Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Back in February, I wrote a post about emerging photography that stemmed from a panel discussion on the subject in which I participated. It has continued to be a source of lively debate among the photo professionals I know. Few are without an opinion. In a related topic, I read an October 2008 article in the New Yorker written by Malcolm Gladwell that discussed whether certain artists produce great work when they're young and other artists produce their best work at a later age. In the article, Gladwell cites the work of David Galenson in showing the prejudices among scholars about the "right" age to produce lyric poetry masterpieces. I quote from the article:

"In some creative forms, like lyric poetry, the importance of precocity has hardened into an iron law. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old . . . I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the author of “Flow,” agrees: “The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”

A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. Some people, of course, would quarrel with the notion that literary merit can be quantified. But Galenson simply wanted to poll a broad cross-section of literary scholars about which poems they felt were the most important in the American canon. The top eleven are, in order, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Williams’s “The Dance.” Those eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-two, and fifty-nine, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent."

This made me curious to read more of Mr. Galenson, so I bought his book, "Old Masters and Young Geniuses", in which he attempts to quantify at what age certain artists produce their best work. While he admits that his methods are not iron-clad science, he feels that by collating multiple indices he can show a broad pattern of how experts and the academic community have crowned certain periods of artistic output as better than others. He does this in a variety of ways: by comparing many years of auctions results for works of an artist over the span of his career, by counting the times that certain art works (and their corresponding period from the artist's career) have been included in anthologies, and by counting which period of work is most often included in the collections of the world's greatest museums. If all three sources of data show a similar result, Galenson feels confident that this is because a consensus has been reached about when an artist produced his best work.

Now, I'm no scientist nor economist, but reading this book made me curious about what this process would yield in the photo world. So I found a not-too-dated list of the most expensive photos ever sold and did the simple arithmetic to see how old the artists were when they produced that work. Here is what I found:

  1. (47) Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001), $3,346,456, February, 2007, Sotheby's London auction. A second print of 99 Cent II Diptychon sold for $2.48 million in November 2006 at a New York gallery, and a third print sold for $2.25 million at Sotheby's in May 2006.
  2. (25) Edward Steichen, The Pond-Moonlight (1904), $2,928,000, February 2006, Sotheby's New York auction.
  3. (55) Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe (Hands) (1919), $1,470,000, February 2006, Sotheby's New York auction.
  4. (55) Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe Nude (1919)(55), $1,360,000, February 2006, Sotheby's New York auction.
  5. (40) Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy) (1989), $1,248,000, November 2005, Christie's New York auction. [4]
  6. (38) Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, 113.Athènes, T[emple] de J[upiter] olympien pris de l'est (1842) $922,488, 2003, auction.
  7. (37) Gustave Le Gray, The Great Wave, Sete (1857) $838,000, 1999.
  8. (41) Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol (1987) $643,200, 2006.
  9. (46) Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1948) $609,600, Sotheby's New York auction, 2006.
  10. (42) Andreas Gursky, Untitled 5 (1997), $559,724, 6 February 2002.
I realize this simplified method has problems, but only one artist in the list under 35?! Wow! Yes, I know that it would have been impossible for Mr. de Prangey to produce a photograph at 20 since the medium would not have yet been invented. Yes, I understand that auction values are not the sole measure of artistic worth. Yes, I know that the list is incomplete and blah, blah, blah, blah.....Yes, I scratch my head, too, that some of this work commands the prices it does. But the whole thing just whets my curiosity. How many photographers whose work sells in six figures produced that work when they were under 35? How many of them were even recognized as important artists when they were under 35? What about work that sells between $50,000 and $100,000. Surely the list of photo artists whose work sells for between $50,000 and 1 million would define the most important artists in the field. Even if one restricted the list to say post-war or post-1970, I suspect the answers would be astounding and heavily weighted towards the more mature artist. I hope Galenson's methods will be reproduced by some enterprising grad student using photographic artists as the model.

Where does this leave me in my ongoing discussion about the emerging artist? It leaves me back at my original thought that age is not a good predictor of artistic merit. One can play a hedge fund game and buy tons of work by young artists and hope that one or two hit it big to fund all the other purchases. But that's just Vegas and ignores why most of us actually enjoy owning art. If we're really honest with ourselves, I think we see that most of the time we don't know who is going to be important and powerful until they're well into their career or even long dead. If Galenson is right -- and I think he is -- and some artists peak young and others peak late, then really the only way to make choices about which artist we want to follow (and maybe buy) is to look, think, and look again. If youth is part of the equation, it will probably be one of the least interesting or significant parts of that equation. "Emerging" is a term that remains mired in the same prejudice that mis-defined the perfect age for the great lyric poets. "Emerging" has no causative effect in great art. It's a financial euphemism not a creative one. As we've been forced to view our finances with renewed sobriety, I hope that we will begin to view this term, too, with the scepticism it deserves.

Friday, April 24, 2009


It may rain the other 360 days of the year when I'm not here, but when the Pacific NW is like it's been for me the last few days, it's heaven on earth. Clear blue skies, crisp warm weather, fabulous food and wine, and gorgeous natural terrain. I'm here as a portfolio reviewer at the Photo Lucida photo festival. More on that another time. But since I got here a day early, I decided to poke around a few flea markets and galleries.

My first stop was Ampersand Vintage. What a cool place this is. I don't think I've ever been anywhere quite like it. Owner Myles Haselhorst has combined a small, quirky gallery, a very specialized photo book store, and a curated collection of vernacular photos and photo ephemera. It's a great mix. Imagine Strettel Books meets Winter Works on Paper. It's small and intimate, but there's plenty to look at. I easily whiled away 2 hours looking at everything I could put my paws on. I don't think there are many places in the world where you can buy a 50 cent 50's snapshot at the same place you buy a limited edition of a British private erotica collection. Sweet.

Check him out online and read his blog for updates and mini curated online shows of found work.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Don't miss: Women of the Photo League

The Women of the Photo League is up now at Higher Pictures. Don't miss it. Gallery owner Kim Bourus has lovingly compiled a show that presents work from the best known members - like Berenice Abbott and Helen Levitt - to unknown and forgotten artists.

From the gallery press release:
Rosalie Gwathmey, who served on the League’s executive committee, remembered that a “real
feeling of equality” prevailed between women and men at the Photo League. However, like
American women in other professions in the 1950s, women who came to photography through
the Photo League often returned to their homes and families. Those who remained
professionals settled for second-class status and much of their work was hidden or lost.

While Levitt (who passed away last week at 95), Abbott and Lisette Model are not hidden or lost, artists like Rebecca Lepkoff, Lee Sievan, and Ann Zane Shanks are not exactly household names in the photo community. This exhibit makes a strong case for their talent and accomplishment. The general level of the work on display is astonishingly high. If there were no gallery text, I think many experts would fail to identify which works were by the "famous" photographers.

Check it out. It's unlike anything you'll see in NYC right now.

The Women of the Photo League
Higher Pictures Gallery
March 19 – May 2, 2009
Tuesday - Saturday: 11- 6 pm
764 Madison Avenue (between 65th/66th street)

Looking In - Robert Frank at the National Gallery

I went down to DC yesterday in order to see the Robert Frank show at the National Gallery. In a recent post, I made the comparison between a curator and a conductor. While I think that that analogy is often true, there are other times when a different model comes in to play. In this case, I had the sense of the silent hand of a wise and patient archaeologist guiding me through a hall of treasures. Now I grant you that the subject of this exhibit is not particularly challenging. I mean, Robert Frank's book "The Americans" is obviously one of the most admired, influential, and important photography books ever produced. Any exhibition on the subject can be expected to be a big hit. Still, there are potential pitfalls, but Senior Curator of Photography, Sarah Greenough, nimbly avoids them while creating a show chock full of pleasant surprises.

It occurred to me while I was walking through the show, but I had never seen an exhibit quite like this. I mean that in the sense that this was a photography show specifically about a photography book which took the opportunity to present an exhibition size photo of every single picture that is in the book. Has anyone else ever done that? I'm sure I've never seen it, and I've never heard of anything exactly like it. I have seen sections of books exhibited in this fashion. For example, Paul Graham's "The Shimmer of Possibility" has been shown in an excerpted form as an exhibition supporting the book. But a full-blown representation of an entire book in a gallery format was new to me.

And it was a revelation. As much as we accept the catechism that certain photographs are not only created for books but are most effectively experienced as books, it is a completely different (not to say better or worse) experience to view an entire book in sequence - with all of the purpose and care that implies - but with large format prints. It very simply changes one's perspective. It gave me the naïve hope that perhaps a seminal book of Brassaï or Man Ray might be presented in a similar way.

The show opens with some historical perspective. We see earlier work of Mr. Frank and also the work of artists who influenced his style. Here, as later in the show, the curatorial style is light and sure. The influences are clear, not stretched, the interpretations make sense, the analogies are founded in fact. I've become too accustomed to wall text that reads like a synopsis to a different play than the one I'm actually watching. To extend my archaeological metaphor a bit further, I felt as if Ms Greenough were virtually reassembling an ancient treasure in front of me. As each shard was gently dusted off, it was painstakingly shown how it fit into the larger whole. We see Frank's letters to Walker Evans, applications for the Guggenheim fellowship, and then those same applications as they were edited (well, maybe actually written) by Evans. We see a wall of working prints showing how Frank edited and sequenced. We see contact sheets with photos chosen and rejected. All of this leading us into a grand tour of the final book with large format examples of each picture. Bliss. If a working definition of art is something that leads us to see the world in a different way (which "The Americans" did and still does), then surely a working definition of great curatorial practice is something that leads us to see a great work of art in a new way.

This is a great show. It successfully presents, promotes and defends "The Americans" as one of the most important works of photographic art ever. It makes good on its promise and delivers even more. It closes in DC at the end of this month. It's coming to the Met, but it will be a different show there. If you have any time at all, make your way down to Washington for the day and see it before it closes. You won't be sorry.

PS: If you do go to DC, make time to see the show, "Inventing Marcel Duchamp" at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition is a hall of mirrors that shows endless permutations of identity. Self-portraits of the multiple and mutable characters that were Duchamp are combined with the multiple and varied portraits of him done by his friends and contemporaries. The sum is an exercise in the search for core self and the subjectivity of portraiture. Fab.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Now You See It, Now You Don't at Camera Club

The new show, Now You See It, Now You Don't at Camera Club, is an example of how much show you can put in a small space. Curator Bernie Yenelouis has put together a wonderful, compact exhibition which, like a well-crafted essay, articulates strong ideas with the fewest possible words.

I was familiar with a number of the artists. I have written about Christian Erroi in these pages before, and the work of Marina Berio, Tim Lehmacher, and Laura Larson are well known to me. Their artistic strategies which explore the seen and the unseen, as well as the symbolism of what we believe a photograph shows, were emphasized in Mr. Yenelouis' juxtapositions.

One exciting discovery for me was the work of Egan Franz. His untitled work (the work does have a title but was absent from the exhibition) was a fascinating mix of art historical reference and exploration of printing process. While I cannot pretend to know or understand his complete opus from seeing one picture, after speaking with him at the opening, I am very curious to see more work, and to watch as this artist continues to develop a smart and visually engaging body of work.

I was aware of the work of Tim Lehmacher, but I had not seen an example of this new series. In "Die Blaue Frau" he examines the neurotic and fetishistic relationship the artist Kokoschka developed with the memory he had of his time with Alma Mahler. While the photograph itself is fascinating to see, don't leave the exhibit without reading the full account of the back story of this photograph.

Last summer I had seen a group show which included Marina Berio's work that combines pictures of her family with a process that uses menstrual blood as the pigment in an emulsion. Used as a symbolic element of her presence in a photograph of her husband and son, it draws a neat circle which includes process, relationships, and the unseen photographer within its boundary. Its inclusion in the show, is yet another wonderful example of both the symbolic and the actual that are possible in a photograph.

Exhibition on view April 4th – May 16th
Gallery hours: Monday - Saturday, 12-6 pm
The Camera Club of New York
The Arts Building
336 West 37th Street, Suite 206
New York, NY 10018-4212