Friday, October 30, 2009

Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography @China Institute

JTF (just the facts): A total of 100 photographs, mostly black and white, framed in blond wood and matted, and hung on grey walls in two separate galleries. The rooms are densely hung with pictures, often in double (or even triple) rows; each room also has a room divider, with images hung on both sides. The images were taken between 1951 and 2003, and while some photographers are represented by more than one image, the vast majority have only one picture included (therefore the number of photographers on view almost equals the number of images on view). The show is a subset of a larger show of approximately 600 works by 270 photographers shown at the Guangdong Museum of Art (here). A thin volume detailing the project (with background essays and a checklist) is available from the Institute bookstore for $15. (The China Institute does not allow photography in the galleries, so no installation shots are available for this show. Individual images have been taken from the China Institute website.)

Comments/Context: Ever since the bold emergence of Chinese contemporary photography in the US art world about five years ago, we have been trying to get our arms around the context for this new work and to understand its origins and influences. And while we have spent some time familiarizing ourselves with some of the bold face names of the current generation (Liu Zheng here, Wang Qingsong here, and Zhang Huan here), coming to grips with the larger historical picture has been elusive (here).
The broad show of humanist photography now on view at the China Institute does an excellent job of filling in some major gaps. Whether these images came out of photojournalistic or purely artistic traditions doesn't matter much in my view; what I can see for the first time is an obvious tie back to the rest of the history of photography. Most of the images are from the 1980s and 1990s (coincident with the time when China began to open up more widely), and collectively they create a much more diverse picture of China than the usual clichés might suggest. These are not heroic propaganda shots or staged scenes of happy workers; for the most part, the images are small vignettes of ordinary everyday life, caught with documentary precision, artistic attention to composition, and intimate tenderness. There are markets and construction sites, people bathing in the street, crowds of bicycles, farm workers and the repeated clashing of generations. These are the stories of the unidealized masses, full of life, humor, imperfection, and reality.
A few of the highlights from the show:
  • Li Nan's startling images from orphanages, where children have been tied to their chairs, due to lack of staff to care for them.
  • Xu Peiwu's images of migrants in urban areas. I enjoyed the twisting arcs of rebar in Large scale demolition of temporary urban housing, 1999 (at right, bottom) and his poignant image of people up in a dark tree watching fireworks over an industrial area.
  • Yang Xiaobing's image of students perilously crossing a broken slat bridge to get to school each day.
  • Wang Shilong's almost Modernist picture of dark figures sweeping the streets against the backdrop of a bright white wall (Responding to the call for a patriotic hygienic movement, citizens come forth to sweep the streets, 1958, at right, middle).
  • Hei Ming's crazy patterns of rice bowls, hung outside a storefront (Iron Rice Bowl Workers' dining hall, 2000, at right, top).
  • Liu Yiwei's silhouetted construction worker, walking on the bare spikes of steel of an incomplete overpass, with the traffic rushing by underneath.

Overall, this is a diverse gathering of high quality work, full of juxtapositions of new and old, urban and rural. The dramatic change we have come to associate with China is seen for the first time on the micro level, where anonymous people confront the transformations on a personal basis. While not every image in this show rises to the level of documentary art (and the installation often feels overcrowded), I think this is an important exhibit that merits an investment of time; this is some of the Chinese photography the West has been missing, so make a detour to fill in some gaps in your education.

Collector's POV: Given the way this exhibit was designed and hung, the photographers seem to be pushed to the background; the pictures are in the front, who made them hasn't been highlighted. As such, it is extremely hard to get a feel for the broader artistic differences between the photographers who have been included. While there are certainly images we found memorable (some of which we alluded to above), it seems like this show might best be thought of as an introduction: now at least, we have a list of names to follow up.
The problem is, of course, how to do this. I have no idea where the work of any of these photographers might be available in the US; perhaps it is only available in China. Please do add information to the comments section if you can provide useful pointers to where interested collectors can potentially follow-up.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here).
Transit Hub:
  • Additional exhibit related resources (here)
  • Reviews: WSJ (here)
Through December 13th
125 East 65th Street
New York, NY 10065

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dress Codes: The Third ICP Triennial of Photography and Video @ICP

JTF (just the facts): Over 200 photographs and videos in a large group show, representing the work of 34 photographers and artists, variously framed and matted or displayed on screens, and hung on colored walls in all the galleries of the museum (both upstairs and downstairs). The exhibit was curated by Vince Aletti, Kristen Lubben, Christopher Phillips and Carol Squiers. (Maddeningly, the ICP does not allow photography in the galleries, so no installation shots are avilable for this show. Individual images have been taken from the ICP website.)

The following photographers and artists have beein included in the exhibit, with the number of images/videos on view in parentheses:

Yto Barrada (9 as 1), 2006
Valérie Belin (4), 2006
Thorsten Brinkmann (13 and installation), 2007-2008
Cao Fei (4 spreads, 2 computers), 2008-2009
Olga Chernysheva (4), 2007
Nathalie Djurberg (1 video) 2006
Stan Douglas (1), 2008
Kota Ezawa (2), 2007
Jacqueline Hassink (1 video), 2004
Hu Yang (8), 2005
Miyako Ishiuchi (14), 2000-2005
Kimsooja (1 4-channel video), 2007-2008
Silvia Kolbowski (4), 1996-present
Jeremy Kost (91 as 1), 2005
Barbara Kruger (1), 2009
Richard Learoyd (1), 2008
Kalup Linzy (3 videos), 2008
Tanya Marcuse (14), 2002-2004
Anne Morgenstern (8), 2008
Wangechi Mutu (32), 2006
Grace Ndiritu (1 video), 2006-2007
Alice O’Malley (5), 2000
David Rosetzky (1 video), 2008
Martha Rosler (1), 2006
Julika Rudelius (1 3-channel video), 2003
Cindy Sherman (2), 2007-2008
Laurie Simmons (1), 2005
Lorna Simpson (50), 2009
Hank Willis Thomas (16), 2008
Mickalene Thomas (3), 2007-2008
Milagros de la Torre (4), 2008
Janaina Tschäpe (3), 2004
Pinar Yolaçan (5), 2007
Zhou Tao (1 video), 2007-2008

Comments/Context: The ICP's sprawling "Year of Fashion" has been a grand exercise in museum planning, with a series of interlocking exhibits that have come at the idea of fashion from a variety of vantage points. We've seen deep retrospectives of the fashion work of Richard Avedon (review here) and Edward Steichen (review here), a crackling collection of current fashion imagery in "Weird Beauty" (review here), a carefully edited vintage selection in "This Is Not a Fashion Photograph" (review here), and smaller shows of work by Martin Munkacsi (review here) and David Seidner (review here). "Dress Codes" is the capstone to this yearlong event, a broad triennial of contemporary work, loosely bound by the idea of clothing and its many functions and meanings.

The concept of fashion as embodied in the clothes we wear every day, and the identities we construct for ourselves out of those clothes is an almost limitless sandbox in which to play: it encompasses nearly all of portraiture, and crosses over into still life, advertising, documentary photography, and even staged tableaux. The danger here is that a large exhibit like this one could easily wander off in any number of directions and still be under the massive umbrella of "clothes". For the most part, the curating team has done an admirable job of keeping the work within a manageable set of boundaries, but breadth inevitably brings along an uneven mix of hits, misses, and head scratchers.

While there is certainly plenty to see in this show, here are a few bodies of work worth seeking out:

Pinar Yolaçan's portraits of Afro-Brazilian women were the stand out images of the show for me. Severe and powerful-looking matriarchal women are adorned in heavy velvets and thick fabrics, and embellished by gelatinous necklasses and collars of animal innards and glossy organs. (Untitled (Maria), 2007, at right, middle.) The effect is simultaneously mezmerizing and revolting, with a slice of voodoo unease. Set at the top of the stairs, the installation forces you to see the set of portraits both on your way in and on your way out, and they grip your attention with memorable weirdness.

Olga Chernysheva's large scale black and white head shot images of Moscow metro workers are much more subtle. Bored and idle men and women in offical hats and uniforms gaze vacantly outside the frames of the pictures, presumably watching video monitors. A heavy weight of monotony and dullness engulfs everything around them. I found these works unusually captivating; the wide open eyes of the watchers contrast bitingly with the mind numbing drudgery of sitting in an ill fitting, throwback outfit and watching surveillance video all day long.

Mickalene Thomas' funky 1970s Blaxploitation scenes are full of regal women lounging on couches, surrounded by animal prints and clashing patterns. (Portrait of Qusuquzah, 2008, at right, bottom.) These large color portraits have both an over-the-top eye-catching fabulousness and a deeper undercurrent of defiance.

Thorsten Brinkmann's installation of found objects is the perfect setting for his puzzling portraits. His sitters are dressed in odd assortments of bizarre materials (a vase over the head, lampshades, flower pots, cast off clothing, furs and crocheted capes) and staged in formal poses that recall the traditions of European art history. I liked their seeming unwillingness to divulge their secrets.

And finally, Cindy Sherman's wild send-ups of fashionistas are refreshingly on target. (Untitiled, 2007-2008, at right, top). The images include several versions of herself, in various riffs on hair, sunglasses and clothing, all vamping for the camera with unadulterated glee. Like her most recent work of older society women, the satire in these works is spot on.

I'm not sure that a show like this one can ever hope to definitively answer questions about how we define ourselves or how we express individuality via fashion. At best, it can provide a snapshot of some of the areas of inquiry contemporary photographers are exploring and seek patterns and connections that resolve into some larger picture of our times. Overall, this is an exhibit well worth wading into, an expansive sampler with a better than average proportion of thought-provoking work.

Collector's POV: Since our collection has no portraits in it, this show wasn't a great fit for images that we would be enticed to add any time soon. That said, we were particularly impressed by the work of the handful of photographers mentioned specifically above. Gallery representatives for those photographers are:
  • Thorsten Brinkmann: Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco (here)
  • Olga Chernysheva: Foxy Production in New York (here)
  • Cindy Sherman: Metro Pictures in New York (here)
  • Mickalene Thomas: Lehmann Maupin in New York (here)
  • Pinar Yolaçan: was Rivington Arms in New York (here); not sure who it is now

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

Transit Hub:

  • Reviews: NY Times (here), Artinfo (here)
  • Mickalene Thomas: artist site (here)
  • Olga Chernysheva: Frieze magazine review (here)
  • Pinar Yolaçan: NY Times feature (here)
  • Thorsten Brinkmann: Goethe Institut feature (here)

Dress Codes: The Third ICP Triennial of Photography and Video
Through January 17th

International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

Roy DeCarava Dies

Roy DeCarava, the pioneering and influential African-American photographer, died on Tuesday at the age of 89. DeCarava made dark, shadowy images of the day-to-day lives of Harlem residents and local jazz musicians at work. His photographs were in many ways the first to accurately capture authentic, warm moments from within the community, in contrast to the more sociological studies that had been taken of the neighborhood and its culture by outsiders. (Sun and Shade, 1952, at right, via Corcoran)

After a decent amount of searching, I have been unable to locate the gallery that consistently represents DeCarava's work/estate, so please add it to the comments if you know the answer.

DeCarava's luscious prints (full of deep, tactile blacks and dark greys) have only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past five years; prices have ranged between $5000 and $25000. DeCarava's book The Sweet Flypaper of Life, 1955, (a collaboration with Langston Hughes) has also become highly collectible.

Obituaries: NY Times (here), LA Times (here), Lens (here), Looking Around (here)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Auction: Photographs, November 10, 2009 @Bonhams

Bonhams' various owner Photographs sale begins the string of auctions in November that bridge from New York to London, Paris, Berlin and beyond. The sale has a heavy dose of lesser known Ansel Adams images, along with a generally lower end mix of material lacking in major star power. If the turnout is soft, there should be some bargains here. Overall, there are 151 photographs on offer, with a total High estimate of $969300. (Catalog cover at right, via Bonhams.)

Here's the breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate up to and including $10000): 136
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): $660300

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between $10000 and $50000): 14
Total Mid Estimate: $219000

Total High Lots (high estimate above $50000): 1
Total High Estimate: $90000

The top lot by High estimate is lot 112 (also the cover lot) Edward Weston, Nude (Charis, Santa Monica), 1936, at $70000-90000.

Below is the list of photographers represented by at least 3 lots in the sale (with the number of lots in parentheses):

Ansel Adams (20)
Edward Curtis (6)
Horst P. Horst (6)
Andre Kertesz (6)
Jacques Henri Lartigue (6)
Robert Doisneau (5)
Julius Shulman (5)
Brett Weston (5)
Joel-Peter Witkin (5)
Manuel Alvarez-Bravo (4)
Ruth Bernhard (4)
Walker Evans (4)
O. Winston Link (4)
Berenice Abbott (3)
Rene Burri (3)

Beyond the cover lot, there really aren't any great fits for our collection in this sale.

The complete lot by lot catalog can be found here.

November 10th

580 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10022

New Photography 2009 @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A group show of the work of six contemporary photographers, variously framed, and hung in a two room divided gallery on the 3rd floor. The exhibit was curated by Eva Respini. (Installation shots at right.)

The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view in parentheses:
  • Walead Beshty (4), all from 2008
  • Daniel Gordon (4), from 2008 and 2009
  • Leslie Hewitt (6 as 3 works), from 2002-2008
  • Carter Mull (5), from 2008 and 2009
  • Sterling Ruby (4), from 2005-2007
  • Sara VanDerBeek (4 as 1 work), all from 2006
Comments/Context: This year's New Photography exhibit at the MoMA takes us far out beyond the traditional boundaries of conventional straight documentation, and emphatically declares that the museum's 21st century definition of "photography" will be broad and inclusive.
I actually believe that this definitional discussion is long overdue and much needed at this point in the medium's history. Since the beginning of photography, there have always been subcultures of artists who rejected the sharp reality of what a camera could capture, and spent their time and energy exploring how the various technologies could be used to create wholly unreal worlds. Out of this experimentation came multiple negatives, collaged and photomontaged works, images of staged performances, ephemeral sculptures and conceptual hoaxes, appropriated images and rephotography, camera-less darkroom creations and photograms, etc. etc. All of these were generally still gathered under the umbrella of "photography", perhaps because their endpoint output was a photographic print of some kind.
As we cross into the digital age, new tools have expanded the number of degrees of freedom artists can now play with; there are now even more variables that can be tweaked and modified. Many of the works in this show might be best called mixed media contemporary art, as they bear little resemblance to the black and white masters of traditional photography. But while most of the works don't look familiar, nearly all of them are further extensions of practices and ideas with roots found decades ago, just supercharged and taken way out into the unknown, often bridged into this white space by the additional of computer-based manipulation. But it seems the definitional construct is still the same: if the product is a photographic print, no matter how it was created or how unorthodox it may seem, it's still "photography".
I'd say it's impossible to walk into these galleries and not notice Walead Beshty's huge floor-to-ceiling photograms; they are so blindingly colorful, full of electric magenta and bold yellow, that they drown out everything else. Abstract lines and rectangles cluster into dense overlapping layers. Beshty's work is clearly a distant relative of Man Ray's and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's photograms, albeit with a much more expressionistic palette.
Daniel Gordon's cut paper collages of disturbing figures have a Picasso-esque feeling to them, adapted to the culture of image appropriation. Hair, eyes, and other random body parts have been assembled into unsettling and Surreal hybrid characters, not exactly funny, just odd. These piece part people and their flattened surroundings finally emerge as photographs, documents of the elaborate tableaux that have been painstakingly constructed.
Sterling Ruby's images seem the farthest from "photography" as we know it. These seem to be pure digital creations: a gathering of found images collaged together with seamless perfection and then covered with computer generated "effects" like drips of paint/blood and sprayed on scrawls, creating a violent mood. While the output is still a photographic print, these works seem to have no relationship to the old school operation of a camera; we're in the realm of digital wizardry here and the opportunities for artistic expansion seem limitless.
The works of Carter Mull, Leslie Hewitt and Sara VanDerBeek travel some of these same experimental roads, but to lesser effect in my opinion. LA Times spreads are washed with distorted colors and patterns of martini glasses and roses become swirls of darkroom effects, staged tabletop still lifes adorned with old photographs are turned upside down, and elaborate temporary sculptures of found pictures and dripping white paint become a patchwork of symbols and inside references.

While overall this exhibit is a mixed bag of work, I enjoyed the fact that this annual show was once again being used to dig a little deeper into a topic of current importance to the medium, rather than simply a gathering of fresh but unrelated imagery. The discussion of what "photography" is or isn't is far from over, but this show is at least a stake in the ground for people to consider.
Collector's POV: The photographers in the show are represented by the following galleries:
  • Walead Beshty is represented by Wallspace in New York (here).
  • Daniel Gordon is represented by Claudia Groeflin Galerie in Zurich (here).
  • Leslie Hewitt is represented by D'Amelio Terras in New York (here).
  • Carter Mull is represented by Marc Foxx in Los Angeles (here).
  • Sterling Ruby is represented by Metro Pictures in New York (here). (UPDATE: I've been told this may not be the case anymore, and that the right pointer should be to Pace Wildenstein (here))
  • Sara VanDerbeek is represented by D'Amelio Terras in New York (here).

None of these artists has any significant secondary market track record, so gallery retail will likely be the only option for acquiring their work in the short term. While none of this work is a fit for our particular collection, I enjoyed Beshty's eye-popping photograms the most.

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

  • Walead Beshty: Directions @Hirshhorn Museum 2009 (here)
  • Daniel Gordon: artist site (here)
  • Leslie Hewitt: artist site (here)
  • Carter Mull: former Rivington Arms site (here)
  • Sterling Ruby: The Masturbators @Foxy Production, 2009 (here)
  • Sara VanDerBeek: NY Times review 2006 (here)
Through January 11th
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Auction Results: Contemporary Art Including Arab & Iranian Art, October 16, 2009 @Sotheby's London

The photography lots found within the larger Contemporary Art sale at Sotheby's in London last week performed generally in line with the "Normal" definition we have come to see this season for photography, albeit somewhat under the performance benchmarks we have been consistently using: the Buy-In rate was near 25% (in this case just over 28%) and the Total Sale Proceeds just missed the Total Low Estimate (rather than covering it). This was however a major improvement over the performance of the Phillips photography sale in London the day before.

The summary statistics are below (all results include the buyer’s premium):

Total Lots: 39
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: £765000
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: £1080000
Total Lots Sold: 28
Total Lots Bought In: 11
Buy In %: 28.21%
Total Sale Proceeds: £739375

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

Low Total Lots: 2
Low Sold: 2
Low Bought In: 0
Buy In %: 00.00%
Total Low Estimate: £8000
Total Low Sold: £12875

Mid Total Lots: 24
Mid Sold: 16
Mid Bought In: 8
Buy In %: 33.33%
Total Mid Estimate: £342000
Total Mid Sold: £212250

High Total Lots: 13
High Sold: 10
High Bought In: 3
Buy In %: 23.08%
Total High Estimate: £730000
Total High Sold: £514250

An amazing 100.00% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above their estimate, which says the lots were mostly well edited and conservatively priced. There was only one surprise in this sale (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate):

Lot 301 Yazan Khalili, Colour Correction, 2007, at £9750

The top lots by High estimate were lot 114, Gilbert & George, Ginkgoed, 2005, and lot 126, Rashid Rana, Red Carpet-3, 2007, both at £80000-120000. The Gilbert & George was the top outcome of the sale at £97250; the Rana did not sell.

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

34-35 New Bond Street
London W1A 2AA

Fine Art Photography Confidence Index: October 2009

It seems like every time I get together with another collector, gallery owner, or auction house specialist, the conversation eventually turns to speculation on the future of the photography market: when will things change, will it get worse, will it get better, and the like. While total auction receipts are one quantitative measure of the overall activity of the market, they fail to capture the “feel” of the market, particularly in terms of its optimism or pessimism on a forward looking basis. Other indexes routinely track consumer confidence or the confidence of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, so I wondered about whether it would be possible to use such a model to track the confidence of fine art photography market participants.

So several weeks ago I blasted out a short survey to a broad list of players with an economic interest in the photography market: collectors, gallery owners/staff, private dealers, and auction house specialists. In this email, I asked these folks to do the following: on a simple scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being very low confidence and 5 being very high confidence), provide a rating of the environment (or “market”) for fine art photography in the next 12 months. I left this question purposely vague and open ended, to allow for varying interpretations of what it might actually mean. In addition to the numerical response, I offered the ability for the responder to anonymously provide any comments he/she might wish to add, in explanation or defense of his/her chosen rating. To create the Index numbers below, I took simple averages of the various data sets. My longer term plan is to capture this data on a quarterly basis, in line with the NY auction season (i.e. October, January, April, and July), and provide some trend lines (and graphs) for how these perceptions are changing over time.

So let’s discuss the data for October, 2009.


The overall Fine Art Photography Confidence Index score for October, 2009 is 3.05. I believe this represents a generally guarded/neutral view of the next 12 months.

But when we cut the data a little finer, and add in the commentary, the results get quite a bit more interesting. In the sections below, I’ve grouped the responses by type (and geography in one case), creating subsets of data that reflect the opinions of various groups of people.


The Confidence Index score for Collectors is 2.36. Not a single collector rated his/her confidence higher than 3.00.

There were several common threads to the explanatory remarks. The first concerns prices, in a couple of ways. Several collectors went down more quantitative thinking paths, most coming to the conclusion that prices will fall a further 10-20% overall, to perhaps 40-50% lower than the bubbly heights of a few years ago. Many went on to highlight their view that there are still quite a few gallery owners and dealers who continue to fail to understand this fundamental shift in the equilibrium prices of both the larger market and the specific markets for the artists they represent, creating stress and conflict between long time collector/gallery partners.

A second line of thinking centered on the quality of material in the market. The consensus view is that there is far less superior work out in the market at this time. Nearly all of the respondents touched on this point in one way or another, most sympathizing with consignors who are reluctant to test this uncertain market with top quality pieces. Fear was a surprisingly common sentiment.

The final area of commonality was a kind of silver lining. Many collectors touched on this period as an excellent buying opportunity (especially for the rare gems that do find their way to market), wishing they had more capital available to chase “bargains”. Several seemed to be looking on from the sidelines with a wistful air, knowing that when they look back at 2009 from a few years hence, this will have been a good time to buy. Predictions on sales volumes were resulting mixed, with some predicting an overall decline due to lack of good material, others seeing a likely uptick coming from an increase in lower priced buying.

Overall, this is a mostly pessimistic group. Their comments were full of the following indicative words: weak, hard, poor, soft, over-valued, correction, and recovery.

Gallery Owners/Private Dealers

The Confidence Index score for Gallery Owners/Private Dealers is 3.56.

Nearly every gallery owner and private dealer came back with some variation on the following sentiment: good quality material is still finding buyers. Many are seeing glimmers of hope in recent small improvements in sales, mostly from institutions and dedicated collectors; while things have clearly condensed since 2007, many feel some strength coming back.

As I looked at the data more closely, I decided to cut the Gallery Owners and Private Dealers into two separate groups. The results were quite intriguing. The Confidence Index score for Gallery Owners (Alone) is 3.06, while the Confidence Index score for Private Dealers (Alone) is 4.23. Most of the private dealers highlighted that they have low overhead, so they are avoiding the painful costs of additional staff, promotions, rent, and various exhibit costs in these trying times; as a result, they are much more optimistic (one even used the word “bullish”) than their counterparts saddled with huge spaces to fill in high rent districts. Many of the private dealers have not seen their prices/volumes fall as steeply as the gallery owners, and their opinion of the quality of their material is generally higher (not sure why this is the case exactly).

Lastly, across the board, there was meaningfully higher confidence in vintage material than contemporary material. Quite a few respondents had a very weak prognosis for contemporary color work in the short term.

Auction Houses

The Confidence Index score for Auction House staff is 3.00.

The auction house specialists were the most cagy and careful of our survey participants. If there is a pattern to their succinct remarks, it seems to follow the results of the recent sales: some see optimism in busier activity levels and total proceeds creeping back up, others see pessimism in continued softness in parts of the market.

London Respondents

As I scanned the data looking for other patterns of interest, the one that stuck out the most was the London scores, regardless of which group the response came from. The Confidence Index score for London Respondents (Alone) is 1.93. I think this points to a particular lack of confidence in the local British economy, evidenced by a weak set of recent photography auctions.

Overall, I found the data and the commentary to be slightly more negative than I might have predicted (we did not participate in the survey ourselves). It seems that all the players in the fine art photography market have received a stiff dose of reality in the past year, and are understandably conflicted as they look to the future. I look forward to seeing how these opinions evolve over time.

As we look to the next round of the Fine Art Photography Confidence Index next January, we’d certainly like to get more people involved – more responses means a more comprehensive and representative data set. So if you’re interested in participating, please email us ( your name, contact email, geographic location and group affiliation (i.e. collector, gallery owner/staff, auction house staff) so we can put you on the distribution list.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Auction Results: Photographs & Photographic Literature, October 22, 2009 @Swann

The results of the Swann various owner sale hovered just below the new definition of "Normal" we outlined in our last auction results post. The Buy-In rate was just under 27% (the best we've seen at Swann in a couple of years) and the Total Sale Proceeds just missed the Total Low Estimate. Certainly a respectable outing, given the lower end focus of the material on offer and the meaningful percentage of lots that sold for below their estimate range. The "surprises" below certainly highlight the difference between the typical Swann material and that of the other houses.

The summary statistics are below (all results include the buyer’s premium):

Total Lots: 327
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: $1388300
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: $2012650
Total Lots Sold: 239
Total Lots Bought In: 88
Buy In %: 26.91%
Total Sale Proceeds: $1260240

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

Low Total Lots: 297
Low Sold: 222
Low Bought In: 75
Buy In %: 25.25%
Total Low Estimate: $1352650
Total Low Sold: $922440

Mid Total Lots: 30
Mid Sold: 17
Mid Bought In: 13
Buy In %: 43.33%
Total Mid Estimate: $660000
Total Mid Sold: $337800

High Total Lots: 0
High Sold: 0
High Bought In: 0
Buy In %: NA
Total High Estimate: $0
Total High Sold: NA

Only 63.30% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above their estimate. There were a total of nine surprises in this sale (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate):

Lot 4 William Henry Fox Talbot, Portrait of Talbot's daughter Ela, 1840s, at $9000
Lot 31 (California Crime), Mug shot album, 1885-1892, at $12000
Lot 64 Wilson Bentley, 7 snowcrystals, 1903-1910, at $18000
Lot 125 (Murder and Mayhem), Mysteries of Life album, 1917-1942, at $11400
Lot 128 (Crime), Al Capone, 1929, at $2040
Lot 145 Edward Weston/Cole Weston, Nude, 1936/1970s, at $6000
Lot 215 (Bruce of LA, Lon of NY), Male nudes, 1950s, at $3360
Lot 243 Bob Seidemann, Janis Joplin (Standing Nude), 1967/1980s, at $2880
Lot 255 Eddie Adams, Saigon, 1968/1980s, at $43200

The top lot by High estimate was lot 28 Eadward Muybridge, 125 plates from Animal Locomotion, 1887, at $35000-45000; it was also the top outcome in the sale at $81000.

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

Swann Galleries
104 East 25th Street
New York, NY 10010

Richard Learoyd, Unique Photographs @McKee

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 large scale color images, framed in white and mounted with no mat, and hung in a single large gallery space. The works are unique dye destruction prints, ranging in size from 58x48 to 73x48 or reverse. The images were taken between 2007 and 2009. This is Learoyd's first solo show in the US and the first show of photography at McKee. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Richard Learoyd's larger than life portraits and still lifes have a distinctly 19th century quality to them, albeit with a modern twist. Using a room-sized camera obscura, the muted color images have a very shallow depth of field: some areas have extremely sharp detail, while others fade into shadowy blurs. Similarly, the light is concentrated on the figure's faces, creating a tunnel vision-like cone of darkness around the central subject, reminiscent of early photography. But these are not hand held dauguerreotype or tintypes to be savored alone; they are massive color images of modern women that cover entire walls.

The best of the pictures are the subtle posed portraits: women gazing into space, sleeping in a chair, or looking directly at us with unsmiling faces; the simplicity of a flowered shirt or a melancholy expression punctuated by dark eyebrows stands out against the utilitarian grey backdrops. Personalities quietly come forth. The still lifes are altogether less enticing: images of mirrors, a deflated shark and a fish heart in a net of black string seem to be trying harder than necessary to grab our attention, and the magic ageless quality of the portraits is somehow lost when applied to the inanimate objects.

Overall, there is something different going on in these understated and unusual portraits, and I would have preferred to have seen a deeper sample of them to wrestle with it further.

Collector's POV: The works in this show are priced between $35000 and $42000. Learoyd's images have virtually no secondary market history, so gallery retail is the only option for interested collectors at this point. While portraits aren't a fit for our collection, I liked the sleeping woman, Agnes in Red Dress on White Chair, 2009, the best. As an aside, there is also a single Learoyd portrait in the current ICP show (review later this week).

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

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • NY Times review (here, scroll down)
Richard Learoyd, Unique Photographs
Through October 31st

McKee Gallery
745 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10151

Friday, October 23, 2009

How Should We Evaluate Digital Craftsmanship?

Earlier this week, my wife and I watched Valentino: The Last Emperor (here) on DVD. For those of you that haven't seen this film, it is a terrific documentary covering the last year or so of Valentino's reign as the head of his iconic Italian fashion house, including the now famous 45th anniversary retrospective of his work and the glamorous star-studded gala celebration in Rome.

Near the end of the film, there is an amazing scene, where Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld are wandering through the museum show of Valentino's jaw-dropping designs, and Lagerfeld stops, puts his arm around Valentino, and says something like "Compared to the two of us, the rest are making rags."

As I thought more about this stunning comment, I wondered about how it might connect to the world of photography. In the old analog world, the craftsmanship of the gelatin silver print was clear: great printers were obviously better than average printers, and you didn't have to have a particularly tuned eye to see the difference. If we were to try elect a pantheon of master printers, one of my votes would certainly go to Frederick Sommer, but of course, there are many others who took meticulous printing to new heights. There were also those like Bill Brandt who were consistently sloppy, but didn't seem to care.

In the new digital world, I find myself much more confused about how to evaluate prints. If there are obvious imperfections, pixelations, digital remnants or other unwanted artifacts, we can of course single these prints out as less than good. But how are we to tell the difference between average and superior? Can we still pick winners based on elevation of craft alone?

I really don't have any good answers here I'm afraid. If we assume that once a digital image goes to "the printer" it is exactly the same as every subsequent image printed, the only variations then come in the proper functioning of the machinery, the fidelity of the inks and the quality of the papers. Are most collectors really equipped to dive into these details with any kind of knowledgeable connoisseurship? And if the above is true, do we then step back to evaluate a photographer's skill at computer-based manipulation and editing? Is this still "printing"? I'm not sure that it is.

I think what we need is a jargon free checklist/guide of what to look for in the physical endpoint of digital prints, from the perspective of a collector. Perhaps this exists somewhere on the Internet already, or maybe we need to gather together the information and create it here.

So back to Valentino and Lagerfeld. How will we judge the master printers of this digital age? What metrics will we use? Can anyone put forth the two current best who could have a similar conversation, whose skills and craftsmanship put them undeniably head and shoulders above their peers? Is this even a relevant question? As a collector, I feel an uneasy need to understand this better, but I'll admit that I really don't even know where to begin.

Cédric Gerbehaye, Congo in Limbo @Anastasia

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 black and white images, framed in black and matted, and hung in the single room gallery and office alcove. The prints are archival inkjet prints on Hahnemuhle paper, in three sizes: 16x16, 16x24 or reverse, and 14x32. There are 10 works in the 16x24 size, 1 in the 16x16 size, and 2 in the 14x32 size. All of the images were taken between 2007 and 2009. The works are all untitled and are not editioned. This is Gerbehaye's first solo show in the US. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Cédric Gerbehaye's documentary photographs of the recent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo are dark and haunting. They chronicle the intertwined lives of the soldiers and the civilians, and the hardships being endured by those that have been displaced or injured by the civil war.
Many of the images tell the story of life in the tent camps, where a warren of shelters made of mud, sticks and sackcloth house families and young children. Others capture the soldiers, alternately outfitted with grenade launchers and spears, in berets and bandoliers; images of child soldiers jammed into the back of a truck or praying before a day of fighting capture the depressing reality of the on-the-ground combatants. Hospitals and churches complete the portrait of the victims; bright white light streams in through cross-shaped windows in a simple church, while men cover their eyes in despair. The most memorable image in the show is a picture of a young general, outfitted in a cowboy hat, and flanked by two heavily armed bodyguards; his sunglasses and cellphones sit on the simple table in front of him, his expression one of confident power.

While we have all seen pictures of civil wars and felt sympathy for the innocent bystanders who get caught up in the crossfire of the conflicts, these images are consistently well crafted and moving. They are dark and shadowy, with alternating moments of gritty realism and quiet lyricism.
Collector's POV: All of the prints in the show are priced at $1650. Gerbehaye has no secondary market history. While photojournalism isn't an exact match for our particular collection, this is an impressive and penetrating group of humanist pictures that tells an important, and generally overlooked, story.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Agence VU page (here)
  • Medecins Sans Frontieres video (here)
Cédric Gerbehaye, Congo in Limbo
Through October 31st
Anastasia Photo
166 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Distance Between the Photographer and the Collector

The Private Collection of Fern M. Schad @Wester

JTF (just the facts): A total of 40 works, variously framed and matted, and hung in the main gallery space, with a few extras in the office area. Nearly all of the prints are black and white gelatin silver, with a mix of vintage and later prints; the negatives range between 1926 and 1986. (Installation shots at right.)

The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of prints on view in parentheses:

Harry Callahan (7)
Walker Evans (1)
Joe Deal (1)
Louis Faurer (4)
Lee Friedlander (3)
John Gintoff (1)
Emmet Gowin (5)
Robert Heinecken (1 set of 12)
Eikoh Hosoe (1)
Andre Kertesz (1)
Les Krims (1)
Roger Mertin (1)
Duane Michals (1 set of 6)
Nicholas Nixon (2)
Nancy Rexroth (1)
Aaron Siskind (4)
Frederick Sommer (1)
Josef Sudek (1)
JoAnn Verburg (1 diptych)
Garry Winogrand (2)

There are also 6 portfolios available for purchase, from Robert Heinecken, Les Krims, William Larson (2), Aaron Siskind, and Garry Winogrand.

Comments/Context: The private collections of former dealers are always of particular interest to me as a collector. Given all the shows that are put on and the relationships that are built by gallery owners over time, it is fascinating to see which pictures get selected out (to be saved for private consumption) from the great multitudes that pass by.

LIGHT Gallery was a pioneering photography gallery in New York, started by Tennyson Schad in the early 1970s, when collecting photographs was still in its infancy. The gallery represented Callahan, Gowin, Siskind, Sommer, Kertesz, and Winogrand, among many others, long before they were canonized as modern masters. Over the years, it was also an important training ground for many of today's top photography dealers.

It is not surprising therefore that this show of the private collection of Fern Schad (Tennyson Schad died in 2001) is full of works from the artists the gallery represented in the 1970s. But there are few "greatest hits" here; many are lesser known images and rarities. There are unusual portraits, quite a few images of Edith (Gowin) and Eleanor (Callahan), and a pair of Siskind divers. All in, the exhibition is a thoughtful mix of high quality black and white material, a welcome counterpoint to a world of contemporary color photography.

Collector's POV: The works in the show range in price from $750 to $35000, with one NFS. The portfolios are priced between $20000 and $100000. Our favorites included Frederick Sommer's Artificial Leg, 1944/1950s, Louis Faurer's Self Portrait, 1947/1970s, and Aaron Siskind's Chicago Facade #16, 1957/1960.

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

Transit Hub:
  • Announcement cards from LIGHT @PhotoEphemera (here)
The Private Collection of Fern M. Schad
Through October 31st

Rick Wester Fine Art
511 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10012

Hosang Park, A Square @Bekman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 color images, mounted without frames, and hung in the narrow single room gallery space. All of the works are digital c-prints, made between 2004 and 2007. The prints come in two sizes: 20x24 and 40x50, in editions of 20 and 5 respectively. There are 4 large prints and 5 smaller ones on display. This is Park's first solo show in New York. (Installation shot at right.)

Comments/Context: Hosang Park's aerial images of meticulously designed outdoor spaces near luxury apartment buildings in Korea are surreal in their perfect emptiness. In the same way that miniature golf is "golf", these spaces are "parks", jam packed with "features": colorful paths and walkways in gentle arcs of tight brickwork, young trees in square planters with carefully aligned benches underneath, plazas surrounded by fake grass, play grounds and ball courts sandwiched in between gazebos, pavilions, and fake streams. Of course, no one is using these brand new spaces: they stand soulless and uninhabited, man-altered nature to fulfill some zoning requirement for public outdoor space.

Park's images highlight the density of abstract geometries found in these parks; they feel like the plans of a landscape architect enamored with a few too many bold graphical elements. While the normal function of a park is to provide a place for restful peace amidst nature, these chaotic designs seem just the opposite: noisy, convoluted and claustrophobic, just the kind of place that drains away any energy a visitor might have.

Overall, while these images certainly have a eye-catching decorative quality, I particularly liked the notes of perplexing weirdness and subtle sadness that run underneath.

Collector's POV: The prints in the show are priced at $1200 and $5000, depending on size. Park has no secondary market history, so gallery retail is the only option for interested collectors at this point. Prints can also be found on Bekman's 20x200 website (here) in various sizes and editions, all the way down to $50 for an 11x14 print (quite a bargain).

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

Transit Hub:

  • Artist site (here)
  • Review: BLDGBLOG (here)
Hosang Park, A Square
Through November 7th

Jen Bekman Gallery
6 Spring Street
New York, NY 10012

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Auction Results: Photographs, October 15, 2009 @Phillips London

While the photography sales at Christie's and Sotheby's seemed to achieve some stable equilibrium, the results from the Phillips sale in London popped that short-lived balloon. With a Buy-In rate near 50% and Total Sale Proceeds that missed the Low by £200000, it's clear that we still have some choppy water to cross before we return to smooth sailing.

Once again, the top end was pretty soft; that's three for three in the various owner sales this Fall. My conclusion from the data is that either 1.) caution is still the rule of the day and prices may still need to compress a bit further in the high end ranges to entice buyers back to the table or 2.) the quality of the material will need to meaningfully increase to match the prices, or both.

The summary statistics are below (all results include the buyer’s premium):

Total Lots: 180
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: £897100
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: £1283600
Total Lots Sold: 93
Total Lots Bought In: 87
Buy In %: 48.33%
Total Sale Proceeds: £694626

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

Low Total Lots: 87
Low Sold: 50
Low Bought In: 37
Buy In %: 42.53%
Total Low Estimate: £268600
Total Low Sold: £156001

Mid Total Lots: 86
Mid Sold: 40
Mid Bought In: 46
Buy In %: 53.49%
Total Mid Estimate: £715000
Total Mid Sold: £402375

High Total Lots: 7
High Sold: 3
High Bought In: 4
Buy In %: 57.14%
Total High Estimate: £300000
Total High Sold: £136250

91.40% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above their estimate. There were a total of five surprises in this sale (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate):

Lot 78 Miroslav Tichy, Untitled, 1950-1980, at £5000
Lot 88 Edward Burtynsky, Oxford Tire Pile #1, Westley, California, 1999, at £30000
Lot 95 Rene Burri, Ernesto Che Guevara, Havana, Cuba, 1963, at £5000
Lot 96 Andre Villers, Picasso drawing, 1960, at £5250
Lot 109 Rene Burri, Wilted Lotus Blossoms, former Summer Palace, Kunming Lake, Beijing, China, 1964, at £5000

The top lot by High estimate was lot 131, Irving Penn, Girl behind glass (Jean Pacthett), New York, 1949, at £50000-70000; it did not sell. The top outcome of the sale was a tie between lot 60, Peter Beard, Portraits London (F. Bacon)/Paris/Nairobi, Collected at Hog Ranch 1966-70, 1990, and lot 97, Richard Misrach, Untitled, 2003, both at £52500.

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

Phillips De Pury & Company
Howick Place
London SW1P 1BB

Auction Results: Photographs, October 9, 2009 @Sotheby's

The results of the Sotheby's various owner sale in many ways mirrored the results of the Christie's various owner sale the day before: a Buy-In rate about 25%, Total Sale Proceeds that just covered the Total Low Estimate, a solid mid range with some general softness in the high end, and quite a few surprises. While two data points aren't much of a trend, perhaps we should think of this as the new "Normal".

The summary statistics are below (all results include the buyer’s premium):

Total Lots: 246
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: $3532000
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: $5292000
Total Lots Sold: 182
Total Lots Bought In: 64
Buy In %: 26.02%
Total Sale Proceeds: $3751754

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

Low Total Lots: 112
Low Sold: 78
Low Bought In: 34
Buy In %: 30.36%
Total Low Estimate: $893000
Total Low Sold: $708129

Mid Total Lots: 120
Mid Sold: 96
Mid Bought In: 24
Buy In %: 20.00%
Total Mid Estimate: $2809000
Total Mid Sold: $2333000

High Total Lots: 14
High Sold: 8
High Bought In: 6
Buy In %: 42.86%
Total High Estimate: $1590000
Total High Sold: $710625

81.87% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above their estimate. There were a total of thirteen surprises in this sale (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate):

Lot 16 Ansel Adams, Leaves, Mills College, Oakland, California, 1931/1958, at $80500
Lot 17 Ansel Adams, Oak Tree-Sun, 1962, at $25000
Lot 38 Walker Evans, Church Organ and Pews, 1936/1970s, at $16250
Lot 79 Carleton Watkins, Washington Column, 2082 ft, 1878, at $25000
Lot 52 Aaron Siskind, New York 1, 1951/1960s, at $21250
Lot 57 Paul Strand, Ragusa-Sicily, 1954, at $25000
Lot 74 Anonymous, The Gaucho, 1840s, at $62500
Lot 102 Paul Outerbridge, Still Life with Red and Blue Flowers, 1933, at $25000
Lot 109 Robert Doisneau, Le Baiser de L'Hotel de Ville, 1950/Later, at $21250
Lot 146 Robert Frank, McClellanville, SC (Barbershop Through Screen Door), 1955/1960 at $182500
Lot 147 Robert Frank, From the Funeral, Frogmore, SC, 1955/Later, at $25000
Lot 188 Irving Penn, Nadja Avermann B, 1994/1999, at $25000
Lot 228 David Levinthal, Barbie Millicent Roberts, 1997, at $56250

The top lot by High estimate was lot 196 Various Contemporary Photographers, The Master Collection, 1998-2009, at $200000-300000; it was also the top outcome in the sale at $218500.

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

1334 York Avenue
New York, NY 10021

Melanie Schiff: Mirror & Mastodon @Horton & Liu

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 color images, framed in silver and matted, and hung in an intimate single room gallery space. All of the prints are c-prints, sized approximately 31x34 or reverse, made in 2009, and printed in editions of 5. This is Schiff's first solo show in New York. (Installation shot at right.)

Comments/Context: In the past few years, in lock step with the withering of the economy, contemporary photography has been filled with pictures of failure, emptiness and ruins, and Melanie Schiff's newest body of work falls into this broad category. Her images depict endless concrete drainage corridors and spillways covered in dense graffiti, dark tunnels, cracked cement walls, and rusted metal parts abandoned amidst overgrown greenery. Almost all of the pictures are built around simple found geometries: a square, a circle, or parallel lines converging to a vanishing point in the distance.

On one hand, these images are unsettling in their destitution, vacant of recent human interaction (the image of a gnarled tree trunk erupting from the ground is particularly disquieting); I was reminded of the surreal atmosphere of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. But the bright lights in the distance (the "light at the end of the tunnel") seem to give many of these images a small dose of optimism - there is a way out of this depressing world and it is almost within reach. Overall, this is a respectable first show, punctuated by several memorable images.

Collector's POV: All of the prints in the show are priced at $4800. Schiff has very little auction track record, with only a few lots being sold in the past year or so, most for approximately $1000. While none of the works in this show is a direct fit for our specific collection, my particular favorite was Hell Room, 2009, the canal washed in muted red.

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

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Whitney Biennial, 2008 (here)
  • Reviews: Modern Art Obsession (here), Art Talk Chicago (here), Artforum (here)
Melanie Schiff: Mirror & Mastodon
Through November 14th

Horton & Liu
504 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Is Florian Maier-Aichen Overrated?

The world of contemporary photography is filled with exciting artists pursuing a wide variety of picture making strategies and approaches. But once in a while a photographer comes along whose meteoric rise takes your breath away. Florian Maier-Aichen was a complete unknown to us until his work started to appear in the Contemporary Art auctions a year or so ago. With no auction history prior to 2008, his work was suddenly and routinely fetching six figures, a feat that rarely occurs in contemporary photography, much less with fresh names. Diving back into his bio, his work was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, and he is now represented by 303 Gallery in New York (here) and Blum & Poe in Los Angeles (here), with a recent show at Gagosian Gallery in London (here).

Maier-Aichen had a show at 303 last spring (review here), which was our first in-person experience of his work, and I have to say I was somewhat underwhelmed; the images didn’t seem to match the hype created by the PR machine. But we are always willing to admit our own ignorance, so I chalked it up to just not understanding the work well enough and somehow missing the artist’s hidden (at least to us) genius. So it was with some anticipation that I sat down recently to watch the segment on Maier-Aichen in the Art 21 series on PBS (here).

In the short documentary piece, Maier-Aichen talks through a few images that he has been working on, as well as his overall approach to picture making. As a refresher for those less familiar with his work, Maier-Aichen takes large format color images (many of them post card-like landscapes) and then does a significant amount of digital post processing on the computer to create his works: negatives are sandwiched to create color irregularities, new elements are drawn in by hand using a digital stylus, and other details are eliminated or made less distinct/realistic. All of this rework has the effect of making parts of the images look remarkably painterly and hand crafted, while others retain some of the documentary preciseness of the original photograph; the representational and the abstract have been mixed.

In the past decade or so, we have certainly seen a faction of photographers react against the cool and rigorous conceptual detachment of the Becher school and move back toward a more painterly style of photography using digital tools (or via a return to older techniques and processes), some overtly embracing a Neo-Pictorialist sensibility. Lynn Geesaman’s images of elaborate European gardens would be one accomplished example of this line of thinking.

Given what I saw in the Art 21 segment, Maier-Aichen doesn’t really fit into this category of artists and work, even though there are certainly some commonalities of thinking. He doesn’t appear to be trying to make his photographs look like paintings (or more “beautiful” in some traditional sense), but to be making his photographs look less like photographs, via introducing areas of hand crafted artistry (this may be splitting hairs I realize, but I think the distinction is real). His central idea seems to be the undermining of the precision of the photograph for a more open ended, less predetermined state, where realism (especially in the case of iconic views such as Half Dome in Yosemite or various night views of waterfront cities) has been transformed into something more fictional and unknown. For me, this feels like an elaborate conceptual construct – perhaps Maier-Aichen is the first of the Conceptual Pictorialists.

Intellectually, having seen this video, I think I can now resonate a bit more with what Maier-Aichen is aiming to do, and I will happily grant that he is both out there trying something that no one else is really doing (especially in the realm of the landscape as a subject) and likely building a bridge to a new kind of working style for hand edited digital photography that others may value and follow in time. I also think I can follow the story line of the German photographer going to UCLA, reconsidering the idea of the American frontier and bringing a less deterministic approach to views we have all seen before.

But I’m afraid I have to admit that these works still don’t do much for me – while they might make me think a bit about what he is doing and saying (especially the idea of incorporating “drawing” in the digital sense), they don’t excite me or generate much emotion. As a collector, I continually come back to the opportunity cost of capital, and I can’t really understand the calculus of how I would come to the conclusion that spending $100K on a Maier-Aichen would make sense in the context of all that is available at that price point across the history of the medium. Which brings me back to the question in the title: is Maier-Aichen overrated? Has the buzz gotten ahead of the substance?

And so I open the floor to the rest of you, either to shout me down or voice your agreement. My goal here is not to drag Maier-Aichen down with zingers from the cheap seats; I'd like to have a thoughtful discussion of the merits of his work, which is what I have tried to provide above. What I would like most is to have someone out there deliver an impassioned, concise, and rational argument defending Maier-Aichen’s place in the contemporary photography hierarchy, as evidenced by his prices. Walk me through the logic of how you write the big check: I am eager to be educated.

Edward Burtynsky: Oil @Hasted Hunt Kraeutler

JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 large color prints, framed in black and not matted, and hung in the entry area, three adjacent gallery spaces that wind around, and the back gallery space near the offices. All of the works are digital chromogenic prints, and were taken between 1999 and 2007. The images come in a dizzying array of sizes and editions; with some exceptions, the single images come in as many as four sizes (27x34, 40x50, 48x60, and 60x75, in editions of 10, 9, 6, and 3 respectively) while the diptychs appear to come in three sizes (36x78, 48x120/140, 60x180, sometimes framed as a single piece, other times as two images hung edge to edge, in editions of 5, 6, and 3 respectively). A monograph of the entire body of work has been published by Steidl (here) and is available from the gallery for $125. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Edward Burtynsky has made a career out of photographing the massive industrial landscapes that are often conveniently out of view, behind chain link fences or far away from everyday life. He has made images of huge factories, strip mines, quarries, ship yards and expansive industrial sites all over the world (we reviewed his book on China earlier this year here), making surprisingly beautiful images of sometimes ugly and forgotten places. Burtynsky's work shows a mastery of scale quite unlike other photographers at work today; he takes on the biggest, most un-photographable locations, and consistently finds subtle geometries and semi abstractions that often become striking visual patterns. His pictures work on two levels: the staggering decorative quality of the images, and the much tougher underlying questions that quickly emerge, that force the viewer to consider the downstream consequences of the activity being documented.
The enormous multi-national oil industry and its complex and fragile distribution chain is perhaps the perfect project for Burtynsky's brand of photography: the sites for extraction and refinement are colossal, and the secondary and tertiary industries (shipping, cars/highways, military, etc.) are equally gargantuan. What's a bit different here is that Burtynsky has stepped into a much hotter political fire with these pictures than in his previous work; given both the climate change issues as well as the intricate geopolitical ramifications of the future of petroleum, the oil industry and all its interconnections are subject to much broader scrutiny than ever before. (As an aside, two excellent books on this topic are Daniel Yergin's The Prize and Matthew Simmons' Twilight in the Desert.) In a sense then, Burtynsky's timing with this exhibition (and the larger one at the Corcoran, linked below) is excellent; this is a topic that many people are intensely interested in, and his thoughtful juxtaposition of beauty and commentary will get people thinking.
The images themselves cover the entire petroleum-based economy, from beginning to end. Several of the images in the show find repetitions in the endless acres of pumpjack wells of California and Azerbaijan (some now abandoned), black masses bobbing up and down, with adjacent towers and steeples, often artfully reflected in nearby pools of undisturbed water or sludge. Others follow the densely intertwined stainless steel pipes and tubes of refineries and chemical plants. A vast parking lot full of new cars at a VW plant in China and expansive ribbons of highway in Los Angeles show just how pervasive our car culture has become, and the array of moth-balled fighter jets in the Arizona desert is a not so subtle reminder of how strategic these fuels have become in our current world.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this show and feel like the content is both timely and important. My one knock on this exhibit is that I would have liked to have seen more of the images from this particular series; not every one on display hits the mark perfectly, and there are quite a few other works in the book that I would have enjoyed seeing in person. The back room of the show contains six of Burtynsky's recent landscapes of Australian mines: open pits with stagnant pools of water at the bottom, chasms of rock, red and orange earth, dirt roads and salt flats. And while these are solid images as well, I think showing these was a mistake; I would have certainly preferred to see a deeper sample of the Oil project, so that more of Burtynsky's comprehensive story could be told. The difference between 11 images here and 55 at the Corcoran is likely very significant in terms of the overall impact of the work.

Collector's POV: With the closing of the Charles Cowles Gallery, Hasted Hunt Kraeutler has taken over as Burtynsky's sole representative in the US. Given the complex bundle of sizes and editions, the price list for this show is equally detailed. For the single images, the prices start at $10000 for the smallest and rise through $16500 and $23000, finally reaching $30000 for the very largest works. For the diptychs, prices begin at $18000, and work their way up to $38000 and $51000 for the biggest sizes. There were lots of red dots and a few SOLD OUTs, just a week into the show.
Burtynsky's work began to be available in the secondary markets in about 2005 and the number of prints for sale in any given year has slowly grown since that time. Prices have ranged between $5000 and $35000. Size is a problem for us with Burtynsky's work (too big for our walls), but there are certainly a couple of striking images here that would provide an interesting contemporary foil for pictures of chemical plants and factories from between the wars that we already own.

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

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Edward Burtynsky: Oil @Corcoran Gallery of Art, 2009 (here)
  • Reviews: Washington Post (here), DCist (here)
Through November 28th
537 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011