Friday, February 27, 2009

Ruud van Empel: Souvenir, Dawn, Moon, World @Stux

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 works (20 photographs and 2 bronze sculptures), displayed throughout the entry, the two lower galleries, and the upper galleries. The photographs are glossy Cibachrome prints, mounted to Dibond and plexiglass (not framed), all from 2008, ranging in size from approximately 33x24 for the smallest images up to wall sized murals. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: While digital manipulation has become the rule rather than the exception in new contemporary photography, Ruud van Empel's approach is something altogether more radical than a simple touch up. His works are composed of literally thousands of fragments and components of various photographs, meticulously merged and constructed within the confines of his computer. His images of children in lush garden settings are at once realistically detailed and fantastically fabricated, creating a surreal world where beauty and innocence are mixed with a small dose of an undefined and unsettling undercurrent: what is really going on here?
Van Empel's process leads to pictures that are extremely painterly, with lush colors and classical compositions. In a previous post on Van Empel, we touched on connections to Rousseau and Disfarmer (post here); during this visit, we were struck by the relationship to early Renaissance portraits and allegorical paintings, where figures were abstracted to represent an idealized version of a person, rather than anyone in specific. The children in these images are expressionless, with big eyes and flawless skin; at one level they are perfect, at another they are just a bit creepy.

Van Empel has several series of works progressing at the same time, all of which are represented in this show of new work. The World images are likely the most recognizable to collectors, with deadpan white and black children situated in idealized tropical rain forests and lagoons (complete with water droplets and amazing insects). The Venus series uses this same setting for a series of symbolic nudes. The Moon series follows a similar formula of formal children against a natural background, only this time the images are moonlit, bringing darker blues and greens into van Empel's palette. The recent Dawn series has a more casual compositional style, with the children often resting in beds of flowers or lying in the leaves. While each of these projects has its own specific details, they all share the same general approach: the mix of natural beauty with the innocence of childhood, boiled down to neutral and artificial symbolic types.
A series of wholly different and much more personal pictures entitled Souvenir are shown in the upper galleries. In these images, van Empel constructs dense interior still lifes out of images of items from his childhood home. While many of the tokens and mementos have a kitchy quality to them, it is clear that each and every one has been wrapped in some personal significance or memory. Van Empel uses the same computer driven composite approach, and the resulting feeling of unreality of his other works is found in these smaller pictures as well. These pictures jump off the wall quite a bit less than the more vibrant tropical scenes, but perhaps show van Empel experimenting with new narrative directions beyond those which made him famous.

Overall, this is a terrific show, with many eye-popping works to draw your attention, many of the kids seeming even more surreal than in earlier images. There is a catalogue of van Empel's new work entitled Ruud van Empel Photoworks available from the gallery for $50.
The artist's website can be found here.
Collector's POV: The World, Venus, Moon and Dawn images in this show range from $14000 to $69000, with most in the $30000 range. The Souvenir series is priced between $9500 and $14000. The prints are in editions of various sizes, ranging from 7 to 13. The two white statues are $47000 each, in editions of 3. Van Empel's work has only been available in the secondary markets since 2007, but has performed well, fetching prices from approximately $15000 to $45000. Given the originality of his work, it seems likely that these prices will continue to rise.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Through March 7th

530 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

Another review of this show can be found at The Year in Pictures here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Small Museum Profile: Cantor Arts Center @Stanford University

If you have ever been to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, my guess is your memories are full of the astounding Rodins. Stanford has a massive collection of Rodin sculptures, displayed both inside the museum and outside in the garden, including The Gates of Hell, which is the epitome of a monumental work that is 100% more awe inspiring in person than via reproductions. What you might not remember is that this museum has a strong collection of photography, anchored by its collection of images by Eadweard Muybridge.

In what is now one of the most famous stories in the history of photography, Leland Stanford wanted to definitively find out whether a running horse had at least one foot on the ground at all times, and hired Muybridge to make a series of stop motion photographs to determine the truth. Muybridge went on to make studies for his book, Animal Locomotion, at Stanford’s farm in Palo Alto, CA, which later became Stanford University. Those pictures are now housed in the Cantor Arts Center.

The museum does not have a full time curator for photography, so the job is split between Betsy Fryberger (Curator of Prints and Drawings) who handles the 19th century work, and Hilarie Faberman (Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art) who handles the 20th and 21st century images. In general, photography is housed within the Prints and Drawings Department.

There are approximately 4000 images in the photography collection, with roughly 1650 of the images from the 19th century and the remainder (2350) from more recent times. Beyond the collection of Muybridge images, the Cantor Arts Center has strength in works by Robert Frank, Bill Brandt, Ansel Adams, and 19th century travel photography. On a going forward basis, the curators would like to develop the early modern collection, specifically German and Russian photography (so collectors out there, here’s where you can help).

In the past 10 years, the Cantor Arts Center has acquired approximately 700 images, with the bulk of those coming the past few years. The collection is being built via a combination of donations by patrons and artists and dedicated funds for photo acquisitions.

Unlike many smaller museums, the Cantor Arts Center always has a portion of the permanent collection of photography on view, often upstairs in the Contemporary galleries. The exhibition schedule for photography has been consistently active and of high quality. Here are a handful of the most recent shows:

  • Andy Warhol Photographs (2008)
  • Private and Public: Class, Personality, Politics, and Landscape in British Photography (2008)
  • Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks (2007)
  • In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon (2007)
  • Yosemite's Structure and Textures: Photographs by Eadweard Muybridge, Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams, and Others (2007)
  • Beefcake: The Physique Photography of Dave Martin (2006)
  • Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky, 1982–2002 (2005)
  • Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement (2003)

The museum has also produced two solid publications in conjunction with recent shows: Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks and Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement.

Visitors can access the photography collection at the museum via direct contract with a registrar or curator/curatorial assistant. There is a print viewing room that can be reserved by appointment to look at specific works.

Overall, the Cantor Arts Center’s photography program seems to be well run and the collection merits your attention during any visit to the Bay Area. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did my graduate degree at Stanford and both our children were born at Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, so we are perhaps less than perfectly objective. That said, 4000 images, a strong exhibitions calendar, and a historic relationship with one of the masters of the medium speak for themselves.

Photography in Smaller Museums

When the firestorm around the proposed closing of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University started to swirl around (admirably led by Modern Art Notes), as a photography collector, one of the first questions I had, which I didn’t see asked anywhere else in all the discussion, was what exactly does the Rose have in its collection in terms of photography? The only mention photography got at all that I could see was a protest letter from photographer David Maisel, whose work is in the collection.

Of course, there is no easy way to get a simple answer to this question. Like many smaller museums, the Rose does not have its complete collection digitized and up on the Internet, nor does it have a stand alone photography curator who can be contacted. There have been few photography exhibitions at the Rose in the past years, so there is not much of a trail that can be followed in this way either. The only real way to answer this question is to button hole the Director (not practical in this situation), or perhaps find a willing trustee or accessions committee member who is excited about photography and has some information.

This got us thinking in a broader way about the photography housed in smaller museums. In the vast majority of cases, photography is one of many disciplines represented for these institutions, and so images that are in the collections are often stuck in the black hole of storage, rarely seeing the light of day. Even when photography is seen as a crucial part of the exhibition and education plan, and photographs are part of the normal rotation of shows, they still may not get the kind of focus we would like to see. As collectors, we are, of course, fascinated by what any individual museum might have in its storage boxes. Who knows what treasures are hiding there, underappreciated?

With this in mind, we have begun a process of reaching out to various smaller museums (in American and all over the world) to ask these very questions about their photography collections. We’ve designed a simple set of routine questions (sent via email) that cover the following areas:

Photography Collection Facts
Photography Collection Design
Accessing the Collection

Our goal here is to develop profiles of the photography collections at smaller museums and to bring those profiles to you, our audience of collectors. We think this benefits everyone. The museums get the word out to a targeted group of people who are interested in their collections and can be supporters, patrons, and even contributors on a going forward basis. (One important question we ask is what the museums are looking to add to their collections on a going forward basis; this information can help match potential donors with museums that want their prints.) On the other side, the collectors get a better view into museums that hold works or have programs that they are interested in, so they can visit or get involved as appropriate.

Later today, we will begin this series with a profile of the photography collection of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. If you are a museum curator, trustee, or accessions committee member out there (anywhere in the world), or simply a supporter of a particular museum and would like to see that institution profiled as part of this series, just send us an email ( and we’ll get the questionnaire out to you. We hope everyone will find these profiles as interesting as we do. There are literally hundreds of small museums out there with amazing photography collections, and we want to be a strong voice in getting the word out about what they’re up to.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Photo Blog Triangle, Version 2.0

I had originally planned to let the Art Blog Triangle quietly die into the oblivion of the archives, but there has been so much interest in it that I feel compelled to provide a follow up post with some additional comments and ideas. For those of you that find this discussion tedious, we’ll be back to our normal range of topics tomorrow.

Soon after the first post, Joerg Colberg of Conscientious contacted me and mentioned that he had been thinking about some of the same ideas. In fact, last fall, he collected some detailed statistics on nearly 40 photography blogs he was following (not designed to be a representative sample of all that is out there, just a group that he was reading consistently). For the period of roughly two months (October 17 through December 16 of 2008), he categorized each and every post by these blogs into nine different buckets, based on the content of the post. His original purpose was just to get a more detailed look into what various blogs really contained, including some aspects that aren’t relevant to this study.

He hadn’t yet decided what to do with the data, and so he sent it all over to me. He wasn’t following us during that time, since we had just gotten started, so I went back and used his formulas to categorize our posts into his buckets, using that same time period. Joerg also didn’t collect data on some of the broader art blogs we follow, so we’ve left those aside for the moment (these were C-Monster, Edward Winkleman, MAO, and Modern Art Notes, even though I believe they are generally accurately placed in the first triangle).

We then spent some time slicing and dicing the data into a spreadsheet, merging his categories into the COMMENT, CURATE, PROMOTE framework and recasting the formulas. What popped out were some detailed statistics about each blog and its relative position in the triangle, but instead of using my finger in the air anecdotal method, we now had actual numerical data to back up the placement of the blogs in the map. Of course, underlying these numbers are the original definitions of the categories, so if you don’t buy those definitions, then you won’t likely agree that the conclusions are valid (which is OK by the way). So another person might arrange these data in another way and get very different conclusions. Thus, as a reminder, the particular categories here and the specific view they represent drive the data.

Without going into the gory statistical detail of each and every blog, we can start with the conclusion that the general placements in the first version of the Art Blog Triangle were right for the most part. From there, we have the following second level of detail:

*We (DLK COLLECTION) were the only blog in the study pinned into the COMMENT corner. 5B4 and Fugitive Vision were a bit further out, slightly closer to PROMOTE than I had placed them originally, but still mostly in this zone. Horses Think (which I wasn’t following) is another located in this general corner.

*The CURATE corner had Conscientious and Mrs. Deane as we had expected, but was much more crowded than we knew. Other active blogs that were clustered in this corner were: I Heart Photograph, Hippolyte Bayard, The Sonic Blog and Shooting Wide Open among others.

*The PROMOTE corner did have Exposures at its vertex as we claimed, and there were many, many more blogs that live in this neighborhood (Joerg had 18 blogs that I wasn’t aware of that ended up in this area). Nymphoto was another I wasn’t following that was centered in this corner. As I mentioned in the first post, most of these are artist blogs that include some form of discussion/PR of their own work and activities, with a smattering of commentary on other topics of interest. Mangum did indeed have the most in depth commentary of these artist blogs, and thus stayed about where it was in the first version. Rather than listing them all, we’ll continue to use Amy Stein’s blog as the proxy for all the rest in this genre.

*There were another dozen blogs that were more balanced, living in the middle zones of the triangle, often with surprisingly equal parts of each approach. The Year in Pictures was actually much further to the left and much closer to the middle than I had placed it. So overall, this area was more populated than I had led you to believe.

So without much fanfare here’s the Photo Blog Triangle diagram, version 2.0, now built upon more reliable statistical data (with the general art blogs removed and using the Tri-Plot Excel add-in for accuracy):

A few other comments. The data came from a specific period last fall, so if you weren’t posting “normally” in those two months, the placement of your blog may not be where you naturally envision it. As an example, Conscientious is actually closer to COMMENT in this set of data than normal; on average, it usually lives closer to the tip of CURATE than is shown here. Also the data is inherently somewhat subjective in terms of the category in which any given post might have been placed. So this is an inexact science, and you should take it as such.

Many of you have offered other ideas or parameters to consider. One interesting idea (from Blake Andrews’ blog) was that there could be a fourth axis for REFLECT, as many artists blogs are in concept about thoughtfully considering their art, rather than crassly promoting it, as the triangle might have you believe. This indeed is possible, but if artists were actually writing in depth pieces about photography (theirs or someone elses), I think this would have been captured in the data by COMMENT, as we basically threw anything that was text heavy into this bucket. So while many of you out there may think of yourselves as using your blog to reflect, I’m not sure the data we gathered supports that conclusion; maybe you just need to write more deeply more often, as short snippets tend to be captured in CURATE.

Another idea was that blogs are used to EDUCATE. I think that’s entirely right, and different folks use the medium in different ways to educate others (and themselves). We find COMMENTing the best way to increase our education. Conscientious uses CURATEing (misspelling on purpose) to introduce us to photographers we might not know. Others use a mix of both, plus discussion of their own work to teach others. All these paths are valid and successful. The data we used for this study didn’t distinguish between text heavy posts that were meant to REFLECT or EDUCATE, so someone else will have to gather some more fine grained data to get at these nuances.

We have purposely tried not to list every last blog that was tallied, in the effort to be inclusive rather than exclusive in the findings. Again, the sample used is not meant to be representative and the absolute number of posts is not reflected in the way the data is presented. There are many, many great blogs out there covering photography in different ways, and we don’t want anyone to feel like we think their approach is somehow less “right”, especially if they post more infrequently (as many of these blogs were generally left off of this study due to lack of good data).

At the core, this was an exercise in observation of just what was really going on out there in the photo blogosphere, not any kind of judgment of good and bad. That said, our general conclusion is that we’d like to see even more great photography writing of all kinds. So we both feel doubly compelled to upgrade our efforts and keep up the pace. We hope you will too. As always, comments are welcome, and who knows, maybe there will be a Photo Blog Triangle version 3.0 someday.

The original post, as background, can be found here. Joerg's post on the project can be found here.

Book: Arnold Newman, The Early Work

JTF (just the facts): Published by Steidl in 2008. 232 pages, including 107 black and white plates. Essays by Ron Kurtz, Howard Greenberg, and Philip Brookman. (Imperfect cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: Odds are that the first thing most collectors remember about Arnold Newman is that he was a master portrait photographer. His images of Piet Mondrian in his studio, Albert Giacometti in front of his sculptures, and Igor Stravinsky at the piano (among many, many others) made him the father of "Environmental Portraiture", where subjects were photographed in the context of their lives, rather than pinned to monochrome surfaces like Penn or Avedon.
This book however chronicles the first five years of Newman's career as a photographer (1938-1942), when he was experimenting with documentary and abstract imagery (non-portraits). In these images, Newman arranges fragments into carefully composed formal structures of light and form, digesting the ideas of both Modernism and Cubism. There are also echoes of the Walker Evans of American Photographs, both in subject matter and approach, particularly in the more documentary pictures.
To our eyes, the images of walls and doors, ladders and light fixtures, clapboard houses and wood shacks compare well with Evans, Strand, and Steiner (who predate him), and inform early Siskind and Ralston Crawford (who came slightly later). This is a well crafted book of an excellent body of work, right in the wheelhouse of the kind of abstract city images we like for our collection.

Collector's POV: Newman's early work isn't available much in the secondary markets, but his portraits are nearly always up for sale, fetching anywhere from $2000 to perhaps $20000, depending on the subject. Arnold Newman is represented by Howard Greenberg Gallery (here) and the estate is owned by Commerce Graphics (here).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Auction Results: Photography in the London Contemporary Art Sales, Spring 2009

The last of today’s auction results posts cover the photography buried in the various Contemporary Art sales in London over the past few weeks (the original preview post is here). The three houses had decidedly different results, as follows. The results are below (all results include the buyer’s premium):


Whether it was the selection of the lots, the wooing of the right collectors, or the setting of realistic estimates, Sotheby’s found the formula for selling contemporary photography in its pair of London sales. Only one photography lot was bought in out of 29 up for sale, and the total sale proceeds of photography for the two sales combined exceeded their total high estimates. Well done.

Evening Sale

Total Lots: 5
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: £890000
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: £1270000

Total Lots Sold: 5
Total Lots Bought In: 0
Buy In %: 00.00%
Total Sale Proceeds: £1218250

80.00% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above the estimate range. One surprise (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate) was Rashid Rana’s Veil IV at £313250. Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

Day Sale

Total Lots: 24
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: £471000
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: £663000

Total Lots Sold: 23
Total Lots Bought In: 1
Buy In %: 4.17%
Total Sale Proceeds: £732825

A staggering 95.84% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above the estimate range. Surprises (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate) included Vik MunizBlack Marilyn at £46850, Tracey Emin’s Good Smile Great Come at £16250, Candida Höfer’s Trinity College Library, Dublin II at £32450 and Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self Portrait at £33650. Complete lot by lot results can be found here.


Christie’s didn’t have much photography included in its two sales, and the results for these lots were mixed. As a result, Christie’s had the lowest total proceeds from photography of the three houses in this round of sales, by a meaningful margin.

Evening Sale

Total Lots: 2
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: £420000
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: £500000

Total Lots Sold: 1
Total Lots Bought In: 1
Buy In %: 50.00%
Total Sale Proceeds: £271250

The one lot that sold (Gursky) sold above the estimate range. There were no surprises in this sale. Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

Day Sale

Total Lots: 8
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: £104000
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: £144000

Total Lots Sold: 6
Total Lots Bought In: 2
Buy In %: 25.00%
Total Sale Proceeds: £123750

83.33% of the lots that sold had proceeds above the estimate range, but the two highest value lots didn’t sell, which explains the lower total proceeds. There was only one surprise (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate): Vanessa Beecroft’s VB 35 at £16250. Complete lot by lot results can be found here.


Phillips had the most photographs on offer and took a few more risks in its selections in these sales. The results were very uneven, with proceeds from both sales falling under the low estimates.

Evening Sale

Total Lots: 9
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: £710000
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: £1050000

Total Lots Sold: 4
Total Lots Bought In: 5
Buy In %: 55.56%
Total Sale Proceeds: £587000

75.00% of the lots that sold had proceeds above the estimate range, but less than half of the lots on offer sold. There were no surprises in this sale. Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

Day Sale

Total Lots: 31
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: £296000
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: £411000

Total Lots Sold: 22
Total Lots Bought In: 9
Buy In %: 29.03%
Total Sale Proceeds: £212525

68.18% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above the estimate range, but the combination of buy-ins and sales below the low estimate led to the lower total proceeds. Again, there were no surprises in this sale. Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

So what conclusions can we draw from all this data? First, photography generally performed quite well in these sales. Second, Sotheby’s seems to have discovered the formula for the successful recession era sale (the details of the recipe are of course secret). The others would be well advised to steal from their playbook for the next round of sales.

Auction Results: 100 Fine Photographs, February 19, 2009 @Swann

Swann’s February 19th sale of 100 Fine Photographs was a solid performer, with total proceeds covering the total low estimate by nearly $100000, something that was a rarity last fall. The results are below (all results include the buyer’s premium):

Total Lots: 117
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: $816400

Total Lots Sold: 79
Total Lots Bought In: 38
Buy In %: 32.48%
Total Sale Proceeds: $641520

Here is the breakdown (using the Low, Mid, and High definitions from the preview post, here):

Low Total Lots: 98
Low Sold: 66
Low Bought In: 32
Buy In %: 32.65%
Total Low Estimate: $543400
Total Low Sold: $316440

Mid Total Lots: 17
Mid Sold: 13
Mid Bought In: 4
Buy In %: 23.53%
Total Mid Estimate: $213000
Total Mid Sold: $133080

High Total Lots: 2
High Sold: 2
High Bought In: 0
Buy In %: 00.00%
Total High Estimate: $60000 + 1 lot estimate on request
Total High Sold: $192000

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

69.23% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above the estimate range. Surprises (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate) included William Henry Jackson’s Grand Canyon of the Colorado at $16800, Dave Heath’s Vengeful Sister, Chicago at $19200, and Francis Bedford’s suite of 3 albums at $132000.

Auction Results: Constantiner Collection, Part II @Christie's

Part II of the Constantiner Collection of fashion and glamour photography was sold at Christie’s on February 12th, with much more modest success than the record breaking results from Part I. The proceeds from the sale were more than $200000 below the total low estimate. The results are below (all results include the buyer’s premium):

Total Lots: 155
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: $1734500

Total Lots Sold: 104
Total Lots Bought In: 51
Buy In %: 32.90%
Total Sale Proceeds: $910251

Here is the breakdown (using the Low, Mid, and High definitions from the preview post, here):

Low Total Lots: 113
Low Sold: 77
Low Bought In: 36
Buy In %: 31.86%
Total Low Estimate: $523500
Total Low Sold: $276126

Mid Total Lots: 38
Mid Sold: 24
Mid Bought In: 14
Buy In %: 36.84%
Total Mid Estimate: $771000
Total Mid Sold: $334125

High Total Lots: 4
High Sold: 3
High Bought In: 1
Buy In %: 25.00%
Total High Estimate: $440000
Total High Sold: $300000

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

44.23% of the lots that sold had proceeds below the estimate range, so more work is needed going forward to bring estimates in line with buyer expectations. Surprises (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate) included Alvin Booth’s lot of 9 untitled images ($6875) and Lee Friedlander’s nude of Madonna ($37500).

Monday, February 23, 2009

Eugene De Salignac: Manhattan Bridge, Centennial Exhibition, 1909-2009 @De Lellis

JTF (just the facts): A total of 46 vintage cyanotype images, taken between 1913 and 1922, framed in black and displayed throughout the gallery. Many are annotated directly on the image.(Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Eugene De Salignac was a municipal employee, working for the Department of Bridges in New York in the first few decades of the 20th century, taking photographs to provide a record of the various construction projects undertaken during those years. His images were recently rediscovered and became the subject of a book and exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York in 2007. This small but comprehensive show traces the building of the Manhattan Bridge, one hundred years later.
While the pictures clearly have a historical and documentary purpose, it is their surprising modernity that makes them memorable. There are plenty of roads and trolley tracks, spans and wires, fluttering flags and paving stones, all with strong lines and contrasting patterns. There are views of the plaza in Brooklyn, and from the tops of the suspension towers, densely striped with wires, looking in both directions. In the best of the images, De Salignac captured the romantic aura of those years (enhanced by the blue tint of the cyanotype process), the awe and pride in the face of what man could accomplish.
Collector's POV: The images in the show are priced between $1200 and $4500. These images would make good companions for some of our early New York bridge scenes by Abbott and Bourke-White.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Eugene De Salignac: Manhattan Bridge, Centennial Exhibition, 1909-2009
Through February 28

1045 Madison Avenue
Number 3
New York, NY 10075

Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 black and white photographs (10 approximately 8x10 or reverse, the other 11 in post card format 3 1/2x5 1/2), all from 1935-1936, displayed in the entry and two small rooms. There are also 10 wall cases of arrayed post cards (1 large case in the entry and 9 smaller one in the other rooms), 4 glass cases of magazines and post cards, an antique post card rack, and one wall case containing leather suitcases, boxes, printed signs, bottle caps, pull tabs and other collectibles. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: If you were to look in our library at home, or in that of most other photography collectors, you'd be sure to find an armload of books about Walker Evans. You might find American Photographs, or Many Are Called, or any of literally dozens of monographs and exhibition catalogues that have been published over the years. In these volumes, you'd find lengthy discussions of all the periods of his work, from the early New York images, to Cuba, to FSA shots, African still lifes, Fortune commissions, and even his late color Polaroids. The words and pictures weigh down half a shelf at our house. Given Evans' 50 years of taking pictures, and his universal regard as one of the masters of the medium, I wondered to myself what on earth could possibly be said by the new show at the Met that hadn't already been covered at length (ad nauseum) someplace else.
In 1994, the Evans estate gave the Met a treasure trove of material, including Evans' vast collection of American picture post cards and other ephemera, collected over sixty years. Evans was clearly a dedicated and meticulous collector (there are 9000 cards in the collection, carefully and systematically organized and categorized by subject and maker), and the selection of cards on display makes a compelling case that these cards merit attention as a true American folk art, rather than junk gathering dust at flea markets and yard sales across the nation. All of the cards in the show come from the period of 1905-1920, and most are color lithographs that have an antique, hand colored feel. The display cases show groups of cards with common subjects: factories, railroad stations, boats, state capitols, lighthouses, hotels, and other city buildings and architecture. All of the pictures have a simple, straightforward style, an anonymous "American realism" stripped of emotion and pretense.

Seeing these post cards intermingled with Evans' own images is nothing short of a revelation. Evans was clearly fascinated by these cards, so much so that he cropped many of his negatives to fit onto post card sized paper. The before and after comparisons of cropped and uncropped images captivatingly show Evans at work, drawing on the wellspring of ideas found in his collection and applying them to his art. Surprisingly, I found the framing of the smaller post card pictures to be even better than the originals.
Another case shows a group of cards Evans used for a 1963 lecture at Yale which he entitled "Lyric Documentary", a handy moniker for both the overall style of the cards and for his own approach to picture making. While the images have a deadpan compositional style (often pointed straight down the center of the street), there is something aspirational about the cards, and about the ideas behind these buildings and monuments all over the country.

There are also a few other hidden gems buried in the displays. There is one case devoted to cards sent by other photographers to Evans, ranging from Diane Arbus to Lee Friedlander, penned in their own hands and reinforcing a sense of community amongst the artists. There is also one image (a straight city scene from Morgan City, LA) that is dead ringer for one of the cards.
Great shows make us think about important artists in new ways, and this exhibit completely redefined our image of Evans and his work. Met curator Jeff Rosenheim has done a superlative job of building a small, tight show that places Evans in a new and enlightening context. Go out of your way to see this show, as it will meaningfully increase your understanding of Evans' art.
There is also a wrist breaking catalogue of the show available.
Collector's POV: Evans' work is widely available in the secondary market. Prices are all over the lot, based on subject matter and rarity. Later prints (some in large editions) can reliably be found under $10000, while vintage prints generally start at that number and range well into six figures. While we don't have any images by Walker Evans in our collection at the moment, we have been looking for a terrific example from his early New York period (late 1920s/early 1930s) for quite a while. We could also imagine finding a graphic heavy image from the 30s that would fit nicely. And we have always thought a grid of four his late Polaroids would be a fun addition.

Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

Through May 25

1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028
Another review of the show can be found at Bint Photobooks (here).

Friday, February 13, 2009

Administrative Notes

Next week, the kids are off from school, so we will be taking a hiatus from posting. There will be no new posts at all from now until Monday, February 23rd.

A couple of other general notes for those of you who do not follow us via an RSS reader, but visit the site daily or occasionally (given in the spirit of optimizing your time):

1.) Monday through Friday you can expect a minimum of one new post, sometimes two or three, based on what's going on in the world of photography.

2.) There are never any new posts on the weekends. Period. So feel free to come by and catch up on posts you've missed or to dig through the archives, but there won't be anything new, we promise.

We have plenty of terrific shows and books backlogged for when we return (including our second three star show of the year), so we look forward to continuing the conversation then.

Collector Classifieds

This is the listing page for our Collector Classifieds. General information about how this process works, how to follow up on an item, how to list your items etc. can be found here.

No items currently listed. Previous items were either sold or have expired.

Another Experiment: Collector Classifieds

Like many collectors, from time to time, we get a note from a fellow collector who has some photographs they want to sell. More often than not, these aren't a fit for our particular collection, so we send along a friendly but negative reply. This scenario occurred again for us earlier this week. But it got us thinking. What if we were to offer up these photographs to our readers on the blog? Perhaps we could assist in finding a collector to collector match and everyone would be better off.

So given our penchant for experimentation, we going to try out the concept of Collector Classifieds with these images we were recently offered (the seller has agreed as well). In the event we find that there is interest beyond this one-time listing, here's how we think it will work, along with some general ground rules:

1.) A collector sends us the standard information about the photographs that are for sale (artist, title, date, edition, signature, dimensions etc.), including the price (email to No images will be published, nor will any comments or sales pitches. Think of this as the no-frills two line classifieds from your local newspaper or PennySaver, just with a much more targeted group of readers. We will post them on a Collector Classifieds page on the blog, for one month (or until they are sold).

2.) There will be no charges or fees for the listing or on the transaction if one occurs. This is a courtesy matching service for our readers, from one collector to another.

3.) Discretion is critical. Sellers will be always be anonymous on the blog. Prospective buyers will send an email, with the item number they are interested in as the subject of the message, to We will blindly forward this email directly to the seller and then get out of the way. The seller will then contact the prospective buyer directly so the two parties can negotiate the transaction, share scans of the works, figure out shipping etc. The only requirement we have of sellers is that they respond to each and every email from prospective buyers in a timely manner.

4.) We are not a reputable specialist auction house or even Ebay. We will not authenticate any of the images offered, vouch for the sellers or buyers, or help resolve any scams or disputes. We won't comment on whether we think the prices listed are fair or not. In general, these are private transactions, and we're not interested in knowing anything about them (good or bad). This is the Internet, so buyer and seller beware. We are not responsible for how you conduct yourselves.

5.) We will only list those items that meet our standards of high quality, collector appropriate material. We realize that that our decisions about what is listed may be subjective, random, or arbitrary, and that some sellers may be disappointed if we reject their material. Too bad. We feel it is up to us to provide some quality control so we don't waste the time of our readers.

Will anyone want to do this beyond the first listing, which we'll post soon? Will it work or scale this way? Will we need to improve the system later if we get more interest? Have we missed something important? Who knows. But it seems to us that helping collectors connect to each other is what this blog is about, so let's give it a try. If you have ideas for how to improve this concept, leave them in the comments or send us an email.

Figure Studies @Deborah Bell

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 black and white images, framed and matted in various ways and hung throughout the one room gallery space. Negatives range from 1887 to 2006. (Installation shots at right.)
The following photographers are included in the group show (with the number of works on display in parentheses):

Vito Acconci (1)
Erwin Blumenfeld (6)
Bill Brandt (1)
Harry Callahan (1)
Mariana Cook (2)
Louis Faurer (2)
Gerard Petrus Fieret (2)
Peter Hujar (1)
Andre Kertesz (1)
Dora Maar (1)
Daido Moriyama (1)
Eadward Muybridge (1)
Susan Paulsen (1)
Comments/Context: The fascinating thing about group shows, regardless of their theme or subject, is that they are nearly always less about the works that have been included and more about the editorial eye of the person who curated the show. Why were some works included and others left out? What was the curator thinking when he/she selected these pictures and sequenced them in this particular way?
The group show of nudes now on view at Deborah Bell feels less like a show with a strident viewpoint but more a collection of images carefully chosen by a connoisseur. The nude form is a subject that has challenged photographers since the very invention of the medium, and one that has left many lost in a fog of repetition and cliche. The overriding thought I had as I wandered through this exhibit is that her choices were not obvious; there are no greatest hits here, but instead an unusual mix of images (many that I had not seen before) that approach the subject in surprising ways. Each picture requires some thinking, and the show merits investing a bit of time to inspect every image carefully. Overall, it is an understated yet well crafted show that offers some new perspectives on a common form.
Collector's POV: Since nudes are one of the three main genres in our collection, there were many images in this show to tempt us. Prices range from $1200 up to $50000, with one image not for sale and one "price on request". There are a series of three amorphous solarized nudes by Erwin Blumenfeld that caught our eye, but our favorite piece was Louis Faurer's Untitled, 1962, from Harper's Bazaar (a woman's back). Of course, this is the one image in the show that wasn't for sale.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Figure Studies
Through February 28

511 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

More on this show from Fugitive Vision here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ed van der Elsken, My Amsterdam @Mireille Mosler

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 images (8 black and white and 6 color), along with a short 16mm black and white film from 1965. The black and white prints are vintage from the 1950s and 1960s and are approximately 9x12. The color prints are from the late 1960s and early 1970s and are posthumous prints, approximately 16x24 in size. There is also a portfolio of 12 color prints, entitled My Amsterdam, edited by Martin Parr in 2005, available for viewing. (Installation shot at right.)

Comments/Context: While the Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken took pictures all over the world in his 40 year career, it is his pictures of his home city of Amsterdam that are perhaps his most well known. They capture the everyday life in the streets of the city in all its eccentric glory, full of energy and exuberance, spontaneous and happily nonconformist. The black and white images in this small show capture kids playing in grimy streets, climbing on burned out cars and wearing cardboard boxes, and yet, these are somehow positive pictures, documenting that life does go on amidst the chaos.

The color prints have a more 70s time capsule feel showing store fronts and people in the streets in saturated, dated colors. These images also have the signature van der Elsken spirit, and Parr has made some excellent selections for the portfolio; it is well worth looking through if you have the time.

The artist's website is located here.

Collector's POV: The vintage black and white images in the show are priced at 5500 Euros each. The color prints range from 2000 Euros to 12000 Euros based on their place in the edition, and the portfolio is available for 5000 Euros. There have been a small number of van der Elsken's prints available in the secondary markets over the past few years, selling for affordable prices, usually under $5000. The Ed van der Elsken estate is represented by Annet Gelink Gallery in Amsterdam (here) and Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York (here).

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Ed van der Elsken, My Amsterdam
Through February 21

Mireille Mosler Ltd.
33 East 67th Street
New York, NY 10021

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Comment, Curate and Promote: The Art Blog Triangle

Rather than post a second book review this afternoon (which would be normal for us on a Wednesday), I thought it might be worthwhile to get a little abstract, with a blog post about blogs (particularly photography and art blogs).

Recently I’ve spent some time reflecting on what we are doing with this blog and how to make it better and more relevant for our particular readers. As background to this thought process, I have been diligently reading the blogs listed on our sidebar (via an RSS reader), as well as adding another 15 to 20 that I found via blog rolls and have been trialing for a month or so in the hopes of finding additional voices of interest. What has become apparent to me during this process is that all photography blogs (and likely all art blogs in general) seem to be made up of some combination of three primal instincts: to comment, to curate, and to promote. Here’s what I mean by each:

COMMENT: This represents the process of reacting and responding to the art and photography that we encounter. It includes everything from raw journalistic reportage to reviews, commentaries, essays and criticism. This is generally a text heavy approach, driven largely by a blogger’s ideas and opinions.

CURATE: This represents a need to make sense of the polyvalent, multivariate mix that is the both the art world and the Internet. Here bloggers are selecting what they find of interest from the overwhelming wave of information floating around and presenting a neat package for viewers to digest more easily. Most often, this is a link or image list, but sometimes the links include a short snippet of background or context.

PROMOTE: This represents the need to get the word out about what a blogger thinks is important. Most often, this is his/her own work (if they are photographers or artists), but this approach is regularly used by galleries, museums, book publishers and others who want to put their stuff front and center.

So thus the simple diagram below which began on a scratch pad and tries to provide a “map” for understanding where blogs fit in relation to each other. (Sorry for the bad screen captures.)

Imagine that there are three strong magnets at each vertex of the triangle, pulling blogs toward the three poles. Each author then makes conscious or unconscious choices about how to balance these three forces as they make their posts day after day.

And now for the death defying part. At the risk of alienating a number of writers and artists whose work I enjoy and respect, I have taken the liberty of placing all of the blogs from our sidebar into this framework, based on my own personal view of how they approach their craft. I think the results are quite intriguing.

So before you start asking questions, let me make a few explanatory remarks. Let’s start with the cluster of blogs near the COMMENT corner. Edward Winkleman is the purest player here, with a consistent stream of well crafted thoughts and ideas about the art world. The blog is placed just to the right of center, as he does post a promotional message about his gallery’s offerings from time to time, but this is generally not his focus. 5B4 is also a pure player, offering critical reviews and essays about photo books, with a scholar’s eye for publishing details. There is virtually no promotion in this blog, and only a minute dose of curating, in the overall concept that some books are chosen to be reviewed and others are not. Our blog, DLK COLLECTION, and Fugitive Vision are nearly right on top of each other in terms of our criticism heavy approaches, although our rating system is a kind of sideways promotional system (thus putting us nearer PROMOTE, while Fugitive Vision is marginally closer to CURATE). Modern Art Notes is also drawn closest to COMMENT, with a strong daily dose of art reporting and insightful commentary. I have placed it somewhat nearer to CURATE than the others, as link lists are also an important part of what is done on this blog.

In the CURATE corner, C-Monster is the purest player, with a significant emphasis on eclectic link lists. Conscientious is also near to this corner, consistently unearthing new photographers of merit and other interesting photo tidbits, with an evenhanded but light dose of commentary and a minimum of promotion. The Year in Pictures and Mrs. Deane are also in close proximity with Conscientious, The Year in Pictures having a slightly heavier hand with publicity.

Near the PROMOTE corner, we have Aperture’s Exposures blog, which is basically a recasting of press releases about books and events. Most artist blogs are centered near this pole, as are the majority of museum blogs (three blogs I have been trialing from SFMOMA, LACMA, and the Walker Art Center all would live in this neighborhood.) Amy Stein’s blog can be a proxy for many artist sites where promotion of the photographer’s work is placed into a mix of other recommendations and items of personal interest (her blog is thus placed between PROMOTE and CURATE). Given the unspoken rule that all artists promote each other, there is virtually no criticism in any of the blogs in this area of the map.

The two remaining blogs, Magnum’s blog and Modern Art Obsession, are outliers. Magnum is doing something quite unusual, in that they are putting forth complex ideas and commentary, within the underlying framework of promoting their artists. And MAO is the only blog I have read that successfully balances all three forces. I believe this is due to the strong and distinctive voice that the blog has, regardless of whether it is reviewing a show, linking to something of interest, or promoting someone. Most blogs can’t survive in the no-man’s land of the middle.

So while no framework is perfect, I hope that this little map can provide some insight into what we are all doing and how we are approaching the task of writing about photography (and art more generally). I offer it with only the best of intentions and respect for all of the other bloggers, and without judgments about the relative values of any particular location on the diagram. For subscribers and readers out there, it is my strong conclusion that to get a full picture of the world of photography (or the larger art world), we will all be required to read from a mix of blog styles, with representatives from each corner (and those in between) bringing different (and sometimes conflicting) viewpoints to help paint the complete picture.

One other aside. I believe that those near CURATE (those who gather up content from a variety of places, sift it and aggregate it) tend to dominate in terms of traffic volume, thus making them powerful middlemen for those in other locations on the diagram. While I think the art/photo blogosphere is mostly driven by a sense of camaraderie, I think these forces and a blog’s spatial relationships to other blogs in the diagram may also tell us something about likely “collaborators” and “competitors”.

I very much like the idea of opening up conversations with other blogs, so I hope this post will catalyze some new thinking.

UPDATE: Some additonal thoughts on this triangle can be found here.

Book: Iwao Yamawaki

JTF (just the facts): Published in 1999 by Edition 7L at Steidl. Unpaginated, with 62 black and white plates, a short essay by Ingrid Sischy, and a biography. Slip covered in cardboard, with a partially transparent dust jacket. (Poor cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: The odds are pretty good that most collectors don't recognize the name of Japanese photographer Iwao Yamawaki. Yamawaki was an architect by training and profession who made up his mind that he wanted to study at the Bauhaus. So in 1930, he took a leave of absence from his job, packed up his wife, and moved to Dessau, where he took classes from Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, Walter Peterhans and Kurt Kranz among others, and developed a strong interest in making photographs.

During the period from 1930 to about 1933, Yamawaki focused his camera on architectural studies (both interior and exterior), portraits, and still lifes, making straight images, dominated by contrasts of line and form, often taken from unexpected steep angles and viewpoints (reminiscent of Moholy-Nagy or Rodchenko). His work is perfectly representative of the theories being taught at the Bauhaus, emphasizing simple, sculptural forms. The pictures themselves are well composed, stylish and elegant, brimming with the confidence of modernism. After his time in Germany, Yamawaki returned to Japan and restarted his career as an architect, and while he continued his interest in the teachings of the Bauhaus, his work as a photographer came to an end. That said, his short career with a camera produced some superior images.
This monograph was made with attention to detail, with excellent reproductions on luxurious paper, exquisitely matched to the richness and refinement of the pictures.

Collector's POV: We were first introduced to Yamawaki's work last year, when several of his images came up at various auctions. (We know, we're a decade behind most of you.) While we didn't know much about the photographer, we were drawn to the prints we saw, given they were strong, vintage Bauhaus images, offered at reasonable prices. Going back into the auction records, very few Yamawaki images have come up for sale in the past few years, most selling in a range between $3000 and $7000. At retail, Howard Greenberg Gallery (here) appears to have a good selection of Yamawaki inventory on its website.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Huachen Auctions, Beijing

I've gotten quite a bit of good information about Chinese photography via email as a result of some of the posts from the past few weeks.

One email of particular interest included a pointer to the photography auctions being held by Huachen Auctions in Beijing, which were entirely unknown to us. This house is offering twice a year sales of Chinese photography, with lots of images from all periods.

The site is a hybrid of English and Chinese, so you'll have to do a little work to find images that fit your collection (unless you read Mandarin), and I have no idea what might be required to actually be a foreign buyer at one of their sales. That said, the lists of images are great as an educational resource.

The site is here. Go to Auction Results to find the catalogues from the past few sales and dig around.

Huachen Auctions
Flat A 23
North Ring Centre
No.18 Yumin Road
Xicheng District
Beijing 100029

Auctions: London Contemporary Art Roundup

The Contemporary Art auction season in London began last week and continues this week, with day and evening sales at Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips. Since there are so few photographs up for sale across the board, it seemed better to put them all together into one larger post covering all six sales. Taken as one group, a total of 78 lots are on offer, with a total high estimate of £4038000.


Sotheby's sales actually occurred last week, February 5 and 6, so we're a little bit late in reviewing what's available. In the evening sale, there are 5 lots of photography (broadly defined): 2 by Gilbert & George, and 1 each by John Baldessari, Andreas Gursky, and Rashid Rana (an artist we are not familiar with). The day sale includes 24 photographs, with a sampling of the usual suspects: Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Thomas Ruff, Vik Muniz, Andreas Gursky, and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia among others. Some of the more unexpected names include Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood, Gregor Schneider, Wim Delvoye, and Roni Horn.

Sotheby's Contemporary Art London evening sale here.
Sotheby's Contemporary Art London day sale here.


Christie's has its Contemporary Art sales on February 11 and 12. There are only two photographs in the evening sale, one by Richard Prince and the other by Andreas Gursky. It is also a thin showing in the day sale, with only 8 photographs up for auction: 3 Hiroshi Sugimotos, and 1 each from Andres Serrano, Richard Prince, Ai Weiwei, John Baldessari and Vanessa Beecroft.

Christie's Contemporary Art King Street evening sale here.
Christie's Contemporary Art King Street day sale here.

Phillips De Pury and Company

Phillips has its two sales on February 12 and 13. There are 9 lots of photography in the evening sale, a broad spectrum from the standbys (Sherman, Prince, Gilbert & George, Gursky, Struth, Crewdson, Tillmans) to a few surprises (Rashid Rana and Florian Maier-Aichen). The day sale has 30 photographs up for sale, from 27 different artists. It's truly an international crowd, a bit more on the edge, as is Phillips' style. While there are a handful of familiar names, there are quite a few unusual inclusions and lesser known photographers; the list is below for your entertainment:

Afrika (Sergei Bugaev)
Halim Al-Karim
Darren Almond
Sergey Bratkov
Balthasar Burkhard
Sophie Calle
Edgar Cleijne
Gregory Crewdson
Wim Delvoye
Lalla Essaydi
Elger Esser
Roland Fischer
Ilkka Halso
Mustafa Hulusi
Vera Lutter
Florian Maier-Aichen
Miao Xiaochun
Youssef Nabil
Ugo Rondinone
Alfred Seiland
Jalal Sepehr
Eliezer Sonnenschein
San Taylor-Wood
Xing Danwen
Catherine Yass
Zhang Huan (his Family Tree which we talked about recently here is up for sale)
Zhang Peng

Phillips' Contemporary Art London evening sale here.
Phillips' Contemporary Art London day sale here.

In general, given that the estimates seem more realistic across the board and the offerings are more tightly edited, I think many of these works will perform just fine, with the caveat that the more adventurous work at Phillips is less predictable.

Auction House Lineup Changes

Given that the season is just getting started, we haven't been paying too much attention to the auction houses during the past few months. In gathering some information for a roundup of the photography being offered in the London Contemporary Art sales (which we'll post later today), we saw that both Christie's and Phillips had made some changes to their specialist teams (there have been no changes at Sotheby's or Swann that we can discern). These kinds of changes don't tend to be trumpeted in press releases, but are actually meaningful for collectors.

At Christie's, Matthieu Humery is no longer on the team. (UPDATE: according to Christie's, apparently I was wrong about this; Humery is still on the team but somehow fell off the website, which will be fixed soon. My apologies for the confusion.) Jamie Krass appears to have slid over and joined the Photographs department, with a dual title including 20th Century Art (which isn't actually a department, so I'm not entirely sure what that means). This leaves the Christie's Photography department as follows:

Phillippe Garner
Yuka Yamaji
Penelope Malakates

New York
Joshua Holdeman
Jamie Krass
Matthieu Humery
Stuart Alexander
Laura Paterson
Sarah Shepard

At Phillips, both New York director Joseph Kraeutler and London director Genevieve Janvrin are gone. Kelly Padden is a new addition to the London team. Charlie Scheips is now in charge of the entire department. The smaller Phillips Photography team is therefore the following:

Charlie Scheips
Vanessa Kramer
Kelly Padden

As collectors, continuity of the specialists at an auction house means we can develop more personal relationships, making it easier and more fun to benefit from their knowledge and expertise. While we didn't have interaction with everyone who is now gone, we are particularly sorry to see Genny Janvrin go, as she helped us many times over the years, was friendly and responsive to our questions and requests for condition reports, and was an early supporter of our efforts on this blog. We wish her well in whatever her next steps may be.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I have been reminded that for the sake of completeness, I should probably note that Andra Russek left Sotheby's last year to work freelance and to collaborate with her parents, the dealers Scheinbaum & Russek in New Mexico. Since then, Lauren Mang has joined the Sotheby's team, and she actually helped me look at some prints last season.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Alec Soth, The Last Days of W. @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 42 color images, taken between 2000 and 2008, framed in blond wood frames, and displayed in a chopped up maze of five galleries, a hallway, and a reception area. Prints are either chromogenic or archival pigment prints, and come in a range of sizes from 16x20 to 50x40, with several intermediate formats as well. Most are in editions of eight, with a few in smaller (5) or larger (15) edition sizes. Gagosian Gallery does not allow photography in the exhibit rooms, so we have no installation shots for this review.

Comments/Context: Satirizing the now former President Bush has become so widespread, so common, and in some cases, so virulent over the past several years that it has almost become a cliche, the exaggerated jokes and astonishing truths mixing together to make a potent cocktail. Alec Soth has bypassed the easy potshots and obvious put downs in chronicling the last eight years, and has focused his lens on the more subtle and tenuous moments of recent history where the legacy of the Bush administration has spread like a dusty film over the lives of everyday Americans.
Soth burst onto the photography scene in 2004 with his book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, and has since published several more bodies of work and mixed in a full plate of commissioned projects as a member of Magnum. To our eye, Soth has successfully resisted categorization by pointing his camera at a wide variety of subjects (interiors, exteriors, portraits, still lifes, landscapes etc.) and by working in a style that is neither pure documentary nor overtly personal, but wandering between the two poles based on the demands of any particular picture. Some pictures are a generally straight look at an unexpected moment he has discovered; others have a stronger undercurrent of emotion or irony, suggesting he is drawn to subjects which have more of a specific story to tell.
The pictures in this show turn on a few common themes: the militarization of our world, a heavier sense of loneliness and exhaustion, the neglect and decay that have become commonplace, and the overall melancholy that has pervaded our society as a result of the changes around us. Home Environment, Billings, MT, 2008, (at right, above) with its toy Humvee winning first prize shows just how far these new behaviors have invaded our daily lives.

Soth also picks up on the remnants of fear, a turning inward and building up of defenses against all comers, including our friends and neighbors. Not only are we not triumphant conquerors, we have become more afraid of each other, closed and tired. His image of an empty room, with the shades drawn (Northfield, Minnesota, 2001 at right, middle) seems entirely emblematic of an entirely too common worldview now among us.

Soth's Avenue Theater, Dallas, TX, 2006 (at right, bottom) was particularly prescient about the coming economic troubles, showing a theater converted into a pawn shop, with plenty of worn out lawn mowers and bicycles arrayed out front, ready for an offer. While I have selected three images that perhaps highlight the unwanted lingering effects of these past years, there are also plenty of moments of wry humor and irony in this show, spotlights placed on situations that contains a mix of emotions. In some ways, it is hard not to think about Robert Frank, William Eggleston, and Joel Sternfeld when walking though this exhibit; there are pieces of each to be found here, from Frank's incisive commentary, to Eggleston's play with color, to Sternfeld's deadpan wit. Soth seems to have channelled them all and added his own perspective to the mix to generate these memorable images.
Overall, I very much appreciate Soth's ability to wade into the public discourse on a controversial topic and come out having added something to the discussion rather than just piling on. There are many outstanding images here, and each has mysteries to unfold if given the chance. In some ways, this show is an exercise in depression and disillusionment, but I came away surprisingly excited by the potential of art to make us see the world around us with new eyes.
The artist's website can be found here. His page at Magnum Photos can be found here. There is a also self published, tabloid style newspaper produced in conjunction with the exhibit available.

Collector's POV: The images in this show are priced between $3500 and $13000. Soth's work began to appear in the secondary markets in 2006, and the number of images up for sale has been growing slowly but steadily. Auction prices have ranged from approximately $4000 on the low end to nearly $20000 at the top. This is an artist with a bright future, so perhaps now is the time to add one his images to your collection, before his work vaults into the stratosphere.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

980 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021