Artists are often generous in acknowledging those who have influenced them. Photographers are no exception, whether a direct visual lineage is evident in their work or not. In interviews, Thomas Struth, one of the most acclaimed photographers of our time, who's most known for his massive pictures of people taking in spectacular interiors and artworks, points graciously to his mentors, the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becherwhose work is currently the subject of a massive posthumous retrospective organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Whether one can spot the influential Bechers' rigorous sensibility in Struth's work may be up to the eye of the beholder, but what's not in doubt is that, for artists, the act of seeing is a creative one. The Bechers gifted that sensitivity to their university student Struth, who practices it to this day with magnificent results. Key photographs by Thomas Struth and Bernd and Hilla Becher are prominent lots in Heritage's
October 11 Photographs Signature® Auction.
It is Struth's best-known photograph, Pantheon, Rome (1990), that takes the spotlight in this auction. It introduces us to a loose group of tourists standing in the massive domed rotunda, looking up and out into its timeless architectural space. Shot at eye level, it's as if you are in the space with them and have wandered 50 yards away and are looking back at them in their own act of seeing. Struth's gentle affection for people's attempt to make sense of civilization's greatest achievements is the hallmark of his most celebrated body of work, Museum Photographs, which this picture anchors.
Not coincidentally, collectors who love Struth tend to love the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, and a set of the couple's beloved photographs of massive hot blast stoves is another prominent lot in this auction. Bernd Becher was a professor of Struth's at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1970s and along with his wife Hilla not only influenced Struth (as well as their students Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Ruff) but also generations of photographers far and wide. The Bechers' exacting portraits of late-stage, industrial-age architecture are some of the most distinctive photographs of the last century; their near-anthropomorphic pictures of hot blast stoves (each towering construction vibrates with its own personality) are relatively rare and sought by museums and collectors the world over. The 10 imposing European and American stoves in this set, looming and silent in precise black and white, exemplify the Bechers' work in their prime.
But really this auction is so packed with choice works by photography's greatest artistsone inspiring the otherthat singling out Struth and the Bechers seems almost unfair to Brett and Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Aaron Siskindbecause the Bechers themselves were shaped by the sensibilities of these giants. These earlier photographers' portrait-like, virtuosic attention to detail to both landscape and endangered architecture, along with their rhythmic use of repetition and pattern (natural and man-made), takes prominent place in this auction. Echoing the ineffable qualities of these photographers' landmark pictures, two hauntingly ethereal landscapes by Richard Misrach are on offer, as are landscapes, cityscapes, nature stills and confrontational portraits by such greats as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott, Ruth Bernhard and Robert Adams. (Lange and Evans' heartbreaking Dust Bowl portraits, included here, are among the most recognizable photographs in history.) Other unexpected and sophisticated portraits of city dwellers by the likes of Diane Arbus and André Kertész keep company with this gathering of 20th-century greats.
In the spirit of much New York-centric photography, here are some of the most recognizable photographs from Leonard Freed's bracing and acclaimed Police Work series, including gritty and cinematic pictures of arrests and overdoses in New York City circa 1970s and in contrast a woman police officer frolicking with a group of kids in the street.
Other highlights of this auction include a robust collection of entertainment and fashion photography. The middle part of the last century exploded with modern and intimate takes on celebrity and glamour: The work of Melvin Sokolsky, Ormond Gigli, Slim Aarons, Helmut Newton and Peter Beard continues to shape our understanding of how we capture brilliance, eroticism and beauty in a moment in time. Photographers' understandable devotion to Marilyn Monroe pushed the medium forward in our demand for up-close-and-personal takes on our most famous figures. Sam Shaw, Ernst Haas and Bert Stern consistently captured a bit of Norma Jean's private vulnerability along with her alter-ego Marilyn's polished fire.
We would be remiss to overlook perhaps one of the most charming and unexpected photographs in this auction: In 1953, the Mayo Brothers shot a photo of Frida Kahlo smoking a marijuana cigarette. Here she sits in close-up, lost in thought at Casa Azul in Ciudad de México, wearing a Mazahua dress and pulling on a joint. Her heavily ringed fingers hold the blunt to her lips with the familiarity that gives this photograph, and its subject, an endless charisma. Take it in, and pass it on.