Swann in Profile: Deborah Rogal

After 15 years with Swann, Deborah Rogal is stepping into the role of Director of our Photographs & Photobooks department. As she transitions into her new position we asked a few questions about her time with the house: how things have changed over the years, the photography market, and what’s to come.

Deborah Rogal
Director, Photographs & Photobooks

You’ve been at Swann for 15 years, can you tell us about what your work is like? Have things changed over the years? 

My 15 years at Swann have flown by. I started at the front desk, working all our auctions, answering the phones, and occasionally helping collate a set of books or portfolios for various departments. It was completely thrilling for me as a recent college grad, and each day at the office continues to bring me immense joy for the very same reasons: the pleasure of handling artwork in an intimate setting, the thrill of discovery, challenging and exciting detective work, and inspiring and incredibly smart colleagues. A day in the life of a specialist is truly unpredictable in the very best ways: you never know what amazing thing might cross your desk or literally drop in with a client. I love delving into research to help illuminate an unusual photograph or a lesser-known photographer, but I also love speaking with collectors and clients. Their passion, diverse interests, knowledge, and stories fill my days with excitement and connection. 

What let you into the world of art in the first place, and how did you transition into the photography department?

I always consider my career a little bit of a lucky accident. I majored in art history at Smith, where the Art 100 survey (now a relic of changing attitudes about how one should teach art history) was legendary, so I made sure to sign up for some department classes as a first-year. I was certain that I would major in English, as I’m an avid reader, and the daughter of a librarian/poet and an English professor. But, in the end I went with my gut, and turned toward the visual arts. When I graduated, I thought working at an auction house would give me the very best hands-on learning experience in the field, so I sent many blind resumes out to houses in New York. Luckily, Shelli Wollis at Swann read my cover letter and brought me in for an interview! 

Jane Austen, Emma, first edition, three volumes, London, 1816. Sold February 20, 2020, in Fine Books & Manuscripts or $27,500.

My position in the photographs department also feels like kismet. I realized quickly that the medium brings together many of my interests, including dedicated artistic expression, visual culture, the image as a mode of communication, and a so-called democratic practice that extends all the way from art to science to documentation to journalism to the everyday iPhone owner. 

What has been the most memorable sale for you?

I’ve been lucky enough to work on many sales and with individual works that I consider extraordinary. One of the very first projects I did in the department was collate a set of Edward Curtis’ The North American Indian volumes. What an introduction to the field! Since then I’ve been privileged to be a part of selling a complete set of the same publication (the first million-dollar lot at Swann), participate in crafting specially curated sales (my favorite, perhaps, being the Stephen L. White Photograph Collection), and bring rare and excellent photo books to market, most memorably the Library of Bill Diodato. I also feel incredibly privileged to have worked with Daile as she developed the vernacular photography market at auction. At Swann we have continuously pushed and broadened the photography market, and it has been incredibly rewarding to participate in that ongoing dialogue.  

Edward Curtis, The North American Indian, complete set, 1907-30. Sold October 4, 2012, in Fine Photographs & Photobooks for $1,440,000.

I find it nearly impossible to pick a single favorite work after all these years (a professional pitfall of working in auctions is that I fall a little in love with nearly everything we sell), but in fact, my best moments at Swann have had to do with all the remarkable people I have met and gotten to know. Some have become friends, and there are so many who I look forward to seeing at each sale, so that we can once again look at and enjoy photographs together. 

How has Daile Kaplan influenced you in your career? Any advice for someone entering the field?

I consider myself beyond lucky to have worked with so closely with Daile Kaplan for 15 years. The word mentor doesn’t quite sum up what she has meant to me. I learned something from her every day we worked together, and will always be inspired by her innovative way of thinking about the medium, her approach to the business of selling, her passion for the act of collecting, and her warm and supportive leadership. As excited as I am to step into the role of Director, I will miss working with Daile every single day. 

My advice for those entering the field is simple: talk to everyone you meet, go with your instincts, and if at all possible, work for someone you admire and can learn from. 

Do you have any favorite movements within photography?

Dorothea Lange, The General Strike, Policeman, silver print, 1934. Sold February 25, 2016, in Art & Storytelling: Photographs & Photobooks for $81,250.

The photographer I return to over and over is Dorothea Lange. This period in the medium’s history, when it became an important mode of communication and documentation, is also of great interest to me. Photography sits in a unique intersection of machine, tool, artistic device, and perceived truth-teller. I am interested in these competing and complementary forces, and am drawn to the practitioners who seemed to see their work in both utilitarian and creative ways.  

Related Reading: Dorothea Lange & Photography as a Tool for Social Change and The Social Document: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’

Roy DeCarava, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, story by Langston Hughes, first edition, signed by DeCarava & Hughes, New York, 1955. Sold February 25, 2016, in Art & Storytelling: Photographs & Photobooks for $1,188.

I also love the photobook. The market for books has changed considerably since I started in the department, but one of my absolute favorites is the title that Roy DeCarava collaborated on with Langston Hughes: The Sweet Flypaper of Life.  

Related Reading: Collecting Works by African-American Photographers

Are you a collector yourself?

I’ve collected postcards for many, many years, even before I knew I was doing it. I love books, though I don’t collect titles of value, and also have a growing collection of snapshots. I’ve been a collector my whole life: as a kid I was very into collecting the iconic Milk ads, novelty erasers, and more. Now I have jars of shells and stones, bins of postcards, and figures of birds in my kitchen. It’s truly a way of life. 

What should collectors know about photography that maybe the art world at large hasn’t caught up to yet?

There is immense potential within the market for photographs. The photographic practice has been adapted to serve so many purposes, and to fulfill so many creative interests. I truly believe that anyone who collects art or historical memorabilia, or cars or stamps, or anything should also be a collector of photography. There’s room for all collectors at all levels.  

What should we expect next from you?

Right now, I am very much adjusting to my new role, listening to my colleagues, looking for conversation, brainstorming, and thinking about how this year has upended so many of our usual practices around selling and presenting auctions. The world is shifting, and I am eager to grow and change how we offer work. 

Our next sale of Photographs & Photobooks is October 22.

More on our Photographs & Photobooks Department