Sotheby’s Photographs Celebrates 50 Years by Auctioning 50 Masterworks

Liz Catalano
Published on
Harry Callahan, Barbara and Eleanor, Chicago, 1953. Image from Sotheby’s.
Harry Callahan, Barbara and Eleanor, Chicago, 1953. Image from Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s Photographs department will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a major timed sale that crosses the Atlantic Ocean. The auction house will present 50 photographic masterworks, with lots 1 – 25 available in New York and lots 26 – 50 in London. The offerings trace the history of photography, from its early iterations in the 19th century to its high-art status in contemporary works.

“For 50 years Sotheby’s has been at the vanguard of Photographs auctions, continually redefining the criteria against which our market is judged,” Sotheby’s Head of Photographs in New York, Emily Bierman, said in a press release. “We are thrilled to present this transatlantic sale – the first of its kind within the Photographs market – as a celebration of the most beautiful and inventive artistic medium of our time.” Here are some key highlights from the auction.

Family photograph from William Henry Fox Talbot’s collection. Image from Sotheby’s.
Family photograph from William Henry Fox Talbot’s collection. Image from Sotheby’s.

19th-Century Photographs

As a medium, photography can trace its roots back to ancient Chinese and Greek cultures. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that early camera obscuras transformed into modern photography. Daguerreotypes emerged in the 1830s and photogenic drawings followed. Early photographers did not enjoy the acclaim of today’s artists. Critics derided 19th-century photographs as a type of artistic cheating. 

Sotheby’s Photographs department will present several lots that capture these early developments. A group of 71 salt prints by English scientist William Henry Fox Talbot leads the listings (Lot #11, estimate: USD 300,000 – $500,000). This collection documents Talbot’s early experiments with the medium in the 1840s, as well as scenes from his travels and personal life. It remained in Talbot’s family for over 170 years before coming to auction. 

Bidders will find other notable 19th-century photographs in this sale. Carleton Watkins’ The Garrison, Columbia River from 1872 appears alongside Anne W. Brigman’s The Dying Cedar. Both artists helped establish photography as a legitimate and respectable art form in the United States.

Imogen Cunningham, Triangles, 1928. Image from Sotheby’s.
Imogen Cunningham, Triangles, 1928. Image from Sotheby’s.

Early 20th-Century Photography

At the start of the 20th century, the photography field experienced major shifts. The Pictorialists moved to legitimize the medium and push its boundaries. The Precisionists sought clean lines and sharp imagery. Edward Weston led the latter group with his photos of sand dunes, steel forms, and food. One of his prints, titled Cabbage – leaf, will be offered in the Sotheby’s Photographs anniversary event (Lot #16; estimate: $60,000 – $90,000).

Weston’s work paved the way for Group f/64. Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham joined the ranks of photographers experimenting with focus and framing. Cunningham’s Triangles print from 1928 is among the notable early 20th-century photographs in this sale (Lot #18; estimate: $150,000 – $250,000). Sotheby’s reports that this print is one of the earliest examples to come to auction in at least 20 years. Collectors will also find works by Hansel Mieth, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Horst P. Horst.

Irving Penn, Harlequin Dress, 1950. Image from Sotheby’s.
Irving Penn, Harlequin Dress, 1950. Image from Sotheby’s.

Mid-Century Photographs

Photojournalism and fashion photography grew rapidly in the early 20th century. By the 1950s, though, both genres were well established. Artists such as Irving Penn redefined these commercialized works as fine art. A print of Penn’s Harlequin Dress photo from Vogue’s April 1950 edition will be available in Sotheby’s photographs auction (Lot #15; estimate: $200,000 – $300,000). It shows supermodel Lisa Fonssagrives, who married the artist shortly after he took this picture. 

A gelatin silver print from Robert Frank is another key mid-century photograph on offer. Titled Family U. S. 90 (En Route to Del Rio), it shows the road and rounded cars of 1950s America, as well as the era’s restlessness (Lot #4; estimate: $400,000 – $600,000).

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #37, 1979. Image from Sotheby’s.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #37, 1979. Image from Sotheby’s.

Late 20th-Century Photography

The last few decades of the 20th century introduced new perspectives to photography. Robert Mapplethorpe photographed provocative self-portraits and homoerotic scenes, setting off waves of controversy in and out of art spaces. Women artists such as Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman also turned the lens toward themselves, exploring gender roles, sexuality, and the body. A late 20th-century photograph from Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series will be available in Sotheby’s photographs sale (Lot #14; estimate: $200,000 – $300,000). The print formerly belonged to Douglas Crimp, who curated Sherman’s self-portrait series in the 1970s and shared her ties to Artists Space. 

Other available late 20th-century photographs include prints by Yves Klein, Malick Sidibé, Masahisa Fukase, and Guy Bourdin.

Zanele Muholi, ‘Babaza I,’ Philadelphia, (from the series ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’), 2019. Image from Sotheby’s.
Zanele Muholi, ‘Babaza I,’ Philadelphia, (from the series ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’), 2019. Image from Sotheby’s.

Contemporary Photographs

Contemporary photographs draw upon a long artistic tradition while bringing in new digital developments. Some artists, such as Chris Levine, tap into technology to create nearly-surreal portraits and installations. A print of Levine’s iconic Lightness of Being will be available with Sotheby’s (Lot #48; estimate: $41,352 – $68,920). The work shows Queen Elizabeth II at rest and bears hand-applied Swarovski crystals. 

Other artists use traditional techniques to explore historically underrepresented subjects. South African visual activist Zanele Muholi uses their camera to capture stark black-and-white portraits of LGBTQ+ individuals. Muholi specifically views their subjects as active participants who tell stories through photography. The Sotheby’s photographs sale will present one of Muholi’s participatory self-portraits from their Somnyama Ngonyama series (Lot #50; estimate: $13,785 – $20,677). The piece is one of several in the event that suggests a new future for photography— one that is still developing.

Sotheby’s Photographs’ 50th-anniversary sale will run through mid-April of 2021. Bidding for lots 1 – 25 will close at 10:00 AM EDT on April 21st in New York. Lots 26 – 50 will close the next day in London at 2:00 PM BST (9:00 AM EDT). Visit Sotheby’s to view the New York and London listings.