One of most important photography auctions ever is scheduled for April

By Geoff Harris

You’d be a proper April fool to let this pass you by. Next month, Sotheby’s Photographs department will mark its Golden Jubilee with a fascinating auction that features 50 iconic images by some of the most influential photographers who have ever lived. It really is an education in photography.

From works by important 19th-century practitioners and pioneering women artists of the early 20th-century, to post-war, fashion and contemporary photographs by the biggest names in visual arts today, the two-part online sale will encompass nearly 200 years of global photographic history.

Starting back at the beginning, the auction includes 19th-century works including an archive of nearly 200 early photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot (below, estimate $300/500,000). Talbot was certainly the first British photographer, though the accolade of taking the first-ever photograph usually goes to his contemporary, Daguerre.

Gifted in the 1840s by Talbot to his half-sister, Henrietta Horatia Maria Gaisford, this Talbot collection has been passed down through the family for nearly two centuries and comes to auction for the first time. Comprising loose photographs, albums, The Pencil of Nature, Sun Pictures in Scotland, and Horatia’s personal sketchbook, it is arguably the most important lot of 19th century photographs to ever come to market, according to Sothebys.

The subjects vary from scenes of Lacock Abbey – Talbot’s home near Bath, now owned by the National Trust – and still lifes and botanical images, to portraits of family members and friends. While many of the images in the collection are well known, a number will be far less familiar and are possibly unique.

Talbot’s home near Bath

Further notable early photographs include Carleton Watkins’ The Garrison, Columbia River, Oregon (estimate $250/350,000) and Eugène Atget’s Untitled (Male Nude) (estimate $100/150,000)

Pioneering women photographers strongly feature, too. Amongst the offerings is a rare early print of Triangles, Imogen Cunningham’s Modernist masterpiece from 1928 (below, estimate $150/250,000). Featured in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1999 exhibition The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-1950, the present work is the earliest print of this image to come to market in more than two decades. Lee Miller’s Nude, dated to 1930 while the photographer was living in Paris and involved with surrealist Man Ray, is another highlight– it’s the only example of this image to ever appear at auction.

Lee Miller, Nude

Other significant offerings include Anne Brigman’s The Dying Cedar (estimate $12/18,000).

Another huge name to be featured in the auction is Ansel Adams. An early print of his iconic 1941 image Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is estimated to fetch a whopping $500/700,000). Edward Weston’s Cabbage meanwhile is estimated to get $60/90,000.

Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico

And then there is Robert Frank, a seminal documentary photographer whose book The Americans had a huge influence on street shooters such as Joel Meyerowitz.

An early print of Frank’s US 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas from The Americans is estimated between $400/600,000. Depicting Frank’s wife and children peering sleepily through the windshield of their car, the image is one of the most intimate in the book, and, as such, was one of the least-printed.

Robert Frank, US 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas

Moving back into the last half century, Richard Avedon is represented in the sale with his iconic Avedon/Paris portfolio, from 1978, comprising 11 of the artist’s signature fashion images taken in Paris between 1947 and 1957 (below, estimate £150/250,000).

Richard Avedon, Paris1978 , set of 11 photographs.

The auction also features one of my favourite photographers, the Brazilian Sebastião Salgado. Focusing on the effects of rampant development and globalisation, Serra Pelada, Gold Mine, Brazil chronicles 50,000 mud-soaked men hunting for gold in Brazil’s northeastern state of Pará (estimate $100/150,000). It pays tribute to the strength and bravery of the laborers who risk everything just to earn a living.

Sebastião Salgado, Serra Pelada, Gold Mine, Brazil

Controversial Japanese legend Nobuyoshi Araki is also featured, with his trademark shots of bondage and geisha, but his images of flowers and lizards show he is about much more than the darkly erotic.

A world away from Araki, geographically and aesthetically, is British photography stalwart Martin Parr. Parr is represented by instantly recognisable work from his series, ‘The Last Resort’, in which he candidly captured the British on holiday in 1980s (estimate $10/15,000).

Martin Parr, Untitled, from The Last Resort

Open for bidding from 12 - 22 April, all of the photographs in the 50 Masterworks to Celebrate 50 Years of Sotheby’s Photographs sale are worth checking out. Even if, like me, you will be a virtual window shopper rather than a buyer, the images will provide a lifetime of ideas and creative inspiration for any photographer.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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