The magic of hands

The magic of hands

Alfred Stieglitz’s iconic image of Georgia O’Keefe’s hands takes the spotlight in the upcoming Sotheby’s auction this week in New York, writes Giridhar Khasnis.

It was in 1916 that legendary photographer, publisher, and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) met the budding artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986).  Instantly drawn to the expressive power of her large abstract drawings, he hosted her first solo exhibition at his gallery 291 in New York.

Interestingly, he started to photograph her. Their extraordinary collaboration lasted over 20 years and produced over 300 photographs. Stieglitz, a pioneer of modern photography who played an important role in promoting photography as an art form, and O’Keeffe, who rose to become an undisputed doyenne of American painting, influenced each other’s work. Despite the gaping age difference, they became lovers and married in 1924.

“Stieglitz photographed me first at his gallery 291 in the spring of 1917,” recalled O’Keeffe in 1978. “My hands had always been admired since I was a little girl — but I never thought much about it. He wanted head and hands and arms on a pillow — in many different positions.

I was asked to move my hands in many different ways — also my head — and I had to turn this way and that. …Stieglitz had a very sharp eye for what he wanted to say with the camera. When I look over the photographs, Stieglitz took of me — some of them more than 60 years ago — I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives.”

Iconic image

Stieglitz’s pictures of O’Keeffe came to be hailed as the greatest love poem in the history of photography. One of the photographs titled “Georgia O’Keeffe — Hands and Thimble” showing her strong yet graceful hands against a drape of dark fabric became iconic.
Interestingly, over seven decades after it was shot, a version of this very photograph triggered one of the world’s most significant privately owned collections of photographs when Henry M Buhl purchased it from Doris Bry, a former assistant to O’Keeffe, on 6th October 1993 for $75,000. Buhl had never studied art, never knew anything about it, yet the beauty of Stieglitz image could not but make an indelible impression on him.

Beginning with this single image, Buhl started collecting photographs and, over the years, acquired a vast repertoire of images covering over 1,000 photographs. Developed around the singular theme of hands, the collection spanned the evolution of the photographic medium, from the 1840s to the present times. The Buhl Collection included some of the world’s greatest photographers and most recognised masters of the medium, as well as lesser-known and emerging artists who portrayed the human hand as a vehicle for emotion, an object of scientific study, and a metaphor for the human condition, among others. The collection has been shown in major exhibits in different museums and galleries in the United States, as also in Russia, Germany, Spain, Korea, Taiwan and other countries.

Best of collecting

This week, “A Show Of Hands: Photographs from the Collection of Henry Buhl” comes up for sale at the Sotheby’s auction in New York. On 12-13 December, approximately 400 lots would be up for grabs and realise an estimated sum of $8-12 million.
“Henry's collection is a real template for the best of collecting — an inspiration to seasoned collectors and beginners alike,” says Denise Bethel, Director of Sotheby’s Photographs Department.

“The sale will offer collectors a wonderful opportunity to acquire everything from intriguing anonymous photographs to acclaimed masterworks.”
According to her, Buhl’s singular focus and passion for the theme of the hand was equalled by the iconic quality of the images he selected. “There are hands as gesture, hands as objects, hands as emotion,” explains Bethel. “They make your brain click in a number of different ways.”

Very importantly, a considerable portion of the proceeds of the auction would benefit The Buhl Foundation (established in October 1989) which is involved in funding programmes to help the homeless, the less privileged and the under-served, particularly in urban America. The Foundation also supports scholarship in the arts and human services.

Henry Mendelssohn Buhl, 82-year-old philanthropist, an erstwhile investment broker and mutual funds manager, himself became a photographer quite by chance. In the early 1990s he moved to the SoHo district of New York, and founded the SoHo Partnership and a series of not-for-profit organisations (now consolidated as The Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless: ACE). Thanks to ACE, homeless men and women living in city shelters are able to gainfully involve themselves in community services as cleaning streets, caring for trees, and attending weekly life skill and job training classes.

Supporting the community

Buhl, who accepts a weekly salary of $1 at ACE, stopped collecting photographs five years ago. He is sad but not unhappy letting go of his famous hand photographic collection. “I am proud of my collection, but for the past five years, I have had to re-double my efforts to raise funds for ACE and did not have time to devote to collecting. I could have donated my collection to a museum, but then it would sit in a warehouse. I want the collection exposed. By selling the collection individually and putting it on the walls of the buyers, the collection will be in a universal museum and the proceeds will be used to support ACE and other worthy causes.”

As an interesting aside, he provides a peek into his personal life and passions: “My Buick Roadmaster lasted 19 years. My first marriage lasted 17 years. I collected hand photographs for 14 years. I was a wedding photographer for 12 years and a mutual fund manager for 11 years. In the summer of 1992, I started the SoHo Partnership now ACE …Twenty years is the longest I have had any activity. I just had the 20th anniversary with ACE.”

While the spotlight of Sotheby’s sale would most definitely be on Stieglitz’s ‘Hands and Thimble’, estimated at $800,000–1,200,000, there are others from the Buhl’s collection catching the attention of bidders. Those would include Jeff Wall’s ‘Rear, 304 W. 25 Ave’ (1997 / $600,000 – 800,000); Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s ‘Fotogramm’ ($300,000 – 500,000); El Lissitzky’s ‘The Constructor’ ($300000 – 500000); Man Ray’s ‘Rayograph With Hand, Lens and Egg’ (1922 / $250,000 - 350,000); Andreas Gursky’s ‘May Day II’ (1998/ $500,000 - 700,000); Herbert Bayer’s ‘Lonely Metropolitan’ (1932 / $300,000 - 500,000);  Edward Weston’s ‘Tina Modotti’ ( $200000 – 300000); Nadar’s ‘Paul Legrand as Pierrot’ (1855 / $100,000 - 150,000); Frederick Henry Evans’ ‘Aubrey Beardsley’ ($50,000 - 70,000;  Dorothea Lange’s ‘White Angel Breadline, San Francisco’ ($100000 – 150000) and Shirin Neshat’s ‘Stories of Martyrdom from Women’ ($50,000 – 70,000).

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