‘Overwhelmingly now, photographs are good. People just make good photographs,’ says W.M. Hunt. ‘That’s not interesting to me. I’m interested in great photographs.’
The American collector has spent more than four decades building a huge archive of pictures that has been exhibited around the world, while simultaneously lecturing at New York’s School of Visual Arts, opening a gallery in Manhattan and authoring dozens of photographers’ monographs.
Until 14 October, Christie’s is offering more than 100 works from Hunt’s unique collection, which in his own words focuses on ‘magical, heart-stopping images of people in which the eyes are somehow obscured, veiled, hidden, blocked, averted or closed.’
Or as Darius Himes, the International Head of Christie’s photography department puts it, they’re anti-portraits, characterised by what the camera doesn’t see. They are the ‘Unseen Eye’.
‘Works in the collection span the entire history of photography,’ Himes explains. ‘They also range from vernacular material, like press prints and stereo cards, to the height of art-world photography with works by Walker Evans, Irving Penn, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, and many more.’
‘Great photographs have two things,’ explains Hunt in our short film, above, in which he responds to two prints from the Christie’s sale that have been placed on an easel in front of him. ‘They have balance, and they have secrets.’
The key to finding these factors, he continues, lies in how you look. ‘If you have a really strong, visceral response to something, it’s really meaningful.’
Of Irving Penn’s Two Guedras, Morocco, 1971, he declares, ‘This is the best photograph ever made — ever in the world. It’s two ladies and, for me, they’re going, “Come here, come here, come here.” They have the secrets of the world, and if you can know these ladies, you will learn the secrets.’
Hunt then meditates on a close-up of Jean Dubuffet’s right eye, taken by Bill Brandt in 1963. ‘Brandt had done a series of portraits of artists’ eyes and this is the best one.’ Why? ‘Somehow this is like the centre of the universe.’
Hunt’s unique collection was the subject of a 2005 exhibition at the Rencontres d’Arles Photographie, which then toured to the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, and the Fotografiemuseum in Amsterdam. It was also turned into the book The Unseen Eye, published by Aperture and Thames & Hudson in 2011.
Sign up today
Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
‘The collection shows a passion for the grandeur and weirdness of photography, as well as everything in between,’ says Himes. ‘It’s often surreal, at times erotic and occasionally horrific.’
Works from The Unseen Eye: Photographs from the W.M Hunt Collection can be viewed by appointment at Christie’s in New York. The online auction runs until 14 October 2020.