Masters of Portraiture, from Irving Penn to Cindy Sherman

A rich selection of portraiture is highlighted in two upcoming sales – Contemporary Photographs (27 September, New York) and Classic Photographs (3 October, New York). Each captivating work will leave you wanting to know more about the subjects documented in these masterpieces of the genre, which span more than a century of image-making.

Francesca Woodman

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While she was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-1970s, Woodman used a decaying building as her home and studio, where she often staged self-portraits in front of its crumbling walls. In this work, she wore a distinctive polka-dot dress seen frequently in her photographs. It offers a rare glimpse of Woodman engaged directly with the camera, her gaze disquieting, confrontational, yet vulnerable.

Richard Avedon

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Avedon took this portrait of the singer Marian Anderson in his studio in June 1955, shortly after she had become the first African American to sing with the New York Metropolitan Opera. The photograph was subsequently published in the November 1955 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Avedon recalled the making of Anderson’s likeness: "After looking at the print of the entire negative I decided to crop it. I made the head much larger in relationship to the entire picture area and placed it high and off center. This created a more dynamic composition that emphasizes the power and vitality of the subject."

Cindy Sherman

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Cindy Sherman’s series Untitled Film Stills (1977-80)—her most well-known and celebrated body of work—firmly established her artistic practice of using her own body as the main element in the expanding corpus of portraits that she continues to make. "Some of the women in the outdoor shots could be alone, or being watched or followed," Sherman has explained. "The shots I would choose were always the ones in-between the action."

Annie Leibovitz

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Leibovitz’s portrait of actress Meryl Streep appeared on the 15 October 1981 cover of Rolling Stone magazine, coinciding with the release of the film The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for which Streep won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture. Her white makeup and stretched skin cheekily refer to Streep’s extraordinary ability to transform into each of her characters.

Richard Learoyd

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Learoyd constructed a room-size camera obscura to create his unique, life-sized portraits, which are made with a camera that can accommodate photographic paper measuring up to 70 by 60 inches. This process produces images with extraordinary detail, such as Jasjimn’s luminous eyes, subtle freckles and fine-boned hands. Curator Sandra Phillips has noted, "There is something undeniably present about the people [Learoyd] photographs: they are more alive, more beautiful, more defenseless and even more vulnerable than the people we usually see in photographs."

David Hockney

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In the 1980s Hockney became fascinated with making photographic collages that visualize the passage of time. Inspired by the Cubist idea of depicting an object from multiple viewpoints, he took numerous snapshots of an environment before assembling the components into a slightly fragmented but visually fascinating image. This work commemorates a wintertime trip to Kyoto with the artist’s friend Gregory.

Sally Mann

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In the 1980s, Mann photographed her three children at her family’s home in rural Virginia, which culminated in the series ‘Immediate Family.’ She has explained, "Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictions and some are fantastic, but most are of ordinary things every mother has seen—a wet bed, a bloody nose, candy cigarettes. They dress up, they pout and posture, they paint their bodies, they dive like otters in the dark river." This image of her son Emmett, who is indeed slick as an otter, reveals the body of a boy and the seriousness of a young man.

Walker Evans

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This iconic portrait of Alabama farmer Floyd Burroughs illustrated the first edition of Walker Evans’s and James Agee’s landmark book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941. On assignment from Fortune magazine in 1936, the pair recorded the daily lives of three tenant farmer families. This portrait as well as that of Burroughs’ wife, Allie Mae, are the definitive images in this important project. Early prints of Floyd Burroughs are rare and seldom appear at auction.

Irving Penn

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Often dubbed the father of photojournalism, Dr. Grosvenor was editor of National Geographic Magazine from 1899 to 1954. His wife Elsie Mae was the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. Author Phyllis Rose has written, "This beautifully toned platinum print could be the ultimate National Geographic photo, showing in all their native finery two splendid examples of that disappearing human species, thoroughly respectable Americans." (Civilization, July/August 1995, p. 100).

Jaromír Funke

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Czech photographer Jaromir Funke’s portrait of the Matucha sisters and a fellow reveler documents the three women dressed in fantastical garb for a 1926 masquerade ball held in the Bohemian town of Kolín. Their futuristic costumes were likely designed by modern painter Zdenek Rykr, who had introduced Funke to Cubism in the early 1920s.

Julia Margaret Cameron

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Cameron’s 1867 wedding portrait of Sir Henry John Stedman Cotton and Mary Ryan fittingly depicts the couple as Romeo and Juliet. Cotton was the Chief Commissioner of Assam (1896-1902), and Mary was a surrogate daughter of sorts who Cameron raised and photographed many times. In fact, Cotton fell in love with one of Cameron’s portraits of Mary before he actually met her in person.

Vito Acconci

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Acconci used his own body in intense performances and then created ‘note-sheets’ – collages of images and text – to document these events. This notes-sheet includes photographs of his actions Trademarks (September 1970) and Passes (1971). The overall sheet is akin to an after-the-fact storyboard filled with Acconci’s self-portraits, documentary images and written explanations.

Catherine Opie

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Images from Opie’s series Portraits (1993-97) offer a visual counterpoint to mainstream heterosexual culture by showcasing the tattoos, piercings and clothing favored by members of the LGBTQ community. Each detailed photograph positions the sitter against a colored backdrop to highlight his or her individual style. This portrait of Divinity Fudge, a Los Angeles-based drag queen, is printed at nearly life size so that her outfit, elaborate tattoos and makeup can be fully appreciated.


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