Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Auction Results Fall 2008: Bloomsbury London, Rago, and Phillips London

We've got three additional photography sales to cover from last week: Bloomsbury London, Rago, and Phillips London. All results include the buyer’s premium.

Bloomsbury London

Total Lots: 302
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: 434100 Pounds
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 632300 Pounds

Total Lots Sold: 126
Total Lots Bought In: 176
Buy In %: 58.28%
Total Sale Proceeds: 181344 Pounds

Like the drubbing at Sotheby's London earlier in the week, this sale was pretty disastrous all over. Even the things that did sell often sold well below their Low estimates. With only about 30000 Pounds of premium, I imagine this sale was awfully close to failing to break even against the auction house's costs plus overhead.

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

Low Total Lots: 287
Low Sold: 121
Low Bought In: 166
Buy In %: 57.84%
Total Low Estimate: 506300 Pounds
Total Low Sold: 128970 Pounds

Mid Total Lots: 15
Mid Sold: 5
Mid Bought In: 10
Buy In %: 66.67%
Total Mid Estimate: 126000 Pounds
Total Mid Sold: 22150 Pounds

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

I think the lesson here is (again) about needing to source high quality material. There just weren't enough great pictures in this sale to draw out the buyers.


Total Lots: 301
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: $963900
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: $1453600

Total Lots Sold: 203
Total Lots Bought In: 98
Buy In %: 32.56%
Total Sale Proceeds: $505290

As a reminder, this was the Dan Berley sale, with many solid images and portfolios on offer at generally low estimates, so it's a little surprising that this sale performed only passingly well, even in these tough economic times.

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

Low Total Lots: 277
Low Sold: 205
Low Bought In: 72
Buy In %: 25.99%
Total Low Estimate: $857600
Total Low Sold: $377490

Mid Total Lots: 22
Mid Sold: 8
Mid Bought In: 14
Buy In %: 63.64%
Total Mid Estimate: $476000
Total Mid Sold: $127800

High Total Lots: 2
High Sold: 0
High Bought In: 2
Buy In %: 100.00%
Total High Estimate: $120000
Total High Sold: $0

The Mid and High ranges performed quite poorly here, and many Low lots sold for under their Low estimates, which together clearly impacted the total proceeds. My guess is that the overall buyer turnout was weak, ultimately driving down prices.

Phillips London

Total Lots: 188
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: 1105500 Pounds
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 1623500 Pounds

Total Lots Sold: 127
Total Lots Bought In: 61
Buy In %: 32.45%
Total Sale Proceeds: 1003951 Pounds

The sale was a grab bag of different styles and periods, but the targeting seems to have produced a solid outcome.

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

Low Total Lots: 98
Low Sold: 65
Low Bought In: 33
Buy In %: 33.67%
Total Low Estimate: 296500 Pounds
Total Low Sold: 160876 Pounds

Mid Total Lots: 81
Mid Sold: 54
Mid Bought In: 27
Buy In %: 29.63%
Total Mid Estimate: 807000 Pounds
Total Mid Sold: 608125 Pounds

High Total Lots: 9
High Sold: 5
High Bought In: 4
Buy In %: 44.44%
Total High Estimate: 520000 Pounds
Total High Sold: 234950 Pounds

The Mid range really carried this sale. There were actually quite a number of lots that sold above their High estimates, which has been virtually unheard of this auction season. Credit here goes to the Phillips team for digging out some unexpected material for which stingy buyers were willing to open their wallets.

NOTE: This will be the last post this week, given the Thanksgiving holiday. We'll be back on Monday, December 1st, with a review of Cindy Sherman's new exhibit at Metro Pictures.

Auction: Soviet War Photography and 19th-21st Century Photography, December 3, 2008 @Bassenge

Galerie Bassenge in Berlin has the largest array of photography material up for sale this season, so for sheer volume of lots, it's the winner. On December 3rd, there will be a total of 662 lots on offer. To reduce buyer fatigue, the lots have been broken up into four separate groups:

Soviet War Photography: 119 lots (separate catalog, at right top)
19th Century Photography: 118 lots (group catalog, at right bottom)
20th Century and Contemporary Photography: 302 lots (group catalog)
Photo Books: 123 lots (group catalog)

The Soviet sale has a broad group of World War II documentary images from Boris Kudojarow, Dimitri Baltermans, Michail Trachman, Jewgeni Chaldej, and Ivan Shagin (among others). The images in the 19th Century and 20th Century/Contemporary sale are virtually all Low end images from a cross section of German, European and other photographers.

Particularly interesting to us were the photo book lots, where it is clear that an expansive photo book collection is being liquidated. Nearly all the lots are group lots, some containing as many as 25 or 30 books in a single lot, each grouped under a common artist or theme. What was interesting to note is that when the special volumes, the first editions, the signed copies and the association items are stripped away, a tremendous library like this one isn't worth much. We wish this sale was local, so we could better examine all the books up for sale and worry less about the problems of getting a heavy shipment to the US done. Where else are you going to find 22 books by Renger-Patzsch in one lot for 300 Euros? Or 15 books by August Sander in one lot for 200 Euros? If you are a photo book collector, you will find a quick skimming of this sale catalog (direct link here) entertaining. It offers a way to build an instant library of significant depth.

The total high estimate for all the sections of the sale is 549140 Euros. Here's the overall price breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate below 7500 Euros): 660
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): 530140 Euros

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between 7500 and 35000 Euros): 2
Total Mid Estimate: 19000 Euros

Total High Lots (high estimate above 35000 Euros): 0
Total High Estimate: 0 Euros

Beyond the books, surprisingly, there wasn't much to tempt us in this massive sale. Several works by Ulrich Wust were new to us and would fit well with Lewis Baltz and other 1970s American topographic photographers. (See Kaufhalle in Bad Muskau, 1980 at left.)

Soviet War Photography
December 3rd

December 3rd
Erdener Strasse 5a
14193 Berlin-Grunewald

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Auction: Photographie, December 5, 2008 @Van Ham

Van Ham's upcoming photography sale has a whopping 422 lots on offer (including 30 lots of photo books), so there is plenty of variety and volume to sift through in Cologne, nearly all of it on the Low end. The total high estimate for the sale is 738440 Euros.

Here's the overall price breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate below 7500 Euros): 409
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): 542440 Euros

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between 7500 and 35000 Euros): 12
Total Mid Estimate: 146000 Euros

Total High Lots (high estimate above 35000 Euros): 1
Total High Estimate: 50000 Euros

There aren't many superior lots in this sale (in our view), but quite a few lesser known works of interest can be found. For our collection, here are a few that are intriguing:
  • Lot 1043 Pierre Auradon, Tulips, 1930: We already have one Pierre Auradon in our collection (here), but this is another high quality floral that would fit well in our floral genre. (image at right, top)

  • Lot 1295 Tata Ronkholz, Fischerplatz 2, 1978: Ronkholz was a Becher student, and did a whole series of Trinkhalle images that document urban development in Dusseldorf. I believe that Van Ham represents the Ronkholz estate. These images would fit well with American topographic photography from the 1970s. (image at right, middle)

  • Lot 1347 Arthur Siegel, Golden Gate Bridge, 1942: Siegel was at the ID in Chicago with Callahan and Siskind. This early bridge image would match a few others in our collection. (image at right, bottom)
As with many of the other German houses, we have had good success with Van Ham's services, including condition reports, bidding, and packing/shipping to the US.
December 5th

Schonhauser Strasse 10-16
50968 Koln

Sharon Core, Early American @Yancey Richardson

JTF (just the facts): 10 chromogenic prints of various sizes, all from 2007/2008, displayed throughout the main gallery (installation shot at right). In editions of 7, some of which are sold out.

Comments/Context: In looking back at my college Art History classes, there was virtually no mention of photography and its relationship to painting. While we might have looked at a few iconic photographs, the influence photography had on painting and vice versa was never discussed or even acknowledged. And yet we know that with the invention of both the Daguerreotype and the Calotype, painting was affected almost overnight, both by the use of photography as a seeing tool, and by the reaction against the sharp detail that was inherent in photography. Since then, the two mediums have played off each other time and again. Pictorialism, where photographs were made to look like paintings, and Photo-Realism, where paintings were made to look like photographs, are two obvious examples, but more subtle influences in color, composition, framing, and usage of light can be found between the two arts over time with very little effort.

Sharon Core has taken this conversation between the two mediums in a new and unexpected direction. Her photographs are still lifes, made in the style of the artist Raphaelle Peale, an American painter of the early 19th century. Still life painting of this type, of course, goes all the way back to the mid 1500s, where Dutch artists made exquisitely detailed and "realistic" paintings of carefully composed tabletop scenes. Peale's paintings represent an American spin on these earlier works, complete with fruits, vegetables, flowers, and utensils common to that particular time and place in American history. Core has steeped herself in the work of Peale (ironically via photographic reproductions in books and catalogs) and made her photographs "in the style" of his work.

Core began this mind bending kind of art a few years ago, with a series of photographs re-enacting the cakes and desserts of Wayne Thiebaud. Taking the original paining as a guide, she would meticulously bake the cakes and set the stage to imitate the sugary world of Thiebaud. These new still life works follow along on this conceptual track. At one level, they can be read as beautifully composed still life photographs; on another level, they can be seen as a multi-layered riff on the interrelationships between the mediums of photography and painting. In particular, because of the "real life" nature of the original paintings, the "truth in photography" discussion is raised again in an original way by these works.

Collector's POV: These prints are priced between $4000 and $7750, depending on size and availability. Magnolia with Wild Leeks, 2008 (shown above at right) was our particular favorite, but all the works are accomplished. The prints benefit from a careful, up close inspection; it is only by really looking carefully that you can see how Core uses photography to imitate painting, down to the painstaking highlights and details. Overall, this is an impressive body of work.

Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Through December 6th

535 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

Monday, November 24, 2008

Andy Warhol: Still-life Polaroids @Paul Kasmin

JTF (just the facts): 70 color Polaroids, measuring 4 x 3 1/2 inches each, taken between 1977 and 1983. Arrayed in three grids, displayed in a single room gallery (installation shot at right). Each blind stamped with Warhol copyright.

Comments/Context: So much has been written and said about the art and life of Andy Warhol that you might think the subject was completely tapped out. And yet, the small show of still life Polaroids on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery seems to have unearthed a tiny vein of unexplored territory.
What is thought provoking about this intimate show is that the pictures allow you to watch as Warhol experimented with composition, almost in an academic, systematic way. He would begin with a handful of similar items (knives, shoes, perfume bottles, lobsters, guns, crosses, candy boxes, dental molds, bananas etc.) and start by laying them out against a white background. 4 or 5 iterations later would emerge a striking, unique composition. These were exercises in spatial relationships, taking the simplest of subjects and turning them into symbolic motifs. It is a testament to his artistic vision that he was able to make even the most mundane somehow glamorous (although clearly some of the subjects are more emotionally charged than others). This doesn't appear to have been at all random; these are carefully constructed, arranged, and composed pictures. It just took a few tries for each subject to be refined to its most powerful pattern. The camera was there along the way to capture each intermediate step. There is a real "artist at work" feel to this exhibit as a result, which makes it particularly intriguing and surprising.

Collector's POV: The images in this show are retailing for $11000 each. Most of the Warhol photographs that have come into the secondary market in the past few years are portraits of celebrities or of himself, with a few of the stitched photographs appearing from time to time, so they don't provide a comparable pricing picture to match against these compositions. They are however interesting historical documents and strong artworks in and of themselves.
Although they wouldn't fit into our collection directly, the images we enjoyed the most were the following (numbered according to the wall numbering of the exhibit):
  • 7 Italian Yarn, 1982-1983
  • 9 Telephones 1980
  • 30 Bananas 1977-1978
  • 41 Crosses 1982
  • 49 Shoes 1980
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Through January 10th

511 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001

Friday, November 21, 2008

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Seven Days/Seven Nights @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): 14 large scale black and white seascapes (7 each of day and night views), 60x71 each, with silver frames and dry mounted without matting. In editions of 5. Installed in two separate sections of the gallery (described below).

Comments/Context: Hiroshi Sugimoto has been making his seascapes since the early 1980s, and much has been written about their sublime qualities. If you have been under a rock for the past 25 years and somehow failed to see these amazing photographs, here's a quick overview. Sugimoto uses a large format camera to make images of the sea, perched from on high and using a rigidly consistent formula, bisecting the frame into equal parts sea and sky. (Baltic Sea, Rugen, 1996 at right.) There are no boats, or people, or islands in these images, simply the water and the air, in all their subtle variations. These are contemplative pictures, that encourage a thoughtful response by the viewer, where the minute changes across the tonal spectrum become more apparent as you spend more time in front of the works, and a meditative energy seems to flow outward as you look more carefully. Sugimoto has said that the works are inspired by the idea of naming things, going back to early human history, when man looked upon the ocean and named it. And regardless of where the images were taken (and he has taken seascapes all over the globe), there is a timelessness to these pictures, a sense of balance and continuity.
In this exhibit, Sugimoto has enlarged the seascapes to wall sized images (roughly 5 by 6 feet each), which has the effect of making them less intimate, but more powerful. The artist has custom configured the gallery space for this show, so upon entering the gallery, there is a large open space, lit with natural light, with seven of the daytime seascapes arrayed along one wall facing the viewer. The size and scale of the images allows the nuances of the two elements (sea and sky) to radiate with more intensity than usual, and the sharpness of the prints and the smooth tonal gradations are not impaired one bit by the enlargements.
And then something spectacular happens. You walk to the end of the gallery and are led through a completely dark passageway, a short disorienting maze with a low ceiling (so low that the guard thought I might somehow injure myself and helped me along), only to be delivered to the other side, where the series of night seascapes are shown in complete darkness, the only light in the entire vast gallery being the spotlights which are placed exactly to fit the frames of the images. The effect is that the back wall behind the works disappears, and the images float in the darkness, and reflect onto the polished floor. I was the only one in the gallery at that moment, so the room was still and quiet, the only sounds the hum of the building and the muffled honks of the street. After my eyes had a moment to adjust, the subtleties of the dark seascapes came forth in all their glory, in a way that I had not seen them in normal daylight. I can hardly explain what a transcendent, unexpected and awe-inspiring event this was. I stood there for a long time. It was the most memorable gallery experience I have had viewing of a group of works in many, many years.
Sugimoto's control of the environment for this exhibit made all these works new and fresh for me, even though we have been admirers of this body of work for years. My guess is that the wonder of the black gallery would be somewhat diminished by seeing this portion of the show along with a yammering horde, so I would highly recommend trying to see the exhibit at some random time when the crowds are gone.

Collector's POV: I think that Sugimoto's seascapes will stand the test of time extremely well and will later be called some of the masterpieces of the last part of the 20th century. These large scale images are museum quality, period. At $450000 each, they're not cheap, especially in today's economic environment, but I hazard to guess that these works will hold their value like few others in contemporary photography. And at worst, you can stand in front of one of these images and repeatedly find something new for years to come.

There is a small accordion fold exhibition catalog available for $20.

The artist's web site can be found here.

Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)
Through December 20th
522 West 21st Street
New York, NY 10011
UPDATE: The show has been extended until March 7, and prices for the seascapes have been reduced to $360000, according to Bloomberg, story here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Auction Results Fall 2008: Sotheby's Paris, Sotheby's London, and Christie's King Street

Here are the results from the first set of European auctions from the past week. We’ll cover three sales: Sotheby's Jammes (Paris), Sotheby's London, and Christie's King Street (London). All results include the buyer’s premium.

Sotheby's Paris - Jammes IV

Total Lots: 192
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: 2202800 Euros
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 2970800 Euros

Total Lots Sold: 139
Total Lots Bought In: 53
Buy In %: 27.60%
Total Sale Proceeds: 2029876 Euros

Given the generally high quality of the material and the provenance, we expected this sale to perform well, and it did, given the challenging economic environment. While the sale proceeds didn't meet the total Low estimate, a total of over 2 million Euros is very positive in these markets.

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

Low Total Lots: 98
Low Sold: 75
Low Bought In: 23
Buy In %: 23.47%
Total Low Estimate: 385800 Euros
Total Low Sold: 344426 Euros

Mid Total Lots: 77
Mid Sold: 50
Mid Bought In: 27
Buy In %: 35.06%
Total Mid Estimate: 1160000 Euros
Total Mid Sold: 834950 Euros

High Total Lots: 17
High Sold: 14
High Bought In: 3
Buy In %: 17.65%
Total High Estimate: 1425000 Euros
Total High Sold: 850500 Euros

The high end was quite strong in this sale, compared to others this season. Overall, it was a solid sale, top to bottom, and a fitting final chapter to these famous sales.

Sotheby's London

Total Lots: 177
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: 1053000 Pounds
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 1490000 Pounds

Total Lots Sold: 70
Total Lots Bought In: 107
Buy In %: 60.45%
Total Sale Proceeds: 546625 Pounds

While we did point out that the quality of the material in this sale was weaker than normal for Sotheby's, this was a horror show like none we have experienced. 40 of the first 50 lots failed to sell. Think about that for a second. Only 10 lots in the first 50 found a buyer of any kind. Imagine how ugly that must have been, sitting in the room. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass....

To rub salt in the wound, here is the breakdown (using the Low, Mid, and High definitions from the preview post, here):

Low Total Lots: 65
Low Sold: 21
Low Bought In: 44
Buy In %: 67.69%
Total Low Estimate: 291000 Pounds
Total Low Sold: 91125 Pounds

Mid Total Lots: 109
Mid Sold: 48
Mid Bought In: 61
Buy In %: 55.96%
Total Mid Estimate: 1059000 Pounds
Total Mid Sold: 426750 Pounds

High Total Lots: 3
High Sold: 1
High Bought In: 2
Buy In %: 66.67%
Total High Estimate: 140000 Pounds
Total High Sold: 28750 Pounds

This was quite a signal from the market regarding second tier material, and a wake up call for Sotheby's I imagine.

Christie's King Street

Total Lots: 97
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: 1098000 Pounds
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 1556000 Pounds

Total Lots Sold: 66
Total Lots Bought In: 31
Buy In %: 31.96%
Total Sale Proceeds: 782250 Pounds

Christie's took a chance with the contemporary Nordic and Dutch material in this sale, and it appears to have paid off. Given the economic environment, this sale performed admirably.

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

Low Total Lots: 15
Low Sold: 14
Low Bought In: 1
Buy In %: 6.67%
Total Low Estimate: 70000 Pounds
Total Low Sold: 56125 Pounds

Mid Total Lots: 70
Mid Sold: 46
Mid Bought In: 24
Buy In %: 34.29%
Total Mid Estimate: 796000 Pounds
Total Mid Sold: 505375 Pounds

High Total Lots: 12
High Sold: 6
High Bought In: 6
Buy In %: 50.00%
Total High Estimate: 690000 Pounds
Total High Sold: 220750 Pounds

The top end here didn't perform quite as well, but the bottom end at 14 for 15 was very strong. For the record, the Nordic work sold marginally better than the Dutch work. Overall, a terrific outcome.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Auction: Photographie, December 5, 2008 @Lempertz

The upcoming photography sale at Kunsthaus Lempertz has nearly all (approximately 97%) Low priced material available, so there are plenty of affordable options on offer in Cologne. This sale has a total of 220 lots available, with a total high estimate of 418150 Euros. Here's the overall price breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate below 7500 Euros): 214
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): 366150 Euros

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between 7500 and 35000 Euros): 6
Total Mid Estimate: 52000 Euros

Total High Lots (high estimate above 35000 Euros): 0
Total High Estimate: 0 Euros

One helpful feature of the Lempertz photography catalog is that they have stripped out the photography lots buried in their Contemporary Art sale and reprinted them in this catalog. This amounts to another 49 lots, with a total additional high estimate of 315300 Euros. We wish other auction houses would follow this practice, so we wouldn't have to sift through all the various Contemporary Art sales, looking for the handful of photography lots mixed in.

For our collection, there are several lots of interest. Three of them are detailed below:

  • Lot 74 Heinz Hajek-Halke, Ohne Titel, 1930-1936 (image at right, top) Hajek-Halke made some unusual nudes in his career and we have been looking to find one that would fit well with our collection. This is one of the better images we have seen, in terms of mixing well with the more American nude aesthetic in our collection.
  • Lot 119 Germaine Krull, Pont Suspendu De Rotterdam, 1926 (image at right, middle) Images from Krull's Metal series are quite hard to come by, so we expect this one will be highly sought after (assuming it is in decent condition). The graphic qualities and geometric patterns in this work are fantastic. It would fit perfectly in our city and industrial genre.
  • Lot 216 Paul Wolff, Flieder, 1931 (image at right, bottom) We already have a pair of Wolff botanicals in our collection (here), but this image would be a good addition to that group. If you are interested in German botanicals from the 1920s and 1930s, but don't want to step up for a vintage Blossfeldt, we would encourage you to look closely at Wolff's work, as it is both high quality and affordable.
  • There is also a spectacular Brassai nude (lot 29) in this sale. However, we already have a print of this image in our collection (here)!

In general, we have had good experience with the various services from Lempertz, including condition reports, billing, and packing/shipping to the US. The sale is certainly worth a look.

December 5th

Kunsthaus Lempertz
Neumarkt 3
50667 Koln

Susan Meiselas, In History @ICP

Documentary photography has always had at its core an unresolvable paradox: how can an observer straddle the desire to be "objective" with the real human need to be involved and take a position, especially in the face of unthinkable horrors and atrocities. Susan Meiselas has been struggling with this tension for her entire career, and for the most part, has given a little on theoretical objectivity to make the work that she thought was right. Taking sides introduces its own set of additional perils and complexities, as her detailed and visually arresting retrospective at the International Center of Photography clearly shows.

The exhibit is divided into three wholly separate sections, delving deeply into her three most recognized projects: Carnival Strippers, Nicaragua, and Kurdistan. The Carnival Strippers (mid 1970s) section is found tucked into the back of the downstairs gallery, the quiet, intimate black and white images arrayed along a curving grey wall that forces you to bend around and double back to see all the pictures. The 39 images chronicle the lives of women in these dreary environments, alternately confident and aggressive (although often bored) when in front of the crowd, and sad and vulnerable (although often surprisingly strong) when off stage. Meiselas has clearly engaged her subjects and been welcomed inside their lives. What makes this exhibit particularly creepy is the voice overs being played in the background: comments and wisecracks from the male patrons and managers that Meiselas recorded at the time. If the pictures weren't enough to focus your attention on the complex attitudes and voyeurism inherent in the subject, the audio interviews reduce the normal distance between artwork and viewer and drive the point home.

In contrast to the careful quality of the Carnival Strippers project, the Nicaragua work (late 1970s and beyond) is all about violent action and color. These are images of a revolution in progress, with people fighting, guns and soldiers, and non-stop motion. This section has large unframed prints, hung nearly edge to edge, out in the space of the gallery as well as on the walls. The result is a visual overload that diminishes the intensity of any one of the images and envelops the viewer in the messiness of the action. In addition to the still photos, there are 3 small and 1 large video screens playing looped videos Mesielas made at different points in the project, and 4 huge images printed on canvas, hung in the stairwell.

The single most interesting aspect of this portion of the show is the Meditations installation from 1982, off to the side in a separate room. This piece highlights how Meiselas' images were used in and out of context, in magazines and newspapers, in books, as artworks, and as appropriated imagery used for entirely other purposes. The famous "Molotov Man" image is seen in probably a dozen different incarnations. This works shows clearly how a documentary photographer loses control of his or her work as it is published, and the images take on lives of their own that may or may not follow the original intentions of the artist. For me, this piece was a very striking exposition of how our visual society is morphing around us.

If the Nicaragua project was about being at the center of the action as it was happening, the Kurdistan project (early 1990s to present) is about the aftermath of action, about what happens in the days, months, and years after a conflict has finished its chaotic stage and life returns to quieter rhythms when normal people try to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. There are 33 silent and somber color images of rubble and destruction, abandoned clothing, graves, and grieving families holding images of dead loved ones arrayed across two rooms. In many ways, these pictures are the opposite of action; they are frozen in time. These are paired with 9 glass cases full of found photographs, letters, and other materials, pieces of the puzzle of Kurdish history that are being gathered and organized for the first time. There are also 4 huge projection screens telling various personal stories, and an array of computers at the back available for further study and in depth examination. Again, Meiselas has gotten into the middle of her subject, and given us her viewpoint about what has occurred and what needs to happen going forward. There is a profound sense of the need to recapture history in these images, as a basis for starting over.

In general, I came away impressed with how Meiselas has carefully tuned her approach to the needs of the widely differing subject matter she has attacked. Each section is thoughtful, well crafted, thorough and opinionated, but each project is wholly different from the others.

As for the exhibit itself, it has an initial "wow" factor, due I think primarily to the array of curatorial devices being used: every tool is employed - large prints, small prints, audio, video, computers, projections, cases, you name it, it's here. And while this is entertaining, I'm afraid that in the end, it's just too much; some of the flourishes are overwhelming and detract from allowing the visitor to engage with the images. I also think the exhibit feels a bit cramped; the work would have benefited from some more breathing room (especially the Nicaragua section). The entire ICP gallery area should have been used for this retrospective (instead of just the basement).

But these are the small quirks of an otherwise first rate exhibition. Susan Meiselas is an important documentary photographer and this show cements her position in the history of the medium. This show is one of the best of the year, and make sure to allow enough time to deliberate over its contents when you visit. There is also a large monograph available (cover above) to enable further study and review.

The artist's web page can be found here.

Rating: *** (3 stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

Susan Meiselas: In History
Through January 4th

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Out of Town Museum Shows (Volume 2)

Last week, we updated our Out of Town Gallery Show list. With this post, we're updating its sister list (the Out of Town Museum Shows we'd like to see) to include a number of new exhibits open through the rest of this season and into the New Year.

Modern Photographs: The Machine, the Body, and the City: Selections from the Charles Cowles Collection @Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY
Through November 30th

Abstraction in American Photography @St. Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, MO
Through December 14th

Paul Caponigro, Select Photographs: 1956 through 2005 @Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography, Turner Falls, MA
Through December 14th

Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840-1900 @SFMOMA, San Francisco
Through January 4th

Coming Into Focus: Jeane von Oppenheim and Photography at the Norton, 1998-2008 @ Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL
Through January 4th

Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Art and Photography of Paris @Art Institute of Chicago
Through January 4th

Carleton Watkins, Stereoviews of the Columbia River Gorge @Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OR
Through January 11th

Masterpiece Photographs from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts: The Curatorial legacy of Carroll T. Hartwell @Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis
Through January 25th

A Story of Photography: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection @LACMA, Los Angeles
Through February 1st

Georgia O’Keefe and the Camera: The Art of Identity @Georgia O’Keefe Museum, Santa Fe, NM
Through February 1st

Harry Callahan, Eleanor @RISD Museum, Providence, RI
Through February 15th

Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California @Getty Center, Los Angeles
Through March 1st

Oceans, Rivers, and Skies: Ansel Adams, Robert Adams, Alfred Stieglitz @National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Through March 15th

Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams: Modern Photography at the Museum @Monterey Art Museum, Monterey, CA
Through March 22nd

Liu Zheng, The Chinese @Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA
Through April 26th

As always, if you're a collector and have seen any of these shows, give us your thoughts in the Comments section.

Auction: Photographie, November 27, 2008 @Villa Grisebach, Berlin

If we take as given that photography is now a global and multicultural art form, it follows that the auction market for photography will also fragment into smaller, more local varieties that bring forward work that is altogether different than that offered by the major houses in New York and London. Yann Le Mouel has interesting sales in Paris, with a heavy dose of French photography. Bloomsbury's Rome office recently had a large sale of Italian photography. And we are now headed into the German auction season, led of this fall by Villa Grisebach in Berlin at the end of the month.

We find the German auctions to be excellent sources of unexpected, well priced (less bid up) material, and we have, in the past, bought from all of the leading houses that have dedicated photography sales. If you are a collector and previously unaware of Villa Grisebach (or of Lempertz, Van Ham, and Bassenge to be reviewed in the coming days), you really need to pay some attention. All of these sales have broad ranges of vintage and contemporary work (including American artists), with strength in European work, and not surprisingly, German photography.

This sale at Villa Grisebach has a total of 241 lots available, with a total high estimate of 822200 Euros. 92.5% of the lots fall in the Low range, so there is plenty of quality, affordable work on offer. There is a particularly large group of 14 Albert Renger-Patzsch images (mostly botanicals) up for sale. Here's the overall price breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate below 7500 Euros): 223
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): 545200 Euros

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between 7500 and 35000 Euros): 16
Total Mid Estimate: 167000 Euros

Total High Lots (high estimate above 35000 Euros): 2
Total High Estimate: 110000 Euros

Rather than presenting a laundry list of things we're interested in, we thought we might try highlighting just a few lots and commenting on them a bit further. So here are three lots we find of interest:
  • Lot 1591 Werner Mantz, Limburg, 1928 (image at right, top) It seems that every time we go to a photography show, the Kicken Berlin gallery (site here) has a terrific Werner Mantz in their booth that we always admire, but never quite get around to buying. Mantz did some amazing, high contrast industrial landscapes in the 1920s and 1930s, which would fit well with our other industrial pictures. This looks to be a good one as well. The back and forth of the staircase is stunning. The image would also resonate well with some Gohlke grain elevators already in our collection (here).
  • Lot 1665 Umbo, Rohre, 1950s (image at right, middle) We don't have an Umbo in our collection at the moment, and we've been looking for one that would fit well for a while now. We like this one, for its terrific graphic qualities and the unusual back lighting.
  • Lot 1732 Stephen Shore, Dewdney Avenue, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1974 (image at right, bottom) We've seen this image before in a few places and we continue to think it is the Shore we would potentially add first to our collection, whenever it is that we actually have color as part of the mandate. While it is different than many of Shore's more famous images, it would pair well with a Friedlander we already own (here).
The specialists at Villa Grisebach are responsive and easy to deal with, and you can get an email condition report quickly, assuming you're not going to visit the preview in person. We have found their packing and shipping services to be thorough and professional as well. At a minimum, take a spin through the online catalog (linked below) to see what's available.

November 27

Villa Grisebach
Fasanenstrasse 25
D-10719 Berlin

Monday, November 17, 2008

First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography @Yale

JTF (just the facts): 114 images (mostly black & white), exhibited throughout the 4th floor galleries, all from the collection of Allan Chasanoff, either from the Yale collection or on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Curated by Joshua Chuang. (Unfortunately, no photography was allowed in the galleries and there are no thumbnails available on the website; image of exhibit monograph at right.)

Comments/Context: If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that as collectors ourselves, we are extremely interested in the process of photography collecting and how other collectors have taken on the task of building their own collections. It was therefore with some excitement that we made our way up to New Haven to see this show of the collection of Allan Chasanoff.

Let's start with a simple summary: this is the most intriguing collection show we have seen in quite a long time. Chasanoff's collection is made up of a wide variety of images and subject matter, all with a common theme: that somewhere in the image a visual dislocation is taking place. As a thematic construct, it's endlessly quirky and interesting. There are puzzles and juxtapositions, reflections and odd camera angles, distortions and paradoxes. With each and every striking picture, effort is required to figure out "what is going on".

We very much like the structural concept of this collection. It's not a "greatest hits" collection, nor a deep study of one master. There are plenty of unknown artists here. In fact, it is a carefully constructed group of images that highlight the optical trickery that can happen in photography. It is the image that matters, not who made it, or whether anyone else thought it was important. The show is consistently surprising and visually stimulating as you move from image to image.

On top of this tremendous collection is layered an unusual curatorial device: rehang the show a handful of times during the exhibition, and let various groups of people from the community do the choosing. Two "image stables" have been created at each end of the gallery, holding 20 or so pictures each. Images can be easily taken from the image stable and moved into the main gallery areas to interchange with something else. What happens is that the groups see different connections between specific works, and that the whole show gets thrown up into the air every few weeks. Given the nature of the work in this collection, this is an amazingly innovative and egalitarian idea, and one that matches the idea of risk taking that flows through all the pictures.

Collector's POV: There were plenty of great images in this show that would add some spice to our collection, while still fitting into our general thematic plan. Here are a few:

  • Eliot Elisofon, Untitled, 1940s
  • Claude Cahun, Je donnerais ma vie, Jersey, 1936
  • Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975
  • Grant Mudford, The Pike, Long Beach, California, 1979
  • Kim Steele, Hoover I (Dam), 1979
  • Ralston Crawford, Cologne Ruins, 1951
  • Clarence John Laughlin, The Spell of the Shadow, No. 1, 1953
  • Robert Frank, Edge of Doom, 1950
  • Aaron Siskind, Acolman 2, 1955

Overall, we came away highly impressed with the strength of this eclectic collection, and of the thoughtful process required to build it over the years. You will be rewarded if you make the effort to go see this show.

Rating: ** (2 stars) VERY GOOD (rating system defined here)

First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography
Through January 4th

Yale University Art Gallery
1111 Chapel Street
New Haven, CT 06520

A Ratings System For Exhibits and Shows

We've happy to report that we've survived the first three full months of writing this blog and along the way, we've learned many lessons about how to make the content crisper and more useful. One of the things we've spent some time thinking about is how to make the gallery show and museum exhibit reviews more helpful. The fact that we seem to end each review by saying the show is worth seeing has been bothering us; this doesn't seem to give the reader enough information to make an intelligent decision about whether it is worth his/her time.

It is our view that the most precious resource any of us has is our time. And there are few things worse than blocking out some time to go to see a show, only to travel there and find that it was a complete waste of this limited resource. So we have devised a simple ratings system for shows and exhibits with time as its central focus. Depending on how much time you normally spend on seeing shows in a given year, the system should be able to give you a decent guide as to which ones are likely to merit your attention.

Here's the framework:

3 stars: EXCELLENT. If you only go to one show a month, or approximately 10-12 shows a year, you should limit yourself to this category, as you can't afford any missteps. These are, in our opinion, the best photography shows of the year, based on the quality of the work, the level of scholarship that accompanies the exhibit, and its overall "thought provokingness".

2 stars: VERY GOOD. If you go to one exhibit a week, or approximately 50 shows a year, then this is the category for you. It has a broader mix of large and small, broad and narrow shows, all of very good quality.

1 star: GOOD. This could be called "the best of the rest", a sort of top half of all the potential shows one could see in and around New York. If going to lots of shows is a hobby and you are interested in all kinds of photography, then this is our list of things worth seeing. There is a nugget of interest buried in each and every one, even if many of the shows are somewhat flawed or may be one dimensional. But since you love going to shows, you can handle some unevenness in quality.

While we could "grade the shows on a curve" and thereby ensure that there were the right number in each category, the reality is that the exhibits are spread out in time over an entire year, so we have to make judgements without knowing what great and terrible shows will come along in the future. So we'll try to apply the criteria fairly and consistently, and if we end up with more or less in any one group, so be it.

In the next few days, we'll be going back and retroactively rating the shows of the previous three months, not because you are likely to care about the rating of a show that is now closed, but more for consistency's sake and to try and set some patterns of how we plan to approach the ratings going forward.

Finally, while this new system has the trappings of objectivity, it is of course a subjective exercise in the end, and there will be shows we fail to go see, even if they are of high quality, just because their subject matter isn't of interest to us or the artist isn't on our radar. There will also be shows we don't like that you might find amazing, given the differences in peoples tastes and collections. So take it all with a grain of salt. Our hope is that the number of people who are pleased with this system will far outweigh the number who are somehow angry because we didn't rate their show or exhibit highly enough.

As always, comments are always welcome, so we can continue to refine the reviews and make them more relevant and useful.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Auction: Photographs, November 26, 2008 @Christie's South Kensington

A haphazard mix of photographs has been gathered together for this mop-up sale at Christie's South Kensington location. When you've become the high volume leader (as Christie's has), it is inevitable that a decent portion of what is consigned falls into the bottom end of the range; by sequestering these lots off into a sale of their own, they can be focused at collectors who are looking for lower end or secondary images, without distracting from the top end VIPs (very important pictures). 32 lots in the sale come from gallerist James Danziger (who writes an excellent blog on photography, found here), with another 23 coming from the Springfield Collection (mostly 1930s German works).

In total, the sale has 168 lots available, with a total high estimate of 535000 Pounds. Approximately 87% of the lots are in the Low price range (see below), with just over 46% of the works being later prints.

Here's the price breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate below 5000 Pounds): 146
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): 393000 Pounds

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between 5000 and 25000 Pounds): 22
Total Mid Estimate: 142000 Pounds

Total High Lots (high estimate above 25000 Pounds): 0
Total High Estimate: 0 Pounds

Unfortunately, there just isn't much to tempt us in this sale. The only lot that catches our eye is Lot 154 Daido Moriyama, How to Create a Beautiful Picture: Fin (City), 1988 (image at right). We still don't have a Moriyama in the collection, but we'll certainly acquire one at some point.

Given the material arrayed here, we can't really imagine this sale blowing the doors off in this economic environment, so perhaps this will be a good hunting ground for bargains.

November 26th
85 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3LD

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Book: Rinko Kawauchi, Aila

JTF (just the facts): Rinko Kawauchi, Aila, published in 2005 by FOIL. (Cover image at right.) This book is a revised edition of the book originally published by Little More in 2004. 165 color images (one image per page), with no text (also no pagination or image titles).

Comments/Context: It is always interesting to watch to see which new emerging photographers somehow find a way to break through the noise and separate themselves from all the others trying to get attention. Rinko Kawauchi is a Japanese photographer in her mid 30s who has published a handful of books, won a few international prizes, and generated a surprising amount of buzz. When the press releases use phrases like "one of most celebrated photographers of her generation" for someone you have barely heard of, you know the spin is on. So when we recently came across her book, Aila, we felt compelled to get a better handle on her work.

Aila is a carefully sequenced group of primarily square format color images of what might be called "the essence of life". There are images of baby animals, insects, flower and plant seedlings, and births of various kinds (human and animal), mixed with a few pictures of waves, sand and forests. If you haven't seen these works (one of the series is shown at left), you are probably thinking to yourself about now that this sounds like the ultimate in tired, self important, camera club cliche.

And yet, there is an unexpected sensitivity to many of these images. Most are lit with a fresh, almost unreal, white light that gives them a fleeting, dreamy quality. While there are a few darker moods interspersed in this body of work, most of the pictures have an authentic, youthful innocence and optimism to them that has been missing from the vast majority of contemporary photography in recent times. Aila means "big family" in Turkish, and taken together, the collective group of pictures does have an inclusive, real sense of family and natural interconnectedness.
There is clearly some unevenness in quality from page to page in this book; more than a few of these pictures descend into the world of snapshots. But this criticism notwithstanding, there is a clear, consistent and new point of view here. Could it be that we're all tired of fear and skepticism and that hope is back in style?
Collector's POV: While Kawauchi's work doesn't fit well into our particular collection, I can see why others might find a group of her best images, hung together in a grid, to be quite striking. Kawauchi has had shows at Galerie Priska Pasquer in Cologne (site here) in 2006 and Cohan and Leslie in New York (site here) in 2007, but her work has not appeared on the secondary market until recently. A set of 9 images from the Aila series are up for sale at Sotheby's London (preview here), with an estimate of 12000-18000 Pounds (the images are each approximately 10 inches square and are individually from editions of 6). Regardless of these market facts, the book itself is a winner and well worth having in your library.
UPDATE: The set of 9 images up for sale at Sotheby's London (referenced above) was bought in.

Auction: Photographs of London and Contemporary, 20th Century & 19th Century Photographs, November 20, 2008 @Bloomsbury London

Bloomsbury's upcoming photography auction in London has two distinct parts: a thematic grouping of pictures loosely centered on the city of London, and then a more straightforward mixed group of photography from across the history of the medium.

The London group has a wide variety of images, from all time periods (19th century through to contemporary), displayed in roughly chronological order. There are city landscapes and architectural views, street scenes and people, wartime shots, portraits of politicians, London fashion images, and even a few pictures of the Beatles, the Clash, and Johnny Rotten. I'm not sure the "London" theme gives resonance to everything that's included here, but I understand the idea of using a theme to put a framework around a group of pictures like these.

The rest of the sale (displayed in reverse chronological order, just to keep you guessing) follows well worn paths. In total, the sale has a total of 302 lots on offer, with a total high estimate of 632300 Pounds. Here's the price breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate below 5000 Pounds): 287
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): 506300 Pounds

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between 5000 and 25000 Pounds): 15
Total Mid Estimate: 126000 Pounds

Total High Lots (high estimate above 25000 Pounds): 0
Total High Estimate: 0 Pounds

With 95% of the lots in this sale below 5000 Pounds, and many below 1000 Pounds, this is the definition of a Low end sale, with a broad range of material available at reasonable prices.

For our collection, in the London section of the sale, we liked:
  • Lot 26 Wolfgang Suschitzky, St. Paul's Cathedral, 1942
  • Lot 70 Roger Mayne, Southam Street, 1958 (image at right)

In the more general area of the sale, we found the following lots of interest:

  • Lot 166 Elliott Erwitt, New York City (Tony's of Worth Street), 1969/Later
  • Lot 184 Bill Brandt, Nude, 1954
  • Lot 185 Bill Brandt, East Sussex Coast, 1959
  • Lot 245 Walker Evans, Barn Window Detail, 1930/Later
  • Lot 247 Berenice Abbott, Financial District Rooftops, 1938
  • Lot 263 Charles Jones, Gazania Splendorous, c1900
  • Lot 265 Charles Jones, Narcissus, Madame De Graaf, c1900 (image at right)
  • Lot 300 William Henry Fox Talbot, Fern, 1863
While there are few real stand out images in this sale, there are plenty of attractively priced secondary images that are worth a look.

Photographs of London and Contemporary, 20th Century & 19th Century Photographs
November 20th

Bloomsbury Auctions
Bloomsbury House
24 Maddox Street
London W1S 1PP

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Taiji Matsue, Nest @Cohen Amador

JTF (just the facts): 5 large color C prints (50x60) from the "Nest" series and 12 smaller color C prints (19x19) from the "Cell" series, all from 2008 and in editions of 5, shown throughout the gallery (installation shot of the "Cell" series at right).

Comments/Context: Taiji Matsue is a technologist. I say this not because he uses digital capture and Photoshop, because even the Luddites among us are doing these things in today's world. No, Matsue's work and underlying approach seem to stem from a comfort with and genuine interest in technology: in computer programming, display electronics, and cartography, and how these technologies are related to the process of image making.

We first became aware of Matsue's work a year or so ago when Paul Amador showed us several of his black and white city scenes and landscapes. In both sets of work, the surfaces are flattened out, the horizon is cropped out, the camera angle is from above or aerial, and the textures are brought into sharp focus. The traditional landscapes (if you can call them that) are very reminiscent of Frederick Sommer's shimmering shots of the desert. The urban landscapes are low contrast, topographical studies, with windows and buildings used to highlight the interlocking patterns and repetitions. These have some echoes of Lewis Baltz, or perhaps 1970s Harry Callahan.

The work in this new show builds on these earlier themes and introduces the elements of color and larger/smaller scale. The "Nest" project is derived from an idea from computer programming: the concept of nesting subroutines, allowing a programmer to build a hierarchy of detail that is called only when necessary. The "Nest" images are large images with a huge amount of detail, "hyper real" you might call them. These are works that can be taken in on one level from 10 feet, and then can be engaged intimately at the same level of sharpness right up close (think Clifford Ross). This "feature" of the pictures creates a feeling of drifting in and out, as you move up and down the scale of magnification. They're a little like playing with Google Earth, zooming in and out. The subject matter and general approach is the same as the earlier work: landscapes and urban studies, with the same cropping and camera angles, once again focused on patterns that are enhanced by this staggering level of detail.

The "Cell" series evolve these same concepts in another direction (perhaps derived from microprocessor or display architectures, or simply from spreadsheets or maps). In these images, Matsue has taken one of his standard size images and "discovered" one single "cell" 1/200th of the size of the overall negative, and then blown this small area up into a larger work. Up close, the effect is that the images are pixelated, with almost Pointillist dots of grainy color making up the magnified images. The subjects seem like ants shot from the moon (what are these tiny little people doing?).

While all of this is interesting at a technical level, the question is whether it is durable art. I found a few of the "Nest" images, particularly Leon, Mexico, to work quite well, the hive of small buildings and colors creating an all over pattern that was mesmerizing. Others in the series were less effective, and while I got the point he was making, the images weren't as compelling, or perhaps seemed too reminiscent of the work of other artists. Of the "Cell" series, overall, I found the texture and graininess of the images intriguing, as the subject matter was broken down into points of color. Again, I think there were a few winners, and a decent number of more average examples.

There is a two part interview with Taiji Matsue in conjunction with this exhibit to be found at Modern Art Obsession, here and here. Matsue's new book, Cell, is also available.

Collector's POV: Matsue's "Nest" images are being sold between $7500 and $11500 and the smaller "Cell" works are between $2000 and $4500. Since we have virtually no color in our personal collection, one of Matsue's earlier works (likely an urban landscape) would fit better for us. That said, I think there are a handful of memorable pieces here that would be worth adding to your collection, especially in the context of considering how technology (as a mindset rather than as a tool) is influencing the photography of the 21st century.

Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating scale described here)

Taiji Matsue, Nest
Through December 31

Cohen Amador Gallery
41 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022