Update: Cartier-Bresson’s Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy sold for $30,000–double its high estimate.
What you see: Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, a photograph that Henri Cartier-Bresson shot in 1951. This gelatin silver print was made later, however. Phillips estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
Who was Henri Cartier-Bresson? Born in France, he was the king of the candid photographers, and he’s regarded as a father of street photography. He co-founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative photojournalists’ agency, in 1947. His images of the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 cemented his reputation. He died in 2004 at the age of 95.
Do we know anything about the lead-up to this photo–how long Cartier-Bresson stood there, and how many other photos he might have taken at this spot? “Here, he’s standing at the top of the stairs. For Cartier-Bresson, he would sometimes stay for a few minutes. He wouldn’t have stayed for a long amount of time. He would shoot and keep walking,” says Rachel Peart, specialist and head of sale for Phillips. “Cartier-Bresson was famous for not wanting to crop his photos afterward. He was very deliberate about what he put in his lens.” Subsequent research of auction records revealed a few iterations of the image appearing for sale in the late aughts and early teens.
I look at this photo and it reminds me of a game of Jenga–pushing the boundaries of how much can you add before the whole thing topples and falls apart… “I think that’s what makes Cartier-Bresson such a great photographer,” she says. “When it comes to composing an image, it’s technically perfect. The railings lead your eye through the picture plane and also divide it. He continued to draw throughout his lifetime, and the fundamentals of composition are evident in all of his work.”
How does this 1951 image illustrate Cartier-Bresson’s concept of “the decisive moment” in photography? “It’s not something he staged or posed. He waited for the moment when everything lined up,” she says. “Here we have the women going about their day. He was able to freeze the moment and hold them in time.”
Why was he in the Italian town of L’Aquila in 1951, and where was he in his career by then? “He was on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar,” Peart says. “He had founded Magnum by this point, he was on assignment for many publications, and he was very much a household name.”
This image was printed after 1951, but probably before the rise of the formal secondary market for photography. Why would he have had it done? “What we predominantly see in the Cartier-Bresson market are later prints, and after 2004, none are made–there are no posthumous prints,” she says, noting that Cartier-Bresson never did the actual printing himself, but he did supervise and approve the output. “A lot of them would have been printed for collectors or for exhibitions. Unless people requested the image, he didn’t make prints of them. There are other pictures of his that you see at auction more frequently [because people asked for them].”
How many prints of Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy were made? It’s hard to tell. Perhaps 30 exist in the 17 5/8 inch by 11 3/4 inch size, and one of them fetched $10,625 at Christie’s in 2011. A similar image taken from the same vantage point and printed at a smaller size has appeared at auction at least twice (the name of the photo is not standardized, which makes it difficult to confirm how often it and its variants have gone to auction). One sold in June 2015 at Westlicht, a Viennese auction house specializing in photographs and vintage cameras for €4,800 ($5,400), and the other sold at Swann Galleries in November 2016 for $6,500.
The lot notes say the photo was acquired directly from the artist. But acquired by who? The consignor is Peter Fetterman, who runs an eponymous photography gallery in Santa Monica, California. “He was working directly with Cartier-Bresson as a dealer and it turned into a friendship,” she says. “He would buy from Cartier-Bresson and for himself as well. There’s one Sam Tassa portrait of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but otherwise, they’re all from Peter Fetterman, who got them directly from Henri.”
Why is Fetterman selling these photographs now? “Cartier-Bresson is obviously an artist he loved and very much respected, and he loved building the collection. But he felt it was the right time to put it out into the world,” Peart says.
What else makes this Cartier-Bresson image special? “It’s Henri Cartier-Bresson doing what he does best, taking this moment from a town in Italy and making it so compositionally dense and rich,” she says. “You can revisit his images over and over, and this one really epitomizes that.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Phillips.
A note: In 2009, L’Aquila was near the epicenter of an earthquake that measured as high as 5.9 on the Richter scale. It killed more than 300 people and damaged thousands of buildings. It’s unclear if the vista that Cartier-Bresson captured in 1951 survives, but it was pretty much intact in 2008. More than seven years after the quake, the Italian city is still recovering from its effects.