The Modern Eye: Photography 1917-1939 @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing 46 works by 23 different photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against cream colored walls in the main gallery space, the smaller side room, and the entry area. The works on view were made between 1918 and 1942. The vast majority of the works on view are vintage gelatin silver prints.

The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of images on view, processes used, and dates as background:

  • Ilse Bing: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1931, 1932
  • Alexander Rodchenko: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1932, 1933
  • Dora Maar: 1 gelatin silver print, c1935
  • Imogen Cunningham: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925
  • Maurice Tabard: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Charles Sheeler: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1918-1919, 1927, 1929
  • Man Ray: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1922, 1925, 1930
  • Ralph Steiner: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Edward Weston: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1925, 1927, 1930
  • Paul Outerbridge: 1 platinum print, 1922
  • Alfred Stieglitz: 1 platinum palladium print, 1919
  • Andre Kertesz: 5 gelatin silver prints, 1926, 1927, 1933
  • Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1928, 1929
  • Berenice Abbott: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938
  • Walker Evans: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Eugene Atget: 1 contact print on gold-chloride printing out paper, 1926
  • Brett Weston: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1925, 1930, 1935/1944
  • Frantisek Drtikol: 1 pigment print, 1927
  • August Sander: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1928/1933-1935, 1926-1932
  • Manuel Alvarez Bravo: 1 gelatin silver print, 1942
  • Brassai: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1930-1932, 1932
  • Bill Brandt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many top galleries, the well-edited group show of superlative vintage photography is becoming an endangered species. Part of the reason is that the exhibition calendar is simply overstuffed with of-the-moment contemporary work – there just aren’t many show slots available in any given year, and the vintage work can always wait if there’s a scheduling conflict. The other factor at work is the increasing rarity and scarcity of great prints; as the years pass, fewer and fewer acknowledged classics are left wandering around in the private market, and the prices of those that are still available have now reached the stratosphere.

These two interlocked conditions are what make this particular show such an outlier. The Modern Eye is a muscular parade of 20th century photographic icons that delivers a blistering punch after punch experience. At one stretch, the progression is as follows: Edward Weston – vintage Nautilus Shell, Alfred Stieglitz – vintage Georgia O’Keeffe portrait, Andre Kertesz, vintage Mondrian’s Pipe and Glasses, Man Ray – vintage Rayograph, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, vintage From the Radio Tower, and Andre Kertesz, vintage Satiric Dancer. If that short series doesn’t leave you reeling, staggering, and gasping for breath, then you’re not paying attention.

While there are several thoughtful segues from picture to picture in this installation (there’s a terrific run of the Steiner spoked wheel to the Weston plaster works to the Outerbridge telephone, as well as a selection of sinuous nudes put together with a Brassai soap blob), this show isn’t really about the edit or even the story of Modernism. Instead, it feels like a subtle power play. There are very few galleries any place on Earth that could pull off a show like this one with the quality of work seen here. 3 vintage Sheelers, including a River Rouge industrial, the flying buttresses of Chartres, and an elegant water lily? An oversized (and vintage) Sander portrait? These aren’t things that we see everyday, and their display here is an impressive signal of strength. It’s one thing to have two or three of these gems, but to have such depth of museum-quality inventory is pretty astonishing.

What’s surprising about this show is that a parade of masterworks can almost become numbing – it’s like we become jaded to the unbelievable rarity of what we’re being shown. Instead, I gravitated toward pictures that were somewhat less known: an early Brett Weston image of the layered geometries of a Mexican tin roof, a late Eugene Atget where a St. Cloud tree trunk becomes an intensely black vertical stripe, and a tactile Frantisek Dritkol pigment print nude with an undulating white vase and gorgeous shadows. They brought me back to the compositional questions of Modernism, and away from the starry eyed gaze of so many photographic icons.

This exhibit doesn’t really teach us anything new about the evolution of between the wars Modernism. But it doesn’t need to – it’s simply a powerhouse sampler of great works from the period, delivered with a minimum of distractions.

Collector’s POV: The varied works in this show are priced as follows, with some already sold:

  • Ilse Bing: sold, $34000, $28000
  • Alexander Rodchenko: $130000
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: $32000, $38000, sold
  • Dora Maar: $24000
  • Imogen Cunningham: $70000
  • Maurice Tabard: $22000
  • Charles Sheeler: $175000, $275000, $120000
  • Man Ray: sold, $275000
  • Ralph Steiner: $48000
  • Edward Weston: $155000, $475000, $145000, $350000
  • Paul Outerbridge: sold
  • Alfred Stieglitz: $650000
  • Andre Kertesz: $700000, POR, $85000, $34000, $38000
  • Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: sold, $325000
  • Berenice Abbott: sold
  • Walker Evans: $65000
  • Eugene Atget: $120000
  • Brett Weston: $85000, $45000
  • Frantisek Drtikol: $155000
  • August Sander: sold, $60000
  • Manuel Alvarez Bravo: $85000
  • Brassai: $65000, $28000
  • Bill Brandt: $28000

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Read more about: Edwynn Houk Gallery


  1. cripp tane /

    Where were the Ansel Adams prints? He was making far more exciting modernist work at the time, and certainly better printed.

  2. Jan Debont /

    Am glad you spend so much time on this quite amazing show. As a long time collector I know how hard it is to get something like this together and Edwyn Houk did it again. The main reason that there are so few of these shows is quite simple, it is not the over abundance of art fair with modern prints, it is simply lack of great material and not much else. Most gallerists in the USA as well as in Europe have run out of material, and the collectors who are lucky to have this quality, wants to keep them. More and more we can find these shows in Musea and less so in galleries. Congratulations to Edwyn Houk.
    On a lesser note, I wish that the people working behind the desk knew a little more about the work. When I did ask one of them a question about Drtikol, he had no idea who I was talking about.

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