EARLY 20TH CENTURY PICTORIALIST PHOTOGRAPHY CAPTURES TOP SPOTS AT MET/GILMAN SELL-OFF
By BRIAN APPEL
Edward Steichen The Pond- Moonlight 1904, multiple gum bichromate print over platinum,
16-1/16 x 19-11/16 inches
Estimate: $700,000-$1,000,000. Sold: $2,928,000
Robert Frank New Mexico (U.S. 285, New Mexico) 1955 (later print). gelatin silver print,
11-1/2 by 7-5/8 inches
Estimate: $25,000-$35,000. Sold: $156,000
NEW YORK: Edward Steichen’s “The Pond-Moonlight” captured the imagination (and checkbook) of an anonymous collector at Sotheby’s on Feb. 14. Bringing in a staggering $2.93 million, it broke the world record and became the world’s most expensive photograph. Two other images – portraits by Alfred Stieglitz of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe – also exceeded the previous world record, at $1.47 and $1.36 million. “Important Photographs From The Met/Gilman Paper Company Collection” brought in just shy of $15 million realizing an impressive $132,592 per lot average
Steichen’s 1904 gum bichromate print over platinum of a pond in a wooded area with light coming through the trees is a seminal example of the early twentieth century Pictorialist movement. Soft-focus, French Impressionist-inspired imagery stressed “painterly” artistic qualities over subject matter. Stieglitz’s “Georgia O’Keeffe (Hands)” and “Georgia O’Keeffe (Nude)”, produced 15 years later, are more in line with a ‘straight’ or ‘pure’ approach, but are still deemed Pictorialist because of the mysterious tonal qualities of the prints. Employing the artist’s pioneering solarizing techniques, these beautiful works emphasized the role of the photographer as craftsman and countered the argument that photography was an entirely mechanical medium.
A generous purchase-gift arrangement of 8,500 individual images in March 2005 between the Gilman Paper Company and the Metropolitan Museum produced an “embarrassment of riches” with duplicates and variants of images already in the museum’s collection which the Met felt obliged to deaccession.
As predicted in this column one year ago (http://www.artcritical.com/appel/BAFrank.htm), printed-later versions of iconic images from the still under-rated Robert Frank ‘beat’ opus, “The Americans,” (1955-56), with estimates between $25,000 and $35,000 handily brought in six figures. The moon’s illumination on the endless road in Frank’s “New Mexico (U.S. 285, New Mexico)” photograph, taken at night, is eerily similar in feel to the moon-lit cluster of trees and water in the Stieglitz photograph from 51 years earlier. The big difference here of course, is that Frank’s grindingly authentic ‘road picture’ runs against the Pictorialist traditions of artists like Steichen and Stieglitz. “The Americans,” with its straight-ahead camera shot, captures an alienating, existential urbanism. The muted verisimilitude of the Steichen image of nature, by contrast, looked backwards or inwards to a romantically nostalgic view of the world.
I had the very rare opportunity to experience a vintage print of “New Mexico (U.S. 285, New Mexico)” through the good graces of The Metropolitan’s photo library about a week before the Sotheby’s pre-auction exhibition. The original was different -- and striking in its own way -- from the printed later version being put up for sale. With deeper blacks and more luminous whites, the original version looked warmer and had a paper weight that seemed more substantive than the print at Sotheby’s. This is an important distinction because, as with all iconic masterworks, each print pulled by the artist represents a unique political and philosophical moment, a different ‘interpretive’ act. How had Frank’s own response to the image evolved in 14 years? And what of the technological changes that had occurred over this time period? Had the actual content of the silver halides in the photographic paper changed since the original was printed?
The impeccable credentials that the Met's conservation department brought to lots from their existing (pre-Gilman) collection, with the distinctive museum collection stamp on the reverse of every print, coupled with the unique provenance of the Gilman paper company collection, supplied the 'added value' to this sale of iconic photographic trophies.
Although the Met's Malcolm Daniel made abundantly clear in his Sotheby's catalogue introduction that "...respect for the history of the Museum's collection and the necessity of abiding by donors' restrictions require that we offer the Gilman print for sale..." and that "...in other cases, the Gilman print has been retained for the Museum and the example from the Metropolitan is offered for sale", I wonder about the loss to scholarship and connoisseurship of this sale. Did the Met do the right thing separating these 'variants' or 'duplicates' and thereby making close study of the exquisite play of multiple impressions from the same negative impossible?
Editorial Note: An earlier version of this report gave the erroneous impression that the Met had stamped the reverse of every print in the sale. In fact, the only works offered with the Met's collection stamp were those from their existing collection, prior to the Gilman acquisition. Based on this misunderstanding, the article had ended with the implication that the Met might have enhanced the value of the works being deaccessioned, which was not the case.
View Brian Appel's Top 20/ Vital Statistics from this Sale
Read comments by the experts on the record set for in this sale for Robert Frank