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Current News             Issue Archive             Article Archive E-Photo Newsletter   Issue 21   10/18/2000

Fall NYC Auctions Not For The Faint-of-Heart

By Stephen Perloff
Editor of The Photograph Collector

The fall photography auctions were not for the faint-of-heart with results veering precipitously from near-disaster to recovery, and back, and forth again. The season was met not with the euphoria of the past two years, when record prices seemed to be obtained with each new sale, but rather with some optimism mixed with a hint of trepidation against the background of a declining Dow and a NASDAQ that had plunged some 30% from its peak in March.

Christie’s East, up first in the day on October 11, began with a whimper and ended with a loud sigh of relief. It was difficult to gauge the effect of the economy on the state of the market in the morning session – even if one could perhaps gauge the tedium with which the market now reacts to the same old run of the same old material by the lesser-known practitioners. The increasing buzz of conversation in the room as the sale went on was a clear indication of the lack of interest. In the back of the room, the buzz at times almost drowned out the drone of the auctioneer. The buy-in rate in the morning was a painful 46%, and there were few highlights: an Outerbridge went within estimates at $19,975; Eliot Porter’s portfolio, Western Landscapes, brought $12,925 on an estimate of $5,000—$7,000 (both to phone bidders); and Garry Winogrand’s portfolio, Women Are Beautiful, took home $18,800, at the high estimate.

The afternoon was considerably better as selections from the Jeffrey and Sheila Metzner Collection hit the block. The highlight was a stunning Man Ray nude, which Edwynn Houk pried away for $94,000 on an estimate of $40,000—$60,000. Robert Koch followed by bidding more than double the high estimate for a Drtikol nude at $26,000 ($8,000—$10,000). Other than that, the afternoon was steady with a number of strong prices but nothing spectacular. The overall sale fell short of $1,000,000 at $928,015, and the overall buy-in rate was a discouraging but not disastrous 41%.

As the audience moved over to Swann for the evening, Daile Kaplan’s strategy of having a smaller, more select sale in October and staging a larger sale in February at the end of the AIPAD show – which enjoyed great success last year – seemed wise. Nonetheless, it succeeded only in preventing an even larger amount of bloodletting. The 39% buy-in rate, counting sales made after the end of the auction, hardly captures the lethargy of the evening. And the sale total of $531,530 was far short of the low estimate for the auction.

It was all rather inexplicable, though, since the sale included a good mix of material, including some of the quirky items Swann usually does well on. Outlaws have been making a big score at Swann recently, but here the images of the Quantrill raiders – not in the best of shape, but rare – went directly to jail and did not pass Go. A couple of gorgeous, turn-of-the-century, hand-painted portraits from Nepal, both with reasonably low estimates, also failed to find a new home. Perhaps the sale did not have the critical mass necessary to attract the attention of the varied audiences for these different groups.

At the top of the heap, Margaret Bourke-White’s warm-toned George Washington Bridge went to Michael Shapiro, who outbid Mack Lee at $29,900, just below the low estimate. A 1943 album of ten prints by Czech photographers brought the same price, but over high estimate, as English dealer Ken Jacobson wrested it away from Paul Hertzmann. Jacobson was bidding for an institutional client. The rest of the top ten sold within estimate or below the low estimate. It was a hallmark of the lack of action: the phones were quiet for long stretches of time, there were relatively few absentee bids, and no one in the room to challenge the ones there were. Late in the sale as two people vied intently for a minor lot, Kaplan intoned wistfully, "It’s a real auction."

At the end of the day, the mood was gray.

The next day, a larger audience at Sotheby’s, drawn by better material, seemed much more energetic. At the end of the afternoon, the $3 million plus total and the more reasonable 31% buy-in rate landed Sotheby’s probably right where they had expected. How they got there, on the other hand, must have come as something of a surprise.

A run of 19 Curtis images opened the auction and performed spectacularly. At the top of the heap, two portraits estimated at $6,000—$9,000 sold to a phone bidder for a whopping $26,050. A group of six large photographs nearly tripled the high estimate at $20,300. Numerous others went over, some well over, the high estimates. Most sold to phone bidders, two to Sante Fe dealer Andrew Smith. Auctioneer Denise Bethel sighed on coming to lot 19, "Regrettably, the last of the Curtis lots."

In their April sale, Sotheby’s scored big-time with the Stephen Anaya Collection of Gold Rush daguerreotypes, so they probably had high hopes for the three half-plate Gold Rush dags that sale drew out here. But none found a buyer. This time neither the mysterious phone bidder, nor the mysterious gold dealers, nor the mysterious collector that Dale Stulz was bidding for last time was in the game.

That disappointment was followed by Jeffrey Fraenkel’s winning bid of $35,250, right at the low estimate, for a wonderful Watkins print that he had sold in 1989. A while later Hans Kraus doubled the high estimate in taking William Henry Fox Talbot’s Detail of Orleans Cathedral for $37,550. Kraus followed that up by buying a group of 73 portraits of Frederick H. Evans and his wife for $92,750, this at the low estimate.

Howard Greenberg then captured one of the featured lots, Karl Struss’s exquisite Fifth Ave. — Twilight for $170,750, 50% above the high estimate and a record for the artist at auction. There was hardly a murmur, though, and the sale went on without notice. After Gertrude Käsebier’s The Red Man passed at $75,000 and Alfred Stieglitz’s Portrait of Dorothy Norman at $65,000, a group of Ansel Adams prints came on strong with intense bidding among James Alinder for the Edward Carter Gallery, Andrew Smith, and several other dealers. But it took a private collector to set a record for an individual print by Adams, paying $53,650 for a fine 16x20" Moonrise, although the record was largely the result of the higher premiums at Sotheby’s.

The afternoon got off to a rousing start as a phone bidder took a lush, vintage Weston platinum or palladium nude for $66,000 ($20,000—$30,000), outbidding Edwynn Houk. But then two other vintage Westons, a cloud study and a landscape, passed. Lee Marks, usually bidding for former Dreyfus Fund head Howard Stein, outlasted Eugene Prakapas, in acquiring Paul Strand’s Hacienda Doorway, New Mexico for $121,250 ($50,000—$70,000). In the last few seasons, Prakapas has made a habit of being the underbidder on several important works. His taste has been impeccable, but his pockets just a tad shallow.

Michael Shapiro then wrested the best of the Steichens, Iris Aurea: Light Runs Up the Stems like Lightning, the cover lot, which was also seen in the Steichen retrospective at the Whitney Museum, from Howard Greenberg for $60,550. But Shapiro lost out on Man Ray’s portrait of Lee Miller to a phone bidder for $27,200 ($10,000—$15,000).

Greenberg then yielded to Jeffrey Fraenkel on Man Ray’s important Rayograph with cigarettes and light bulb at $198,250, the second highest price of the sale. Tim Jeffries of Hamiltons Gallery, London, then set another record for an artist at auction when he plunked down $76,650 for Robert Mapplethorpe’s lush Calla Lily.

Contemporary work continued to fare well, as two Andres Seranno pictures, Ecce Homo and Untitled (Ejaculate in Trajectory), and Sandy Skoglund’s Revenge of the Goldfish, all sold for over their high estimates to phone and order bidders. Likewise, two Francesca Woodmans reached $30,600 and $23,750, respectively, on high estimates of $15,000.

But the top lot, coming near the end of the sale, was a stunner. Bob Seidemann’s three portfolios with 302 prints, The Airplane as Art, soared into the stratosphere to $236,750 over an estimate of $70,000—$100,000. Two phone bidders engaged in a prolonged battle to $150,000, when a new phone bidder jumped in and continued the dogfight. In the auction room, nothing can be more surreal than an extended battle between phone bidders. It’s like watching an accident in slow motion: it’s not pleasant, but you can’t turn away. There’s a grim fascination about how it will end, but it’s tedious, almost excruciating to wait through. Just about everyone in the audience was wearing a "who are those guys?" expression at the identity of the anonymous phone bidders, and for that matter, they were asking the same question about the artist, whom few seemed to have been aware of. As Sotheby’s Bethel said afterward, "This work deserves to be known by a wider audience, and the fierce bidding will bring Seidemann the attention he deserves." We imagine it will.

The sale ended in plenty of time to grab a bite to eat and head on over to Christie’s Rockefeller Center for their Photographic Masterworks 2 sale. The sale had some flaws: many of the pictures were far from masterworks – though there were a few pretty good images in the lower ranges – and two in particular, Paul Strand’s portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe and his wife, Rebecca, both with hefty estimates ($250,000—$300,000 and $300,000—$400,000, respectively), were not great. The O’Keeffe had been shopped around for a while, and Rebecca’s expression is particularly dour. Numerous dealers and collectors heading into the sale frequently dismissed both of these pictures.

The first big lot to come up, 21 prints from the circle of Thomas Eakins, passed at $85,000 on an estimate of $90,000—$120,000. It was clear that the aggressive estimates, a hallmark of Christie’s, might be hard to reach and that the reserves were definitely too high. Then two Winslow Homer circular images – of which several, far more interesting examples had performed well last spring – passed at $11,000 and $7,500 on estimates of $20,000—$30,000.

Things were beginning to get gloomy. Then Michael Shapiro took Karl Struss’s great Brooklyn Bridge – Nocturne for $149,000, just over the high estimate. And a phone bidder strolled home with Steichen’s Flatiron Building – Evening, New York, for $116,000 (within estimate). But then Strand’s Morningside Park passed at $240,000 ($300,000—$400,000), as did Pierre Dubreuil’s Notre Dame de Paris at $42,0000 ($50,000—$70,000). Another Steichen and two Stieglitz’s passed. The mood was dark again.

Then came Strand’s O’Keeffe. Down it went at $190,000. Then Rebecca. Down it went at $200,000. There was nary a bidder in sight.

Jeffrey Fraenkel revived things a bit by taking Paul Outerbridge, Jr.’s Self-Portrait for $226,000, below the low estimate. Peter MacGill bid $314,000 for Outerbridge’s iconic Ide Collar, within estimate, but real money nonetheless. There was a run of passes and successful below-estimate bids, including a pass at $48,000 on a Man Ray Self-Portrait ($70,000—$90,000). British dealer Michael Hoppen outbid Lee Marks for the wonderfully bizarre Grit Kallin-Fischer image, Freddo, at $41,125, well above high estimate.

Edwynn Houk took a fine Rayograph at the low end, $110,500, and then bested Lee Marks for André Kertész’s vintage Atelier Mondrian, Paris, at $314,000, near the high end. A Modotti and the Weston Chambered Nautilus passed. Paul Hertzmann astutely took home Weston’s Pepper #31 for $110,500. Jack Tilton, a Soho contemporary art dealer, went near the high end to snag a vintage print of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Seville, Spain, for $94,000, a world auction record for the artist. Things seemed to be picking up.

But four straight passes intervened before Walker Evans’s Shoeshine Sign in a Southern Town brought $64,625, and Alma Lavenson’s Self-Portrait reached $58,750, the latter again to Michael Shapiro, and both over the high estimates.

Then a Lange came up. Auctioneer Rick Wester deadpanned, "The Lange, Ditched, Stalled, and Stranded. I know how that feels." Indeed, despite some good prices, the buy-in rate for the first half of the sale was over 50%. But the Lange was not stranded, as it sold, though below the low estimate.

The second half of the sale, begun with the Evans, was much stronger, and the portents of disaster were abated. Sondra Gilman sent Weegee’s Woman Cab Driver and Macy’s Clown to new heights, $22,000 on an estimate of $5,000—$7,000. Shapiro bought a Bill Brandt nude (pre-distortion) for $47,000, above the high estimate. D.W. Mellor, the dealer and now successful photographer, went over the high end to take Frederick Sommer’s Valise d’Adam for $19,975. Then, to great applause, Harry Callahan’s 1943 Detroit drove to $47,000 on an estimate of only $5,000—$7,000. That’s a clear new world’s record for this artist. The energy was back in the room.

Jeffrey Fraenkel then established a world auction record for Diane Arbus, when he bid $270,000 for her Identical Twins. Though Arbus’s Boy with a Straw Hat, Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #75, and Joel-Peter Witkin’s fabulous unique work, The Eggs of My Amnesia, all passed, strong prices for Andres Seranno, Mapplethorpe’s Calla Lily Studies, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Abelardo Morell, Adam Fuss (a world auction record $17,625), Vik Muniz, and Christopher Bucklow proved there is much life left in the contemporary photography market.

With a 35% buy-in rate and a $3,017,650 total on a day when the Dow dropped 382 points and the NASDAQ 94 points, with turmoil in the Middle East and the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, Christie’s – and a lot of dealers and collectors – were probably relieved.

The next day at Christie’s regular photographs sale, auctioneer Rick Wester noted that the Dow was up 150. It didn’t matter. The $2,454,485 gross and 46% buy-in rate tells only part of the story. The morning was again a disaster, and the afternoon – and the sale – saved by contemporary work. The highlight of the morning was not a high price, but a telling comment. When Margaret Bourke-White’s The United States Airship Akron in its duraluminum frame ($4,000—$6,000) was offered at no reserve (it’s sold well in the past until one – or two – started showing up in every auction), there were no takers at $2,000. Wester lowered the starting bid to $1,000. Texas dealer Burt Finger began, and Michael Shapiro, sitting behind him followed. After a few bids, Shapiro leaned forward and said to Finger loudly enough so all could hear, "You can have the picture and I’ll take the frame." He finally prevailed at $1,900 ($2,233 with commission). Admittedly the image was not in the best condition.

Beyond that, there were many disappointments and few highlights. Even Stieglitz’s Steerage passed, although admittedly the estimate was a reach. A phone bidder grabbed the Weegee portfolio printed by Sidney Kaplan in 1981 for $47,000, under the low estimate. Pierre Dubreuil’s Self-Portrait did well at $49,350. Shapiro’s buying spree continued when he added Outerbridge’s Calla Lilies in a Vase to his bouquet for $76,375. And Karl Struss’s Cables brought the high price of the sale, $116,000, going to a man described as an associate of Tim Jeffries of Hamiltons, but whom Christie’s described as a private collector, who outbid Kenneth Wynn.

Over lunch at Dean & DeLuca’s, a number of dealers and collectors watched the NBC News ticker that runs around the Rockefeller Center building and read the descriptions of the death toll on the Cole and the fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians. Many expressed pessimism as to whether the afternoon could again rebound. But it did.

Ansel Adams got things going. Portfolio III peaked at $64,625. Shapiro took a Moonrise at $44,650. The Adams market is strong. A run of Anne Brigmans did well. But Modotti fell short again as her Hands of the Puppeteer ($150,000—$200,000) passed at $90,000.

Robert Koch bought Robert Frank’s Motorama for $41,125 ($15,000—$20,000). This same print had sold at Christie’s in April 1999 for $20,700. Jeffrey Fraenkel snared Arbus’s Retired Man and His Wife at Home in a Nudist Camp for the same price (but below the low estimate).

Then one of those inexplicable prices shocked everyone back to attention as a selection of eight Larry Clark prints from Teenage Lust ($9,000—$12,000) became the object of intense bidding between French dealer Nora Cohen and a phone bidder. The phone bidder took home the prize for an astounding $56,400. At least one consignor was deliriously happy. The last of the big lots was three Mapplethorpe gravures of flowers, which blossomed to $44,650. The auction ended with a bang, as the contemporary market muscled its way to a smashing conclusion as 23 of the final 30 lots sold.

At the end, Rick Wester, international director of photographs at Christie’s, said, "Considering recent world events and their effect on the financial markets, we were pleased with the response to the three days of photographs sales at Christie’s. We saw a number of notable records established, including those for Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Adam Fuss. The market remains consistent for works of outstanding quality, mid-range works by established artists, and the fresh, exciting visions of contemporary art photographers."

We concur. But we point out that perhaps only 25% of works offered at auction meet these criteria. The market is getting ever more selective. With the stock market slipping, rising tensions in an important part of the world, and a presidential election looming – and with it the sobering thought that one of the two main candidates will have to face these crises – the days of euphoria are on hold and caution has taken over.

(Copyright 2000 The Photograph Collector.)

By the way, Stephen just won the Sol Mednick Award from the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Society for Photographic Education. He also was spotlighted in the latest issue of Photography in New York. Congrats, Stephen.


My thanks to Steve Perloff and The Photograph Collector Newsletter for giving me permission to use this information. The Photograph Collector, which is a wonderful newsletter that I can heartily recommend, is published monthly and is available by subscription for $149.95 (overseas airmail is $149.95). You can phone 1-215-891-0214 and charge your subscription or send a check or money order to: The Photograph Collector, 140 East Richardson Ave, Langhorne, PA 19047. Or for a subscription order form to The Photograph Collector Newsletter, go to: http://www.photoreview.org/collect.htm.

My Own Take On The NY Auctions: Much Ado About Nothing…and About Everything; a Bit of An Editorial Ramble

OK, New York wasn’t all that stunning in terms of results, but the material wasn’t all that stunning either, but the estimates certainly were.

Aggressive to the extreme was what most dealers and collectors at the auctions were calling many of the estimates, particularly at Christie’s.

And many of us looking at those estimates and the very high results from the spring auctions simply felt there wasn’t any point to working up a sweat. As NY dealer Alan Klotz told me during Christie’s difficulties, which admittedly were complicated by events in the Middle East and in the stock market, "If I had known that the actual prices would be this low, I would have come prepared to bid." He wasn’t alone in that observation. The auctions, particularly Christie’s on this outing, were their own worst enemies.

When dealer Will Schaeffer took a daguerreotype of an Indian pow-wow for a mere $15,000 against an estimate of $35,000-$50,000 and an expectation of an even higher price, we all sat stunned, unable to believe that Christie’s would let the item (easily worth well over the high estimate) actually go for that low a price. But indeed it sold instead of being bought in. Schaeffer had been bidding for a client (obviously an overjoyed client), but that didn’t stop at least two people from offering an immediate multiple of what he had just paid for the dag. There were other bargains this time around, although you wouldn’t have known it from the estimates. I would suspect a lot of late deals to bolster the numbers, but it is hard to come up with big bucks on a day’s notice.

I also heard from more than a few photo dealers that they were a bit fed up with the auction houses and their high premiums. While there isn’t any official boycott, there is a lot of general disgust and annoyance. Photography dealers were the lifeblood of the auctions right up until the early ‘90s, but now they feel abused and taken for granted. As a result, more and more dealers are only buying occasionally or for clients. While there are a lot of factors involved in this sea change, higher premiums, higher reserves and estimates, and generally less exciting material have been the prime movers in this revolution. Perhaps all of these things were inevitable, but that fact doesn’t make it any easier for dealers to deal with it. Today, collectors are the primary buyers at the auction houses, and the houses are proud of this change–that they have taken over the retail role from the photography galleries and dealers. I have heard the house experts actually spout this rhetorical nonsense.

I don’t think this change is good for any one concerned over the long run, including the auction houses and especially the collectors. But then greed never looks beyond today.

While the reasons I believe this all to be true are very involved, briefly I feel that all parties share a bit of the blame. Today, many collectors do not want to spend time to educate themselves and only want to bag the latest "big name"; many galleries have poorly trained staff that make potential buyers feel like they’re infringing on the gallery’s time or worse, and seem unwilling to spend time with someone who doesn’t have a lot of bucks; and the NYC auction houses short-circuit true education, place a huge emphasis on "big name" shopping and discourage true connoisseurship, do not police problems with images properly, and are painting themselves into a corner, all to be the biggest/baddest one on the block.

Yes, this is generalizing the situation and there are many exceptions to all of these, but it is the general trend that we should ALL be concerned about.

Collectors need to consider that it takes an investment in time as well as money. Being an "instant buyer" rarely results in a collection (or even an investment) that provides long-term satisfaction; it is the knowledge gained, the friends made and the rich new visual vocabulary attained that provides that satisfaction. In addition, all of us in the "trade" have seen items sell at auction for multiples over what the same item was priced in a gallery literally down the street. Collectors need to do their homework, or at least work with someone who will.

Dealers and galleries have to recognize that they need to train their staffs better to communicate more appropriately with customers and to be able to actually educate the customer. And I don’t mean educate as in "you should buy this photographer, because he is more expensive and I make a better commission." Training to find out client needs is a basic that is ignored by many in the trade. Perhaps AIPAD can help fill this gap with a training program for dealers and their staffs. At the very least, galleries can send staff to general sales training programs.

And auction houses need to wake up to the fact that lower price points actually will bring in new blood. New collectors usually don’t start buying at the rarefied levels of the recent years. I realize that Sotheby’s with their web site and Christie’s with its East catalogue have attempted to do a little of this. But that doesn’t mean selling off portfolio prints of photographers after they’ve died, or other uninteresting lower level stuff that really doesn’t have a market. Why not take a page from the Europeans and begin to get items that are interesting AND inexpensive? Yes, it is harder to do, but isn’t that why the houses pay their experts the big bucks? (Only kidding, guys and gals.)

Galleries and dealers should also do the same thing. If you all wonder where the new collectors are going to come from, then start developing them by actually selling something they can afford at the beginning. Yes, I know it doesn’t look like it makes "business" sense. It IS easier to sell the high priced items, and you make more money for the same amount (or less) work, but if you do this, you will lose out on developing new clients, and the photography market will lose out on a great new group of collectors. How about investing a little time, effort and money on developing your customer base? I think it will pay off for everyone in the long run.

And how about more educational programs? I thought Sotheby’s Southworth & Hawes round table and catalogue were great, but why only wait for the rare birds? Why not a program every auction? Let me credit the experts for their outreach programs. I saw Rick Wester not too long ago at a lecture he gave in Philadelphia on the photo market, and I know Denise Bethel, Amanda Doenitz and Daile Kaplan have done similar programs. Good work all, but we need more. And we need a rollback on buyer’s premiums (which we might all get any way in the form of credits because of the recent anti-trust settlements), better monitoring of poor quality and even damaged prints, and less repetition of the same images, auction after auction. I will credit Denise Bethel with the best job on the latter. She did it at Swann and now she does it at Sotheby’s. Perhaps cutting back on the numbers will also help a bit (and I credit Swann with at least the attempt to do so, although the material auctioned this time didn’t seem to reflect a winnowing to quality). And galleries should consider doing more lectures and gallery "talks."

And while I am at it (IT being this rant that will probably infuriate most of the photo world), all my on-line friends ought to consider giving up the computer and eBay or Sotheby’s on-line for at least a few weekends. Get up and out. You will give your developing carpal tunnel syndrome and eye strain a rest. Go out to one of those endangered photography shows. Meet some people and actually hold a real photograph in your hands (rather than look at a virtual image). Ask the dealers some questions and actually learn. It’s good for the brain. Go to a museum or a real (as opposed to virtual) gallery or photo dealer to see real (as opposed to virtual) images (check out our on-line calendar at http://www.iphotocentral.com/calendar.shtml), which is the best way to learn. There is nothing like seeing the "presence" of a great image and print. If you are in New York City, you also might want to check out the review by my Asst. Director Carol McCusker below for two great shows at the Met.

If the gallery people act like used car salespeople, walk out for god’s sake! There are plenty of galleries and most are genuinely interested in helping clients and working cooperatively with them. By the way, don’t expect a lot of gallery attention at a busy opening or while they are putting up a show. Be somewhat realistic about your demands on staff time during very busy periods.

As private dealers which do a lot of business over the web, we still enjoy having visitors to our home to show the actual work and to offer our advice and help. Just give us a day or two to clean up the mess.

There should be a dialogue on all of these issues (not about the mess in my house/office, but the rest of these issues). AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers) is probably the most appropriate vehicle for such an on-going discussion. Will it take on the challenge? How about it, Bob and Kathleen?

Instead of trying to protect turf and a dealer or auction’s particular "piece of the pie," how about talking about a win-win–a way to expand the pie for everyone and help collectors to boot? Can we all work together and try to recapture some of the reasons we love photography in the first place? It just might result in a broader market for all.

The Met Scores With Two Shows: One On NYC Itself, and One On The Divine Comtesse

By Carol McCusker

Two exhibitions at the New York Metropolitan, "Art and the Empire City" (until January 7) and "The Divine Comtesse" (until December 31) are well worth taking in.

The former is a look at New York in the early to mid-nineteenth century as it flourished into the center of commerce and culture that it is today. Curated by 13 curators, it includes painting, prints, furniture, costumes, glassware, and, of course, photography. In a small room toward the end of the exhibit are numerous daguerreotypes of notable New Yorkers - women of station, newspapermen, P. T. Barnum with Tom Thumb — many made by Mathew Brady and Jeremiah Gurney. But the most memorable (and should not be missed) is Brady’s 1/3 plate daguerreotype of Walt Whitman. Stunning in his natural expression and grace, a palpable sense of the man in all his complexity and compassion comes radiating through. Not unlike the Lady of the second show.

The "Comtesse" features roughly forty-plus salt and albumen photographs taken of Virginie Oldoini, Countess de Castiglione, who was considered the most beautiful woman in Europe during her prime (that is for the viewer to decide) from her debut in 1856 to the mid-1860s. She was mistress to Napoleon III, and all-around political femme fatale. The exhibition is in three small rooms that are low lit (no doubt for the sake of the photographs). But such conditions create a by-product of intimacy as if we are entering Virginie’s private rooms to converse with her about fashion, beauty, and what she knew best, creating a celebrity image. The acclaimed Paris portraitist Louis Pierson took most of these images in collusion with the Countess who was intent on recording herself for reasons we can only speculate upon. She poses in elaborate hairstyles, wigs, enormous, dazzling gowns with cinched waistlines (barely containing her voluptuousness), dramatic poses and expressions, and tableaux vivants with the wild abandon of the ardent fetishist (there is even a plaster cast of her feet). By looking at these images, she (and we along with her) could ascertain how others saw her, thereby internalizing the image, and striking the best poses, expressions and attitudes when in the public eye. It was said that when she entered a room, she would stand very still (as if she had become her photographs), and rarely spoke, particularly not to women.

This is the kind of exhibition (and woman) that appeals to our 21st century sensibilities. Here the Countess has mastered, ahead of her time (or at least along with Nadar), a full understanding of how a celebrity and politician (she was both) could "spin" an image of herself in order to impress her audience. Sadly, when her beauty escaped her, and her estranged husband and only child died along with her financial stability, she was left with what many women, particularly of her appetite, unfortunately faced: a lack of place and purpose. "The Divine Comtesse" will not disappoint you; her grandeur, grace and audacity survive in these intriguing photographs, as does her spirit of self-invention, connecting her to our image-driven age.


Ms. McCusker is the Assistant Director at Vintage Works, Ltd. and the recent co-author of the new book, Paul Outerbridge.

More News

A record price for a photogravure on eBay was set recently when a Paul Strand of Wall Street sold for $9100. The last auction record was over four years ago at Sotheby's for over $4000, but several dealers indicate that this image when available might sell for between $6500-$7500. It is one of the most important of the Camera Work photogravures. One more reason to be careful at on-line auctions and not get too carried away…French dealers and collectors found themselves recently blocked from using Sotheby’s web site apparently after the auction house felt pressure from the French government over infringement on auction exclusivity for French houses. Apparently they did not want to rock the boat on the upcoming changes in the French auction rules, which should allow Sotheby’s (and Christie’s) to have their own auctions in Paris. A number of my French friends were highly disappointed by this action.