The World of Photography Knew it was Inevitable. Yet We Mourn.

Robert and Fred died within a day of one another.  Both hugely significant in their own right, and while one will always overshadow the other, it would be a great shame for one to be lost and not given the proper attention that he deserves…..

On Tuesday the September 10th, it happened.  What everyone had been expecting and nobody wanted.  Robert Frank, perhaps the most important photographer of the 20th century passed. I have a great passion for the type of photographs that Robert Frank made.  Frank’s timing was not always perfect, his focus sometimes a little off, even his lighting was sometimes a little too hard, or too soft, but he captured images that forever changed photography and gave him almost mythical status.  Among those of us who like to think we make photographs in a certain tradition that for all intents and purposes link directly back to him, he is a god.

Robert Frank had an uncanny ability to see things that captured the essence of our existence.  I doesn’t matter if you look at his later work, which was more cerebral, or if you look at his break-through portfolio ‘The Americans’, it was always about capturing an honest, unembellished truth.  The essence of an American town, a rodeo, a road leading to eternity, or a tuba.  His images were not all individually outstanding, though many were, but they have an honesty and a virtual time-stamp that bring out the best in time, place and circumstance.

Robert Frank was Swiss, he captured America with an open mind and an open heart, as only one from ‘away’ can, which leads me to the second thing that happened that week……

The day before, on the 9th of September, in Vancouver, a city known in photography circles mostly for contemporary work – some in large light boxes – the passing of Fred Herzog went largely unnoticed, except by those who either knew him, or admired his visionary approach to colour photography. 

Vancouver in the 1950s was a backwater, a pacific port with lots of warehouses, ships coming and going and a departure point for those engaged in the mining- and logging industries.  Not particularly refined, nor particularly pretty.  With a setting between ocean and mountains it had a great canvas. But as only we humans can, it was a lot of front row industry, a busy, dirty and noisy port, lots of really bad neon, bars, wooden houses that looked ever so temporary, surrounding a couple of monumental stone buildings, that would eventually come to anchor what most will now agree is a world city. 

Transience was the nature of the old wood houses that were usually no more than a couple of stories high, set in a tight geographical setting that over time would require much densification and endless high-rises.  As such, much of what was around in the 1950s and 1960s has been erased.  Virtually no evidence of the frontier town by the water remains.  Thank goodness for Fred!  At a time when colour film was slow as frozen molasses, and people still moved as quickly as they do today, Fred captured Vancouver in a way that is both local and global.  He found qualities in simple new cars in an alley, a sea of neon lights, the interior of a barbershop, a window at the hardware store, and in people who look like they are from everywhere. 

For most people these scenes are difficult to place geographically, other than it being somewhere in North America, but that is what makes them great.  Herzog doesn’t dwell on the incredibly beautiful Vancouver setting with mountains, sea and sky, but on the urban.  Often the slightly gritty urban.  His head-on elegant use of colour and composition with people peppered in for good measure, always in just the right number and somehow perfectly placed, gives rise to his great eye and masterly skill, using tools that today seem almost impossible to handle well.

The Equinox Gallery in Vancouver still has a great selection of Fred Herzog’s work.  It is still attainable and exquisitely printed from the original Kodachrome slides that in miraculous fashion have survived less than optimal circumstances.

Fred’s work found its way to Paris Photo a few years ago, the annual mecca for those, like myself who are consumed by great photography.  A bold show of only Fred’s work took up an entire, large booth at the seminal event of the year.  It was a popular stop for collectors, who found something new, exciting and rooted in photographic excellence.

Fred worked for the University of British Columbia for almost as long as I have been alive.  He started the year I was born.  He photographed in the name of science and in his spare time out of personal obsession the city he came to love from a very early age.  Anecdotally, he came to Vancouver based on a single photograph in a geography textbook at school back in Germany, where he was born, during a time of great upheaval. 

Fred came to Canada in 1952.  He leaves a legacy, having captured a vanished time, but while geographically specific and significant, also of great universal appeal.

Ulrich Fred Herzog was born in Stuttgart, Germany, September 21st, 1930 and passed away in Vancouver on September 9th, 2019. He was 88.

Both Herzog and Frank were not from where their most famous work is made.  Is this significant?  Does the outsider see differently…?  Save that for another day.

Harbel, Donostia

Just Because We Can Doesn’t Mean We Should – Photography as Conceptual Art

I read this morning that a body of work by Annie Leibovitz is being presented at Art Basel as a 200 cm x 100 cm composite of her Driving series from the 1970s and early 80s.  While this on its own is not great shakes, it goes to the continuing issue of bigger is better.  Instead of 63 images in a book, these have been assembled in a digital grid – 9 across and 6 down – unlike the original images, which were of course analog.  So, how do we read this.  Is it a means to an end, as in achieving a huge price point, for a work by Annie Leibovitz?  I don’t get it. 

Leibovitz’s gallery, Hauser and Wirth – a Gagosian Gallery in training – when announcing their exclusive representation of the photographer, said among other things:  “…through a poetic body of far-reaching work Leibovitz has become an avatar of the changing cultural role of photography as an artistic medium”.  I don’t even know what that means….. 

Hauser and Wirth is a global super gallery that represents few photographers, a lot of conceptual artists, and I guess, now Annie Leibovitz.

I have a lot of time for Leibovitz’s work in her days at Rolling Stone Magazine, but sadly, I think she lost it a bit over time going to large crews, huge production and lighting get-ups and sadly more and more digital manipulation.  The final straw for me was when I read that she shot Queen Elizabeth II for an official portrait and then decided it was better if she moved her outside, expect she only did that on the computer, so we have a photograph taken inside Buckingham Palace with perfect, controlled lighting and a completely fabricated background.  Maybe she was thinking of Renaissance portraits that often had highly imaginative landscapes in the background, like the Mona Lisa? 

Leibovitz, Annie – Queen Elizabeth II

All this to say that I am a great admirer of Leibovitz’s handheld, spontaneous and opportunistic photographs of artists and people driving cars, but she seems to have lost the plot and is now represented by a gallery that is playing with the price point of her work to create a new and different Annie Leibovitz, no longer a photographer, but some kind of conceptual artist.

Incidentally, Hauser and Wirth also represent August Sander, about whom they say “Sander is now viewed as a forefather of conceptual art…..”  Serieux?  The same August Sander that the gallery quotes on its homepage, just a few lines above, saying:  “I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people”. I guess you will say anything to get your artists to fit within certain gallery parameters.

One has to wonder about the big global galleries (read super expensive) that are said to manage the careers of their stable of artists, and, I am told, unceremoniously dump them, if they cannot reach a particular price point within a certain period of time. These galleries usually will show a variety of artists; great masters of modern painting and sculpture, contemporary artists and the occasional photographer.  They will include the photographer, because the gallery’s clientele is the super wealthy that will pay top dollar for art recommended by these galleries, and at the moment, photography is cool.

But how do you solve the price point? Bigger is better, seems to be the answer. Gursky’s huge digitally manipulated plexiglass mounted images, or Jeff Wall’s equally huge digital tableau prints and light boxes, help justify the price. Now, you can add Leibovitz’s 9 x 7 grid of drivers in cars.

One has to wonder, if clients are actually buying art, or are buying a gallery provenance.  Do they say:  ‘I bought this at Hauser and Wirth’, or ‘I bought a photograph by Annie Leibovitz’.  A guess? …….Anyone?

Annie, the Avatar, as defined by Webster:  “An electronic image that represents and may be manipulated by a computer user”.  Appropriate?  I am sorry Ms. Leibovitz has chosen this path.  Her work deserves better.

Harbel

Buying Photographs now!

A few years ago, the photographer Cindy Sherman, was written up in The Wall Street Journal as being the best investment in art over the past 25 years.

Cindy Sherman does not sell at photography galleries as a general rule. Her work is sold with contemporary art, i.e. graphic art, painting, sculpture and mixed media work. Andreas Gursky, the German photographer, I understand, refuses to sell his work through photography galleries and sells only through art galleries that carry a multitude of art forms. Why is that?

Meet Mr. Jones, a wealthy investment banker (fictional of course). When Mr. Jones goes to his dealer and gets ready to drop his annual art budget of a couple of million dollars, he does not even give photographs a second thought. That is because the galleries that he would typically frequent do not carry photographs. He will stand in front of a Basquiat graffiti-esque canvas and will study it, look at the $2.5 million price tag and think that this is quite the work and quite the steal. After all, the dealer assures him that Basquiat has sold for much more than that at recent auctions.

If Mr. Jones were to walk down the street to a photography gallery, he would walk in the door and see prices that are usually only a few thousand dollars. Typically, contemporary work is in the low four to five figures. He looks around, goes into doubt-mode and wonders if anything this cheap can possibly be good art. More importantly, at this low price point, it cannot possibly be appropriate for his next dinner party, when he will proudly show off his new Basquiat.

This is precisely why Sherman, Gursky and a handful of others sell in a mixed gallery where their work is displayed side-by-side with painting and sculpture. Going this route the artists have broken the price barrier that photography has imposed on itself.

When I speak with dealers, they acknowledge the problem. Often the photography collector will walk into the gallery with a certain price expectation. After all, he believes he knows what photographs are worth, or at least what he used to be able to buy them for. Beads of sweat emerge when he sees the sticker price of $45,000 for a 30×60-inch photograph by a contemporary ‘rising star’.

If we now go back to our first shopper, Mr. Jones, he goes to his regular dealer and is confronted by a Cindy Sherman hanging next to his Basquiat and the dealer goes on and on about how important the work is and how it will go up in value and how his friends will admire his sublime taste in contemporary art. The dealer will tell him that photography is all the rage.

He doesn’t even blink at the price. It is cheaper than the Basquiat, but it has more conversation value, shows his open mind toward contemporary art – Basquiat is so last year he thinks, while slowly drawing on the Cohiba and sipping his vintage port.

The issue here is one of expectations and of the nature of the photography collectors. No more than 35 years ago you could pick up major photographs by major artists for under $100. Therefore the leap to $50,000 or more is a difficult one. But if you have not grown up in the photography world, or taken it upon yourself to learn a bit of the history, then in comparison to other modern and contemporary art, photography is cheap — dirt cheap.

It will take some time and effort to move off some of the prices that have dominated photography over the years, but it will happen, and when it does, if you started collecting today, you might just be the one with the Cohiba saying, “I told you so!” It is not a matter of if, but when.

Harbel,
London

See more on my website: harbel.com