Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top Photography Shows of 2009

As we look back on the world of photography in 2009, we find ourselves on a somewhat surprising perch. According to our tally, we wrote in-depth reviews for a total of 173 photography shows at galleries and museums this year. With the notable exception of the tireless Vince Aletti of the New Yorker whom we doubt we can ever match, we likely reviewed more photography shows in the past 12 months than any other publication on the planet.

If we assume that we reviewed a little less than half of what was on view, that says there were approximately 350-400 shows of photography on display in New York this year, in all kinds of venues, from large public museums to home based galleries, and everything in between. As such, while other cities certainly have vibrant and growing photography communities, New York is still the center of the photography world, at least in terms of sheer scale and variety.

Before we get to a discussion of the top shows of the year, a few sliced and diced statistics for the mathematically minded among you:

Shows by Venue Type
Gallery: 77.46%
Museum: 22.54%

Of the shows we reviewed, more than three quarters were in galleries. This data likely skews the museum numbers a little higher than reality, as much of what we didn't review or see was likely in galleries.

Shows by Time Period

New/Contemporary: 54.34%
Group Show, Mixture of Periods, or Retrospective: 19.08%
Vintage Only (1980s and Older): 26.59%

These numbers are a reminder of the dominance of contemporary work (defined as 1990 and later in this case) in the marketplace. Just over a quarter of the shows we reviewed were vintage material only, and again these numbers are likely skewed higher, as exhibits we missed were more likely to be contemporary than vintage.

Shows by Process

Color: 36.42%
Black/White: 36.42%
Mixture of Processes: 27.17%

These numbers were quite surprising, given how pervasive digital color photography has become. In the shows we reviewed, these was an exact even split between color and black and white. While color will likely continue to gain share as the years pass, I think this points to a continued/renewed interest in black and white (even when it is accomplished digitally).

Shows by Rating

3 Star EXCELLENT: 6.94%
2 Star VERY GOOD: 19.65%
1 Star GOOD: 73.41%

Less than 7% of the shows we saw got our top rating of three stars. While some may quibble with individual ratings of specific shows (and I think reasonable people could certainly disagree on many of these exhibits), I think the spread across the rating scale is about right, reflecting the reality of the situation, rather than a puffed-up, spin-doctored, over-marketed world where everything is fabulous and outstanding. While there are quite a few standouts this year, the fact is, I'd like to think the ruthless meritocracy of the art world works for the most part; there are winners and losers, and just showing up does not earn a gold star - the work has to have a strong and original voice to get out from under the deafening noise.

Leading Venues by Number of Reviews

International Center of Photography: 8
Yancey Richardson Gallery: 7
Metropolitan Museum of Art: 6
Museum of the City of New York: 6
Janet Borden Inc.: 5
Howard Greenberg Gallery: 5
Laurence Miller Gallery: 5
Yossi Milo Gallery: 5
Aperture: 4
Edwynn Houk Gallery: 4
Museum of Modern Art: 4
Pace/MacGill Gallery: 4
Bruce Silverstein Gallery: 4
Sonnabend Gallery: 4
Whitney Museum of American Art: 4
Amador Gallery: 3
Gagosian Gallery: 3

We reviewed exhibits at a staggering 92 different venues this year. The numbers above show those locations that we visited/reviewed at least three times. Many of these places have multiple gallery spaces, and often run two or more exhibits simultaneously that we often review as separate and distinct shows. So while a normal gallery calendar might have 6-8 shows in a year, some of these locations have twice that many shows on view across the same period of time. The numbers above (and the ones just below) are a pointer to the strength of the photography program at the venue, and to the depth of the stable of artists that are represented (in the case of the galleries). The dark underbelly of these numbers is that for many, many venues, less than half of what they are meticulously putting up is earning even a one star review.

Leading Venues by Average Rating (out of a possible 3.00)

Gagosian Gallery: 2.33
Metropolitan Museum of Art: 2.00
Pace/MacGill Gallery: 2.00
International Center of Photography: 1.88
Janet Borden Inc.: 1.60
Howard Greenberg Gallery: 1.60
Edwynn Houk Gallery: 1.50
Museum of Modern Art: 1.50
Bruce Silverstein Gallery: 1.50
Sonnabend Gallery: 1.50
Whitney Museum of American Art: 1.50
Laurence Miller Gallery: 1.40
Amador Gallery: 1.33
Museum of the City of New York: 1.17
Aperture: 1.00
Yossi Milo Gallery: 1.00
Yancey Richardson Gallery: 1.00

I think these statistics are among the most revealing that we calculated. For each venue, the average rating of all the shows we reviewed at that space has been tabulated (not including the shows we didn't review of course). So while Gagosian only had three shows in the table just preceding this one (an indicator of a relatively thin photo program), the three shows that were presented were of very high quality (Roger Ballen: three stars, Alec Soth: two stars, and Sally Mann: two stars). On the flip side, there were other venues that had a larger number of shows on our review list, but most of those shows lacked the firepower to earn more than one star on a consistent basis. So these numbers give us another look at the quality of photography programs out there.

And so we come to the main event, our top shows of the year. In our rating scheme, three stars is the highest mark a show can receive. These 12 shows were the only shows to receive this superlative grade in the past 12 months. As regular readers will know, our ratings are time-based; these top shows were recommended based on a restricted time budget of only one photography show a month throughout the year. Given the depth of quality in this list, if you saw these 12 shows, you had a spellbinding and enlightening year of photography. Check out the original reviews for the logic behind each choice:

Top Shows of 2009 (in alphabetical order by artist or show name):

Avedon Fashion, 1944-2000 @ICP
(original review here)

Roger Ballen: Boarding House @Gagosian Gallery
(original review here)

Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard @Metropolitan Museum
(original review here)

Lee Friedlander: Still Life @Janet Borden Inc.
(original review here)

Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans @Metropolitan Museum
(original review here)

Intersections Intersected: The Photography of David Goldblatt @New Museum
(original review here)

Emmet Gowin: Photographs @Pace/MacGill Gallery
(original review here)

Jacques Henri Lartigue, A New Paradise @Howard Greenberg Gallery
(original review here)

The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984 @Metropolitan Museum
(original review here)

Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention @Jewish Museum
(original review here)

Aaron Siskind, Recurrence @Bruce Silverstein Gallery
(original review here)

Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Conde Nast Years, 1923-1937 @ICP
(original review here)

Great shows shake our minds loose from the ruts of everyday living. They provide excitement and inspiration, they challenge our accepted notions, and hopefully they succeed in educating us in broad and unexpected ways.

Perhaps due to the challenges of the economy and the overall mood of the world, the 2009 list above looks to have been a retrenching kind of year, a return to reconsidering the value of the established masters, of seeing their contributions to the art form of photography with renewed clarity and deeper scholarship, perhaps even a hackneyed "flight to quality". We seem to have found comfort in the greats of the medium, or invested more time and energy into inspecting them more closely and reevaluating those we have long admired.

In contrast, only a very few early to mid career photographers even reached the two star level with their most current bodies of work this year, and I'm very sorry to say that 2009 produced no breakout new performances or mind bending new arrivals by young contemporary photographers. As a result, I believe this year will likely be largely forgotten by the writers of photography history, or seen as a transitional or flux year, where new ideas were percolating around, new technologies were refined and extended, and hard work was invested in bodies of new photography that came to fruition in later years. The bold ideas of where we go next are still apparently a work in progress.

A few of you may now be sitting at your computer screens outraged by our obvious bias and incompetent ignorance. Let me reiterate that we would like nothing better than to see a flowering of new contemporary photography that meets (and exceeds) that standards of the best of what has come before. And yet, if the top new work of 2009 came from Ballen, Friedlander, and Goldblatt (with a nod to Sally Mann), the younger generation needs to step it up a notch in my view. I just didn't see many authentically new bodies of work made by the new voices of photography this year that we are likely to be talking about 20 or 30 years in the future.

Our goal in the end is not to leave you with a disapproving view of the photography of 2009; on the contrary, there was much to be seen and admired. But instead of patting ourselves on the back and congratulating ourselves on a job well done amid tough circumstances, I hope we all (artists, gallery owners, museum curators, collectors etc.) might take away a renewed and optimistic challenge to stretch even further in 2010 toward work that will really stand the 50-100 year test, to photographs that will become the image icons of the 21st century.

ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE: This will be our last post before the holiday break. We'll see you next in January, with our detailed statistical review of the 2009 auction season on deck for the first week back. Happy holidays!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, Violet Isle @Ricco Maresca

JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 color images, framed in blond wood and not matted, and hung in two adjoining gallery spaces. The show intermixes the work of the husband and wife team of Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. There are 8 prints by Alex Webb and 7 prints by Rebecca Norris Webb on display. The images are printed in one of two sizes (or reverse): 20x30 or 30x40. For Alex Webb's work, there are 2 prints in the smaller size (in editions of 20) and 6 prints in the larger size (in editions of 12). For Rebecca Norris Webb's work, there are 3 prints in the smaller size (in editions of 10) and 4 prints in the larger size (in editions of 7). All of the images were taken in Cuba between 1993 and 2008. A monograph of this work has recently been published by Radius Books (here) and signed copies are available from the gallery for $50. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Cuba has long been a subject of interest for photographers, going back to the street portraits and shop windows of Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the political portraits of Rene Burri, and more recently, the faded architectural grandeur of Robert Polidori and Michael Eastman. Something about the island's combination of vibrancy with decay, charm with melancholy, all drenched in warm Caribbean sunlight has attracted artists and photographers for decades.

Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb have spent the past decade making trips to Cuba, and their images of the island follow two separate but, in the end, interrelated paths. Alex Webb's images are fragments of Cuban street life: 1950s red car seats simmer in the sun, vacant chess tables are stacked against a dilapidated yellow wall, bored bus riders stare out the window, and hurricane tape criss-crosses plate glass shop windows. His pictures use contrasts of color and perspective to create visual excitement - a eye popping pink sky hovers above a glowing green wall, and boys playing in a gravel courtyard are seen from above, distorting their bodies into indistinct forms.

Rebecca Norris Webb's photographs center on the role of animals in everyday Cuban life: birds flash through rooms of peeling paint, fish loiter in a blue tank, roosters strut around, a stuffed ferret makes an appearance in a glass case, and a multi-colored bird wing is spread out like an elegant fan. In this world, humans and animals live together, coexisting naturally in the same urban space.

Overall, these interleaved bodies of work seem to successfully capture the feel of the culture. But while there are certainly a few eye-catching images here, I'm not sure that they show us a side of Cuba that we haven't already seen before. Even though these works are generally well crafted (albeit printed a bit too large in my opinion), the pictures get a little too caught up in the familiar stereotypes of the island, lessening their impact and eventual memorability.

Collector's POV: The prices for the works in this exhibit are as follows. For Alex Webb's work, the 20x30 prints are $3500 and the 30x40 prints are $5000; for Rebecca Norris Webb, the 20x30 prints are $2500 and the 30x40 prints are $4000. While Alex has been a member of Magnum for many years, neither he nor his wife has much secondary market history. Interested collectors will need to follow up at retail.

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

Transit Hub:
Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, Violet Isle: A Portrait of Cuba
Through January 2nd

Ricco Maresca Gallery
529 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011

ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE: There will be no posts on Monday, December 21st. We'll be back Tuesday.

Barbara Crane: Private Views @Aperture

JTF (just the facts): A total of 30 color images, framed in white and not matted, and hung unevenly in a small side viewing room. Since neither wall labels nor a handy exhibition checklist was readily available, the usual detailed information about sizes, dates, editions, formats, and even titles was not present; what follows are my assumptions or simply approximate guesses. While these works were taken on 4x5 Polaroid film, the prints in the show are somewhat larger than this, perhaps roughly 7x9. All of the images were apparently taken between 1980 and 1984. A monograph of this work has been recently published by Aperture and is available in the shop for $40 (here). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Barbara Crane's snapshot images of people at crowded Chicagoland street fairs capture the sweaty essence of 1980s summer warmth. Using lush Polaroid color and daytime flash to isolate her subjects, Crane crops the mass of humanity into fragments of body parts, highlighting t-shirts and tank tops, satin jackets and sunglasses, striped short shorts and dated hair styles. Visitors clutch boom boxes and ice cream cones, reveling in the food and drink of a casual day in the city.

The best of the images in this show document the intimate gestures of family, friends and lovers, the passing touches that are reminders of attachment and connection in a big crowd. Arms are interlinked, draped across each other, and wound around waists and hips. Hands are held and bodies are squashed together in playful embraces. People sit together, side by side, or on top of one another. Kisses are both furtive and outrageous.

In my view, this is an excellent example of a body of work that thrives in book form. The prints are small and together they give a tangible sense for wandering among these teeming crowds. While a few rise up to being strong stand alone images, many work better in juxtaposition with other images, where the saturated color of the fashions and the closeness of the movement create an ebullient down and dirty primer on body language.

Collector's POV: Since the images in this show are not for sale, no prices were offered. Barbara Crane is represented by Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago (here) and Higher Pictures in New York (here). Even though Crane has had a long and prolific career as a photographer, the availability of her work in the secondary markets is spotty at best; there have been very few of her works sold at auction in the past few years, thus creating very little recent price history.

While the images in this show don't fit particularly well into our specific collection, some of her earlier black and white work from the 1960s and 1970s (tying into her studies at the ID) certainly would.

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

Transit Hub:

  • Artist site (here)
  • Amon Carter Museum retrospective, 2009 (here)
Barbara Crane: Private Views
Through January 21st

Aperture Gallery
547 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Auction Results: Photographie, November 26, 2009 @Villa Grisebach

The German photography season got off to a solid start with the results of Villa Grisebach's various owner photography sale in Berlin generally meeting expectations. While the buy-in rate was perhaps a little higher than expected at over 30%, the Total Sale Proceeds covered the Total Low Estimate with some room to spare.

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

Total Lots: 188
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: 478300€
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 662400€
Total Lots Sold: 124
Total Lots Bought In: 64
Buy In %: 34.04%
Total Sale Proceeds: 509530€

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

Low Total Lots: 172
Low Sold: 116
Low Bought In: 56
Buy In %: 32.56%
Total Low Estimate: 456400€
Total Low Sold: 331625€

Mid Total Lots: 16
Mid Sold: 8
Mid Bought In: 8
Buy In %: 50.00%
Total Mid Estimate: 206000€
Total Mid Sold: 177905€

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

The top lot by High estimate was lot 1382, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Sea of Galilee, Golan, 1992, at 24000-26000€; it sold for 29750€. The top outcome of the sale was lot 1283, Curt Rehbein, Glaserner Wolkenkratzer, 1922, at 84490€.

82.26% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above the estimate range. There were a total of 12 surprises in this sale (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate):

Lot 1214, Werner Bokelberg, Uschi Obermaier, 1969/2007, at 2499€
Lot 1262, Nikolai Kossikoff, Ohne Titel, 1930, at 3094€
Lot 1274, Thomas Luttge, Berliner Mauer, Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 1984/2008, at 1547€
Lot 1275, Thomas Luttge, Berliner-Mauer, Brandenberger Tor, Dez. 1989, at 1547€
Lot 1278, Man Ray, Les Larmes, 1930/2008, at 2142€
Lot 1279, Man Ray, Ohne Titel, 1928/2007, at 1666€
Lot 1281, Will McBride, Romy in Paris, 1964/Later, at 3213€
Lot 1283, Curt Rehbein, Glaserner Wolkenkratzer, 1922, at 84490€
Lot 1294, Terry O'Neill, Paul Newman und Lee Marvin, 1972/Later, at 6545€
Lot 1305, Lisl Steiner, Times Square, November 22nd, 1963/1997, at 2499€
Lot 1307, Louis Stettner, Little Girl, Penn Station, 1958/Later, 3213€
Lot 1350, Peter Beard, 1 year old mountain Gorilla, Rwanda before the genocide, 1984/1999, at 36890€

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

Villa Grisebach Auktionen
Fasanenstraße 25
D-10719 Berlin

Michael Wolf: The Transparent City @Aperture

JTF (just the facts): A total of 43 color photographs, 1 video, and 1 sculpture, generally framed in black with no mat, and hung throughout the main gallery space (with two interior dividing walls), against white and dark blue walls. Since neither wall labels nor a handy exhibition checklist was readily available, the usual detailed information about sizes, dates, editions, formats, and even titles was not present; what follows are my assumptions or simply rough guesses. The chromogenic prints came in three general sizes: large (approximately 4x5 feet or reverse), medium (approximately 16x20 or reverse), and small (approximately 8x10 or reverse); the exhibit contains 13 large prints, 15 medium prints, and 13 small prints, intermixed on the walls. The first wall of the exhibit contains a prelude of sorts, two images and a wooden stool from Wolf's previous Hong Kong project, Architecture of Density. In the middle of the gallery, a video interview runs in a loop, across from a pedestal containing a selection of Wolf's books. A monograph of this work is available in the shop for $60. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Michael Wolf's new images of Chicago skyscrapers and the diversity of life that goes on inside them are fundamentally oriented around the idea of telescoping space, of seeing something from a multitude of distances, from far away to right up close, zooming in and out to to see different layers of meaning.
From ten feet away, Wolf's large nighttime architectural studies look like any number of dense city scenes you've seen before; the sky is cropped out, flattening the picture plane into a gridded wallpaper of geometric lines and patterns, created by the formal repetition of the windows and vertical structure of the buildings. While the scale is larger here and the prints are in color, fundamentally, these are modernist visual ideas that go back all the way to the 1920s. The difference comes in the ability to walk right up to the frame and continue to delve into deeper layers of detail. Try that trick with a classic vintage image and you'll get an eye full of grain and blur; in this case, individual stories resolve themselves in each pane with startling Rear Window voyeurism.
Certainly new technologies play a part in enabling this kind of storytelling, and in some cases, there are echoes of the grand gestures of Andreas Gursky in these pictures. But it is this ability to go from abstraction to documentation in the same frame that is exciting. Up close, the boxes and grids become a warren of lighted offices and apartments, each inhabited by workers and everyday people.
This idea of changing and uncertain distance is amplified by the small, pixelated images of anonymous faces and bodies that are intermixed with the large architectural views. Each one was drawn from one of the big studies and blown up, the pixelation creating another layer of uncertainty; the pictures are indistinct and textured, forcing the viewer to move back and squint to resolve the details. Many of these works were made during the first weeks of the banking crisis, so there are plenty of anxious and worried looks, faces buried in hands, stressed thinking, and subtle gestures of fear. Others have a more pensive and lonely feel, as isolated apartment dwellers watch TV or putter around aimlessly. While I appreciate the impressionistic aspect of the pixels and understand their ability to leave the image more open for interpretation (rather than a strict viewing of truth), I'm not sure that most of the individual close up images can really stand that well on their own; that said, they do provide an important contrast to the larger city shots, and successfully highlight the back and forth changing of scale that is a vital part of Wolf's artistic approach.
In many ways, these images connect me of the earlier city scenes of Kertesz, where the small details of a cat, or a boy swinging, or a boat on a windowsill suddenly come into view when viewed up close, ultimately changing the feel of the picture. I can imagine a collector having one of these large Wolf architectural views on a big wall, and continually bringing visitors right up to the frame to show them some captivating little detail buried in an office. But while Kertesz' vignettes have the light touch of humor and romance, Wolf's small stories seem more emblematic of the trials and tribulations of these depressing economic times. And so perhaps that will be the ultimate fate of these images: to rest as unexpected artistic documents of this particular point in 21st century history.
Collector's POV: Since the images in this show are not for sale, no price information was offered. Michael Wolf is represented by Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York (here) and Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco (here). Wolf's images have only recently begun to find their way into the secondary markets. As such, the pricing history is likely too small to be particularly representative; that said, the few works that have sold in the past few years have ranged between $20000 and $26000, all of the prints being of the largest size from Architecture of Density.

For our specific collection, one of the larger patterned architectural studies would likely be the best fit, even though we would struggle to find a place to hang it.

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

Transit Hub:

  • Artist site (here)
  • MoCP exhibit, 2008 (here)
  • Video interview @Conscientious (here)
  • Features/Reviews: Artforum (here), Lens (here), LensCulture (here)
Michael Wolf: The Transparent City
Through January 21st
547 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Auction Results: Photographies, November 20, 2009 @Sotheby's Paris

Simply put, the results of Sotheby's various owner photography sale in Paris were saved by Eugene Atget and a bare bottom. The rare (and lovely) Atget female nude soared to over 10X its high estimate, propping up the total proceeds of an otherwise disappointing outing marred a buy-in rate over 50%. This auction is a perfect example of how one trophy lot (whether recognized beforehand or not) can make or break a sale.

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

Total Lots: 207
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: 1924700€
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 2615100€
Total Lots Sold: 92
Total Lots Bought In: 115
Buy In %: 55.56%
Total Sale Proceeds: 1997863€

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

Low Total Lots: 118
Low Sold: 49
Low Bought In: 69
Buy In %: 58.47%
Total Low Estimate: 473100€
Total Low Sold: 234938€

Mid Total Lots: 78
Mid Sold: 37
Mid Bought In: 41
Buy In %: 52.56%
Total Mid Estimate: 1427000€
Total Mid Sold: 790025€

High Total Lots: 11
High Sold: 6
High Bought In: 5
Buy In %: 45.45%
Total High Estimate: 715000€
Total High Sold: 972900€

The top lot by High estimate was lot 84, Irving Penn, Mouth, New York, 1986, at 80000-100000€; it sold for 138750€. The top outcome of the sale was lot 15, Eugene Atget, Femme, 1925, at 444750€.

92.39% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above the estimate range. There were a total of 13 surprises in this sale (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate):

Lot 5, Attribue a Auguste Belloc, Nu au Livre, 1850, at 12500€
Lot 6, Anonyme, Scene Pornographique, 1850, at 16250€
Lot 15, Eugene Atget, Femme, 1925, at 444750€
Lot 80, Richard Avedon, Audrey Hepburn, New York, December 18, 1953/Later, at 51150€
Lot 87, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, 1982, at 40350€
Lot 90, Robert Mapplethorpe, Clifton, 1981, at 33150€
Lot 12, Anonyme, Marrel Freres - Plaques Essayees a Genes Le 1er Juillet, 1863, at 18125€
Lot 93, Helmut Newton, Nadja Sitting on Silver Radiator, Hotel Balmoral, Monte Carlo, 1994, at 23550€
Lot 96, Peter Lindbergh, The Wild Ones, 1991, at 34350€
Lot 126, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Chateaux d'eau, 1974, at 53550€
Lot 137, Auguste Belloc, Nu au Voille, 1854-1856, at 11250€
Lot 155, Monsieur X, Nus et Polissonneries, 1930, at 9375€
Lot 156, Monsieur X, Nus et Polissonneries, 1930, at 8125€

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

76, Rue Du Faubourg Saint-Honoré
75008 Paris

Renato D'Agostin, Tokyo Untitled @Leica

JTF (just the facts): A total of 23 black and white images, framed in thin purplish-brown metal frames and matted, and hung in the back room of the gallery (the Chinatown work of Alessandro Zuek Simonetti hangs in the front rooms). All of the photographs are gelatin silver prints sized 12x16 (or reverse) and are printed in editions of 25. The works were taken between 2007 and 2009. A monograph of this body of work has been published by Mc2 Gallery (here). (Ironically, Leica Gallery does not allow photography in the gallery, so unfortunately there are no installation shots for this show. Tokyo, 2009, at right, via the Leica Gallery website.)

Comments/Context: Renato D'Agostin's Tokyo is a dark, lonely, isolating place. In abstracted and impressionistic views, full of shadows and visual interruptions, D'Agostin portrays the city as a jumble of bustling emptiness, a dislocated montage of modern day Japanese noir.
D'Agostin was an assistant to Ralph Gibson, and some of Gibson's simplicity of form and mastery of stark contrasts comes through in his apprentice's work. Fragments of salarymen haunt the streets, captured against the stripes of a crosswalk or the sleek lines of an office building. Trains rush past in the darkness, heads caught in profile against the blinding light of the windows. People walk alone or in groups, carrying briefcases, trudging along in the dark, silhouetted against the features of unidentifiable public spaces. Grainy blurs slash across the compositions, reminiscent of Ray Metzker's use of a similar compositional device.
What I like most about these works is that they successfully combine that feeling of overwhelming visual stimulation that comes from being in Tokyo, with the uneasy sense of polarized remoteness and separation that is so intensely felt by visitors and outsiders.

Collector's POV: The prints in the show are priced at $1500 each. D'Agostin's work has not yet entered the secondary markets, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point. Some of these images could certainly fit into our city/industrial collecting genre; I particularly enjoyed the silhouette of the man in a hat against a brick wall (Tokyo, 2009) and the dark passing train with four white spots (also Tokyo, 2009).

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

Transit Hub:

Renato D'Agostin, Tokyo Untitled
Through January 9th

Leica Gallery
670 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

Auction Results: Signature Photography, November 19, 2009 @Heritage

The results of the recent Heritage various owner photographs sale in Dallas are a bit deceiving at first glance. With a Buy-In rate of less than 20%, things might seem to have gone pretty well. But a look at the Total Sale Proceeds tells a different story, the sum falling below the Total Low Estimate by a wide margin. The most telling data is found in the Above/In/Below statistics - nearly 75% of the lots that sold in this sale sold below their low estimate. Whether we attribute this to the estimates being too high, the material being too marginal, or the number of active buyers being too small, the results were less than inspiring.

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

Total Lots: 187
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: $347600
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: $516100
Total Lots Sold: 151
Total Lots Bought In: 36
Buy In %: 19.25%
Total Sale Proceeds: $231455

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

Low Total Lots: 184
Low Sold: 150
Low Bought In: 34
Buy In %: 18.48%
Total Low Estimate: $471100
Total Low Sold: $221298

Mid Total Lots: 3
Mid Sold: 1
Mid Bought In: 2
Buy In %: 66.67%
Total Mid Estimate: $45000
Total Mid Sold: $10158

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

A disappointing 74.83% of the lots that sold had proceeds below their estimate. There were a total of four surprises in this sale (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate):

Lot 77020 Felice Beato, Peking, China, 1860, at $10755
Lot 77096 Annie Liebovitz, Clowns in New York, 1993, at $4780
Lot 77166 Jock Sturges, Nicole Euronat-Montalivet France, 1989, at $3346
Lot 77176 William Wegman, Reader, 1999, at $1076

The top lot by High estimate was lot 77075, Tom Kelley, Marilyn Monroe, 1949/Later, at $14000-18000; it did not sell. The top outcome of the sale was lot 77020, Felice Beato, Peking, China, 1860, at $10755.

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

Heritage Auctions
Design District Annex
1518 Slocum Street
Dallas, TX 75207

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lee Friedlander: Still Life @Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 47 black and white images, framed in dark grey and matted, and hung in the main gallery space. All of the prints are gelatin silver prints, either 11x14 or 16x20 (or reverse); there are 5 in the smaller size and 42 in the larger size on display. All of the works were taken between 1998 and 2009, most in the past few years, and the prints were generally made in the same year as the negative was taken; Friedlander does not edition his prints, so there are no edition sizes/numbers for these works. For the most part, the images were taken in New York and California, with a variety of other locations in and around the United States represented as well. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: I visited this exhibit of Lee Friedlander's new work last week, and since then, I've been thinking hard about how to talk about the images without covering ground that has already been ably traversed by countless other reviewers, scholars and critics over the years. The truth is, it isn't easy, given the avalanche of words that have already been written, but what I can say is that this small show helped me to crystallize my own understanding of Friedlander, even after seeing the gargantuan traveling retrospective a few years ago and having a shelf full of his well-crafted books in our library.
So let's start with a not-so-simple question to ponder: why is it that regardless of whether Friedlander has pointed his camera at a riot of chain link fence, a dense thicket of desert underbrush, an overtly hairy nude, an urban architectural scene or shop window, a jumble of flower stems in a vase, or a random vista taken through a rental car window that all of these images have the unmistakable hallmark of his artistic vision? How is it that his visual vocabulary is so original and different, so much so that his work (regardless of subject matter) is immediately recognizable? Pair with these another set of questions: why, well in to his 70s, is Friedlander still shooting so prolifically? Why doesn't he just rest on his laurels and coast into the sunset, picking up a few more lifetime achievement awards for his mantel?
Having never met Friedlander, it is certainly presumptuous of me to try and answer these questions. But my guess is that it all comes back to a restless and relentless approach to looking, one that has been refined over the decades into a dizzying array of internal complexities and heuristics that manifest themselves as a simple flow of seeing, Friedlander-style. This is not to imply that the pictures take themselves; I'm sure that's far from the reality. But I'd like to imagine that his congested compositions coalesce in his mind's eye as a natural part of his itinerant wanderings, invisible to the rest of us who might be standing right nearby.

Friedlander's new works cover territory he has visited before, but the new pictures seem amplified somehow, as if the simple layers and overlaps of his 1960s and 1970s street scenes have been super-charged. Many of the current images are of shop windows, with an odd assortment of female mannequins and cardboard beer girls as the primary subject, many wearing various forms of swimsuits, negligees and fetish garb. Layered on top are powerful reflections of geometric buildings and street life captured in the panes of glass, creating two dimensional overlaps of transparency and shadow, pattern and interconnection. A few of the images add yet another layer of wildness via steel security grills that interrupt the view. At first glance, the clutter is a little confusing and overwhelming, but after a few moments, the kaleidoscope effect quiets down and the congestion seems more controlled. Each one becomes a swirling visual puzzle to unpack.
Other images in the exhibit show a mastery of spatial compression, of flattening the objects in the picture plane into abstract compositions of line and form rather than a representation of something in particular. One of my favorite images in the show depicts a gathering of gutter trash, frozen into a dancing mix of forms bound up in a sheet of ice. Boring shots of framed pictures hanging on the wall are suddenly made altogether more puzzling by an open door jutting boldly into the middle of the view. Everyday booth tables at diners and coffee shops are transformed by odd angles and weird shadows. The ultimate New York City cliche, the graffiti covered truck, is flattened out into a chaotic expanse of pattern, intermixed with the lines of ladders and hand carts. And it wouldn't be a Friedlander show without a crazy self-portrait or two; one here captures the artist in a staged window scene with a fur throw, his likeness reflected via a mirror in the display.
My takeaway from this excellent show is that Friedlander remains at the top of his game, continuing to push the limits of his artistic vision and finding new rules to disregard; the visual chaos here is confidently consistent, the seeming disorder only a thin mask for his mature control of the medium. Wandering around among these images was like being the guy in the chair in front of the huge speaker in that old Maxell cassette tape ad - my hair was literally being blown back by the tremendous force of the output on the walls.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced at $5200 or $7400 based on size. Gallery pricing for Friedlander's new work continues to creep upward, slowly rising over the past several years. A wide variety of his images are routinely available in the secondary markets, ranging from approximately $2000 to as much as $80000 in recent years; at the low end of the price range, one can find later prints, broken up portfolios and lesser known images, and at the high end, vintage prints of his most recognizable images from the 1960s and early 1970s.
We actually already own three Friedlander images (here, two from Sticks and Stones and one from Stems), and we continue to consider adding others, both old and new, to our collection.

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

A few comments about this particular rating: conspiracy theorists out there will likely notice that this review coincides with a banner sponsorship by Janet Borden on the sidebar, and may therefore assume that there is some kind of sinister bias at work in this review. This is not the case. Our reputation for impartiality is worth far more to us than any banner ad, so I can assure you that this show has been rigorously reviewed on its merits alone, without any other external influences, and been found to wholeheartedly deserve three stars.

Transit Hub:
  • NY Times reviews: Olmsted parks @Met, 2008 (here), Retrospective @MoMA, 2005 (here)
  • Video: Mr. Lee (here)
Lee Friedlander: Still Life
Through December 30th

Janet Borden, Inc.
560 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

Thoughts on Negative Reviews

In the process of gathering the data for the Top Photography Shows of 2009 (coming next week), I have been thinking more about negative reviews and how they fit into the spectrum of important and valuable criticism. I was therefore interested to come across a set of data gleaned from the New York Times, where all of the short blurbs that appear in the Friday Art in Review section were tallied (either positive or negative) and sorted by reviewer. There are approximately 5 reviews per week, covering all of contemporary art, therefore totalling about 250 reviews in a given year. There were 38 negative reviews counted, the breakdown by author below. (The data apparently comes from a pamphlet associated with the White Columns Annual here, post/graph at 16 Miles of String here, via C-MONSTER here.)

Part of what may be going on here is some selection bias in the assignments, where Cotter and Smith get the most prominent shows to review, while Johnson and Rosenberg get the next rung down, thereby getting a more mixed bag of quality, and leading ultimately to more negative reviews overall.

But regardless of how we interpret the data above, in our own efforts this past year or so as reviewers of photography shows, I have come to believe that the negative review is the toughest article to truly write well. The challenge is that it is temptingly easy to be flippant, sarcastic, snarky, and generally make fun of bad art or poor curating/installation (and readers certainly find it entertaining when a good zinger is launched); it is altogether harder to show respect for an artist's (and curator's) work (however bad it may be) by giving it a thorough and thoughtful analysis that finds it systematically deficient in major areas. In these cases, the siren song of crafting a bitingly clever dismantling is oh so tantalizing, and yet I think in the end, this approach is ultimately counterproductive.

Why is this the case? I often receive emails from readers who ask why so many shows receive one star (GOOD) in our rating system, and why there are no zero star shows ever reviewed; surely there must be plenty of boring and awful photography on view in a city as large as New York. If you are the NY Times, and your mandate is to cover the best/most important of what's out there, it isn't particularly surprising that there aren't many negative reviews; in this case, a negative review is only needed when a big/important show is found to be severely lacking, which doesn't happen all that often. This type of negative review is an unmasking of an imposter, where both the artist and venue are generally already successful enough to know better, and should have thick enough skin to handle the feedback.

In our case, since we review photography shows out on the edges a bit more, including many first solo shows, we certainly come across plenty of astonishing clunkers. But in general, we have decided that omission (via no review on the site) is a better punishment for these shows, as opposed to a harsh or diminishing tirade, which may forever haunt the first Google search page for an emerging artist. This is not to say that we are not openly critical; regular readers here will hopefully realize that we do our best to be even handed, and to highlight areas of weakness we see within the larger context of the exhibit or the artist's career, particularly from the subjective perspective of a prospective collector of the work. We have to be balanced (good and bad) or we will lose the trust of our readers.

It's of course a tricky balance. No one wants "grade inflation" or a mass of content-free glowing reviews that parrot the unreadable press release text; we all want real eyewitness accounts of what's on view, with a dose of concise, realtime, critical thinking applied to these shows. If the work is uninspired or derivative, if the prints are lazy or fundamentally flawed, we want to hear about it. At the same time, it is our view that we also want to continue to find ways to encourage artists whose show today may be marginal, but whose next body of work may be transformative. This implies a careful toning down of the rhetoric, so as to find a higher percentage of silver linings rather than scathing dismissals.

Perhaps this desire to have it both ways is a result of our position as a commentator from within the photography community (as active collectors), rather than an objective critic from the outside. In any event, I have no definitive or "right" answers to these issues today, and therefore leave it to the rest of you to consider the rightful place of the negative review and whether or not we have found the appropriate balance in our efforts here.

Auction Results: Ilse Bing, November 16, 2009 @Millon

Even though the results of the major Ilse Bing photography sale at Millon in Paris topped the Total High Estimate for the sale, I'd say that they were likely right in line with the optimistic range of expectations for the auction. Because there was so much material coming into the market all at once, the estimates had to be set low to entice bidders to show up and absorb all the work. Clearly, this strategy worked, as most of the lots that found buyers came in above their high estimate, with plenty of top end surprises.

The summary statistics are below (all results include the 18.5% buyer’s premium):

Total Lots: 286
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: 322000€
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 470200€
Total Lots Sold: 204
Total Lots Bought In: 82
Buy In %: 28.67%
Total Sale Proceeds: 519089€

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

Low Total Lots: 285
Low Sold: 203
Low Bought In: 82
Buy In %: 28.77%
Total Low Estimate: 450200€
Total Low Sold: 469319€

Mid Total Lots: 1
Mid Sold: 1
Mid Bought In: 0
Buy In %: 00.00%
Total Mid Estimate: 20000€
Total Mid Sold: 49770€

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

The top lot by High estimate was lot 56, Ilse Bing, Le Moulin Rouge, Paris, 1931, at 15000-20000€; it was also the top outcome of the sale at 49770€.

As evidence of the low estimates, a staggering 62.25% of the lots that sold had proceeds above the estimate range; only 7.35% sold below the range. There were a total of 37 surprises in this sale (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate). Since there are far too many to list, I have only added details for the "extreme surprises", where the proceeds were at least triple the high estimate; there were nine of these:

Lot 1, Ilse Bing, Textes, documentation, dessins, collages divers, at 8532€
Lot 2, Ilse Bing, Autoportrait, Frankfurt, 1928, at 14220€
Lot 65, Ilse Bing, The elevated and me, New York, 1936, at 29625€
Lot 117, Ilse Bing, Orgue du Barbarie, Amsterdam, 1933, at 10665€
Lot 161, Ilse Bing, Le dernier 14 juillet avant la guerre, Paris, 1939, at 3318€
Lot 163, Ilse Bing, New York, 1936, at 7110€
Lot 195, Ilse Bing, Ecoliers, 1952, at 2726€
Lot 206, Ilse Bing, Le marchard de glace, Paris, 1933, at 1896€
Lot 210, Ilse Bing, Street cleaner's broom, Paris, 1952, at 8532€

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

Millon et Associés
5, Avenue D'Eylau
75116 Paris

Monday, December 14, 2009

Paola Ferrario: Imprevisti/Unforeseen @Sue Scott

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 photographic works and 1 video, hung in the entry, office space, and main gallery, with the video playing in a darkened room at the back. The photographs are digital prints using archival inks, pinned directly to the walls as single images, pairs, triptychs, or larger series and grids. All of the works are from 2008 and 2009. Individual component images range in size from approximately 8x10 to 22x30; the pictures are then hung as groups of prints or are printed together as one larger piece with multiple images on a single sheet. All of the works are printed in editions of 5+2AP. The video is also from 2009, in an edition of 5+2AP. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Paola Ferrario's photographs strongly remind me (in the best possible way) of an old teaching tool used to help novice photographers learn how to "see" photographically - take an old piece of white mat board and cut a 4x6 hole in it, and then carry it around and look through it to see how the edges of the frame create compositions. Using this simple prop, one suddenly sees the world entirely differently: scraps and fragments start to matter, edges and details come forward, and overlooked and seemingly random things often have a new resonance.

Ferrario's images take the learnings from this simple lesson and evolve them into a unique style that combines the color of Eggleston, the playfulness of Luigi Ghirri, and the abstraction of Siskind. Her compositions find warm humor in unassuming places: a pink sock dangles off a hand railing, a rubbish bin looks to devour a white balloon, a smiley face peeks out from the side of a worn yellow basketball. In others, she focuses on texture and pattern: a door peephole lies amidst peeling plastic, strips of duct tape dangle from a wall, a bright orange potato chip bag lies caught in rough concrete.

Ferrario doesn't stop however with single, clever images; she brings the fragments together in careful juxtapositions, creating rhythms and contrasts between multiple pictures: a series of tar ribbons and road markings are hung together in a interrelated group (almost like a typology), views through molded concrete barriers are hung in a series, fragments of graffiti pop up again and again. The grids become abstract patterns and repetitions of geometry and color, as well as sly rebuses of interconnected metaphors and meanings.

Overall, this show is full of satisfying coincidences and ironies. And don't miss the manic video in the back, a car-sickness inducing montage of the twist and turns of Italian roadways and tunnels taken with a shaky handheld video camera, punctuated by the radio voice over from a soccer match and the final roar of "GOOOAAAL" as Grosso hits the net.

Collector's POV: The works in the show are priced as follows: single images run from $400 to $1400 based on size; pairs are between $800 and $1200, and works with between 3 and 16 component images are priced between $1200 and $6500, dependent on size and the number of images included. A price for the video was not on the price sheet. Ferrario's work is not yet available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.

While none of the works on display is an exact match for our particular collection, there were many that I found visually striking and entertaining. Asphalt I, 2009, would likely fit our city genre best, with its subtle variations of abstract grey.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Smith College page (here)
Through January 10th

1 Rivington Street
New York, NY 10002

Larry Sultan Dies

Larry Sultan died this past weekend at the age of 63. At this point, it's virtually impossible to talk about 1970s conceptual photography without mentioning Evidence, Sultan's now famous book collaboration with Mike Mandel, where the two gathered together oddly memorable yet often inexplicable found black and white photographs from police departments and industrial labs. It remains a profoundly influential and resonant project, even decades later. Take the book down from your photo library shelf again today and remind yourself just how puzzling and remarkable these images continue to be.

In the past decade or so, Sultan has gone through a kind of resurgence, with two relatively recent projects bringing him back to the forefront of contemporary photography. Pictures From Home captured intimate images of the everyday lives of Sultan's parents in rich color, while The Valley documented the backstage realities of suburban LA porno shoots. (My mother posing for me, 1984, at right, via Janet Borden.) Both examined the boundaries of truth and fiction in photography, subtly exploring the ideas of staging/set pieces and how they are used to construct complex, personal narratives.

Collector's POV: Larry Sultan is represented by Janet Borden in New York (here) and Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco (here). Apart from first edition copies of Evidence, Sultan's photographs have not been particularly available in the secondary markets. Only a few lots from his more recent projects have been sold in the past few years, most between $10000 and $25000.

Transit Hub:
  • Obituaries: NY Times (here), SFMOMA (here)
  • Interview: Big, Red & Shiny, 2008 (here)
  • The Valley @SFMOMA 2004 (here)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Massimo Vitali: Landscape with Figures 2 @Benrubi

JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 large scale works, mounted to dibond plexi and not framed, and hung in the entry and main gallery spaces. Each of the chromogenic prints is 72x86; 5 are single images and there is one diptych. All of the works in the show were made in 2008 and 2009. A monograph of this work is being published by Steidl (here). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Massimo Vitali's recent images continue his signature combination of large scale photography and intricate detail, his locations once again covered by masses of people. Taken in Sicily and Turkey, these particular images depict the ruins of Ephesus, and various healing pools, sacred grottoes, and swimming locations.

What I like about Vitali's work is that from afar, his images have a sense of immense grandeur, the huge scale creating engrossing, eye-catching scenes (sometimes blindingly lit); up close, I've always found the pictures to border on the ridiculous, the crazy density of humanity literally overrunning every setting, no matter how beautiful or pristine. Tourism and consumerism are skewered quite neatly.

These new works are no different: tourists crawl over the historic library and amphitheatre at Ephesus (mixed together with acres of dusty rubble and tumbledown rocks) and swimmers of all shapes and sizes plunge into various waters, cavorting and frolicking literally on top of each other in the washed out brightness. The works seem to bring together the extra large museum images of Thomas Struth with the ironic tourist pictures of Martin Parr, with a dash of the over the top crowds at Coney Island of Weegee.

The works in this particular show are so large that they crowd each other a bit too much, creating a visual overload in the gallery; the prints are outsized for the display space - shown in a bigger room, they'd have much more room to breathe. Overall, while these works don't depart too far from Vitali's successful formula or show us much that is radically different from his earlier work, they hold up a mirror to ourselves, a potent reminder that we are not necessarily as unique as we might think; perhaps we too are unknowingly part of the thundering herds looking for the same banal entertainments and "memorable" experiences.

Collector's POV: The single images in this show are priced at 25000€ each; the diptych is 45000€. Vitali's work has become more and more available in the secondary markets in recent years and his prices have remained strong, ranging from $7000 to $80000.

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

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Interview: Lens Culture (here)
  • Foam exhibit, 2009 (here)
  • Review: Guardian (here), 1000 Words (here)

Massimo Vitali: Landscape with Figures 2
Through February 27th

Bonni Benrubi Gallery
41 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book: Michael Wesely, Stilleben 2001-2007

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2007 by Schirmer/Mosel (here). 96 pages, with 42 color images. Includes an essay by Franz-W. Kaiser. (Cover shot at right, via Schirmer/Mosel.)

Comments/Context: Contemporary German photographer Michael Wesely has made a name for himself by expanding the idea of the photographic exposure to the point where time itself seems to be what is being captured. Using a large format camera with exposures measured in days, weeks, months, and in some cases even years, Wesely has drawn out the decisive moment into something altogether more cinematic, albeit still delivered within the confines of a single, static frame. This recent book gathers together a group of floral still lifes Wesley did over the last few years, showing how this approach can breathe new life into a classic subject.

If you've ever bought a bunch of tulips at the market, jammed them into a vase and left them on a table for a week or so, you'll know that the straight stems quickly bend and bow over, and the flowers gradually open up and drop their petals. While other photographers have documented the end point decay of all kinds of flowers (often as withered, dried up, or dusty husks), Wesely is the first I have encountered to have effectively captured all of the intermediate steps; the photographs document the entire process of aging, not just the final result. (2.2-12.2.2007 (B2906) at right, via Fahnemann Projects.)

Given the simple construct of a week-long exposure combined with a nearly infinite variety of flower types and colors, Wesely has produced a surprisingly varied body of work. What sounds mundane is anything but; each bouquet performs a unique lyrical dance as the flowers slowly swoon and wilt. For pictures that claim to be "still", there is an amazing amount of ghostly movement in these images, creating an impressionistic layering of blurred light and color. What I like about these works is that they can be read on one level as conceptual exercises, and on another, simply as floral still lifes of unexpected elegance and beauty.

Collector’s POV: Michael Wesely is represented by Fahnemann Projects in Berlin (here). The artist's work has not appeared in the secondary markets with much frequency; the lots that have sold in the past few years have ranged in price between $4000 and $13000.

As admirers of floral photography, these images would fit right into one of our core collecting genres. Unfortunately, given their generally large size (the image above is printed approximately 50x50, but many are as large as 70x95), we likely would have a problem with finding a place to display these massive works.

Transit Hub:

  • Artist site (here)
  • Open Shutter @MoMA, 2004 (here)

Ferenc Berko @Gitterman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 48 black and white images, framed primarily in black and matted (a few are framed in white), and hung in the main gallery, hallway and smaller side room on the first floor, and in the main gallery and hallway on the second floor. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, taken in the period between 1933 and 1951; most are vintage prints, with a handful of later prints mixed in. The images were taken in London, Paris, Budapest, various locations in India, Chicago and New York. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: As collectors of nudes, over the years, we have come across the work of Hungarian photographer Ferenc Berko from time to time and wondered whether one of his best images would make a good addition to our collection, without knowing much about his entire body of work or his history as an artist; for us, he has always seemed somewhat peripheral to the main action of his better known contemporaries. Having recently taken on the artist's estate, Gitterman Gallery has put together a well-edited survey show of Berko's surprisingly varied early work that makes a strong case for reconsidering the value of his artistic contributions.
Chronologically, the show starts with Berko's early street scenes of London (where he was a student), reminiscent of the work of his friend and mentor E.O. Hoppé. The photographer then moved to Paris, where a series of nudes were done in collaboration with his wife. Unlike the pared down nudes of the West coast American photographers of the same period (Weston, Cunningham et al), Berko's nudes have a strong "European" feel to them (more similar to the concurrent nudes of Man Ray), many with avant-garde styling and dense wallpaper patterning. Also during this time, he makes a trip back to his native Hungary to make compelling portraits of Jews on the streets of Budapest.
To avoid the increasing Nazi influence in Europe, Berko then moves across the globe to India to become a filmmaker. His photographs from the early 1940s combine a more humanist view of daily life in India with an undertone of modernist sensibility, evident in the architecture of his compositions. Berko's life and photography take another unexpected turn after the war, when his friend László Moholy-Nagy invites him to teach photography at the ID in Chicago. His work from this period shows the influence of the New Bauhaus and of the early ideas of Abstract Expressionism: pared down urban geometries of fire escapes and telephone wires (think Callahan), contrasty solarized nudes, and gestural graphical abstractions of paint chips and found objects (think Siskind).
As a whole, I think the show successfully argues that Berko was not a derivative chameleon in these years, switching his stripes to copy the fashions of the art world, but often an active participant in the leading edge evolution of important artistic approaches over time. When his specific works are carefully matched to the time lines of other more prominent photographers, it becomes obvious that Berko was experimenting with similar ideas during similar years, not merely riding their coattails later. As such, while he will likely remain a secondary figure in the history books, many of the images on display here certainly stand up well with the best of his better known contemporaries.

Collector's POV: The images in this show are priced between $3500 and $7500. Berko's work has not found its way into the secondary markets much in the past several years; only a few lots have been sold, ranging in price between $1000 and $2000. As such, gallery retail is likely the only option for collectors interested in accessing his best work.
In the past, we have found many of Berko's nudes a bit too obvious for us (perhaps even a bit cheesy in some cases), but seeing a well edited group of his pictures in person, I was convinced that we should reconsider some of these works once again. Berko's late 1940s abstracted Chicago images would also clearly fit well with other city scenes we own from that same period.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Obituary: NY Times, 2000 (here)
  • Feature by Bill Jay (here)
Through January 23rd

Gitterman Gallery
170 East 75th Street
New York, NY 10021