Lot 18
  • 18

Henri Cartier-Bresson

50,000 - 70,000 USD
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  • Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • calle cuauhtemotzin, mexico city
signed by the photographer in ink on the reverse, matted, 1934


The photographer to Nicholas Nabokov, New York, 1935

His widow, Dominique Nabokov, New York, inherited from the above

Edwynn Houk Gallery, Chicago, 1986

Acquired by the Quillan Company from the above, 1989


Jill Quasha, The Quillan Collection of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Photographs (New York, 1991), pl. 44 (this print)

Other prints of this image:

Peter Galassi, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work (The Museum of Modern Art, 1987, in conjunction with the exhibition), p. 124

Documentary and Anti-Graphic Photographs by Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans & Álvarez Bravo (Paris: Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, 2004, in conjunction with the exhibition), p. 137

David Travis, Photographs from the Julien Levy Collection, Starting with Atget (The Art Institute of Chicago, 1976, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 35

Eye of the Beholder, Photographs from the Collection of Richard Avedon, Volume V: Etcetera (San Francisco: Fraenkel Gallery, 2006, in conjunction with the exhibition), unpaginated


This early print is on double-weight paper with a matte surface. As is typical of Cartier-Bresson's early prints, the print offered here contains a wide range of subtly shifting gray tones, and is relatively low in contrast. Also typical of Cartier-Bresson's early prints is the fact that this is trimmed flush to the image; when examined closely, it can be seen that the trimming is very slightly uneven. There is very minor wear on the print's edges and corners, but this is unobtrusive. When examined closely in raking light, a faint one cm. line, possibly graphite, is visible in the center of left edge, just below the shadow. None of these issues detracts in a measurable way from the overall fine appearance of this early print.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

The photograph offered here is a rare and early print made at the outset of Cartier-Bresson's career, shortly after the acquisition of a small handheld Leica camera granted him greater mobility and creative freedom.  It dates to one of the few periods in which the photographer made his own prints.  Cartier-Bresson's intuitive—as opposed to technical—approach to printing the photograph, with its wide range of subtly-shifting gray tones, is characteristic of his early printing style.  With its novel overhead view of three figures sheltering from the harsh Mexican sun beneath an umbrella, Calle Cuauhtemotzin, Mexico City, embodies Langston Hughes's observation that, 'In a photograph by Cartier-Bresson, as in modern music, there is a clash of sunlight and shadow' (Documentary and Anti-Graphic Photographs by Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans & Alvarez Bravo, p. 31). 

It is very likely that Calle Cuauhtemotzin, Mexico City, was included in Julien Levy's prescient 1935 exhibition, Documentary and Anti-Graphic Photographs, which also featured the work of Walker Evans and Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Cartier-Bresson's frequent companion in Mexico City.  This triple bill of then-unknown young photographers working along parallel paths presented a vision of photography at odds with what Levy described as the 'three great S's' of photography: Stieglitz, Strand, and Sheeler.  While each of the photographers in Levy's exhibition had their own distinct approach and style, each was attracted to anti-monumental imagery, and created meaningful images of marginalized people and places.  One visitor to the exhibition in 1935 was photographer Helen Levitt, who met Cartier-Bresson, and shortly thereafter acquired a print of Calle Cuauhtemotzin, Mexico City, directly from him (ibid., p. 33). 

Cartier-Bresson spent much of the early 1930s on the move, traveling throughout France, Spain, and Italy, and spending nearly a year in Africa.  He traveled to Mexico in early 1934, initially under the auspices of an expedition sponsored by the Mexican government.  When that venture failed, Cartier-Bresson then traveled to Mexico City, where he stayed with American poet Langston Hughes, the Mexican poet Andrés Henestrosa, and the Mexican painter Ignacio Aguirre.  The lodgings shared by this bohemian group were close to the site pictured in Calle Cuauhtemotzin, Mexico City, where many of Cartier-Bresson's Mexican photographs were taken.  The portability of his 35mm Leica allowed him to photograph quickly and intuitively, and his Mexican work shows the young photographer already in full possession of the talent that would make him one of the century's most celebrated photographers. 

The print of Calle Cuauhtemotzin, Mexico City, in the Quillan Collection comes originally from the collection of composer Nicolas Nabokov (a cousin of writer Vladimir Nabokov), with whom Cartier-Bresson stayed upon his arrival in New York City from Mexico City in early 1935.  Before his departure from Mexico, and very likely after his arrival in New York, Cartier-Bresson printed the photographs that were to be shown in the Documentary and Anti-Graphic Photographs exhibition. The print offered here was made and given to Nabokov during this period.

As of this writing, it is believed that there are only four other early prints of this image extant.  Three are in institutional collections: the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris; the Richard Avedon Foundation, New York; and the Julien Levy Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. Another early print is located in a private collection, New York.