May 8: Brocante

#17This is a tough time for photography galleries, and if they disappear, is it the fate of their holdings to become mere bric-a-brac?

Auctions of photography however are going ahead. In Covid-19, there was a hesitation during which Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips furloughed hundreds of employees and  implemented executive pay cuts, and pushed back live auctions (though perhaps these are soon to return in Asia where early pandemic action was put in place).  You have long been able to place bids online, “but we have to think how to make the experience dramatic, how to replicate the bidding battle,” says Oliver Barker, senior director of Sotheby’s, which after an experiment in selling virtual experiences with celebrities for their COVID-19 relief effort, is tentatively moving into full online mode with their Contemporary Art Day: An Online Auction which is now underway until 14 May, with a couple of Diane Arbus pics thrown in.

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DIANE ARBUS (1961) A very thin man in Central Park, N. Y. C., gelatin silver print, 21.6 by 13 cm., printed posthumously by Neil Selkirk, this work is number 18 from an edition of 75.

Market confidence is volatile, as one might measure by looking into the past. So many of the artworks, and especially photographs, of the 1930s and before have a complex provenance because of the subsequent economic upheavals taking them off the market and devaluing them, so that in the case of our medium, since its interest to art collectors was marginal anyway, many important works have since been discovered in out-of-the-way places or in poor condition.

It is a special market. The photographer matters, but whether the print being sold was made by them at the time it was taken is a decisive value factor. For example Edward Weston‘s vintage print of his 1929 Pepper was sold at a Christie’s photography auction in 1997 for $74,000, while a print from the same negative, printed later by the photographer’s son Brett, had been sold at an auction eighteen months earlier for only $1,840.

In 1998 Sotheby’s auction house achieved a sale to The Getty Museum at more than $240,000 for Dorothea Lange‘s Migrant Mother, and on Oct. 22, their rival, Christie’s, put another copy on the auction block, estimating a sale price at between $150,000 and $200,000. The final price paid by an unknown buyer, was $141,500. Part of the value of Lange’s picture is its age and iconic subject, though (ignoring Australian Peter Lik‘s claims, which we can dismiss as a prank) Andreas Gursky‘s recent minimalist Rhein II (1999) remains the highest-priced photograph at $4,338,500, sold November 8, 2011 at Christie’s New York.

I’ve just encountered a photograph that I’d rather like to own. It’s one of Ed van der Elsken‘s, and though I have a copy of the book in which it appears, this print is special. It’s in dreadful condition, badly torn and irretrievably creased.

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Ed V.D. Elsken (1953) Saint Germain des Pres. Gelatin silver print, 29.2 x 18 cm

Its quality shines through. A girl applying her makeup in a smoky room, kohl running down her arm, wearing a cheap St Christopher medallion above a lacy bra under her black linen shirt. The charged atmosphere, fired by a quick spliff, that accompanies preparations for a night out, hunting men and money, is somehow elevated by the way the ragged tears halo her head. The creases are like the hasty underlining on a love-note.

Where this picture appears in the picture-story Love on the Left Bank (“Een liefdesgeschiedenis in Saint-Germain-des-Prés”), it is uncropped from the square frame of Ed’s Rolleiflex shot and shows two women. Beneath it in the text, the fictional love-lorn Mexican, ‘Manuel’, writes in first person;

When Ann lived with Magaret I was often with them. I turned over the records. Their greatest pleasure was to wash and make up for hours while listening to music.

‘Ann’, who was the Australian dancer and mystic artist Vali Myers, appears on the following pages with an artist holding a wistful portrait of her, and vamping to a bearded man standing helplessly in front of her in a mirrored café.

The value of this picture for me is two-fold, in who it is by — a photographer hero on whom I laboriously crafted on of my first entries for Wikipedia — and in whom it depicts; the woman, then become for me, because of Ed’s book, a goddess. As she alighted from a tram here in Melbourne, she responded to the shout “Vali!” that leapt unbidden from my mouth, inviting me to her studio in the Nicholas Building where she had her studio in her last years.

Julian Sander, owner of Galerie Julian Sander, 48 Cäcilienstrasse, in Cologne responded to my emailed query when I found this picture on the gallery website.

Ed tore this picture out of a photo album he had shown my father during a visit. This is back when the circle of people interested in photography as a medium for the arts was quite small. My father knew and supported a number of artists by buying their work. This is a tradition that has been in my family for generations which I continue as much as possible.

The portrait is accordingly “well loved”, or as my father would say it is in Weegee condition. I love objects that tell a story. It is the stories that endear things to me. Do you feel the same?

The gallerist Julian is great-grandson of August Sander, and in 2011 took over the business and directorship of the August Sander Family Collection from his father Gerd and is a photographer himself. In 1976 Gerd opened the Sander Gallery in Washington D.C. which he moved to New York City’s SOHO in 1983 before in 1988, after the death of his father August, moved it to Cologne, to continue his work on the Sander Archive, purchased in 1993 by the Stiftung City-Treff. Gerd Sander continued to work with the August Sander Archive until 2011, in which time he curated exhibitions and researched and organised the negative archive of his grandfather.

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Ed van der Elsken; Cover of 1956 Bezige Bin, Amsterdam edition of Een Liefdesgeschiedenis in Saint-Germain-Des-Prés (‘Love on the left bank’)

Can it be, then, that this photograph, listed by the gallery as from 1953, had been torn by Ed from the actual dummy of his text and images of Paris in the beeldroman (photonovel) format suggested to him by Edward Steichen? Might it be from the rough that he pasted together himself, an image torn out later on meeting the son of the great German photographer Sander? Failing initially to attract the interest of a publishing house, Ed got the picture story (then titled ‘Why did Roberto leave Paris?’) into British magazine Picture Post, in four parts over 1954. Such was its drama that the editors felt it necessary to inform the reader that these were pictures not from a movie, but a “real-life story about people who do exist”. Steichen was so taken with Ed’s work that he used eighteen in a survey show (1953) Postwar European Photography and another in The Family of Man (1955).

You see, it is not just one’s emotional reaction that drives the purchase. A picture’s provenance, if provided, assures you that what you are buying is what you hope it is. Imagine spending €6.200,00 incl VAT (to me a considerable sum!) taking the work out of its frame and discovering it is a later print, or that it is unstamped, or had no other evidence of authorship and date. I dare not ask Sander to tell me; if confirmed the temptation to spend money I don’t have would be too much.

Instead let’s turn, in considering the fate of the market value of photographs in the Cover-19 crisis, to the title of Galerie Julian Sander’s show; Brocante, which translates as ‘the trade of the flea market’ and of ‘bric-a-brac.’ Why?

I’ve not been to Cologne, but I remember being in Berlin in 1990 and walking the considerable length of their open-air markets… Mauerpark, and better still was Potzdamer Platz, then an open muddy paddock filled with stalls and trestles selling Communist-era merchandise including Czech ‘Meopta’ enlargers. That, or somewhere like it in Paris or Amsterdam, is where, were it not for Ed’s gift to Sander and his subsequent fame, one might have found this tattered photograph.

One might still if things get really bad.

This show is hardly a flea market, nor a fire sale, but a rare opportunity. It represents the collecting of significant photographs, many rare or unique, by a photographer’s photographer. Amongst them you might also find imagery that rather provokes the idea of ‘trash or treasure’, of items found in garage sales, garbage dumps or discarded by the road on ‘hard rubbish’ collection days. But these are treasure because you’re unlikely to have seen them before and yet they are by famous names.

Take Peter Keetman‘s Schlamme Leiche (Muddy Corpse), the abject remains of a child’s doll, which with the addition of a hazy sun on the mud is elevated to the posture and status of an archaic Greek kouros.

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Peter Keetman (1949) Schlamme Leiche. Gelatin silver print 18.5×17 cm

A broken plate, old clay pipe, some scallop shells, a sheet of glass from a picture frame and some carefully placed reflections makes Otto Steinert‘s heraldic shield.

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Otto Steinert (1958) Stillleben mit Pfeife, Vintage Gelatin Silver Print, 30.40 x 40.10 cm

Joseph Sudek ironically crowns a skull to make it a Portrait of a King.

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Josef Sudek (1968) Portrait of a King. Gelatin silver Print, 29.50 x 23.50 in

The exhibition is a valuable lesson in photography; that a fine image may be what you make of matter that others would discard. In conjunction with Ubu Gallery, Julian Sander is exhibiting the Surrealist-influenced photomontages of Czech artist František Vobecký (1902–1991) made between 1935 and 1938 and which have sold for between $50 USD to $270,775 USD. It is a delight to discover that this rarely-encountered photographer’s photomontages are made quite differently from the manner normally understood by the term. They are rubbish, discards, assembled before the camera, not ‘cut with a kitchen knife’ or put together under the enlarger or in Photoshop.

They are not illusions; all the stage machinery is there to see.

The knife is supported by coils of stiff black cartridge paper and its handle is planted firmly under a solid rubber ball so that its sharp polished and pointed blade impales and bisects the embrace of a strangely androgynous embracing couple who, as they dance in step, share tragic, theatrical expressions. And yet, united in their shadow, they vault free of the grimy earth under a white drifting cloud, itself a stain on the pavement.

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A flattening of objects into a design are often the result of Vobecký shooting with the sun over his shoulder, so that the shadows hug and outline the forms, and with the result that his own shadow often becomes a part.

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František Vobecký. (1935) Untitled (Self-Portrait).. Gelatin silver print, 1935–40. 23.6 x 17.2 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther

In other cases the production is little more than a record of a temporary collage, as chancy as Marcel Duchamp‘s 3 Standard Stoppages (1913/14).

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František Vobecký (1935) Dancer. Ferrotyped gelatin silver print, printed later. 227×173 mm

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One can see how Vobecký progressed from documenting his paintings, started photographing found objects and details of rocks and sculptures and subsequently, seduced by the medium, moved to still lifes of ordinary household or found objects, simply devised but complex and perplexing in effect. Subsequently, from 1935, he began exploration of photomontage as we know it. The influence of Surrealism in 1930s Czechoslovakia was pervasive during the 1930s, and dominated the “International Exhibition of Photography” organized by the S.V.U. Mánes (Mánes Union of Fine Arts) in Prague in 1936.

In times of plague or if, like me, you are on the other side of the Earth, you can visit and walk about Galerie Julian Sander, using Matterport VR.

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