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Important photographs from MoMA’s illustrious exhibition history

Darius Himes, International Head of Photographs, tells the stories of iconic prints by Man Ray, Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson from The Museum of Modern Art’s collection — offered in a series of auctions in New York and online

From October 2017 to April 2018, more than 400 prints from MoMA’s collection come to Christie’s in a series of auctions in New York and online. Ranging from the mid-19th century through to the early post-war period, the photographers whose work is represented — including such greats as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Walker Evans and Bill Brandt — pushed the boundaries of the medium. The prints being offered reflect the history of MoMA's exhibition programme, and serve as a window on to MoMA's evolving curatorial sensibilities and strong support for these artists.

Among the most valuable works to be offered are unique Rayograph prints by Surrealist artist Man Ray, including one from 1923 (below, left) that was acquired by MoMA from Man Ray’s friend, the poet and co-founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara. 

‘In the early 1920s, Man Ray was living in Paris,’ says Darius Himes, International Head of Photographs at Christie’s. ‘While experimenting in the darkroom, he stumbled upon the photogram process.’

Man Ray (1890–1976), Rayograph, 1923. Mount 14¾ x 11  in (37.4 x 27.9  cm). Estimate $200,000-300,000. This lot is offered in Photographs Including Property from the Museum of Modern Art on 10 October 2017  at Christie’s in New York

Man Ray (1890–1976), Rayograph, 1923. Mount: 14¾ x 11 in (37.4 x 27.9 cm). Estimate: $200,000-300,000. This lot is offered in Photographs Including Property from the Museum of Modern Art on 10 October 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Man Ray (1890–1976), Rayograph, 1928. Imagesheet 15½ x 11¾  in (39.2 x 29.8  cm). Estimate $150,000-250,000. This lot is offered in Photographs Including Property from the Museum of Modern Art on 10 October 2017  at Christie’s in New York

Man Ray (1890–1976), Rayograph, 1928. Image/sheet: 15½ x 11¾ in (39.2 x 29.8 cm). Estimate: $150,000-250,000. This lot is offered in Photographs Including Property from the Museum of Modern Art on 10 October 2017 at Christie’s in New York

To create a photogram the photographer places objects directly on to a sheet of photosensitive paper and exposes it to light in the darkroom. ‘Because there's no negative, each of the resulting prints is unique,’ Himes explains.

When MoMA first established its photography department, the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams served as the initial vice-chairman of the Photography Committee. The print offered by Christie’s this autumn of one of his most famous works, Clearing Winter Storm, was included in three key exhibitions at MoMA, including Ansel Adams at 100.

Ansel Adams (1902–1984), Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, 1938. Mount 22 x 28  in (55.9 x 71.1  cm). Estimate $60,000-80,000. This lot is offered in Photographs Including Property from the Museum of Modern Art on 10 October 2017  at Christie’s in New York

Ansel Adams (1902–1984), Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, 1938. Mount: 22 x 28 in (55.9 x 71.1 cm). Estimate: $60,000-80,000. This lot is offered in Photographs Including Property from the Museum of Modern Art on 10 October 2017 at Christie’s in New York

‘Adams was a master craftsman with his 8 x 10 inch camera,’ says Himes. Clearing Winter Storm  is ‘a superb example of the amount of detail and richness that you can get from that size negative. For Adams, the negative was, as he called it, the “composer’s score” from which he could print a symphony.’

At the end of 1940 Adams helped to organise Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Esthetics, bringing together works by many of the burgeoning art form’s most innovative practitioners. Among the artists represented — alongside Man Ray and Adams himself — was Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Paris, 1932. Gelatin silver print, printed 1968. Titles, dates, numbered and variously annotated in pencil Checklist #136 (verso). Imagesheet 15¼ x 10¼ in (38.8 x 26.1 cm). Estimate $12,000-18,000. This work is offered in MoMA Henri Cartier-Bresson, 5-11 October 2017, Online

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Paris, 1932. Gelatin silver print, printed 1968. Titles, dates, numbered and variously annotated in pencil 'Checklist #136' (verso). Image/sheet: 15¼ x 10¼ in (38.8 x 26.1 cm). Estimate: $12,000-18,000. This work is offered in MoMA: Henri Cartier-Bresson, 5-11 October 2017, Online

A highlight of Christie’s online sale in October is a print of Cartier-Bresson’s 1932 photograph, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris. ‘This image is emblematic of Cartier-Bresson’s philosophy of “the decisive moment”,’ says Himes, ‘an instinctual sense of when to release the shutter — when to create the picture that will stand as the symbol for the entire story.’

This print of Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris  was probably made in 1963 for The Photographer’s Eye  exhibition of the following year, and it illustrates the rarity of the prints being offered. ‘While MoMA may own more than one print of any given image,’ notes Himes, ‘it should not be assumed that these prints exist in large quantities.’