SOLD! This Casually Perfect 1951 Henri Cartier-Bresson Shot From Italy Fetched $30,000–Double Its High Estimate–at Phillips


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 consigner 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.”


How to bid: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy is lot 37 in Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Eye of the Century, taking place at Phillips New York on December 12.


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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.


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Oh Snap! An Uncropped Version of Weegee’s Most Famous Photo Could Sell for $15,000 at Christie’s

WEEGEE The Critic, 1943

What you see: The Critic, an image shot in 1943 by Arthur (sometimes given as Usher) Fellig, who was better known as Weegee. Christie’s estimates the ferrotyped gelatin silver print at $10,000 to $15,000.

Who was Weegee? He was a Ukranian-born photographer who excelled at capturing visions of life in Manhattan. His uncanny ability to pop up at crime scenes–sometimes even before the police got there–earned him the nickname “Weegee,” a phonetic spelling of Ouija, the name of the board used to summon spirits. Weegee had something better and more reliable than a Ouija board: he fitted his car with a police radio. He died in 1968 at the age of 75.

Time magazine chose The Critic as one of its 100 Most Influential Images of All Time. The Photography Book, published by Phaidon, placed it second on a list of photos that changed the world. The image is in the collections of The Whitney, The Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. What makes it such an important photograph? “I think the reason people respond is there’s a lot going on in it,” says Rebecca Jones, a photographs cataloguer at Christie’s. “It’s very graphic, very confrontational. The women going to the opera look directly at the camera, and the viewer. We have the disheveled onlooker at the right. We have the onlookers at the left. And the types of people in the image are very New York–high society people, the people on the left hoping for standing room tickets, and the bitter character on the right, all together in the scene in fortuitous imagery.”

We now know that The Critic was not organic. Weegee had his assistant recruit the woman at the right from a local bar, and had him move her forward on his signal when the two socialites emerged from their limo to attend the Metropolitan Opera’s Diamond Jubilee celebration. Any photographers who followed his example in 2017 would be fired and shamed. Why was Weegee able to get away with it? “It was the start of tabloid journalism. He was the first to do it, so he kind of got away with it,” she says. “The ethics were not fully developed on the issue because it was so new.”

Weegee printed this image in the late 1950s or early 1960s, before there was a secondary market for photographs. Why would he have created more prints of The Critic after it was published in Life magazine around 1943? “In addition to being a successful photojournalist, Weegee was unique, because he was recognized by the fine arts community,” Jones says. “He was known to print works in addition to this one, possibly to sell, possibly for an exhibition, or possibly to give to people.”

When Life magazine ran The Critic, its editors cropped it to show just the three women. The version at Christie’s is the full version, which shows the middle class people at the left who are hoping to buy standing room tickets. Weegee released more prints of the cropped version than the full version during his life. Does that mean he preferred the cropped version? “It’s hard to say which he preferred. What’s more likely is since the three were in the original version used, it became the more iconic image,” she says, adding, “What also complicates his practice is he had no consistency to the way he marked his prints. The only way we knew this was from the late 1950s or early 1960s is it’s marked with an address we know he moved to in 1957.”

What else makes this Weegee image special? “It’s interesting to pull out from the cropped image to see what was going on in the photographer’s eye. We get the flavor of the particular moment,” Jones says. “And it’s a scene you could still see in New York today.”

How to bid: Weegee’s The Critic is lot 32 in Visionaries: Photographs from the Emily and Jerry Spiegel Collection, which takes place October 10 at Christie’s New York.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

You can follow Christie’s on Twitter and on Instagram. You can read more about the Emily and Jerry Spiegel Collection in this Christie’s article.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.