Pierre Apraxine, assembler of a remarkable trove of photos, dies at 88

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Pierre Apraxine, assembler of a remarkable trove of photos, dies at 88
Pierre Apraxine pictured in the Librairie Serge Plantureux, a vintage photographic print store in Paris on Aug. 25, 2005. (Ed Alcock/The New York Times)

by Randy Kennedy

NEW YORK, NY.- Pierre Apraxine, a courtly self-taught connoisseur of photography who helped build one of the greatest private holdings of pictures, the Gilman Paper Company Collection, which vaulted the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the forefront of photography institutions after its acquisition, died Feb. 26 at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by Jeff Rosenheim, curator in charge of the Met’s photography department, which acquired the collection in 2005.

Born into exiled Russian nobility and numbering among his forebears an admiral who served under Peter the Great, Apraxine had trained in classical draftsmanship and art history in Brussels before essentially falling into the photography world in New York in the early 1970s. As an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, his duties included helping wealthy museum patrons build corporate collections, which in those days often included a heavy dose of photography.

“That was the beginning of my photographic education, and I had to rely a great deal on my own intuition,” he told an interviewer for the journal On Paper in 1997.

A subsequent job with the Marlborough Gallery led to a consulting arrangement with Howard Gilman, the third-generation scion of the Gilman Paper Co. and a highly determined collector, who sent Apraxine first after contemporary art and then after utopian architectural drawings.

But photography — “an addiction once you get started,” Apraxine said — quickly became the obsession of both men, at a time when the medium had yet to attain full membership in the fine-art world and prices for even significant photographs were sometimes shockingly low.

“It was the Wild West,” Apraxine said in 1997.

Inching from the 20th century back into the 19th, Apraxine and Gilman wanted to gather 40 photographs that would “characterize what the century’s use of the medium was all about,” he said. But, he continued, “once we had gotten to our goal of 40, we were hooked.” As he flew to dealers’ showrooms and auction houses around the world, Apraxine possessed a potent weapon in his competition with other collectors: “There actually never was a budget.” If he believed a picture to be good enough, Gilman wrote the check to get it.

French photographer Édouard Baldus’ 1856 portrait of a bourgeois garden outing — an image that in some ways anticipated impressionism — served as the initial spark when Apraxine spotted it at a vintage photo shop in the Marché aux Puces flea market in Paris in 1977.

“I didn’t know who Baldus was, but when you see something extraordinary like that, if you’ve been studying art for some time, you just know it is an overlooked masterpiece,” Apraxine wrote in “The Waking Dream: Photography’s First Century,” the book that accompanied a 1993 exhibition of selections from the Gilman collection at the Met. “I remember when I came back from that first visit to France, I said, ‘Howard, this is it, this is where we should go.’

Major examples extending back to photography’s birth began pouring into the collection: works by William Henry Fox Talbot from the 1830s; prints by Gustave Le Gray, Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Carroll. Apraxine avidly pursued the work of American photographers such as Carleton Watkins, Timothy H. O’Sullivan and Mathew Brady, whose 1856 portrait of author Ralph Waldo Emerson marked a stylistic turning point in the portraiture of the time, presenting a playful, almost casual version of its eminent subject.

The collection came to document not only the history of the medium but the history of the industrializing, modernizing world — its progress and its barbarity — as cataloged by the medium in ways that had previously been impossible.

In the introduction to “The Waking Dream,” Maria Morris Hambourg, founding curator of the Met’s photography department, wrote, “The novel that Gilman and Apraxine are fashioning is no conventional history; it is a story in pictures that, like any true work of art, must be judged by its own rules.”

In an interview, Rosenheim added: “There was a creative poetics to the way Pierre looked at photographs that was just unparalleled. There were other people doing it well, but I don’t think anyone did it quite like him. He was the catalyst for so many people to become historians and curators and writers in this field.”

Pierre Apraxine was born Dec. 10, 1934, in Tallinn, Estonia, into a noble family that traced its lineage in Russia to the 15th century. Many members settled in Estonia after the Russian Revolution, and as World War II approached in the late 1930s, Apraxine’s immediate family moved to Brussels. During a return to Estonia to protect the family’s property in 1941, his father was arrested by the Red Army and executed in Leningrad.

Apraxine is survived by a brother, Nicholas.

In Brussels, he studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the Royal Higher Institute for the History of Art and Archaeology, deciding early on that he liked studying the history of art more than he liked making it. In 1969, a Fulbright scholarship took him to New York and the Museum of Modern Art. But his tenure there ended during a union walkout in 1973, when Apraxine sided with the strikers.

He began teaching himself about 20th-century photography while working for the Marlborough Gallery, under the tutelage of painter and photographer Paul Katz. But the bulk of his education came on the road, with a pioneering coterie of fellow photography buyers that included French curator Françoise Heilbrun, art dealers André Jammes and Gérard Lévy, and collector Sam Wagstaff — a group that photography historian Eugenia Parry called the Eye Club.

Standing 6-foot-3, with a wry sense of humor and elegant taste in clothes, Apraxine fit the part of the shrewd courtier. But he said he had little talent for art-world gamesmanship and relied mostly on a feel for objects and the power inherent in scenes.

In an oral history interview conducted by the Met in 2015, he recalled often being “struck by an image, without knowing the importance of the photographer and the rarity of the image,” and acting on these hunches. “That’s an instinct,” he added, “that you have or you don’t have.”

Under Apraxine’s guidance, the Gilman collection grew to more than 8,500 photographs and albums, an archive that one dealer eventually estimated to be worth more than $100 million. A 1985 book of selections from the holdings became a landmark publication in its own right.

Much of the collection was built in consultation with the Met, but after Howard Gilman’s death in 1998, the museum entered into years of protracted negotiations, with Apraxine’s help, to bring the collection into the fold.

In 1993, he and Hambourg curated “The Waking Dream,” an exhibition that critic Charles Hagen, writing in The New York Times, called “an unqualified triumph.” In 2000, he organized “La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione,” drawn from hundreds of 19th-century photographs he had gathered of an eccentric Italian noblewoman who staged proto-modernist portraits of herself in the guise of various historical and literary figures.

Perhaps the most personal exhibition Apraxine oversaw, “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult,” at the Met in 2005, drew on spiritualism and the supernatural in the history of photography, informed by his own often-bemused lifelong travels through the worlds of mysticism and metaphysics. In interviews about the show, he recounted having visited a fortuneteller in the French countryside in the 1960s, half expecting him to be “clothed in robes with an owl on his shoulder.” He found the man instead in shorts, herding chickens through his backyard, dangling a pendulum to divine people’s futures.

At one point, Apraxine recalled, the fortuneteller asked him why photography was so important to him, a question that confused him. Then he said, “You will make a book.” And he added: “It will have a success. It will be considered a model of its kind.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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