First Auction Devoted to Vernacular Photography at Swann Galleries April 17

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New York—On Thursday, April 17, Swann Galleries will hold their first ever auction of vernacular photography, titled The Vernacular Eye: Photographic Albums, Snapshots & Objects. This genre of photography often encompasses pictures by lesser-known or amateur makers, including itinerant photographers, studio practitioners and press photographers—many of whom worked outside the scope of fine art practice.

There are evocative snapshots by hobbyists, accomplished commercial portraiture and product imagery, iconic news pictures, intimate occupational photographs (including tintypes), humorous travel or souvenir images (as well as albums), and fun family photo albums. In addition, three-dimensional decorative or functional photo objects, sometimes described as “pop photographica,” make an appearance.

This sale comes on the heels of several strong auction results for photographic travel albums, crime photos, including mugshots, spiritualism images and occupational tintypes. Indeed, an album of 27 spiritualist photographs taken during séances at Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton’s Psychic Room in Winnipeg, Canada, 1920-22 sold at Swann last December for $93,750.

Daile Kaplan, Swann Vice President and Director of Photographs & Photobooks, likens the items in the April auction to snowflakes—each one unique and ineffable—and she credits the pioneering private and contemporary collectors who have positioned this material as an exciting and expansive approach to the field of photography.

Among the sale highlights are 19 photographs related to the Wright Brothers, most taken by Orville Wright, which depict the brothers' No. 2 glider, a subsequent, heavier-than-air craft flying at Sims Field and close-ups of machinery. The majority of the images are from an album once in the collection of Frank Hermes, a local fabric company executive who hired Orville and Wilbur to fly the first shipment of freight. The lot is estimated at $20,000 to $30,000.

There are three lots containing captivating panoramic circus photographs by Edward J. Kelty. They include images of Tom Mix (autographed by Mix and other performers), The Cole Brothers Clyde Beatty Combined Side Show, Congress of Human Oddities, and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus, 1928-1938 (estimates vary).

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Additional glimpses into different ways of life are an outstanding collection of 1700 photographs, albums, letters, and ephemera tracing the lives of a husband and wife who were life-long nudists, 1920s-1990s ($5,500 to $7,500); a group of 10 cartes-de-visite of the famous Victorian-era British medium Georgiana Houghton by Frederick Hudson, albumen prints, each with Houghton's copious handwritten observations, 1875-1876 ($4,000 to $6,000); a binder containing striking pictures of moonshiners in Georgia, many from the records of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, in which smirking subjects are thumbing their noses at the federal government's laws and regulations prohibiting the production of high-proof distilled spirits, 1960s ($1,500 to $2,500); and a group of 21 tintypes with male and female subjects at work, including a sculptor, telegraph operator, sniper, newsie, upholsterer and plasterer, 1870s-1880s ($5,500 to $6,500).

Also from the work world is an album containing 250 photographs of tableaux created by a Buffalo-based window dresser for Kleinhans Co., in Buffalo, NY, a high-end men’s clothing store. The pictures include sartorial displays devoted to seasonal trouser suits, neckwear, fashion knits, knitted outerwear, headware, luggage, overcoats, sportscoats, shoes and slippers; with a patriotic tableau vivant honoring WWI injured vets and another pitching Buffalo as a vibrant business destination, 1919-1926 ($5,000 to $7,500). 

A diverse and compelling collection of 97 real photo postcards includes cowboys playing cards and at work, nature, cars (including a boy with two cute pups, a woman at the wheel, and a couple driving through a large tree), hunters posing with their kill, Buffalo Bill Cody, Native Americans, and African Americans, as well as a crowd with a large fish, circa 1910-1920 ($4,000 to $6,000).

A section of works by fine-art photographers related to the sale’s theme includes Paul Strand’s Portrait of Louis, Gondeville, 1950-51 ($20,000 to $30,000); Harry Callahan’s Wabash Avenue, Chicago, Fall, 1958 ($8,000 to $12,000); an early, untitled William Eggleston image of an African-American man in a casket, 1971, printed 1996 ($10,000 to $15,000); and William Klein’s New York portfolio, 1978 ($12,000 to $18,000).

Among photobook highlights is the maquette for Jimmy De Sana’s cult classic, Submission, 1979, with 31 erotic prints, many related to S-M ($15,000 to $25,000).

A visually striking three-dimensional item is a Chine Fan by Joan Fontcuberta, an oversized mixed-media Chinese fan with a selenium-toned silver print photogram on a hand-painted paper surface ($10,000 to $20,000).

The auction will begin at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 17.

The photographs and books will be on public exhibition at Swann Galleries on Saturday, April 12, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.; Monday, April 14 to Wednesday, April 16, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Thursday, April 17, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

An illustrated catalogue with information on bidding by mail or fax, is available for $35 from Swann Galleries, Inc., 104 East 25th Street, New York, NY 10010, or online at www.swanngalleries.com.

For further information, and to make advance arrangements to bid by telephone during the auction, please contact Daile Kaplan at (212) 254-4710, extension 21, or via e-mail at dkaplan@swanngalleries.com.

Live online bidding is also available via Invaluable.com.

First image: From a group of 19 photographs related to the Wright Brothers, 1901-1928. Estimate: $20,000 to $30,000.

Second image: Group of 10 cartes-de-visite of Victorian-era British medium Georgiana Houghton by Frederick Hudson, albumen prints, 1875-1876. Estimate: $4,000 to $6,000.

Auction Guide