Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Holidays!

In our image saturated world, the photographic holiday card is yet another ritualistic way that people exchange pictures. What's interesting about these cards is that they often come from people that we don't see at all during the regular year, and so this is their one chance to give us a glimpse of their lives from afar.

As we have somewhat young children in our house, our card bowl is overflowing with shots of other people's kids: in perfectly posed and matching outfits, in costumes, in exotic locales, and in one particularly odd example this year, underwater. Adults are never seen in these images, unless it is a "family photo" (i.e. the one staged shot taken during the entire year when all of the family got into the frame, likely at some family gathering/reunion or taken by some random stranger passing by at just the right moment).

A decade ago, these pictures would have been actual film pictures, stuck onto the outside or tucked into the fold of the card. With the advent of digital technology, only the Luddites are still doing this. (I say this knowing that we did indeed send out actual printed pictures this year, as we went with a snappy letter press card.) Most folks have migrated to an online source (Shutterfly or the like), where their digital picture is merged into a template and printed together as one piece on card stock. To our eyes, while these cards might be "produced" better, they seem to have lost some of the craftiness and personality of the old kind. They all look the same, even when the photos are of people we know.

Artists and photographers have long sent holiday cards as well, usually not of their kids, but actual mini art objects. Our favorite is the one below:

Mapplethorpe got it just right. (Christmas Tree, 1987, above.) Simple, elegant, and somehow entirely festive at the same time.

This post will be our last of 2008, so there is no need to come back and check for something new in the remaining days of this year - there won't be anything, we promise. We will back with passionate, daily posting on January 5th.

We have thoroughly enjoyed the process of writing this blog in the past months and thank you wholeheartedly for taking the time to listen. If you are feeling particularly generous this year, introduce our blog to a handful of other collectors or photo enthusiasts that you know. There's nothing like a personal referral from a taste maker to get people interested in something new, and we will do our best to live up to your recommendation.

Overall, we look forward with great optimism and anticipation to new shows, new auctions, new books, and stunning photography of all kinds in 2009. Best wishes.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Top Photography Shows of 2008 (Abbreviated)

Since just about every other news source and art critic on the planet has already weighed in with his/her "Top 10" list, it seems only fitting that we should offer our own view of what was noteworthy in the world of photography in 2008. While there was of course a major rebalancing of prices in the photography market in line with the larger economy (and this is of meaningful interest to collectors), in the end, it's the art itself that matters most, so that's where we'll focus our remarks.

Since we have only been writing this blog since mid-August of this year, our commentary is limited to the time period since then (thus "abbreviated" in the title). Our general pace would have us visiting approximately 100 photography shows in galleries and museums in any given year; the blog has a total of 43 reviews for the past four and a half months. Next year, assuming we keep the same pace up, we'll be even more comprehensive.

There were a grand total of six shows that received our top rating of three stars during this year. They were, in alphabetical order by artist's name:

William Eggleston @Whitney Museum
(original review here)

Susan Meiselas @ICP
(original review here)

Catherine Opie @Guggenheim Museum
(original review here)

Cindy Sherman @Metro Pictures
(original review here)

Hiroshi Sugimoto @Gagosian Gallery
(original review here)

Minor White @Howard Greenberg Gallery
(original review here)

In our minds, great shows inspire us, move us, force us to think in new ways, and most of all educate us, about the artists and their work, and hopefully about ourselves in some degree as a byproduct. Every single one of the listed shows significantly increased our understanding of these photographers, convinced us of their importance in the overall history of the medium, and produced staggering moments when we were struck dumb by the sheer grandeur of the art on view.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded by images and "stuff", we are constantly on the lookout for the memorable, for the event or outing that will rise above the noise and somehow make a more lasting and meaningful impression. These shows meet that standard. I can in my mind's eye easily recreate each and every one of them: the sublime Sugimoto black room, the brooding and empty Meiselas images of Kurdistan, the pitch perfect satire of Cindy Sherman, Opie's intense and beautiful self portraits, the unexpected compositions and color of William Eggleston, and the quiet meditations of Minor White. Perhaps the common thread among these shows (and the key to their ultimate success and longevity) is that they were each overflowing not just with compelling pictures, but with compelling ideas.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Flor Garduño, Mujeres Fantasticas @Throckmorton

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 black and white images, displayed in wide black frames, throughout the gallery. Most of the works are 20x16 inches, although there are a handful in a larger size (approximately 40x30 inches). Negatives range from the late 1980s to the present. (Installation shot at right.)

Comments/Context: Looking at the work of Mexican photographer Flor Garduño, you would never, ever, mistake her work for that made by a man. Indeed, Garduño's images are among the most overtly "female" pictures we have seen.
Nearly all of Garduño's pictures have a sensual female form/nude staged together with symbols from the natural world (fruit, leaves, flowers, feathers etc.). Her compositions have an earthy mythology to them, an almost dream-like or magical quality that seems drawn from the long history of Latin America. In her early days, Garduño was an assistant to Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and she seems to have absorbed the same love of the uniquely Mexican culture, as well as the ability to structure images with poetic simplicity. She is also a master printer; all of her works are printed with an astounding and meticulous attention to dark and light. This show mixes a few new pieces with a variety of other works from the past decade or two, so there is some ability to see how her approach and aesthetic has been refined over time.
Collector's POV: For us, while Garduño's work is always made with an original point of view and with thoughtful care, the results are often hit or miss. When it works, the images are stunning; when it doesn't, the works feel a bit contrived and odd. The works in this show are priced between $2500 and $9000, dependent mostly on size it seems. We actually already own an excellent nude by Garduño (Los Limones, 1998, found here and also on display in this exhibit), which we bought a few years ago from Andrew Smith (gallery site here) when we were living on the West coast. In addition to prints found in the retail market, Garduño's work has become more available at reasonable prices in the secondary market in the past few years.

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

Flor Garduño, Mujeres Fantasticas
Through January 9th

145 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Auction Results Fall 2008: Swann (December) and Christie's (Constantiner)

The final two photography sales of the year were at Swann, with its combo book and photo sale, and at Christie's, with the fashion and glamour images of the Constantiner collection. The results are below (all results include the buyer’s premium):

Swann Galleries

Total Lots: 401
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: $854000
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: $1233650

Total Lots Sold: 243
Total Lots Bought In: 158
Buy In %: 39.40%
Total Sale Proceeds: $442741

This sale had two distinct sections that performed differently: the photo books accounted for approximately 73% of the lots, and delivered 57% of the proceeds with a buy-in rate of 35.40%, while the photography accounted for approximately 27% of the lots, and delivered 43% of the proceeds with a buy in rate of 50.00%. Thus, as a group, the lower priced books did "better" than the more expensive photography.

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

Low Total Lots: 384
Low Sold: 236
Low Bought In: 148
Buy In %: 38.54%
Total Low Estimate: $878650
Total Low Sold: $334741

Mid Total Lots: 15
Mid Sold: 6
Mid Bought In: 9
Buy In %: 60.00%
Total Mid Estimate: $280000
Total Mid Sold: $84000

High Total Lots: 2
High Sold: 1
High Bought In: 1
Buy In %: 50.00%
Total High Estimate: $75000
Total High Sold: $24000

The lot by lot results can be found here.

Overall, another generally solid outing for Swann in these volatile economic times.

Christie's - Constantiner

Total Lots: 320
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: $7472500
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: $11020500

Total Lots Sold: 281
Total Lots Bought In: 39
Buy In %: 12.19%
Total Sale Proceeds: $7721875

This sale seems to have performed almost exactly to expectations: it did well across the board, but would likely have delivered a meaningfully bigger outcome under more optimistic economic conditions. That said, Christie's brought in proceeds above the Total Low Estimate, which was a rarity this auction season.

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

Low Total Lots: 146
Low Sold: 135
Low Bought In: 11
Buy In %: 7.53%
Total Low Estimate: $784500
Total Low Sold: $738625

Mid Total Lots: 127
Mid Sold: 106
Mid Bought In: 21
Buy In %: 16.54%
Total Mid Estimate: $2816000
Total Mid Sold: $1881000

High Total Lots: 47
High Sold: 41
High Bought In: 6
Buy In %: 12.77%
Total High Estimate: $7420000
Total High Sold: $5102250

The lot by lot results can be found here.

The Low end was quite strong here, but the quality of the material led to a good performance across the board. The low buy in rate for the High lots was impressive, but the dollar figures lot by lot for these same High lots were a bit soft. Chalk this one up to poor timing for an otherwise strong collection.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1968-2008 @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 159 images (134 color and 25 black and white), along with 2 videos, and 4 cases of miscellaneous materials (books, catalogs, album covers etc.), hung in a series of 10 divided spaces, covering the entire third floor of the museum. (Memphis, 1971, at right.)

Comments/Context: So much has been written about William Eggleston's original 1976 show at the MoMA (scandalous! boring! notorious! ground breaking!) and its subsequent impact on several generations of color photographers that it has taken on a legendary aura. So it is somewhat surprising that it has taken more than 30 years for any New York museum to give him another solo show. The comprehensive retrospective now on view at the Whitney covers the entire span of his career, from his early black and white images, through the famous William Eggleston's Guide project/show, and on through a number of other strong bodies of work, up to the present.

Over the years, the never ending mantra on Eggleston has been his amazing use of color. Ah, the color! Lush color, subtle color, saturated color, color tuned by warm light, glorious color (and a staggering number of bad puns and word games using color: "local color", "living color" etc.). In seeing all this work together for the first time, I came to see the color as part of a larger puzzle, where the real genius of Eggleston lies in composition, in the most mundane of questions about where to put the camera. I imagine his artist's brain working something like this: out on a random walk, shooting pictures, his eye catches a glimpse of a breathtaking (insert color here - green, for example, as in the picture above right). The harder question then becomes, how to turn this mundane, ordinary subject (albeit with a graceful set of colors) into something interesting? Eggleston's vision took him even a step further, where these commonplace scenes (primarily of the rural South) are somehow filled with an intensity of emotion, a Faulkner-esque dread in many cases. While not every image Eggleston has taken is a winner, there are far too many iconic compositions in this show for it to be luck. And while his work is often labeled as having a "snapshot aesthetic", the consistency of his approach, across the years and in work that is lesser known, is the stunning takeaway for me from this exhibit.

All of Eggleston's "greatest hits" are on view here: the tricycle, the red ceiling (Untitled, 1973 at right), the dog licking the puddle, the peaches sign, most of them displayed in the entry or in the cavernous central room (where images from the Guide, the 14 Pictures portfolio and the Troubled Waters portfolio are intermingled). The three galleries on the right side were of the most interest to me. In the first room, Eggleston's early black and white images from the early 1960s are shown. In these pictures, you can see Eggleston experimenting with composition and exploring the everyday American subjects around him (diners, drive-ins, cars), as he refined his approach to the medium. The middle room on the right holds 20 pictures from the Los Alamos series, along with some other ephemera in cases. There were unexpectedly many more tremendous images in this group that I had remembered. In the far right room, Eggleston's black and white video Stranded in Canton is shown on four stations, along with some less than remarkable large scale black and white portraits. The video is a wild, boozy, almost surreal vision of nightlife, fast food and other general weirdness. The scenes near the end of a rowdy group of men biting the heads off of chickens (the heads drop, the headless bodies jerk and twitch) are creepy and unsettling.

The rooms on the left side and back of the exhibit trace a variety of projects and commissions, picking representative samples and highlights from each. There are works from the Carter commission project, the Graceland commission, the Dust Bells portfolio, the Southern Suite, the Morals of Vision portfolio, the Democratic Vision portfolio, the True Stories project, a selection of new works (printed larger than anything else in the show) and a few portraits. There are winners buried here as well, although in lesser numbers and with lesser overall intensity somehow.

Beyond the work, a few comments on the staging of the exhibit are in order. In general, the structure and architecture of this show are weak, and make the work seem less inspiring than it is. While there is a general chronology at play, it is hidden and needed to be much more explicit. An opportunity to tell a much more linear narrative of the evolution of Eggleston's art was missed. While there are some interesting juxtaposition of images, the scale of the rooms and the expanses of space in the middle tend to encourage scanning the images from 20 feet, rather than getting up close to engage them more intimately, so these interrelationships are lost. There is an aimless, wandering style to this exhibit, and a tendency to see your favorites from afar and "check them off", thus all the works from various time periods wash together and lose definition. And why the Whitney didn't do an audio guide, taking advantage of Eggleston's marvelous gravelly Southern drawl is beyond me (there is a short video of Eggleston on the Whitney website however, linked below).

But putting these distractions and detractors aside, the work in this exhibit is forceful, novel, and memorable, and the retrospective format does a good job of covering all Eggleston's periods of work. Simply put, it is a must-see show of a masterful career.

Collector's POV: The recent auction of the Berman collection of Eggleston images at Christie's is the best proxy for current market conditions for Eggleston's work (preview post here, results post here). In general, demand and prices are both high and consistently strong. At retail, Eggleston is represented by Cheim & Read (site here), although there are 26 galleries listed on artnet that claim to have Eggleston inventory, so his work is spread around the market a bit. Beyond the original color dye transfers, some new digital prints are now available. The Eggleston Trust website can be found here.

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

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1968-2008
Through January 25th

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Richard Avedon: Performance @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 55 images of various formats and sizes, all portraits, shown against dark grey walls, throughout the entire skylit gallery. Negatives from five decades, beginning in 1940s.

Comments/Context: Richard Avedon's minimalist frontal portraits against white or grey backgrounds have a style and intimacy unlike most anything else in the history of photography; a high contrast Avedon portrait is hardly ever mistaken for that of another artist. In this show, a slice of his work has been pulled together under the common theme of "performers", and includes portraits of famous and not-so-famous artists, actors, writers, musicians, dancers, and singers. (Marian Anderson, contralto, New York, June 30, 1955, at right.)

This exhibition has few surprises in terms of undiscovered or "new" images. Most will seem like familiar friends as you tour the gallery. There is however an interesting set of contact prints from a 1949 session with Truman Capote hung back behind the main wall that shows part of the editing process Avedon went through after the film was developed. Otherwise, it's an excellent (if well-known) parade of Marilyn, the Beatles, Dylan, and Charlie Chaplin. Our particular favorite was the image of Nureyev's foot from 1967.
Collector's POV: The images in this show are a mixture of vintage and later prints, priced between $11000 on the low end and $850000 at the top. There is a large amount of Avedon's work consistently available in the secondary market, as many of his most famous images were made in editions and portfolios of 50, 75, 100, and even 200 prints (Natassja Kinski and the Serpent as an example of the largest of edition size). A new book, Richard Avedon: Performance, is also available (image at right). The Richard Avedon Foundation website can be found here.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Through January 3rd
545 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

Monday, December 15, 2008

Catherine Opie: American Photographer @Guggenheim

JTF (just the facts): A total of 177 works, shown in four of the Annex galleries (Levels 2, 4, 5, and 7) adjacent to the main rotunda: 54 panoramic black and white gelatin silver and platinum images of urban architecture on Level 2, 45 color images (primarily portraits, but also interior domestic scenes and house exteriors) through a series of galleries on Level 4, 28 color images (ice houses and surfers) in one room on Level 5, and 50 color images in two galleries (domestic scenes, community images, and television Polaroids in one room, and large scale portraits in the other) on Level 7.

Comments/Context: Catherine Opie's mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim tells the story of an artist who is consistently and intensely interested in human communities: in how we gather together in temporary and permanent groups, how we associate with and identify each other, how we find company and a sense of place from relations with others, and how we organize and structure the world around us to hold these communities. Her body of work spans portraiture, landscape, city/architectural images, and even a kind of social documentary, and is organized into a number of projects or series that are held together as differing strands of the larger exploration she is interested in. Taken individually, they cross a dazzling variety of genres and types, and show an artist experimenting with different ways to approach and explain the world around her.

The exhibition itself is chopped up into four different sections on the different floors and is grouped somewhat thematically rather than chronologically, so there is a little jumping around that happens if you are trying to follow her progression through time. The Level 2 galleries house her various projects depicting urban architecture. The Freeways series from 1994-1995 are intimate platinum prints of Los Angeles freeway overpasses, accenting their monumental scale and intersecting sculptural forms, absent cars or people or humanity of any kind. (Untitled #40, 1994-1995, at right.) These images contrast the stereotype of Los Angeles freeways as congested, smog ridden, dens of frustration with the surprisingly sublime beauty of these engineered structures. These are stunning works, taken with the loving care of a local. The Mini Malls series from 1997-1998 finds Opie out on Sunday mornings, capturing empty moments in transitional neighborhoods, where the architecture itself shows the cultural transformations and mixings going on around her. These large panoramas, shot from the street level, show the changing dynamics of communities inside Los Angeles, even when these subcultures may not be otherwise apparent from the outside. The more recent Wall Street and Chicago projects use this same large format panorama to tackle other cities and architectural identities with somewhat less success (the Wall Street works echo Thomas Struth's slightly smaller images of similar empty downtown streets).

The works on Level 4 include many of Opie's best known images. Her Being and Having and Portraits series are portraits of her friends in the gay, lesbian and transgender communities, against saturated color backgrounds. Opie has acknowledged the influence of 16th century Northern Renaissance portraitist Hans Holbein the Younger on these works, and the photographs (some full size, others 3/4 or torso) have a simple rigor and formality that enhance the beauty of the subjects. There is a warmth in these pictures that distances them from Arbus' "freaks"; as you wander through these galleries, these are not specimens from some anthropological exercise - they are people whose triumphant individuality (and human vulnerability) is on display in a way that makes you want to meet and know them.

Opie's three self portraits (done as part of this series) are among the most powerful works in the show. One shows her with a kindergarten stick figure image of a family with two moms carved into her back (Self-Portrait, 1993 at right), one shows her with a leather hood, arms covered in piercing needles, and the word "Pervert" carved into her chest, and the last shows her nursing her baby son. Together, they ask all sorts of questions about what it means to have a traditional family, what it is to live a life outside the "acceptable" mainstream, and how our common humanity brings us together, regardless of these differences. These are beautifully crafted works of art, full of hard and real emotion.

Two more projects are found on this floor, Domestic and Houses. The Domestic series chronicles the everyday lives of lesbian families from across America, taken by Opie while out on the road in an RV. While these images have a snapshot quality to them (even though she uses a view camera), there are tensions underneath and they are asking some underlying questions about what "family" means (especially when it isn't a "traditional" family). The Houses images are frontal shots of mansions in Bel Air, where the gates and architectural ornaments have interesting parallels with the tattoos and body piercings of the previous rooms.

On Level 5, a single gallery houses two sets of work, Ice Houses and Surfers, hung on opposite walls facing each other. (Untitled #6, 2003, at right.) Both projects explore the formation of temporary communities (one, fishermen during the short season when the lakes are frozen, and the other, the surfers, clustered together in the expanse of the sea, waiting for the next set of waves). Both groups employ a Sugimoto-like bisecting of the images at the horizon, and the large images dwarf the subjects in the vastness of the environment, the people/shacks often becoming lost or fragmented in the flatness of the fog. Opie has called this combination her Rothko chapel, and together, these works create a meditative environment, where there is quiet waiting and isolation and longing.

On Level 7, Opie's scenes from her family life, In and Around Home, chronicle her own environment, her home, children and family, and the people and storefronts that make up her multi-racial Los Angeles community. These pictures are interspersed with sets of Polaroids taken directly from her television, mostly of President Bush during the 2004 election season. These are subtler pictures, that aren't as directly powerful as some of her other work, but perhaps can be thought of as an evolution in her exploration of gender and community, now from the new angle of parent. In the last room are a series of monumental (larger than life size) Polaroid portraits of performance artist Ron Athey. These are spectacular pictures, that draw on martyrdom images from the ages, shown through the modern lens of body modification and pain. There is a jaw-dropping grace and composure in these pictures, where lush textures intermingle with harsh realities.

If there is any single take away from this tremendous show, I think it must center on Opie's careful and considered approach to her art. All of her work is crisp in detail, formally strong and compositionally meticulous. Like many artists, her subject matter is brought forth from the emotions of her own life and from her own struggles to understand herself and her world. As you look through the body of work she has assembled thus far, the common note is a real and genuine attention to and compassion for those around her, particularly for their attempts to be themselves regardless of what the society around them deems "normal". In sum, this is without a doubt one the best shows of the year. And don't miss the audio guide commentary given by Opie herself, as her thoughtful and grounded approach shines through.

Collector's POV: For our specific collection, we have always thought that a pair or group of the Freeways would fit well and still be representative of her artistic approach. Opie is represented by Gladstone Gallery (here) and Regen Projects (here), and a small amount of her work, from various projects, has been available in the secondary market in the past five years or so.

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

Catherine Opie: American Photographer
Through January 7th

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10128

Friday, December 12, 2008

Luigi Ghirri: It's Beautiful Here, Isn't It... @Aperture and Bloomsbury

JTF (just the facts): 88 color prints (and one wall sized montage) with white frames, arrayed in the main gallery space at Aperture. An additional 16 images shown in the entry and near the reception desk at Bloomsbury. The combined exhibition is a mixture of vintage C-prints and Polaroids and modern pigment prints. All of the images are from the 1970s and 1980s. (Installation shot of Aperture show at right.)

Comments/Context: Even within the short history of photography, there seem to be plenty of high quality photographers who get lost for one reason or another. The Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri was one of these misplaced artists who, having been virtually unknown in the United States his entire career, has recently been "rediscovered". This pair of shows is the first major exhibition of Ghirri's work in America, and coincides with a new monograph being published by Aperture.
Ghirri is now being positioned as a trail blazer in color photography, placing him in the same category and time period as 1970s Eggleston, Shore, Christenberry, and Sternfeld. And yet, his aesthetic, as evidenced by the works in these shows, was markedly different from these American photographers, and seems more clearly derived from European threads of photography.
The first thing that struck me about these images was Ghirri's palette. All of the images have a washed out, sunny coloring, full of soft pastels and light colors; there are no crisp blacks or high contrasts in any of these pictures. The colors are far less saturated than any of his American contemporaries, softening any harshness and making the images somehow more friendly and welcoming.
Beyond the color sensations, the works clearly extend many of the ideas of Surrealism, in a magical, playful, Italo Calvino-esque way. There is an "edge of reality" feeling throughout Ghirri's work, and experiments with collage and montage, as well as eclectic camera angles and conceptual stagings, are explored and delivered as simple and subtle surprises. There doesn't seem to be one dominant set of ideas here, but more a series of related explorations, and the works seem to alternate between a quiet, contemplative mood and one with a little more zest and humor. The fact that he was doing all of this within the new confines of color makes the pictures all the more intriguing.
The exhibit itself needs some editing; there are a few too many pictures and the whole show feels a bit flabby as a result. 10-15 less pictures would have made the argument that much tighter and would have minimized the fatigue; by the end, all the faded colors were starting to blend for me. The overflow pictures shown at Bloomsbury didn't add anything to what I had already seen at Aperture, so these are likely a pass, unless you are a die hard Ghirri fan and want to see every last image on view.

Collector's POV: I particularly enjoyed Ghirri's series of images from Morandi's studio, and few of his more painterly topographic-style images of walls and doors. None of the images in either of these exhibitions is directly for sale, but when I inquired, I was eagerly told to make a list of images I was interested in and someone would get back to me, so perhaps some are potentially available (at what price I don't know). The Ghirri estate is represented by Julie Saul Gallery.

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

Through January 29th (at Aperture)
Through January 8th (at Bloomsbury)

547 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001

6 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Auctions: Heritage, Millon, and Bloomsbury

Here are three more upcoming photography auctions that are worth a look. We won't have time to do the usual thorough analysis of these sales, but wanted to provide links just the same:

Heritage Auctions
Vintage & Contemporary Photography
December 12

348 lots of photography.

Millon & Associes
Photographie Contemporaine
December 13

113 lots of contemporary photography in a sale also offering design/furniture.

Bloomsbury Auctions
20th Century Arts, New York
December 17

118 lots of photography in a sale also offering prints/multiples.

Cindy Sherman, History Portraits @Skarstedt

JTF (just the facts): 18 color portraits, all larger than life sized, negatives from 1988 through 1990, displayed in 3 separate rooms on the first and second floors of the gallery. The works are made in editions of 6. (Installation shot at right.)

Comments/Context: It's been nearly 20 years since Cindy Sherman first displayed prints from her History Portraits series and much has been written about these popular works. As a reminder, in these images, she took the conventions and mannerisms from several centuries of European painting and expanded her process of self transformation to create a rogues gallery of madonnas, aristocrats, salon ladies, artists, and priests (both male and female, with nearly equal success). Each image is a self contained art history spoof, with her costumes, wigs, elaborate makeup and prosthetics (noses and breasts being the most common) clearly visible and part of the joke.
Seeing these works again reminded me that they were made in the age of photography before the advent of digital technology. These images were not Photoshopped together and touched up; every last detail was elaborately and carefully staged, including all the props and backdrops, and photographed in one shot. As a group, the images are just as funny and mind bending as before; only now, I was even more impressed with the craft of picture making that underlies the art. In addition, these images now present an interesting bridge to Sherman's new work (currently on view at Metro Pictures, review here) where she has begun to use the digital tools now available to make her incisive portraits.

Collector's POV: The History Portraits have aged very well and have been available from time to time in the secondary market in the range of approximately $25000 to $250000 (matching most of the Film Stills), with a marked run up in prices in the past few years. I didn't ask about prices while I was in the gallery, so you'll have to visit the show to find out what the going retail rates are. Perhaps with the softer market, these prices will stabilize a bit. Overall, this is a terrific show of work that continues to surprise and entertain.

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

Through December 20th

20 East 79th Street
New York, NY 10075

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Auction Results Fall 2008: Bassenge, Van Ham, and Lempertz

Three additional German auction houses had their photography sales last week: Galerie Bassenge (Berlin), Van Ham Kunstauktionen (Cologne) and Kunsthaus Lempertz (Cologne). In general, the outcomes were comparable to the rest of the season around the world. The results are below (all results include the buyer’s premium):

Galerie Bassenge

Total Lots: 662
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 549140 Euros

Total Lots Sold: 427
Total Lots Bought In: 235
Buy In %: 35.50%
Total Sale Proceeds: 428900 Euros

The buy-in rate in this sale is artificially high, as the the photo book lots all sold well at very low prices, which made the numbers for the sale as a whole look better.

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

Low Total Lots: 660
Low Sold: 426
Low Bought In: 234
Buy In %: 35.45%
Total Low Estimate: 530140 Euros
Total Low Sold: 420780 Euros

Mid Total Lots: 2
Mid Sold: 1
Mid Bought In: 1
Buy In %: 50.00%
Total Mid Estimate: 19000 Euros
Total Mid Sold: 8120 Euros

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

All in, this sale earned Bassenge a second place finish among the German houses, behind Villa Grisebach.

Van Ham Kunstauktionen

Total Lots: 422
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 738440 Euros

Total Lots Sold: 179
Total Lots Bought In: 243
Buy In %: 57.58%
Total Sale Proceeds: 381844 Euros

Not much to say here, just a disappointing outing in a tough market.

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

Low Total Lots: 409
Low Sold: 174
Low Bought In: 235
Buy In %: 57.46%
Total Low Estimate: 542440 Euros
Total Low Sold: 260469 Euros

Mid Total Lots: 12
Mid Sold: 4
Mid Bought In: 8
Buy In %: 66.67%
Total Mid Estimate: 146000 Euros
Total Mid Sold: 61375 Euros

High Total Lots: 1
High Sold: 1
High Bought In: 0
Buy In %: 00.00%
Total High Estimate: 50000 Euros
Total High Sold: 60000 Euros

Kunsthaus Lempertz

Total Lots: 220
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 315300 Euros

Total Lots Sold: 73
Total Lots Bought In: 147
Buy In %: 66.82%
Total Sale Proceeds: 181932 Euros

With only approximately 30000 Euros of premium, this sale likely didn't break even against its costs. It was the worst outcome of the season (just nosing out Sotheby's London).

The photography lots in the Contemporary Art sale the same day brought in additional proceeds of 117960 Euros (against an estimate of 315300 Euros, with a 61.22% buy-in rate).

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

Low Total Lots: 214
Low Sold: 71
Low Bought In: 143
Buy In %: 57.46%
Total Low Estimate: 366150 Euros
Total Low Sold: 134172 Euros

Mid Total Lots: 6
Mid Sold: 2
Mid Bought In: 4
Buy In %: 66.67%
Total Mid Estimate: 52000 Euros
Total Mid Sold: 47760 Euros

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

Overall, the German fall season was surprisingly weak, and was likely hindered by falling at the end of the run of sales. With potential buyers being much more careful and picky, there just wasn't enough quality material in these sales to generate real interest.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Auction: Icons of Glamour and Style: The Constantiner Collection, December 16/17, 2008 @Christie's

Since we are not collectors of fashion photography, we have always wondered who was buying all of the glamour images by Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, William Klein, Herb Ritts and a handful of others that can consistently be found in sale after sale, year after year, ringing up strong prices. With the arrival of this well-produced catalog on our doorstep, we now have at least one good answer to that question.

Regardless of whether these kinds of images are your particular passion, this is an amazing collection. Within its defined sandbox (fashion and glamour images), it has all the hallmarks of a great collection: depth (320 images on sale here, with a comprehensive 89 lots by Helmut Newton, from small Polaroids to wall-sized murals, including a large number of portfolios), breadth (104 individual photographers represented by at least one image), and many iconic and rare masterpiece images that define the genre. By our count, there are 41 lots of Marilyn Monroe pictures, so if you ever felt the need for an image of Marilyn in your collection, now is the time to find one. Mixed in among the celebrities, couture and nudes are a handful of standout images of New York. All in, with a total high estimate of $11020500, this is a big sale.

Here's the overall price breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate below $10000): 146
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): $784500

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between $10000 and $50000): 127
Total Mid Estimate: $2816000

Total High Lots (high estimate above $50000): 47
Total High Estimate: $7420000

This sale has power in all directions, but particularly in the Mid and High ranges. Given the volatile financial markets, the timing of this sale isn't the greatest. It's a fabulous collection and deserves to sell well; it will be interesting to see how the work actually performs. In the small print, the catalog notes that "Christie's has a direct financial interest in all lots offered in this sale", so clearly the Constantiners got a guarantee for the whole package, regardless of the outcome.

For our particular collection, here are a few of interest:
  • Lot 25 Umbo, New York, Third Avenue, 1952
  • Lot 26 Margaret Bourke-White, Chrysler Building (Facade), c1930 (image at right)
  • Lot 41 Karl Struss, Cables, 1910-1912
Given the scope of this collection, this will be a must-see preview, even if you're not a buyer. It seems unlikely that such a staggering group of fashion photography will be on view anywhere else any time soon (museums included). So gather up some friends and go down to see this preview, and catch the tree at Rockefeller Center as a bonus.

December 16/17
20 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10020

Monday, December 8, 2008

Andreas Gursky @Matthew Marks

JTF (just the facts): 4 large scale color photographs (on the order of 8 x 16 feet), displayed in the main, natural lit gallery. (Installation shot at right.) A fifth photograph is being shown (on its own) at the other gallery location.

Comments/Context: When we look back on photography from the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, Andres Gursky will likely be one of the first artists who will be mentioned as having somehow captured the spirit of these times. His images are unlike anything else that had come before in terms of size, scale, and level of staggering detail. He has taken everything from buildings and architecture to trading floors, nightclubs, and 99 cent stores and imposed his sense of formal structure to create mesmerizing works that dominate walls. Along the way, he has unabashedly but artfully manipulated the images digitally to create his desired effects. The view point is always from on high and distanced, the people are always in extreme detail and yet anonymous in their environment, and there are nearly always compositional systems and patterns that move your eye around the picture.

The group of new works in this exhibit are all taken inside the Cocoon Club in Frankfurt, and these pictures travel the same road as other previous Gursky works inside techno nightclubs (seas of people, waves of movement, the interplay of individuals and crowds, theatrical lighting). As such, beyond one image that is a less than interesting self portrait of the artist and his son, there isn't anything new here and none of these pictures match the greatness of some his better know works. All the images are quite dark and muddy, and even the ones with large crowds and wild lights don't really jump off the wall; they actually draw you in to look more closely at the details. Heading into this exhibit, we were eagerly expecting to be wowed by the new Gursky show; and while his works are always visually interesting and carefully crafted, and we are overall fans of his art, unfortunately, these particular pitcures didn't move us and the show was ultimately a let down.

Collector's POV: Gursky's work is consistently priced at the very top end of the range for photography, routinely crossing the $1 million dollar mark for his best (and most popular) works. Priced at 600000 and 700000 Euros apiece (and notice that the prices were quoted to us in Euros in a New York gallery - an interesting development), these works are being marketed into that same price window, although we think these particular examples aren't of the same quality.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Through December 24th

523 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011

Friday, December 5, 2008

Cornell Capa: Concerned Photographer @ICP

JTF (just the facts): 60 black and white images, taken between 1953 and 1973, hung in groups as eight photo essays, in the main gallery. Topics/locations include : Guatelama (1953), Argentina (1955), Nicaragua (1956), Ecuador (1956), "Farewell to Eden" Peru/Brazil border region (1961), Robert Kennedy (1964), Attica (1972), and "Margins of Life" El Salvador/Honduras 1970-1973. 3 glass cases include copies of books, magazine spreads, and letters.

Comments/Context: Concerned photojournalist and ICP founder Cornell Capa died in May of this year, and this exhibition delivers a sampling of his work from a number of his most important and memorable projects. Even in the most tense and confrontational of situations across the globe, Capa seems to have found pauses and moments of quiet expression. His pictures tell complex and under reported stories with a clear humanitarian impulse. While there are few iconic images among Capa's work and many pictures feel drawn straight from a newspaper, when examined with care and patience in the context of the group of images from a single story as a whole, there is a remarkable consistency of quality and vision. He took on some tough assignments and made them into elegant and powerful pictorial stories. (Inmates playing chess from prison cells, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, 1972 at right.)

Collector's POV: A handful of Capa's best known images (Bolshoi Ballet School and a few others) are routinely available at reasonable prices in the secondary market. This exhibit has some surprisingly beautiful images buried in it; it deserves slow contemplation, rather than a quick glance, even if photojournalism isn't your passion.

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

Through January 4th

1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

Living with the Dead: W. Eugene Smith and World War II @ICP

JTF (just the facts): 11 black and white exhibition prints of World War II (all from 1943-1945), recently donated by Smith's assistant, Leslie Teicholz. Hung in a small gallery with dark grey walls on the museum's main floor, each image spotlit/backlit in an otherwise dark room. (No Speeches - No Flags - No Martial Music, 1945, at right.)

Comments/Context: During World War II, Eugene Smith had several assignments covering the action in the Pacific for various magazines. War and death are subjects with deep emotional intensity and the images in this intimate exhibit show clearly Smith's humanistic approach to photojournalism. These are vivid and harsh pictures of mass graves, explosions, fog, jungle, and wounded/dying soldiers, taken with a real empathy for those involved, making them all the more powerful and moving. There is an almost operatic storytelling at work here.

Collector's POV: In general, Smith's work is readily available in the secondary market, from The Walk to Paradise Garden to images from his various photo essays (Country Doctor, Nurse Midwife, Schweitzer, Minamata and many others). The war images in this show are among his best and are well worth the short time it takes to see this exhibit.

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

Through Januray 4th

1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

America and the Tintype @ICP

JTF (just the facts): 129 small tintype images, framed separately, and arrayed in groups through one small room (painted yellow) on the main floor of the museum. Divided into four sections: "Democratic Visages", "Workers' Portraits", "Stereotypical Tintypes", and "The Tintype and Leisure". (Iceman, Unidentified Photographer, c1875 at right.)

Comments/Context: We all know that the technology of photography (and the changes and advancements in this science) has had enormous influence on the development of the medium. The tintype is an often forgotten step in this evolutionary history, and this small exhibit at the ICP helps remind us of where this obsolete process fits. In reaction to the high cost, formal Daguerreotype, the tintype was a much simpler, more inexpensive technology that provided a picture making alternative for the masses in the mid to late 19th century.
Until it was cast aside with the invention of Eastman's inexpensive Kodak cameras and roll film in 1888, the tintype was the dominant form of portrait photography for everyday people, a populist form of self expression not unlike the photo booth of the 20th century. The vast majority of the tintypes made were traditional portraits, but what is striking about this show are the variations in how the subjects chose to be seen and recorded for posterity. Beyond the run of the mill formal portrait pose, many wore their work clothes (like blacksmiths or clowns), or held props of one kind or another, or acted out elaborate (and sometimes quite funny) scenes. While they may not stand the test of being "art", these tintypes certainly provide a compelling window into the life and attitudes of a cross section of American society at that time.

Collector's POV: This show feels a little more like a fun history lesson than anything else, but given the re-emergence of expired photographic processes in use by contemporary artists, getting to see a wide range of high quality tintypes up close is worth a visit as an educational exercise. Since tintypes were so ubiquitous and inexpensive in their day, if you want a few for your collection, you are more likely to find them in antiques and collectibles shops (or on Ebay) than in a gallery setting.

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

Through January 4th

1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Auction: Photographic Literature & Photographs, December 11, 2008 @Swann

It was only a handful of years ago that Swann Galleries had its first sale of photo books, and now Photographic Literature has become a category of its own and many of the auction houses are getting in on the action. This sale is a hybrid, with a combination of rare books (291 lots) and photographs (110 lots) on offer. The total high estimate for the sale is $1233650 (plus one lot with price on request).

Here's the overall price breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate below $10000): 384
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): $878650

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between $10000 and $50000): 15
Total Mid Estimate: $280000

Total High Lots (high estimate above $50000): 2
Total High Estimate: $75000

While there aren't any photographs in this sale that really catch our eye, there are plenty of photo books that we would love to have for our library. We are constantly adding both new and old books to our shelves, but there are many iconic books that have remained elusive or just too expensive (in our minds) to justify adding them to our collection. We're not hung up on books being in perfect condition, or signed, or first edition, or owned by someone else famous; we just want a good clean copy as reference, so many of the books in this sale are more than we really need.

That said, all of the following are missing from our shelves and would be very welcome additions:
  • Lot 21 Lewis Baltz, Candlestick Point
  • Lot 48 Harry Callahan, Photographs (El Mochuelo Gallery)
  • Lot 100 Lee Friedlander, Flowers and Trees
  • Lot 106 Jaromir Funke, Fotografie
  • Lot 124 Eikoh Hosoe, Embrace
  • Lot 135 Andre Kertesz, Day of Paris
  • Lot 205 Ed Ruscha, Every Building on the Sunset Strip
  • Lot 206 Ed Ruscha, Thirtyfour Parking Lots
  • Lot 209 Ed Ruscha, Twentysix Gasoline Stations
  • Lot 234 Aaron Siskind, Photographs (Horizon)
  • Lot 252 Hiroshi Sugimoto, Theaters
  • Lot 259 Shomei Tomatsu, Oo! Shinjuku
  • Lot 278 Edward Weston, Photographs (Conger)
My guess is that if we owned the books above, we'd be able to find another dozen in this sale that we would want as well (the library is never exhaustive enough). Photo books make great gifts, so get in there and do some holiday shopping.
December 11

104 East 25th Street
New York, NY 10010

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Art Basel Miami Beach and Others

For those of you making the trek to Miami this week for the various fairs (or who are perhaps already there), while we won’t be joining you this year, we expect there will be plenty of great and terrible work on display. Here’s our view of the short list:

A few of the major photography players can be found at Art Basel Miami Beach (Howard Greenberg, Fraenkel, Edwynn Houk, and Kicken Berlin), mixed in with the cream of the crop of the world’s best contemporary art dealers, almost all of which show photography periodically these days. This will certainly be the venue for the top end contemporary photography, along with some choice vintage pieces in the background.

With the demise of the short lived AIPAD Miami Beach edition, the rest of the photography galleries have been spread to the wind, many ending up at Art Miami (Barry Singer, Catherine Edelman, Cohen Amador, Fay Gold, Michael Hoppen, Hasted Hunt, PDNB, Silverstein Photography, Stephen Bulger, Rick Wester, and Yancey Richardson among others). Pulse has a few more worth visiting (Yossi Milo, Robert Mann, Julie Saul). Photo Miami has another fifty or so photo galleries, many of which are unknown to us, but likely worth a quick look as well.

NADA, SCOPE, Aqua, and Bridge don't seem to have much in the way of photography, but you never know what you might find being exhibited. And there are many more shows beyond even these, if you have the stamina.

And don’t forget to swing by and see the Margulies Collection at The Warehouse and the Rubell Family Collection, two great private collections of contemporary art (including photography).

Let us know if we've missed something important and/or give us some comments from the show if you are attending.

UPDATE: James Danziger's report from Miami Day 1 is here. Day 2 is here. Day 3 is here. Modern Art Obsession's report on the Pulse opening is here. Fugitive Vision's first report is here. MAO on the Aqua fairs is here.

Auction Results Fall 2008: Christie's South Kensington and Villa Grisebach

There were two more photography sales during the short Thanksgiving week: Christie’s South Kensington (London) and Villa Grisebach (Berlin). The results are below (all results include the buyer’s premium):

Christie’s South Kensington

Total Lots: 168
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: 363400 Pounds
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 535000 Pounds

Total Lots Sold: 119
Total Lots Bought In: 49
Buy In %: 29.17%
Total Sale Proceeds: 348727 Pounds

Of all the various owner sales this season, this sale was closest to its pre-sale Low estimate in terms of overall proceeds, with a surprisingly low buy-in rate (bested only by the single owner Eggleston and Jammes sales earlier in the fall).

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

Low Total Lots: 146
Low Sold: 107
Low Bought In: 39
Buy In %: 26.71%
Total Low Estimate: 393000 Pounds
Total Low Sold: 274227 Pounds

Mid Total Lots: 22
Mid Sold: 12
Mid Bought In: 10
Buy In %: 45.45%
Total Mid Estimate: 142000 Pounds
Total Mid Sold: 74500 Pounds

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

Given a mixed bag of less than amazing material (from our perspective), this sale performed unexpectedly well.

Villa Grisebach

Total Lots: 241
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: 583300 Euros
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 822200 Euros

Total Lots Sold: 140
Total Lots Bought In: 101
Buy In %: 41.91%
Total Sale Proceeds: 453805 Euros

Villa Grisebach is the first of the German auction houses to have its photography sale this season, so we don’t yet have a pattern for what is happening in that micro market. In the context of the wider US and London markets, this sale performed right in line with the prevailing somber mood.

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

Low Total Lots: 223
Low Sold: 131
Low Bought In: 92
Buy In %: 41.26%
Total Low Estimate: 545200 Euros
Total Low Sold: 335995 Euros

Mid Total Lots: 16
Mid Sold: 8
Mid Bought In: 8
Buy In %: 50.00%
Total Mid Estimate: 167000 Euros
Total Mid Sold: 70210 Euros

High Total Lots: 2
High Sold: 1
High Bought In: 1
Buy In %: 50.00%
Total High Estimate: 110000 Euros
Total High Sold: 47600 Euros

While there was weakness across the board, this sale had a few more positive outliers (where the realized price was meaningfully higher than the high estimate) than most of the other sales, and these lots helped raise the totals and back fill for those lots that didn’t sell.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Lise Sarfati, Rough, Cold, and Close: A Russian Poem @Yossi Milo

JTF (just the facts): 27 C-prints, all 11x16, framed in white and hung in the main gallery. (Installation shot at right.) Negatives from 1992 through 2002, printed in editions of 10.

Comments/Context: Lise Sarfati is a French photographer working for Magnum who has spent most of her career in Paris, with project stints in Russia and the United States. Her most recent body of work (and the one that might be familiar to most New York collectors) is called The New Life, a series of portraits of American teenagers from across the country, full of the sullen, anxious and solitary emotions of adolescence.
This shows goes back a step to a series of images Sarfati made in the 1990s in post-Soviet Russia. There are interior portraits, barren landscapes, and architectural shots of vernacular buildings, together painting a dreary picture of decay, destruction, and grim existence. It is a smothering and suffocating environment, where the people are struggling desperately to find some hope. And yet within this depressing and isolating world, there is just a tiny glimmer of promise and optimism buried underneath the rubble.
Irrespective of this compelling mood setting, the real reason to see this show is for Sarfati's use of color and light, especially in the interior portraits. In these images, the subjects are photographed indirectly, with careful composition echoing the muted colors of the rooms. There are washed out blues, pinks, greens, and greys, dulled and dampened by age, softened by clear and quiet morning light. The use of color is subtle and measured; there are no acidic colors shouting at you in these pictures. The muffled hues match the overall stillness of these pictures.

Collector's POV: The images in this show are priced between $4500 and $6500. Sarfati has virtually no secondary market at this point, so this is the only place you will find these images in the short term. While they don't fit our particular collection, if color photography is your passion, then one of Sarfati's interiors would be a terrific buy.

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

Through December 6th

525 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001