Friday, May 29, 2009

Edwin Hale Lincoln, Wildflowers of New England @Klotz

JTF (just the facts): A total of 65 platinum prints, framed in black wood and unmatted, hung in the main gallery space and the smaller viewing alcove, against white and green walls. All of the images are 10x8 and were made in 1914, as part of the 6 volume, 400 image series Wildflowers of New England. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: For those collectors who focus outside the subculture of floral photography, the name of Edwin Hale Lincoln will be a complete unknown. His only claim to fame is his obsessive project to document the many species of wildflowers found in and around Lenox, Massachusetts in the early 1900s, before the ravages of industrialization and expansion drove them all to extinction.

While many of his images are pleasingly decorative, the real reason Lincoln is important is that he was a transitional figure in the history of floral photography. Going back to William Henry Fox Talbot, photographers from the very beginning of the medium have pointed their cameras at flowers and leaves, mostly because many early photographers were amateur scientists and naturalists in their spare time. Throughout most of the 19th century, most floral and botanical images were made in a quasi-scientific or documentary manner, starting with the stunning cyanotypes of Anna Atkins, and continuing on through the botanicals made in exotic lands by Scowen & Co, Fratelli Alinari and many others. (We'll leave out some of the more decorative floral images made in France during this same period by the likes of Adolphe Braun and Charles Aubry for the sake of brevity.) At the turn of the century, the general approach was still mostly the same, as exemplified by the intimate cyanotypes of Bertha Jaques.

Edwin Hale Lincoln came out of this same naturalist tradition, working in complete isolation, following his own path. But his images however show the first traces of a more pared down, clean aesthetic, in contrast to the prevailing Pictorialism of the times. He placed all of his samples against flat uniform backgrounds, and took up close photographs of small carefully chosen and grouped sets of blossoms, often lined up. Using the platinum process, his images have remarkable tonal quality, subtle variations of grey rather than contrasty black and white. Along with the vegetable and fruit studies (some flowers as well) of Charles Jones, Lincoln's work makes a bridge from the older approach to the 1920s and 1930s floral Modernism of Karl Blossfeldt, Albert Renger-Patzsch, and Ernst Fuhrmann in Germany and Imogen Cunningham in America, who pared the aesthetic down even further towards crisp objectivity and formal beauty.
So while at first glance it might seem easy to speed by this show as a musty bunch of simple flower pictures, placed in some historical context, Lincoln's delicate works have surprising relevance to what came later.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are all priced at $1500, including the frame. Lincoln's prints have come up for auction from time to time in the past few years, generally selling under $1000. Given our position as flower collectors, it shouldn't be surprising that we already have two excellent Lincolns in our collection (here), which we purchased from the Lee Gallery (here) some years ago. If we were to select another print to add from this exhibit, it would be Lychnis Abla - White Campion, Evening Lychnis (shown at right), as its all-over composition has more visual interest than many of Lincoln's usual straight up groupings.

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

Transit Hub:
  • De Young Museum exhibit, 2008 (here)
  • NY Times review, 2002 (here)
Through July 2nd

Alan Klotz Gallery
511 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

Marco Breuer, Part _ of _ Parts @Von Lintel

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 works, framed in white and unmatted, hung in the single room gallery. The unique prints come in various sizes, from 5x4 to 38x28, and were all made in 2008 or 2009. Several different papers and processes have been used, resulting in cyanotype, gelatin silver, Polaroid and chromogenic prints. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Likely due to its technological origins, of all the artistic mediums, photography is the one most deeply rooted in process. It seems we can hardly look at an image these days without immediately transitioning to questions about what kind/size of camera was used, which printing process was chosen and what type of manipulations might have gone on in the darkroom or computer. It's often easy to get lost in the details of "how", missing the more important questions of "what" and "why".

Marco Breuer has been exploring the depths and edges of photography processes for over a decade, and his show of new work at Von Lintel continues this investigation with satisfying and elegant results. Breuer uses no camera; he takes various kinds of light sensitive papers and submits them to a wide array of unconventional treatments, generating abstract works that record the results of these experiments.

This type of approach has its roots back in the scientific cyanotypes of the 19th century, early 20th century X-rays, and the Surrealist/Dada photograms of Christian Schad, Man Ray, and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy of 1920s. The difference is that in all of those examples, the paper captured an image of an object (or group of objects), often carefully and artfully composed to create the compositional effect the artist desired. In Breuer's case, his paper is capturing the remnants of a process or movement, not the shadow of a physical form; the papers are scraped, shot, spun, drilled, and exposed to light, leaving behind their reactions, scratches, abrasions, and fogs of color. As such, they seem more directly related to the ideas of random chance embedded in the works of John Cage or Merce Cunningham; Breuer's prints examine the outcomes of processes that could have gone in any number of uncontrolled directions.
The works themselves are patterns of spots, waves, squiggles and circular spins, intermixed with heat generated fades and gradients of yellow, orange and black. Beyond the colors and designs on the surface, many of the prints are visibly punctured and scratched by gun shots, drills or the motion of a turntable, enhancing their object quality (and drawing parallels to a diverse set of other art, from Lucio Fontana's slashed canvases to Damien Hirst's spin paintings). Overall, I found most of these abstractions to be both thought-provoking as ideas and successful as variations of line and form.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced between $3900 and $14900, generally based on size. Breuer's work has not appeared at auction with any regularity, so no pricing pattern can be readily discerned. Seeing these prints, I was most reminded of Harry Callahan's light drawings from the 1940s, and Breuer's new works would certainly complement a set of those photographs quite well. More generally, while Breuer's images don't fit into our collecting framework, I found these prints to have a unique voice and point of view, clearly working outside the well traveled roads of contemporary photography, but still finding novel ways to make original and exciting images.

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

Transit Hub:
  • Early Recordings, Aperture monograph (here)
  • Breuer holdings at MoMA (here)
  • Vince Aletti review, Village Voice 2000 (here)
Marco Breuer, Part _ of _ Parts
Through June 13th

520 West 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Auction: Photographie, June 4, 2009 @Grisebach

Villa Grisebach is next up in the German season, with its photography sale in Berlin on June 4. In addition to the normal mix of vintage and contemporary material, there are sections of lots devoted to Bauhaus photography, the work of Albert Renger-Patzsch, and images of the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. There are a total of 192 lots on offer, with a total High estimate of 543100€. (Catalog cover at right.)

Here's the breakdown:

Total Low lots (high estimate 7500€ or lower): 173
Total Low estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): 326100€

Total Mid lots (high estimate between 7500€ and 35000€): 19
Total Mid estimate: 217000€

Total High lots (high estimate over 35000€): 0
Total High estimate: NA

For our collection, we liked the following:

Lot 1265 Werner Mantz, Kuhlturme, Heerlen, Niederlande, 1937
Lot 1293 Albert Renger-Patzsch, Frauenschuh-Orchidee and Schmuck-Dahlie, 1928

The lot by lot catalog can be found here.

May 27

Villa Grisebach
Fasanenstrasse 25
D-10719 Berlin

Auction: Photo Atelier Stone, June 4, 2009 @Argenteuil

Next week, the archive of photographers Cami and Sasha Stone will be put up for auction in Argenteuil, France. Over 800 black and white works taken between the wars will be on offer (grouped into a total of 319 lots), most with estimates under 1000€.

The sale includes prints (mostly street scenes and architectural images) from their period in Berlin (1925-1930), as well as from later years in Belgium (1930-1938). There are also a group of photomontages and other miscellaneous documents/ephemera available. Overall, the sale has a Total High Estimate of 217100€. A superb hard backed catalog has been created, containing a detailed bibliography of books and exhibitions, images of all the various hand stamps they used, and several background essays. (Catalog cover at right.)

Here's the breakdown:

Total Low lots (high estimate 7500€ or lower): 318
Total Low estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): 202100€

Total Mid lots (high estimate between 7500€ and 35000€): 1
Total Mid estimate: 15000€

Total High lots (high estimate over 35000€): 0
Total High estimate: NA

In general, for our particular collection, we continue to look for the right vintage Sasha Stone nude from the 1930s, but we still haven't found one that is tuned just right to our tastes; unfortunately, none of the ones offered in this sale hits the target in the center either, although lot 312 is the closest.

The lot by lot catalog (PDF) can be found here.

Photo Atelier Stone
June 4th

Specialist for the auction
Christophe Goeury

Argenteuil Maison De Vente (no website)
19, Rue Denis-Roy
95100 Argenteuil

Andrew Bush, Vector Portraits @Yossi Milo

JTF (just the facts): A total of 23 digital c-prints, framed in white with no mat and hung in two rows in the main gallery. The images were taken between 1989 and 1997 and are printed in editions of 5. All of the prints are 30" high, and range in length between 37" and 67". Each image is titled with the name of the road, the driving speed, the exact time, and the general location.(Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Andrew Bush's portraits of people driving their cars along California highways have an almost anthropological feel to them, a study in American car culture and the public and private spaces our cars create for us. With a medium format camera and flash mounted to the passenger side of his car, he made consistent images of anonymous cars and their passengers as they traveled by, often at high speed. Most of the pictures capture the driver side door, the steering wheel, the back wheel, and of course, the driver, mostly staring forward, but often doing something else. Hung together, they create a Becher-like typology of forms, colorful variations from image to image helping to define the essence of the subject: the funky personalities of the people and their cars, the external signs of social classes, and the dated but somehow nostalgic styles.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced between $6000 and $10000 based on size. Only a couple of prints from this series have made their way into the auction markets, selling for approximately $2000 each. These images have a very strong warm weather American feel to them, and would therefore fit best in a collection of contemporary American color photography.

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

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Drive monograph (here)
  • Recent exhibit at Julie Saul Gallery (here)
  • Another version of people in cars: Gosbert Adler (here)

Yossi Milo Gallery
525 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book: Thomas Struth, Making Time

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2007 by the Museo Nacional del Prado and Turner. 116 pages, with 51 color images. Includes an essay by Estrella De Diego. (Cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: German photographer Thomas Struth has been making in situ images of museums across the globe for many years now, but his recent project at the Prado (chronicled in this book) has taken this long term assignment in an altogether more complex direction.

The more conventional images in this volume capture people looking at the various treasures in the Prado, including Velazquez' Las Meninas (1656). We see them gazing thoughtfully, listening to audio guides, and talking animatedly with friends, the rules and etiquette of the space creating pockets and clusters of movement and inertia. The museum is variously shown as a site for obligatory education (the ubiquitous school groups), social activity (the chattering of visitors with each other), and mindless tourism (the hordes of glassy eyed visitors wandering aimlessly, looking without seeing).

The book is sequenced in such a way that short narratives begin with a traditional image of an important painting, are followed by a Struth image of visitors interacting with this painting or its neighbors in the gallery, finally ending with an installation shot of the original painting and the Struth photograph hung together in the gallery, creating a mind bending reflective hall of mirrors effect. In other installations, Struth's museum images from other cities are intermingled with the Prado's collection, again inverting our expectations of what should be going on.

These layers of interaction fundamentally disrupt the normal viewing of these masterworks of painting, creating a dizzying hierarchy of spectators and time: viewers looking at pictures of viewers looking at paintings, opening up a heady dialog about both the nature of "participation" in art and about the function of museums. In the back of the book, there are several gatefold pages, where 4 images of the crowds are published together, a incisive theme and variation exercise using different groups of upward looking visitors as subjects.

While we have other books that include a variety of Struth's museum pictures, the unexpected and thought-provoking installation shots of the photographs hung on the walls of the Prado amidst the other masterworks are what makes this additional volume worth having in your library.

Collector's POV: Thomas Struth is represented by Marian Goodman Gallery in New York (here). Struth's works are generally available at auction, both in smaller sizes and larger editions, typically priced between $2000 and $30000, and in monumental sizes that start at $100000 and move upward to over $1 million. For our particular collection, we continue to look for just the right image from his series of black and white straight down the road cityscapes from the 1970s, which would fit well with other city scenes we already own.

Transit Hub:

  • NY Times review 2007 (here)
  • Brian Appel review on 2005 (here)
  • Met Museum retrospective, 2003 (here)
  • Retrospective virtual tour (here)
  • Slate review of Met show (here)
  • Dandelion Room (here)
  • Broad Art Foundation (here)

Book: Wolfgang Tillmans, Still Life

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2002 by Harvard. 64 pages, with 36 color images. Includes an essay by Benjamin Paul. (Cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: While we already have several Wolfgang Tillmans monographs in our library, I recently came across the small spiral bound catalog of a show at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum in 2002 and it seemed to be just exactly what we have been looking for all along. Tillmans is of course best known for a dizzying array of portraits, landscapes, abstractions, and other images of the circa 1990s "younger generation", casual snapshot-like images that chronicle the relaxed lives of couples and friends in ways that echo Nan Goldin's intimate pictures of her friends and lovers decades earlier. He is also known for the careful installation of his work in galleries and museums, where he often uses a wide range of sizes and formats, sometimes under glass on tabletops or unframed and taped to the wall, new work juxtaposed and mixed in with older images to create flowing narratives and unexpected connections.

An intriguing problem for collectors (and museums I imagine) is that Tillmans' work seems to be most resonant when shown in groups, where the images can respond to each other; many of the single images work extremely well in a cluster, but are perhaps less earth shaking when viewed as a stand alone print isolated from others of a common theme. Likely because of our affinity for florals, we have always been most drawn to his still lifes, which portray classic motifs in a thoroughly modern and some might say "authentic" way. This small book is thus perfect for us, as it gathers together in one volume the image types that we are most interested in exploring in more depth.

Most of Tillmans' still lifes are chaotic tabletop gatherings or dense windowsill arrangements of seemingly random objects, all bathed in natural morning light. Flowers and scraggly plants are often found sticking out of a drinking glass or a plastic disposable water bottle; fruit is often artfully arranged or seemingly recently discarded, peels and all. Crumpled laundry, broken shells and dirty dishes also make cameos. At one level, the images appear to be artless snaps of someone's lived-in apartment; at another, the found objects seem carefully placed and somehow representative of the larger life around them. To our eyes, the parallels to Josef Sudek's lyrical groupings of eggs, bread crusts, and flowers in his studio window from the 1950s are very strong, but updated by Tillmans to reflect a contemporary world and aesthetic.

Collector's POV: Wolfgang Tillmans is represented by Andrea Rosen gallery in New York (here). Tillmans' work is readily available at auction, with prices ranging from $2000 to $50000, often depending on dimensions and edition size. For our particular collection, one of the floral still lifes in this catalog would be the best fit into our framework, and could certainly be considered evidence of new conventions being applied to a traditional subject.

Transit Hub:
  • Artist website (here)
  • Artforum article 2008 (here)
  • UCLA Hammer Museum retrospective 2007 (here)
  • PS1 exhibit 2006 (here)
  • Interview with Gil Blank in Influence 2004 (here)
  • Turner Prize 2000 (here)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Auction Results: Photobooks, May 19, 2009 @Christie's London

Given the current consistency of the secondary market for photography, these results posts are starting to sound like a broken record. The key measurements from Christie's recent Photobooks auction in London once again fell within a surprisingly narrow window: a mid thirties buy in rate and total proceeds less than the total Low estimate. The only difference here is that the outcomes got softer as the prices got higher, in this case likely representing a decreasing number of buyers for the rarest and most expensive volumes.

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

Total Lots: 191
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: £385100
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: £558900

Total Lots Sold: 120
Total Lots Bought In: 71
Buy In %: 37.17%
Total Sale Proceeds: £285572

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

Low Total Lots: 172
Low Sold: 111
Low Bought In: 60
Buy In %: 34.88%
Total Low Estimate: £298900
Total Low Sold: £219322

Mid Total Lots: 17
Mid Sold: 8
Mid Bought In: 9
Buy In %: 52.94%
Total Mid Estimate: £165000
Total Mid Sold: £66250

High Total Lots: 2
High Sold: 0
High Bought In: 2
Buy In %: 100.00%
Total High Estimate: £95000
Total High Sold: £0

97.50% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above the estimate range, with 36.67% above. There were a total of three surprises in this sale (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate): lot 50, Emile Allais, Methode francaise du ski, 1948, at £1125, lot 82, Ed Ruscha, Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964 at £3750, and lot 126, Workshop Collective, Workshop 1-8, 1974-1976, at £8750.

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

85 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3LD

Auction Results: Photographs, May 19, 2009 @Sotheby's London

While Sotheby's New York Photographs department continues to set the standard for the entire market, I think it is safe to say at this point that the London Photographs office has completely lost its way. With a buy-in rate approaching two thirds (at 64.29% the single worst buy in rate across all photography auctions so far this year) and proceeds less than half the total Low estimate, the mismatch between the material and the buyers in this sale was significant. At one point (between lots 10 and 40), there were a total of 2 sales against 29 passes; while we were not present, I can certainly imagine the anxiety in the room as pass after pass after pass piled up. The London sale last November was in the same dismal category, so there's likely some reevaluation going on (particularly with regard to 19th century material I would guess).

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

Total Lots: 154
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: £964000
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: £1349000

Total Lots Sold: 55
Total Lots Bought In: 99
Buy In %: 64.29%
Total Sale Proceeds: £476500

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

Low Total Lots: 58
Low Sold: 22
Low Bought In: 36
Buy In %: 62.07%
Total Low Estimate: £264000
Total Low Sold: £85000

Mid Total Lots: 91
Mid Sold: 32
Mid Bought In: 59
Buy In %: 64.84%
Total Mid Estimate: £845000
Total Mid Sold: £318250

High Total Lots: 5
High Sold: 1
High Bought In: 4
Buy In %: 80.00%
Total High Estimate: £240000
Total High Sold: £73250

98.18% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above the estimate range, with 34.55% above, so one silver lining was that the estimates were generally fair and appropriate. Unfortunately however, there were no surprises in this sale (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate).

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

34-35 New Bond Street
London W1A 2AA

Auction Results: Photographs, May 16, 2009 @Phillips London

While the material at Phillips' recent London Photographs sale was fresher and more contemporary than some of the other sales this season, the results were still in line with the prevailing market realities: a buy-in rate in the mid thirties and total proceeds under the total Low estimate. It seems cautious, conservative buyers continue to be the norm, regardless of the type of material on offer.

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

Total Lots: 170
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: £1018700
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: £1462600

Total Lots Sold: 105
Total Lots Bought In: 65
Buy In %: 38.24%
Total Sale Proceeds: £868775

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

Low Total Lots: 77
Low Sold: 52
Low Bought In: 25
Buy In %: 32.47%
Total Low Estimate: £262600
Total Low Sold: £162250

Mid Total Lots: 87
Mid Sold: 49
Mid Bought In: 38
Buy In %: 43.68%
Total Mid Estimate: £880000
Total Mid Sold: £518025

High Total Lots: 6
High Sold: 4
High Bought In: 2
Buy In %: 33.33%
Total High Estimate: £320000
Total High Sold: £188500

90.48% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above the estimate range, with 29.52% above. There were plenty of surprises in this sale (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate), especially on the lower priced lots. These included:

Lot 13, Stephen Shore, West 9th Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, October, 2, 1974, at £15000
Lot 38, Richard Misrach, Fence, Bravo 20, Bombing range, 1987, at £4750
Lot 51, Daido Moriyama, Yokohama (Kanagawa), 1977, at £6500
Lot 52, Daido Moriyama, Yurakucho, 1976, at £5625
Lot 56, Miroslav Tichy, Untitled, 1950-1980, at £4750
Lot 57, Miroslav Tichy, Untitled, 1950-1980, at £5625
Lot 59, Miroslav Tichy, Untitled, 1950-1980, at £4375
Lot 61, Rankin, Heidi Klum, 2004 and Kate Moss, 2004, at £2250
Lot 106, Nick Knight, Devon, 1997, at £57650

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

Phillips De Pury & Company
Howick Place
London SW1P 1BB

Auction Results: Photographic Literature & Fine Photographs, May 14, 2009 @Swann

The results of Swann's recent combination sale of photo books and photographs generally matched what we have come to see as a pattern of "soft economy" photography auction outcomes: the buy in rate was in the mid-thirties and the total proceeds were below the total Low estimate.

The only difference is that, for some reason, Swann consistently tends to have a meaningfully higher percentage of lots that sell below their Low estimate (in this case 38.02% of lots that sold were below the Low). On one hand, this is clearly a negative, as Swann's clients are just not paying what was expected by the consignors. A potential silver lining to this is however that I actually think that Swann is successfully finding buyers for works that might otherwise go unsold, especially at the lower end of the market. So while consignors may be disappointed that a work had proceeds under its estimate, the work at least sold at some price above the reserve, rather than passing.

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

Total Lots: 411
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: $1572750
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: $2212700

Total Lots Sold: 263
Total Lots Bought In: 148
Buy In %: 36.01%
Total Sale Proceeds: $1031736

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

Low Total Lots: 383
Low Sold: 246
Low Bought In: 137
Buy In %: 35.77%
Total Low Estimate: $1333700
Total Low Sold: $706176

Mid Total Lots: 26
Mid Sold: 16
Mid Bought In: 10
Buy In %: 38.46%
Total Mid Estimate: $459000
Total Mid Sold: $267960

High Total Lots: 2
High Sold: 1
High Bought In: 1
Buy In %: 50.00%
Total High Estimate: $420000
Total High Sold: $57600

Only 61.98% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above the estimate range. Surprises (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate) included: lot 43, Edward Steichen, The Family of Man, at $840, lot 91, Sol Lewitt, Autobiography, at $4080, lot 149, Francis Frith, Scenes of Egypt, 1860 at $2040, lot 266, Minor White, Windowsill Daydreaming, 1958 at $26400, lot 318, W. Eugene Smith, Untitled, 1955 at $6240, lot 320, John Kennedy, Jr. salutes the casket of his dead father, 1963, at $4800, and lot 324, Moneta J. Sleet Jr., Pulitzer-prize winning photo of Mrs. Martin Luther Ling Jr., 1968 at $10800.

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

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

Friday, May 22, 2009

Frank Thiel, New Work @Kelly

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 large scale chromogenic prints mounted to Plexiglas, framed in white with no mat, and hung in the main light filled gallery and two smaller side rooms. Each image is printed 96x71 (a smaller 54x40 size is also available, although not on display), and the images were taken in 2007 and 2008. The prints are made in editions of 5+2AP. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: German photographer Frank Thiel's entire career has been centered around images of the transformations in his home city of Berlin, so the massive patterned and monochrome images that are now on view at Sean Kelly might seem an odd departure. The back story to these works is that they are images of curtains, found in abandoned East Berlin buildings and cleaned up by Thiel. The curtains were then hung in brightly lit windows, photographed, and enlarged to three times life size. The resulting images capture the undulating folds of the fabric, the texture of the weaves, and the interplay of the printed patterns, while having an undertone of historical meaning for unified Germany.

There are three subsets to this larger series: monochrome patterns, solid colors, and color patterns. At first glance, the monochrome curtains seem like wavy indistinct vertical stripes and repetitions; step in closer and there is an amazing level of intricate detail in these zig-zagging lines, an echo of Sol Lewitt's wall sized pencil drawings.

The solid colored works (in red, green, yellow, and brown) emphasize transparent texture, with diaphanous light flowing through the gaps in the weave, highlighting the subtle bumps and imperfections in the cloth. The color patterns are interplays of geometric dots, stripes, and printed leaves, further abstracted and reworked by the interlaced folds of the fabric.

While these works surely have a compelling decorative quality (a backhanded compliment in today's world), I very much enjoyed the delicate abstractions that Thiel has discovered in these mundane subjects. What could have been a clever set piece has become something altogether more elegant and ethereal than would have been expected.

Collector's POV: The prints in the show are priced at 11500€ or 23000€ depending on size. Thiel's work has started to show up at auction with more regularity in recent years, with prints selling between $8000 and $23000. As we have mentioned before, while the immense size of these works clearly contributes to their interest, it also makes them wholly impractical for us as collectors. So while I certainly enjoyed these works, the prints would need to be much smaller to be a fit for our particular collection.

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

Transit Hub:
  • Constructing New Berlin at the Phoenix Art Museum (here)
  • UBS Art Collection (here)
  • DLK COLLECTION book review: Frank Thiel: A Berlin Decade, 1995-2005 (here)
Through June 20th
528 West 29th Street
New York, NY 10001
Administrative Note: There will be no posts on Monday, US Memorial Day.

Hannah Starkey @Bonakdar

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 c-prints, framed in white with no mat, displayed on the second floor, in the entry and two gallery rooms. The prints range in size from 19x25 to 48x64, and were taken between 2006 and 2009. All of the prints are made in editions of 5+1AP. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Irish photographer Hannah Starkey's two new bodies of work now on view at Tanya Bonakdar continue her exploration of women and their complex lives/roles in contemporary society.

The large scale cinematic works in the back gallery are all images of women behind glass, with blinds, curtains, and reflective shop windows all providing a barrier between the viewer and the viewed. The staged images are voyeuristic indirect portraits, where the subjects face in sidelong directions, looking away. While these scenes might be slices of everyday life, the overall mood is a mixture of boredom, cool isolation, longing and detachment.

The smaller works in the other gallery (entitled Street Pictures)have much more warmth and life. Using a more snapshot aesthetic, Starkey has photographed women on the street, the common theme being their fabulous sunglasses. Whether worn in the usual manner, or used as a hair accessory, the sunglasses seem to give the women of all ages a heightened sense of confidence, self-reliance and style. While I'm not sure these images will stand up particularly well as individual works, as a group, they're certainly more lively and energetic than the first set of pictures.

The conceptual punch line here is quite obvious: one barrier (the window) creates self-conscious vulnerability, while the other barrier (the sunglasses) creates self-assurance.

Collector's POV: The images in the show are priced at £8000 and £20000, based on size. Starkey's work has only recently appeared in the secondary markets. Prices at auction have ranged between $2000 and $4000 for smaller sized images, and between $4000 and $7000 for larger prints. These works don't fit into our collection, but if careful 21st century scene setting/portraiture is your thing, then these will be worth a look.

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

Transit Hub:

  • Photographs, 1997-2007, published by Steidl (here)
  • Sodium Dreams, at Bard, 2003 (here)
Through June 20th

Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
521 West 21st Street
New York, NY 10011

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Big Stories of Photography

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is how sites like this one (and most blogs in general) often feel like a collection of disconnected fragments. Day after day, we are posting and accumulating small pieces of detailed information, but in fact, we rarely talk about where these pieces fit in the larger realm of photography. It’s the 24-hour media cycle applied to the art world, where a big idea today is gone tomorrow, with little or no commentary to help us explain why it was important in the first place.

So I began to think about each post we make in a much larger context. I asked myself these questions: what larger framework does this tiny post feed into? For what larger story is this just one of the many supporting data points? Why is this fragment in the end important?

When you step back and look at things from this perspective, each gallery review, auction report, book summary and opinion piece suddenly seems markedly different, because the small story is now put into the context of something altogether more powerful. The simple addition of an analytical framework makes almost everything fall into place; nearly all of the dots have now been connected.

What I’ve discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, is that most of the important stories of photography are constant stories; they are ones that we have been grappling with since the beginning of the medium. We continue to come back to these same themes again and again, decade after decade, even if they now have a contemporary face. Underneath each long term umbrella concept are a handful of smaller ideas that feed into the larger narrative, many of which have a shorter run of interest (a week, a month, a year) and then evolve into something else or disappear.

What might surprise you is that I’ve only come up with 4 prominent stories that I see in photography today. I’ve outlined them below, and added some supporting information on each, including what kind of posts/ideas feed into the overall dialogue:

1.) The Continual Reordering and Reevaluation of the Photographic Hierarchy: Virtually every gallery/museum show that is organized and every photography book that is published is in the end making a case for the merits of a single artist or group in the grand sweep of the medium’s history. For photography, the overall hierarchy is remarkably fluid, with artists going in and out of favor perhaps more rapidly than in other mediums. Most of the voices in the community are directly or indirectly influencing the location of artists on the ladder. Some of the underlying stories include:

  • The rising stature of certain artists/photographers and the picking of “winners” and “losers”
  • The rediscovery of forgotten artists/bodies of work and the incorporation of this work into the overall historical narrative
  • The categorization of new work into common styles and movements
  • New curatorial approaches that reconsider/reinterpret historical “truths”

2.) The Impact of Technology on the Process of Making Photographic Art: If there is a single common thread to the history of photography, it is likely the development of new ground breaking technologies and their resulting impact on the way photographers approach their craft. Current incarnations of this overarching story include:

  • Digital manipulation/Photoshop: its use and influences on art making
  • The coming obsolescence of popular processes/approaches (gelatin silver etc.)
  • The rediscovery of antique hand crafted processes and their use in new ways by contemporary artists
  • The continuing story of color photography
  • The never ending development/use of new printing technologies (with impacts on print size, archival quality etc.)
  • The increasing scale/density of digital image capture technology
  • The ubiquitous use of digital cameras/camera phones and immediate images of “everything” (democratization of image making)

3.) The Internet-driven Transformation of the World of Photography: This narrative is the most unpredictable of the influential stories, since the revolution is still very much in progress, particularly as applied to the communities that surround the making of fine art photography. The Internet continues to upend old rules and generate new and exciting methods of connection. The underlying stories here are less about the photography itself and more about the people and their modes of communication.

  • New social networks/connectivity among photographers (blogs, artist websites, Facebook groups, Flikr etc.)
  • More widespread self publishing of photo books
  • Increased visibility of artists outside the traditional gallery distribution system (diversity)
  • Increased interest in international photographers (China, Middle East etc.)
  • Evolution of traditional arts journalism/criticism, based on the eventual demise of the newspaper/paper magazine and the rise of new online forums (blogs, Twitter, business models etc.)
  • New promotional approaches for artists and galleries
  • The challenges of appropriation/copyrights

4.) The Rise and Fall of the Art Markets: In the past year or so, this broad economic theme has been the dominant story across the entire art world, even though it has little to do with the art itself and more to do with trends/behaviors in the marketplace and their impact on various members of the food chain. Its many subfacets include (as applied to photography and more broadly):

  • Overall falling art prices and the recent search for the “bottom”
  • Rising prices/demand for certain artists
  • Performance of art at auctions/staffing and layoffs at auction houses
  • Gallery openings/closings/retrenchings
  • Museum budgets and staffing, deaccessioning deception, and admission pricing
  • Unemployed artists with more time on their hands/the impact of this on their art

While it might be easy to see this framework as a reductive and overly obvious view of the world of photography, I have found that thinking about daily posts from this perspective truly helps to put them into some kind of more meaningful context, where every gallery review, auction report, book summary, and opinion essay now supports at least one, if not two or three, of these overarching topics. I hope that regular readers will now perhaps come at our daily posts from a new vantage point: in some sense, we are trying to report on these four big stories of photography (with the collector’s interests in mind), and each post is part of the ongoing coverage of these larger themes.

Auction Results: Photographies des XIX & XXème, May 6, 2009 @Yann Le Mouel

Yann Le Mouel's recent Photography sale in Paris achieved the weakest results so far this year amongst the major sales: over 60% of the lots were bought in and total proceeds were meaningfully less than half the total low estimate. There are likely some after sale bargains floating around, given how poorly this sale performed.

The discouraging summary statistics are below:

Total Lots: 315
Pre Sale Low Total Estimate: 480400€
Pre Sale High Total Estimate: 639800€

Total Lots Sold: 115
Total Lots Bought In: 200
Buy In %: 63.49%
Total Sale Proceeds: 172920€

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

Low Total Lots: 311
Low Sold: 112
Low Bought In: 199
Buy In %: 63.99%
Total Low Estimate: 571300€
Total Low Sold: 76200€

Mid Total Lots: 4
Mid Sold: 3
Mid Bought In: 1
Buy In %: 25.00%
Total Mid Estimate: 68500€
Total Mid Sold: 62300€

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

90.43% of the lots that sold had proceeds in or above the estimate range, with an amazing 50.43% above. Clearly, the estimates were set low to attract bidders.

There were a total of six surprises (defined as having proceeds of at least double the high estimate) in this sale. Here's the list: Lot 16, La Commune, 1871, at 1440€, lot 21, Film - Magie Du fer Blanc, 1935 at 1200€, lot 49, Francois Kollar, Papier découpé de Paul Iribe, 1928 at 3240€, lot 75, Eli Lotar, Rostre de crevette, 1929, at 4320€, lot 147, Milton Greene, Nellie Nyad, 1952 at 12000€ and lot 279 Lucien Clerge, Roseaux, 1965 at 1560€,

Complete lot by lot results can be found here.

Yann Le Mouel
22, Rue Chauchat
75009 Paris

Auction: Photographie, May 27 and 28, 2009 @Lempertz

Lempertz begins the German photography season with its sales May 27 and 28 in Cologne. The main Photography sale takes place on the 27th, with the Contemporary Art sale (which includes some photography) the following day. A great feature of their printed Photography catalog is that it includes all of the photo lots in the Contemporary Art sale as well, all in one place. So for the purposes of our statistical measures, we've combined the two auctions and will consider them as one big group. Between the two sales, there are a total of 238 lots on offer, with a total High estimate of 648450€. (Catalog cover at right.)

Here's the breakdown (Lempertz often only gives one estimate figure rather than a range, so for our purposes we use this single number as the high estimate):

Total Low lots (high estimate 7500€ or lower): 222
Total Low estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): 460450€

Total Mid lots (high estimate between 7500€ and 35000€): 16
Total Mid estimate: 188000€

Total High lots (high estimate over 35000€): 0
Total High estimate: NA

For our collection, we liked the following:
  • Lot 27 Umbo, Gaswerk in San Francisco, 1952
  • Lot 185 Carla Van De Puttelaar, Untitled, 2004
  • Lot 313 Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gasbehalter, Grube Anna Bei Achen, 1965
  • Lot 428 Ola Kolehmainen, See, What You See, 2007
  • Lot 580 Hiroshi Sugimoto, Satellite City Towers, 2002
The lot by lot Photography catalog (lots 1-207) can be found here. The Contemporary Art catalog (which contains the other 31 lots of photography) can be found here.

May 28
Neumarkt 3
50667 Koln

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Heritage Closes Photography Department

I first read about the news that Heritage Auction Galleries was shutting down its Photography department in Alex Novak's E-Photo Newsletter (here). I've since followed up with Lorraine Davis to get more details on the situation.

We covered Heritage's April sale (preview here and results here) and the results weren't pretty. While there was a decent mix of material on offer, the total proceeds were only just over $200K. If we back into the premium taken by the auction house on that sum, and match it against the likely costs of staff, promotion, and catalog production/mailing, it becomes clear that the math doesn't really work.

So the basic reason for the decision to close down the dedicated Photography department (after just two auctions) is that the sales just did so poorly; investment spending in a money losing department in this kind of economic climate is a tough sell. Photography will get folded back into the larger 20th Century/Fine Art auctions as appropriate. Lorraine will go back to her appraisal business, writing articles, and working on her revision of Lee Witkin's The Photograph Collector's Guide.

I think the real underlying issue here is that auction houses are trying to give liquidity to illiquid markets. To do so, matches between buyers and sellers must be found. It seems to me that the sellers were decently accounted for here; Lorraine did an adequate job of digging up material that would normally sell to someone at some price. The problem is that there were not enough buyers. Heritage's traditional customer base is collectibles (coins etc.), so their client list isn't a great fit for higher end fine art photography. Building a new list from scratch takes time and effort; the variety of buyers needs to be broad to cover all kinds of material.

It is a good reminder that the defensible advantage that Sotheby's and Christie's have is not only in their ability to get the best consignments, but their deep client lists, built over decades in the marketplace. These two feed on each other and are self reinforcing, making it tough going for new entrants.

Book: RJ Shaughnessy, Your Golden Opportunity Is Comeing Very Soon

JTF (just the facts): Self published by RJ Shaughnessy in 2009. Unpaginated, with 37 black and white images. (Cover image at right.)

Comments/Context: With this review, we're stepping into new waters for this forum: discussion of an as yet unrepresented photographer and his work (it won't be a regular practice, we promise, as there are many other sites out there that do it far better than we would). As regular readers know, we have heretofore tended to stick to artists who have gallery or museum shows we can see for ourselves, or books that come from well known publishers, these two combining to generally limit our purview to photographers that have already meaningfully established themselves in the gallery system.

There are two reasons that we decided to break the rules for this post: one, I like the way RJ approached us, and two, I actually like the work. Given our growing presence in the photography blogosphere, we get many emails from photographers who want us to talk about their work or just be aware of what they're doing. What I appreciate about RJ's approach was that it appears that he actually did his homework; the body of work he chose to introduce to us (and he has several) actually has affinities with the kind of work we typically like and that can be found in our collection. He then asked whether he could send us a copy of the book. When we clicked through (and we look at each and every referral I can assure you), the work he recommended was a surprising fit (others on his site were less so) and we gladly accepted his proposed gift. The book came a day or two later. Instead of thinking of us as yet another faceless media outlet to be pitched, he apparently actually tailored his approach to our editorial style. It worked; well done.

The images in this particular book have a certain relationship to the post apocalyptic view of David Maisel that we discussed this morning (here), although Shaughnessy's works are down at the granular level of everyday Los Angeles life rather than 10000 feet in the air. His subjects are the barriers in the world around us: fences, walls, posts, and pillars, each of which has been battered and broken, crumpled, dented, scratched and smudged by who knows what. (Formosa Avenue #1, Los Angeles, 2008 at right.) All of the these forms are photographed with an eye to extreme contrast, the harsh white light from a flash adding a wince inducing glare to the whites in the nighttime pictures. What is left is some kind of surreal nocturnal (or subterranean) environment of destruction and disregard, the setting for a 21st century crime scene.

What I like about these pictures is that they combine this atmospheric Weegee noir with crisp patterns and geometrics formed by the materials themselves. It's hard to see a photograph of a chain link fence and not think Lee Friedlander, but Shaughnessy's fence compositions have disturbing imperfections, twists and perforations that push the material into an altogether more sinister realm. I think there are also echoes of Lewis Baltz in this body of work, but replacing his rigorous formalism with Shaughnessy's own brand of fluid decay.

Collector's POV: Like most unrepresented photographers I imagine, Shaughnessy's answers to my questions about image dimensions, edition sizes, and prices were all a bit vague, likely a result of the general practice of figuring it out as you go along that occurs until a gallery comes along and standardizes the process. I will say however that I think this work would complement other work we have in our collection and could easily and successfully share the wall with city fragments from a variety of established masters.

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Interview with Format magazine, 2007 (here)
  • Various reviews: Exposure Compensation (here), Wunderbuzz (here), Lifelounge (here)

Book: David Maisel, Oblivion

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2006 by Nazraeli Press (here). 48 pages, with 15 black and white images. Includes a poem by Mark Strand and essays by William L. Fox and David Maisel. (Cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: While we would like to think that collectors and photographers find each other through some efficient meritocracy of affinity, the reality is that nearly all collectors are scouring around looking for works that catch their eye, and a significant degree of random chance and accident often come into play. In this particular case, I think we saw this book when it first came out and flipped through it at the Strand or elsewhere, thinking it was pretty interesting, but not actually purchasing it at that point. We then visited an online exhibit of the work at the JGS Forward Thinking Museum (here, recently redesigned) a year or so later, and were again impressed by what we saw. It wasn't until a month or so ago that we actually bought the book, after sitting down and thinking about work we had seen over the past few years that we wanted to explore further and write about for this site. So here we are, with a review of a book most people reviewed in 2006, a slow progression of repeated positive encounters bringing us together now.

The seemingly endless sprawl of the city of Los Angeles and the unique human culture that has grown up in this environment have been rich material for many photographers. In particular, its vast miles of housing developments and freeways have been repeated subject matter for aerial photographers who have been fascinated by the patterns made in the landscape by the built structures and forms.

While David Maisel's images in this book are part of this larger history, they have a look and feel that is altogether different than Ed Ruscha's views of parking lots. The obvious difference is that Maisel's works are negative prints, with the black and white tonalities reversed, creating unsettling views that upend our conventional wisdom about what shots from the air are supposed to look like. What I think is more provocative is that using this ashen palette, Maisel has selected perspectives and compositions that heighten the sense of foreboding and anxiety embedded in the landscape (long shots where the individual buildings become a dense carpet, and closer up views where the white shadows fall in unexpected directions). Others have commented on how these images resemble military surveillance or night vision pictures, and indeed there is a bleak paranoia that pervades all of these works.

To my eyes, the formations and designs in the images most resemble the results of some biology experiment gone wild, where the self replicating mechanism has been unleashed, creating alternately rigid structures that mimic semiconductor circuit diagrams and more organic films that take after microscopic mold growing in a petri dish. As such, the images became thought-provoking vignettes of what indeed a massive human city like Los Angeles really is, engineered on a desert platform with borrowed water, and what it might mean to be a single individual eking out a life in this outrageous place.

Collector's POV: David Maisel is represented by Von Lintel Gallery (here) in New York, along with several others around the US. The works from Oblivion are 40x40 c-prints. These impressive images would fit extremely well into our collection (juxtaposed with other city scenes across the history of the medium), but as usual, the problem is that they are much too large for the constraints of our display space.

Transit Hub:

  • Artist site (here)
  • Interview with Archinect, 2006 (here)
  • Conversation with Jörg Colberg in Seesaw magazine, 2007 (here)
  • Audio interview with Lens Culture, 2005 (here)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Blog of Blogs

The slow and agonizing death of metro area daily newspapers is a story that continues to fascinate, mostly because of the dearth of compelling ideas for what replaces these journalistic vehicles when they are eventually marginalized for good by the Internet. New business models are being vehemently debated (subscription, membership, micro payments, free etc.), but no one seems to have cracked the nut on how we end up with high quality arts journalism, which costs money, in a world where readers don’t seem willing to pay for content.

While many of these questions will I think remain unanswered for the foreseeable future, it is becoming more clear to me that small niches and communities (like fine art photography) won’t pay for themselves any time soon, even if the writers work for free (as we do now). While we might like to fantasize about our growing site bringing in enough money to support itself from loyal photography collector subscribers, or from gallery advertisers who want to reach an audience of targeted collectors and industry professionals like yourselves, the reality is that the total traffic flow just isn’t going to be large enough any time soon to make the math work. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know of a single dedicated fine art photography site (not including gear focused photo enthusiast sites) that today regularly tallies 5000 subscribers and/or repeat daily visitors, even though there are plenty of terrific and original voices out there. I’d guess it probably takes at least 10 times that many to start to have any kind of viable and durable opportunity, even in a non-profit format supported by grants/foundations.

Since “going it alone” doesn’t seem viable as a long term solution (unless you’re just doing it for fun, which is of course what most of us are doing), I believe what will evolve to solve this problem is a some kind of “niche aggregator”, an umbrella site/destination that gathers together 40 or 50 blogs that are all targeted at facets of a specific subculture (say fine art photography), creating a one stop shop for readers who are interested in this topic. In finance, we talk about a “fund of funds” that offers investors a slice of a group of different narrow funds to create diversification; here we’re talking about a “blog of blogs” to aggregate a reader base/community that is now much too fragmented. Imagine that we took several best of breed blogs from each of the following categories (pick your own favorites please, from a variety of countries):

Emerging photographer showcase
Photo books
Photography news/reporting
Photographer interviews
Gallery/museum show reviews
Photo theory/criticism
Photography auctions
Miscellaneous photography serendipity/fun

We then build a site that has a common look and feel and easy navigation/search, but allows each author to continue to follow their own stories and have editorial freedom (even allowing overlap and duplication). ArtsJournal (here) is already down the path with a variant of this kind of model. Readers come for voices they want to hear, and are enticed by adjacent voices who have something relevant to say on a related topic. I hate to use the word “portal”, but that’s what it starts to look like, only on a much more granular level.

If we assume RSS readers will become more and more mainstream, somehow an aggregate feed of the entire umbrella site needs to be developed that captures the high points (perhaps something akin to the C-MONSTER digest (here), only in a more targeted way). Single voices also need to be available as feeds, like Modern Art Notes (here).

The key here (and the durable advantage) is massive but targeted scale; a site like this needs to generate coverage that is much, much deeper that any general purpose site. If other sites are covering 5 or 10 gallery or museum shows in a month, this site needs to cover 40 or 50 or 100 or more, all over the world (the long tail). The same goes for photo books or emerging photographers or artist interviews. The work of gathering all this is distributed across all the various bloggers, who are doing it already anyway.

Given the way search drives traffic, more posts, more reviews, more commentary, and more names means more successful connections to people who Google search for information on any one of those specific items or photographers, and more chances to convert them into subscribers. The combined searchable archive of all the blogs is likely the valuable (and defensible) product that eventually can be monetized, with proceeds shared amongst the contributor bloggers. Given the vast data store, more sophisticated tools can be added to enhance the user experience (if you like Henri Cartier-Bresson, you might like…, or people who read about Alec Soth also read about… etc.) The total subscriber/repeat reader count is the only measure that matters, regardless of whether we eventually talk about subscribers paying a fee or advertisers buying banners.

I actually think that the next few years are the “traffic grab” phase, where readers of traditional media (like the NY Times) continue to splinter off and are captured by vehicles that match their specific interests more closely (like this uber-photo blog I’m describing). So while we’ll continue to plug along, day after day, covering topics of interest to photography collectors and hopefully growing our readership steadily, I think some kind of “blog of blogs” aggregation model is what the future looks like (the devil is in the details of course). Until then, we’ll be investing in the archive and growing the subscriber base, one reader at a time.