Update: Phillips sold the 1931 Willi Ruge photo Berlin Parachute Jumper for $65,000–more than double its high estimate.
What you see: Berlin Fallschirmspringer, which translates as Berlin Parachute Jumper, from Willi Ruge’s 1931 series, I Photograph Myself During a Parachute Jump. Phillips estimates the gelatin silver print at $20,000 to $30,000.
Who was Willi Ruge? He was a press photographer in the early 20th century who worked with the German counterparts of magazines such as Life and Look. “He distinguished himself by putting himself in the center of the action,” says Christopher Mahoney, a consultant at Phillips’s photography department. “He was a photojournalist, but he was a bit of a daredevil, too.” Ruge (pronounced Roo-guh) was also a pilot and a certified parachutist. He died in 1961.
How hard was it for Ruge to get this shot? After laughing heartily, Mahoney says, “Pretty darn hard. First, you have to have the guts to jump out of a plane with a parachute. Getting up the gumption to do that is a considerable feat in itself. And I can’t imagine it’s easy, hurtling toward the earth with a parachute over you, to concentrate on the complex act of taking a photo, but he did that. And it was all manual. He figured out the focus and the exposure on the fly, and he would have been winding by hand.”
Did Ruge manipulate the photograph in the dark room at all? “It was standard procedure for photographers to fix blemishes in the negative. There may have been a little bit of that. But there’s no major kind of retouching,” Mahoney says. “This really is what he was seeing as he parachuted down.”
Why did Ruge take this photograph? It was part of a photo story for a German magazine. A friend in a nearby plane photographed Ruge as he jumped, and a second photographer on the ground captured the faces of witnesses who watched him land. The final product enjoyed the 1930s version of going viral–photo magazines in Britain and America ran it. “To me, it’s lost none of its impact,” Mahoney says. “It still induces a sense of vertigo. And it’s confounding–those shoes dangling over Berlin. It still packs a wallop, many decades later.”
What else makes this photograph special? It’s rare, as are all Ruge images (his archive was bombed in 1943), and it does not appear to have gone to auction before. And there’s not much else like it out there. “This is an image that couldn’t exist in other media,” Mahoney says. “It is photography doing what photography does best–documenting the moment so other people can see it. This is a very dramatic moment Willi Ruge has documented.”
How to bid: Berlin Fallschirmspringer is lot 6 in The Odyssey of Collecting: Photographs from Joy of Giving Foundation, taking place April 3 and April 4, 2017 at Phillips New York.
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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Phillips/Phillips.com