Fine Photographs: Celebrating 70 Years of Photographs at Swann

Over 70 years ago, Swann held the first auction dedicated to photography in the United States. This 1952 photography auction was astonishingly early for a sale devoted to a medium just 113 years old and still finding its artistic footing in the marketplace. Seven decades later, however, the landscape for this diverse and innovative medium has grown dramatically.  The past few decades bore witness to a blossoming market, with numerous galleries, auction houses, and a vibrant, devoted, passionate group of collectors spread around the world.

In 1952, albums and books illustrated with photographs dominated the sale at Swann. The sales results are shocking to a contemporary reader: a nearly complete set of Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion (with duplicate plates) sold for $250, and William Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature for $200. The catalogue had no illustrations or estimates, and though the offerings were diverse, the medium’s early association with the photobook field is apparent.

Lot 140: Robert Frank, Café, Beaufort, South Carolina, silver print, 1955. Estimate $20,000 to $30,000.

Now we see a full spectrum of photobooks, contemporary photographs made to occupy an entire wall, small classical gems, and modernist masterpieces exploring abstraction in our auctions. To date, our Department’s top lot is Edward S. Curtis’ The North American Indian, which sold for $1.44 million. This market has expanded and flourished, and our auctions at Swann continue the tradition of groundbreaking exploration of the medium, most recently in our photobook and vernacular photography sales (introduced in 2006 and 2014, respectively). These sales advance the boundaries of what is sought and reconsider the ways in which we view and discuss photographic output.

Today we look both forward and backward. Back, to marvel at what has grown. Forward, to imagine what we can still build.

Early Masters of Photography

This specially curated sale celebrates the history of the market for photography at auction while exploring the medium’s future. Classical highlights include the iconic Ansel Adams Oak Tree, Snowstorm, Yosemite Valley, 1948,  a stunning print seemingly used as the master for his Portfolio I, as well as Robert Adams’s Entry, Methodist Church, Calhan, Colorado, 1966, printed circa late 1960s; a rare vintage example of Helen Levitt’s dynamic photograph of boys playing on city streets New York (Foreign Legion), 1940; printed 1940sthe cover image to her iconic A Way of Seeing); and two early Robert Frank masterworks: Caf , Beaufort, South Carolina,1955 and Los Angeles, 1956, both from The Americans. We also offer Josef Koudelka’s Rakusky,1964, printed 1980s; and work by Peter Hujar, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Danny Lyon’s important Civil Rights imagery. 

Lot 54: Ansel Adams, Oak Tree, Snowstorm, Yosemite Valley, silver print, 1948. Estimate $20,000 to $30,000.
Lot 79: Helen Levitt, New York (Foreign Legion), silver print, 1940. Estimate $25,000 to $35,000.
Lot 141: Robert Frank, Los Angeles, silver print, 1956. Estimate $25,000 to $35,000.

Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work Number 36, 1911, and Edward Curtis’s Three Chiefs, Piegan, 1900, showcase two early masters of photography as well as the medium’s rise as an art form. We also offer Emmet Gowin’s early book with photographs Concerning America and Alfred Stieglitz, and Myself, 1963-64, printed 1965. Early work includes Charles Marville’s Rue des Déchargeurs, de la Rue de Rivoli, circa 1865, Carleton Watkins’s The Pavilion on the Stump, Calaveras Grove, 1878–81, and Julia Margaret Cameron’s Baby Blossom (Alice Keown).

Lot 6: Julia Margaret Cameron, Baby Blossom (Alice Keown), albumen print from a wet collodion negative, circa 1866. Estimate $15,000 to $25,000.

Contemporary Photography

Groundbreaking women are well-represented, with Diane Arbus’ Female impersonator with jewels, NYC, printed and signed by Arbus, 1958, printed 1958–60; Barbara Kasten’s Construction 33, 1986; Laura Gilpin’s Medicine Man, Little Man, 1932; and early work by Katy Grannen. Further contemporary work includes Masahisa Fukase’s Nayoro, from The Solitude of Ravens, 1977, printed 1980s;, two large-format works by William Helburn; and Carrie Mae Weems’s May Flowers, 2002.

Lot 249: Carrie Mae Weems, May Flowers, c-print, 2002. Estimate $6,000 to $9,000.
Lot 214: Barbara Kasten, Construction 33, cibachrome print, 1986. Estimate $5,000 to $7,500.
Lot 205: William Helburn, Dovima Under the El, Dior Creates Cosmopolitan Drama, Under 3rd Avenue Elevated Train, New York, NY, pigment print, 1956. Estimate $6,000 to $9,000.

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