Update: The vintage Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge sold for $81,250.
What you see: A photograph of the George Washington Bridge, shot by Margaret Bourke-White and printed circa 1933. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $50,000 to $75,000.
The expert: Deborah Rogal, associate director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.
Who was Margaret Bourke-White, and why does her work remain influential today? She became a pioneering photojournalist and was the first woman photojournalist at Life magazine. She covered World War II, the Great Depression, and a lot more. We appreciate her work for merging a high level of aesthetic sophistication with strong editorial comment.
How did this Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge come to be? Was it for an assignment? It was intended for a story in Fortune magazine. The George Washington Bridge was constructed over a four-year period, from 1927 to 1931. At its completion, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.
What, if anything, do we know about how Margaret Bourke-White got this shot? The point of view is east to west. The photo is shot from the New York side, not the New Jersey side. [The look of the image] suggests it was shot in the afternoon in pretty bright sunlight. It would have been important to her to highlight the material used and the physicality of the structure.
How did she get this angle on the bridge? Was she standing in the middle of it, with cars passing her? I agree that she was standing somewhere in the middle of the span. In a variant of this photo, you can see a bit more of the actual span and you can see at least one car, small and in the distance.
What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult it might have been for her to get this shot? To me, it seems she would have been crouching or she arranged the tripod at a very low position so she could angle the camera upward to highlight the size and scope of construction. It gives the print a sense of the sublime. In the image, you don’t see the road itself. Our eye focuses on repeated imagery, allowing us to wonder at a new architectural feature of the city.
How does the way Margaret Bourke-White chose to compose this shot show her mastery of photography? She really focuses on architectural strength. She offers a sense of poetry and awe without losing visual strength–a hallmark of Margaret Bourke-White.
Would it have been difficult for her to shoot the George Washington Bridge in a way that excludes any features of New Jersey on the far side? The bridge is quite high. It’s a huge bridge, and the sense of being suspended in the air is pretty palpable. On the New Jersey side is the Palisades, a beautiful landscape feature. I’m not sure she had to do a lot to get the landscape out of the shot. I think she had to tilt the camera to get the expanse she wanted.
How, if at all, does this image of the George Washington Bridge connect to her earlier architecturally-themed photographs? There’s a clear connection between all elements of her career. She had a remarkable ability to capture a sense of bigness, of scale and power, as well as finer details like texture and the materiality of industry, and she could translate that sensation to people who encountered her work in a magazine.
Where does this image of the George Washington Bridge rank among the top ten best photographs by Margaret Bourke-White? In the top five, for sure. Her humanist images of the Great Depression have sold well at auction, but those are different.
It’s worth mentioning here that Margaret Bourke-White stands out for her ability to take strong photos of human beings and equally strong photos that have no human beings in them whatsoever, such as this one… True. She’s able to create powerful human images that display an ability to connect with an audience, and photograph structures to bring a sense of beauty and appeal while retaining a sense of strength. She’s extraordinary.
How rare are prints of Margaret Bourke-White’s photo of the George Washington Bridge? We last sold one in October 2000 for $29,500. Since then, it’s appeared only a handful of times as a vintage fine print. [The online Swann Galleries archive goes back to 2001.]
How do we know that this image was produced in 1933? Because of the provenance. In this time frame, it was given to Robert Kiehl, the original owner.
Do we know why Margaret Bourke-White would have made this print then? Would it have been a gift for Kiehl? Many of the photographs printed before the secondary market for photographs [arose around 1970 or so] were made as gifts for family members and friends. It’s certainly possible it was a gift for him.
How rare are early Margaret Bourke-White prints, such as this one? There’s no real census of her photos. There are likely few of any given image existing in the print format. For this one, there are probably five to ten. Some might fall lower in that range. There are certainly fewer in the range of vintage.
Thank you for mentioning that, I should ask–when you describe a photograph as “vintage,” what do you mean? It was printed before 1970? “Vintage” is a word that’s defined slightly differently [depending on who’s using it]. For us, it’s a print made close to when the negative was made.
What is this Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite capture? It’s a stunning object, with a rich dimensionality associated with fine art prints. It has a very rich texture and a fine range of tones. Seeing a work like this in person always adds to the experience.
The silver print photo is described as being “warm-toned.” What makes it warm-toned? It’s a sepia toning that adds warmth and stability to the print. Her vintage prints frequently have a warm tonality, a creamy [cream-colored] mount, and are signed below the image. This is her classic presentation.
How does the provenance add value to the photograph? We can trace it to Margaret Bourke-White herself. She gave it to Robert Kiehl, who worked as her assistant between 1932 and 1935, when she had a studio in the Chrysler Building. The direct provenance is special, and adds to the value of the work.
Do we know if Kiehl might have helped produce this photographic print? It’s possible he had a hand in the creation of the print, given his capacity as her assistant, but there’s no proof.
Has this print been to auction before? No, it’s fresh to market.
What’s the world auction record for this Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge, and what’s the overall world auction record for a photograph by her? The record for the George Washington Bridge photograph was set in April 2013 at Phillips. It sold for $104,500, and it was also signed and mounted. The world auction record in general was set in April 2019 at another Phillips auction, by a Great Depression image, Flood Refugees, Louisville, Kentucky. It sold for $400,000.
Why will this Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge stick in your memory? It’s a stunning representation of a trailblazing photographer at the height of her powers. It’s an homage to what’s new and modern and a chance to see her experiment with abstraction, contrast, and beauty. It has everything we associate with Margaret Bourke-White in one image. I think it has it all.
How to bid: Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph of the George Washington Bridge is lot 130 in the Classic & Contemporary Photographs sale at Swann Galleries on February 25, 2020.
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Deborah Rogel has appeared on The Hot Bid previously discussing a tintype of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker and a record-setting photographic portrait shot by Peter Hujar.
Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
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