the Bright album makes me think that it (the paper) was made by a typically French method. My reason is that the surface texture and "feel" has all the characteristics of starch-sized paper, as opposed to gelatin; gelatin-sized papers are more 'rigid' and have a higher note when held by one corner and 'flexed'. (I do not suggest, by this comment, that I subjected either of the two institutions' original specimens to this test!)
It is highly unlikely that any of the images from the Bright Album could be attributed to Wedgwood or even tenuously to Talbot; to the best of my knowledge no British paper mills used corn starch as a sizing. It was not until the introduction of Canson and Marion's papers into England around 1852 that starch-sized stock became available for photographic purposes. Without going into too much detail, gelatin papers possess a much greater 'wet strength' than those sized with starch, the norm on the European mainland (with the exception of Italy), which was the primary reason why it was necessary for Gustav Le Gray to wax his paper before impregnating the fibers with rice starch, the carrier for the light sensitive silver iodide preparation.
The Issue of Wedgwood/Bright Family Connections
Larry Schaaf relies on some of the family connections between the Bright family and the Wedgwoods and Thomas Wedgwood's circle. The Bright family maintained a rather confusing family tree with many different children being named after other relatives, especially Henry and Richard in particular. According to Sotheby's 1989 catalogue notes, the Henry Bright who apparently put together this album was an English watercolorist of some note, and Philippe Garner, who was the Sotheby's expert at the time, confirms that this was apparently the information provided by the consignor, who claimed to be an ancestor of Henry Bright, the watercolorist. But this was in error, according to Schaaf's research.
Larry Schaaf attributes the album to another Henry Bright, who was born to a Richard Bright and Sarah Heywood in 1784. Note the different birth date. Indeed there was a Henry Bright born at this time, but perhaps not the Bright family member who put the album together in 1869. In fact, Richard Bright's son Henry actually passed away on March 26, 1869. It is likely that Richard Bright is actually the grandfather of the Henry Bright who put the album together, but not his son as Schaaf notes. Henry Arthur Bright (1830-1884) was the son of Samuel Bright, who was the brother of the Henry Bright that Schaaf attributes the album. As the elder Henry's nephew, it is possible that Henry Arthur Bright inherited the photographs from his uncle or another source. Of course, Schaaf's speculation about the inheritance of these specimens could be extended by one more step. Isn't it more likely that the younger nephew would have put together his uncle's (or other relative's) materials in an album made shortly after that relative died?
Additionally, Schaaf points to Samuel Highley's article in the 1885 Photographic News, where Highley noted seeing "some of Wedgwood's experiments with chloride of silver on bibulous paper", questioning: "Were these in fact, those very examples preserved by Henry Bright?" Not if the original Sotheby's 1989 consignment came from the Bright family, as even Schaaf now assumes.
More to the point, the assumed link between the Wedgwoods and the Brights in the Schaaf essay in the Sotheby's catalogue is largely based upon the attendance of Thomas Wedgwood's elder brother John and Richard Bright (possibly watercolorist Henry Bright's grandfather) at the same institution. Richard Bright (1754-1840) attended Warrington Academy at the same time as John Wedgwood (1766-1844), (eldest son of Josiah Wedgwood), whose principal interests were in botany and horticulture, a founder member of the Horticultural Society and was a partner in the Wedgwood pottery works from 1790 to 1793 and 1800-1812. This was well before John Wedgwood's younger brother Thomas' proto-photographic experiments were made either in the late 1790s or early 1800s. Both John Wedgwood and Richard Bright for a time came under the tutelage of the Rev. Phillip Holland at the Warrington Academy. Again this clearly has no significant bearing on this investigation considering that their possible brief association occurred several years before Thomas Wedgwood's proto-photographic investigations took place.
John Wedgwood's younger brother Thomas' education was overseen by his father Josiah Wedgwood at home, and by such tutors as John Waltire, an able chemist originally from Birmingham and founding member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Institute (also Joseph Priestley's collaborator and chemical assistant during his time as librarian at Bowood Wiltshire); M. Potêt, from whom he received lessons in French; Alexander Chisholm the chemist at Wedgwood's Etruria works, formerly assistant to William Lewis; and John Leslie (1766-1832), afterwards professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University. As you might see, no Bright connection was directly made with the younger Thomas, nor with Henry Bright himself.
It should be borne in mind that we are talking about a relatively small section of society; all were Quakers and radical reformers operating outside of the establishment, on the whole wealthy, educated industrialists, part of a scientific and cultural movement. This cannot lead to the supposition that there is some form of magic conduit that links Thomas Wedgwood with the Bright family at a point in time that coincides with his interest in experiments with the salts of silver and the camera obscura.
Considering all the above, I think that the Met is right to leave the attribution of their image completely open.
Michael Gray is currently a director and partner of Image Research Associates. He was curator of the National Trust Fox Talbot Museum from 1989-2004. He was also an external adviser for the British Library, Department of Manuscripts Jerwood Project Board from 2001-2006. He has also acted as consultant for Arquivo Nacional de Fotografia, Museus Português, Lisbon 1992, and has been scientific director for the University of Pordenone and Udine Consortium, Ikonscentre Project, Pordenone from 1994-2002.
By Alex Novak
I know many of our readers have been confronting distressing headlines and news on the economy, whether you reside in the very popular (these days) Main Street, USA, New York City, L.A., Chicago, Atlanta, Paris or London. These appear to be serious times, but I am hopeful that the U.S. Congress and other governments will step up and do the right thing to unplug the credit freeze and allow our economies to at least recover enough to avoid a serious and long-term recession or worse. No one likes the idea of "bailing" out greedy Wall Street financiers, but that isn't what this plan is about--especially with the new safeguards put in place by Congressional leaders. It is about stopping a crisis of confidence in our global credit and financial systems that is crucial if we are to avoid a depression (yes, I used the "d" word), or a lengthy and deep recession. There are still some longer (only slightly longer) term urgent bank solvency problems that I think may be unresolved by the current plan from the Bush Administration and U.S. Congress which are a concern to some economists, but they will only be worsened if this measure does not pass quickly.
The implications for the photography and art markets may seem trivial beside these greater impacts, but certainly they are still important to our readers (and, especially, for those who make a living in this market).
At least until now, there has been fortunately little impact on the photography marketplace. We and other photography dealers that I have talked to have seen little to no drop off in business--in fact, we and many others report an excellent year to date. During what was one of the great drops in the world's stock markets, Damien Hurst was selling over $200 million worth of art at Sotheby's London with few items passing without winning bids. While I think that is a little obscene personally, it does represent a bit of the current strength of the art market, which focuses on hard assets, as opposed to the more transitory financial instruments.
That does not mean that we will get a pass here. No matter how markets react to what is being euphemistically being called a "bailout", the economy has been too stretched and battered not to react. While I am only a student of the economy and not an "economist", it looks to me and many of those more professional brethren that we are in for an economic downturn. The only questions are: How long? How deep?
I do think that the more speculative side of the contemporary art market will take a strong hit over the next few years, but photography in general will probably ride out most of the storm in terms of pricing, if not in terms of sale turnover times and buy-ins at auction. Both auction houses (especially) and even dealers/galleries may be in for a tougher time over the next few years than they've had more recently, but collectors will not be, especially those that can afford to hold for a reasonable time period. Collectors may even benefit from such a slower period. As collector Michael Mattis told me in 2001, "As a collector in it for the long haul, I like down markets just fine: there is less frenzied competition for fine pieces, and more time to contemplate and finance a purchase--and the dealers are less ornery about time payments!"
Back in March I wrote about the possible downturn in the economy and photography art market. I must admit that I have had little change of heart since then, and I think my advice to collectors has been right on target. If you haven't read it or don't recall its details, might I suggest that you go to http://www.iphotocentral.com/news/article_view.php/150/141/824 . If we are facing, as I currently expect, a recession of two to six years, I think what I predicted then holds up very well indeed.
Sotheby's has formally announced the sale in Paris on Saturday, November 15, 2008 of what it is calling "the final installment of the photographic collection of Marie-Thérèse and André Jammes--one of the most important private collections of photographs of the 19th century ever assembled." The E-Photo Newsletter reported on the scheduling of this event in July, and now we can share more details.
The sale will be a much smaller sale than previous ones and will contain approximately 180 lots, with an overall estimate of 2.2-3 million euro or about $3.2-3.5 million, without the addition of the buyer's premium (now up to 25% at Sotheby's). None of the estimates by Sotheby's below include the buyer's premium. The current dollar/euro exchange rate is $1.47 to the euro. As in previous sales, this auction will feature a selection of French photography dating back to the earliest photographic reproduction processes and includes work by such great 19th-century masters as Edouard Baldus, Bisson Frères, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Henri Le Secq, Gustave Le Gray and Charles Nègre. Taken together, the collection covers all the major themes of 19th-century photography, including portraits, monuments and the landscapes of France, the Middle East and elsewhere.
The names Marie-Thérèse and André Jammes have been celebrated by the international market since the first part of their collection was sold by Sotheby's in London on 27 October 1999. The 287-lot sale set new records for a sing;e photography sale and for a single owner sale, totaling nearly $12.5 million or £7,430,693 (11,582,000 euro). It also broke the record for a single photograph at auction at about $850,000 (£507,500) for Gustave Le Gray's Grande Vague, Sète.
Parts 2 and 3, sold by Sotheby's in Paris on March 21-22, 2002, were devoted to Charles Nègre and French primitive photography. The sale brought 11,814,210 euro or about $11 million in total, with the first ever image printed from a photographic process by Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of photography, selling for 489,750 euro, and high prices for photographs by Charles Nègre, Victor Regnault and Edouard Baldus.
Part 4, which is to be offered in Paris this November, features calotype prints and daguerreotypes by French masters of primitive photography; the work of leading photographers from the heyday of the glass negative and albumen print; and valuable documents illustrating photographic technique.
Highlights include an important group of 13 daguerreotypes by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, with views of France, Egypt, Italy and Greece (estimates between 10,000-70,000 euro); a full-plate daguerreotype by Baron Jean-Baptiste Louis Gros, which shows his own studio (estimate 80,000-120,000 euro); a very rare selection of paper negatives and salt paper prints (estimates 12,000-25,000 euro) by John Beasley Greene; and a study of an oak tree in the Forest of Fontainebleau (estimate 50,000-70,000 euro) by Gustave Le Gray.
The sale also contains a series of exceptional portraits taken by Charles Nègre at the Imperial Asylum in Vincennes, along with heliogravures of his celebrated studies of French Gothic monuments; and a remarkable array of clichés-verre, a photographic engraving technique adopted by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and the Barbizon School of painters.
The sale will start at 10 am and 2 pm on Saturday, November 15th. Previews will be held in New York City (October 9-14), London (October 23-29) and Paris (November 12-14).
The dates for THE AIPAD PHOTOGRAPHY SHOW NEW YORK have now been confirmed. The show dates will be Thursday, March 26 through Sunday, March 29, 2009, with a preview on Wednesday, March 25. The show will be held as previously at the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street and Park Avenue.
CANDACE DWAN will be closing her photography gallery in December and going private. She will remain in New York City for the near future. Her last exhibition, "Secrets and Shadows, the photographs of Olivier Meriel," will open on October 28th and run through December 17th, at which time the gallery will close. The gallery's location is at 24 West 57th Street, #503, New York City and the phone is 1-212-315-0065. Dwan, a member of AIPAD, says, "After nearly 14 years as a gallerist in Katonah and New York, and more than one hundred exhibitions, it feels like the time in my life to make some big changes and I look forward to the next fresh white page with a sense of delight and also some pause."
MUSICAL CHAIRS IN THE MUSEUM WORLD: MATTHEW WITKOVSKY will be the new chair of the department of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, beginning January 19, 2009. Witkovsky has worked at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, since 2003, first as assistant and then associate curator in the department of photographs. Witkovsky is replacing the retiring David Travis. Also, KATHERINE WARE, formerly photography curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is now taking on that job at the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, NM. Replacing Ware, PETER D. BARBERIE has been named the Philadelphia Museum of Art's curator of photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center, in the department of prints, drawings, and photographs. Most recently, Barberie was a visiting lecturer in the department of art and archaeology at Princeton University and in spring 2008 was the guest curator of "Close Encounters: Portraits of Artists and Writers by Irving Penn" at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. He also worked as a curatorial fellow in photography at the Philadelphia Museum from 2003 to 2007.
OBITUARY: DON ULTANG, a pioneer in aerial photography, died on September 18 at the age of 91. A photographer for the "Des Moines Register", Ultang learned to fly through a government-financed civilian pilot program. He had a unique method of shooting aerial photographs, letting go of the controls briefly to take the shot. He and another "Register" photographer, John Robinson, also covered a football game between Drake University and Oklahoma A&M in October 1951, during which they both documented an unsportsmanlike, seemingly racially motivated assault on black football player Johnny Bright. The two men shared the Pulitzer Prize for their photos of the incident.
OBSENITIES: Damien Hirst, in conjunction with Sotheby's London, sold over $200 million worth of the artist's work, during the largest single day drop in the world's stock markets. Overall, in the three sessions, 218 of the 223 lots sold. Of those, five brought in over $5 millions dollars each and 48 over $1 million each. According to one dealer familiar with Hirst's operation, that figure translates to a cool take of £50 million for the artist, once you subtract the 10 percent fee to übermanager Dunphy, the five works (worth £2.77 million total) sold to benefit various charities, fabrication costs, expenses, and taxes. Hirst, who was shooting pool in Camden with snooker world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan at the time of the sale, provided Sotheby's with this quote: "I think the market is bigger than anyone knows. I love art, and this proves I’m not alone."
Over 70 new items have been added to the I Photo Central website this past month--most just over the last few days. You can see them here: http://www.iphotocentral.com/search/result_list.php/16/30/0 . Charles Schwartz, Ltd. has put up a large group of important W. Eugene Smith images. Contemporary Works/Vintage Works has also just added a number of iconic images in very early printings, including Bob Jackson's wire photo of the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald; Eddie Adams' photograph of the South Vietnamese Police Chief Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong Officer; Joe Rosenthal's famous image of the "Flag Raising, Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima"; and Alfred Eisenstaedt's important image of the dead "Barefoot Soldier". Our company has also just listed a nice group of early Czech material from the 1920s-1970s, including two important vintage prints of children by Jaroslav Rossler. But there are even more goodies listed on the website.
Two new Special Exhibits have been added as well. "Charlie Schreiner: Color Mosaics" focuses on Schreiner's large-scale color work that features multiple imagery that has been worked into fantastic and exciting patterns. Many of the images were just posted up to the web. You can see that special exhibit here: http://www.iphotocentral.com/showcase/showcase_view.php/189/1/0 .
"Ladislav Postupa: Absurdity within Life" features the surreal photographs by this Czech master, whose nudes and still lifes glow with a sense of black humor. To view this special exhibit, click here: http://www.iphotocentral.com/showcase/showcase_view.php/188/1/0 . To see all the rest of the Special Exhibits, simply go to: http://www.iphotocentral.com/showcase/showcase.php . There have been lots of additions and changes made to those as well.
By the way, there are now well over 2,000 photographers with over 8,300 photographs listed on the I Photo Central website for sale. All are easily searchable by photographer name at http://www.iphotocentral.com/photographer/photographer.php , or through our flexible search engine at: http://www.iphotocentral.com/search/search.php .
There are several other announcements about our artists and opportunities for our readers. Mitch Dobrowner, who is represented by Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, just won first prize in the "Prix de la Photographie Paris (PX3) Public Choice Awards 2008" competition for both the non-professional Fine Art and the non-professional Nature categories. The Public Choice awards were selected from nearly 40,000 tallied online votes and winners were announced in July, 2008. Photolucida recently named Dobrowner as one of the Top 50 photographers honored in the "Critical Mass" awards program. The annual juried competition is sponsored by Photolucida, a non-profit organization that promotes in-depth, informed, and supportive dialogue between photographers, gallery owners, and publishers. Six new black and white photos by Dobrowner are also highlighted in a four-page layout in the August, 2008 issue of "B&W Magazine". The Annual "Portfolio Special Edition" named Dobrowner, for the second time in two consecutive years, a winner in this prestigious photography contest.
Dobrowner has just released a new triptych of Shiprock Storm, one of his most popular new works, which is in a 20 x 62 inch format. It has already sold enough prints to put it up to the price next level at $3,000, but Mitch is allowing us to sell the first two for the initial release price of $2,500. This is the unframed and unmatted price. It will ONLY be available to our newsletter readers, so you must let me know that you saw this offer here. To view this great piece, click here: http://www.iphotocentral.com/search/detail.php/32/10910/0/10910/1 . To see the rest of Mitch Dobrowner's award-winning work, either go to the special exhibit, "Mitch Dobrowner: Unworldly Landscapes" at http://www.iphotocentral.com/showcase/showcase_view.php/151/1/0 , or to see all of his work on our website, go to: http://www.iphotocentral.com/search/result_list.php/256/Mitch+Dobrowner .
We have also just added a new area of work from Michael Philip Manheim--some of his earlier color and black and white work. I would like to particularly point out his wonderful image "Boys at the Wall, Jerusalem", which you can see at: http://www.iphotocentral.com/search/detail.php/16/30/30/11036/1 . You can currently get this superb color photograph at its release price of $1,250 for a print on 16 x 20 inch paper and $2,500 for one on 20 x 24 inch paper. If you love great pictures of children (or just great pictures), this is one you won't want to miss out on.
Important new work by several of Contemporary Works' other artists has also been posted up on the website, including images by Stanko Abadzic, Lisa Holden and Claudia Kunin. These artists and their newest additions are all worth checking out on the site.
By Matt Damsker
COMING OF RAGE. PHOTOGRAPHS BY ED ECKSTEIN.
2008, self-published; 32 pages, 28 black-and-white plates. For information, contact at EdEckstein@verizon.net , or at 1-610-258-8030 or 1-212-685-9342.
Ed Eckstein's self-published "Coming of Rage," is a small, stark time capsule stocked with 28 uniformly excellent black-and-white photos that chronicle the era of anti-war protests, the generation gap and the racial divide that swirled through the late1960s and their Summer of Love. Shot mostly in his native Philadelphia and in such simmering nearby locales as Wilmington--and as far afield as London and East Berlin--many of Eckstein's images of peace marchers, American Legion parades, Ku Klux Klan rallies and civil rights protests are, or deserve to be, iconic--and, indeed, you have seen some of these if you came of age in the '60s in the Philadelphia area.
In that remarkable, volatile moment, Eckstein's saw the anxiety of youth and age on opposite sides of the political argument--the young, headbanded hippies gathered against the Vietnam war seem at once vain and unsure of themselves, while the babyfaced soldier in basic training, or the elderly war veteran with his medals hanging from his chest, share a look of ageless worry. These were interesting times, and Eckstein avoided the polemic temptations of so many photo/journalists. His compositions are richly compassionate and aware of the human complexity, and irony, at hand--a group of young women in KKK garb, for example, chatting amiably with each other, are an image of gentle communion, while a black youth standing tall in a sea of white protestors at a Philadelphia anti-war event is a masterly portrait of racial isolation and possibility.
Eckstein made these mostly unpublished shots on what he calls "self-assignment" (he has been a stringer for the "New York Times" and worked for the Black Star Agency), and as an itinerant artist he falls into the great traditions of social realism and street photography, but it's his feel for the intimacy of human interaction that sets him apart from many other photojournalists. In one of his best and most Ecksteinian shots--of a tightly packed crowd attending a peace rally with Philadelphia's great City Hall looming in the mist--the two middle-aged woman closest to us, at the bottom of the frame, are whispering to each other, while the rest of the crowd seems raptly attentive to whatever's going on further away. Amidst the sturm-und-drang of that forgotten day, those two women seem charged with immediacy, plucked as they have been from the quotidian and burnished for posterity by Eckstein's eye.
DANCING WALLS: 2003-2006. PHOTOGRAPHS BY THOMAS KELLNER.
Introduction by Alison Nordstrom. 88 pages, 38 color plates; hardcover. Published by Art Galerie, Siegen; John Cleary Gallery, Houston; K4 galerie, Werner Deller, Saarbrucken; Galerie Maurer, Munich; Schneider Gallery, Chicago; in focus Galerie, Burkhard Arnold, Cologne. Price: 29 euros, plus shipping. For information: http://www.tkellner.com .
Germany's Thomas Kellner has established a glossy style that might seem slick or gimmicky were it not for the rigor and visual power he elicits from his approach. Kellner's mosaic renderings of the world's buildings and interiors are achieved through a succession of carefully orchestrated individual shots that yield an overall image of architectural liquidity--a kind of photo-cubism not all that new conceptually (think of David Hockney's fragmented Polaroid portraits) but, through Kellner's lens, wonderfully obsessive and colorful.
This book--published by a consortium of the galleries in which Kellner will be exhibiting through 2008--documents his recent shift away from iconic architectural monuments to the somewhat fussier interiors of museums, libraries and palaces. As Alison Nordstrom, curator at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography, puts it in her introduction: "This gentler, more delicate work, suggests a harmonious or organic rhythm, which Kellner himself refers to as 'vibration' or 'dancing glance' that delineates a built space like a living, breathing being…"
Thus, Kellner's mosaics of such gorgeous interiors as those of various Palazzos in Genova, Italy, or the modernist spaces of the Hearst Tower in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, or a resplendent basilica in Mexico City are shimmering distortions that make allusive contact with everything from Byzantine art (those Italian columns are beautifully misaligned) to the psychic spaces of de Chirico and, inevitably, the fragmentations and dreamscapes of Braque, Picasso, Dali. In each case, the high-ceilinged locales are flooded with light that plays fabulously into Kellner's designs, either emphasizing the richness of colors or lending a spiritual intensity to these vibrational studies, suggesting that Kellner's deconstruction/reconstruction of this architecture somehow reveals its invisible essence.
"VERNACULAR TO THE MASTERS: PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE ANONYMOUS AND THE CELEBRATED" documents an exhibition earlier this year at the Lehigh University Art Galleries in Bethlehem, PA, in which vintage anonymous photos and snapshots were played against complementary work by master photographers, neatly affirming the medium's democratic spirit. Indeed, it's hard to say whether the anonymous photo of a fisherman with his catch, standing with his back to the camera, is the equal of Manuel Alvarez Bravo's image of a pretty young girl standing on a dock with her fish, or whether Diane Arbus's image of a girl in her circus costume is matched by an anonymous shot of a naval officer in his uniform, but you get the idea. Lehigh University's cache of the found and the famous is a rich resource worthy of exploration. For more information: http://www.luag.org .
The Manfred & Hanna Heiting Fund at the Rijksmuseum in New Amsterdam was founded to encourage young researchers from all over the world to study the history of photography, and a series of volumes published by the Fund and the museum are becoming available. Volume 1, "RICHARD TEPE: PHOTOGRAPHY OF NATURE IN THE NETHERLANDS," by Christiane Kuhlmann, rediscovers a forgotten photographer of birds and plants whose moody studies of Netherlandic nature are carefully explored by Kuhlmann. And Volume 2, "ETHNICS AND TRADE: PHOTOGRAPHY AND COLONIAL EXHIBITIONS IN AMSTERDAM, ANTWERP AND BRUSSELS," by Laetitia Dujardin, researches the Rijksmuseum's wealth of ethnographic photography, most of it from the Dutch East Indies and Surinam. As documents of European colonialism, these 19th-century portraits of village life and tribal culture are of high historical import, while Dujardin advances a key conclusion: the photographers of that distant day were nothing if not complicit in promoting colonial propaganda throughout the Netherlands. For more information, go to: http://www.rijksmuseum.nl , (look under "research" and "scholarships").
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 for U.S.A. Today.
(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)
The Photo Review, a critical non-profit journal of photography, will hold its Annual Benefit Auction on Saturday, November 8, 2008 at 7 p.m. in the Dorrance-Hamilton Building at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA.
The event will feature an international slate of photographers as well as a host of Philadelphia artists. Beginning and experienced collectors alike will have the opportunity to bid on work by such historic masters as Ansel Adams, Albert Arthur Allen, Edouard Boubat, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward S. Curtis, F. Holland Day, Harold Edgerton, Lewis Hine, Clarence John Laughlin, Will McBride, Barbara Morgan, Sonya Noskowiak, Herb Ritts, Eva Rubinstein, W. Eugene Smith, Edward Steichen, Karl Struss, and Clarence White.
Among the contemporary photo stars whose work will go on the block are Raymond Depardon, Brian Finke, Lois Greenfield, Chip Hooper, Henry Horenstein, Michael Kenna, Robert Glenn Ketchum, Mark Klett, Jeffrey Milstein, Joe Mills, Duane Michals, Bill Owens, Catherine Steinmann, George Tice, and Joel-Peter Witkin, while featured local luminaries include Charmaine Caire, Paul Cava, Judy Gelles, David Graham, Jenny Lynn, D. W. Mellor, Andrea Modica, Stuart Rome, Gordon Smith and Ron Tarver.
In addition, a broad range of 19th-century photographs is up for bid, including a large format print from Isaiah Taber, Eugene Atget and Édouard Baldus.
According to Photo Review editor Stephen Perloff, prices will range from $50 to $8,000.
A silent auction, concurrent with the live auction, will feature photography and computer equipment and software, film and paper, restaurant meals, museum memberships, theater tickets, books, etc.
A New York preview will be held from October 10–12 at Phillips de Pury & Company, 531 W. 15th St., New York, NY 10011. Hours are Friday and Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sunday noon-6 p.m.
Another local Philadelphia preview will be held at the Dorrance-Hamilton Building on Friday, November 7 from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and on Saturday, November 8 from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., just prior to the auction.
Proceeds from the auction, a popular event since 1983, fund such activities as an annual juried competition for emerging photographers. Admission is free with purchase of the fully illustrated catalog, available through The Photo Review, phone 1-215-891-0214; fax: 1-215-891-9358; email: firstname.lastname@example.org . Buyers may preview the auction on-line, and place bids at http://www.photoreview.org . The auction lots will be on-line in mid October. No buyer's premiums are added to this non-profit money raising auction.