50 Masterworks to Celebrate 50 Years of Sotheby’s Photographs
Online Auction: 12–22 April 2021 • 2:00 PM BST • London

50 Masterworks to Celebrate 50 Years of Sotheby’s Photographs 12–22 April 2021 • 2:00 PM BST • London

T his year, Sotheby’s celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the first Photographs Auction, which took place in Sotheby’s London in 1971. Marking this occasion, London and New York have joined forces to showcase and offer 50 masterpieces from the most iconic and influential photographers.

Sotheby’s London is proud to invite our collectors on a journey through the history of Photography. This exploration will be portrayed in 25 works - starting with a work pertaining to the early days of the medium through Gustave Le Gray’s practice, before exploring 20th century modernist works by Frantisek Drtikol and Erwin Blumenfeld, as well as fashion photography through the lens of Richard Avedon, Peter Lindbergh and Guy Bourdin, concluding with contemporary works by Chris Levine, Martin Parr and Nobuyoshi Araki.

Lots 1-25 will be offered in New York with bidding open 12-21 April.
Lots 26-50 will be offered in London with bidding from 12-22 April.

Exhibition dates

Friday 16 April, 10 am to 5 pm
Saturday 17 April, 12 pm to 5 pm
Sunday 18 April, 12 pm to 5 pm
Monday 19 April, 10 am to 5 pm
Tuesday 20 April, 10 am to 5 pm
Wednesday 21 April, 10 am to 5 pm
Thursday 22 April, 10 am to 12 pm

Sale Highlights


As fashion photographers pushed artistic boundaries in the 20th century, they created seminal images that came to define entire decades. This sale showcases a breath of works ranging from Hoyningen-Heune’s classical and timeless piece representing the start of fashion photography to Avedon’s effortless glamourous and playful muse depicted in classical French aesthetic and Bourdin’s vibrant and surrealistic work evoking a subtle fetish.

This sensuality would then progress during the following decades thanks to Helmut Newton who became known for portraying the femme-fatales in art from the last century such as Susy Dyson. Peter Lindbergh would then take further the idea of the ‘muse’ and would develop it to create supermodels, as seen in The Wild Ones. Finally, this extraordinary showcase of the genre of fashion photography includes a pivotal work in the history of the medium such as is Kate Moss by Testino – the ultimate fashion icon of the last few decades, portrayed in a vernacular yet extremely stylised fashion.


The medium of photography was initially conceived as a means in which to represent the truth. It is therefore not surprising that image-making has become a way to create visual diaries. This notion has been carried and developed through the years in the form of vernacular photography. Artists such as Martin Parr and Thomas Struth decided to document their surroundings, those moments that made each situation special. Parr, referred back to his home-country and in this introspective voyage created what is now his most celebrated series The Last Resort. Similarly, at the very start of his career, Struth portrayed through images his first reactions to an unknown city, through the decades this project would be known was Uncommon Places.

On a similar self-reflective note, the work of Wolfgang Tillmans and Nobuyoshi Araki was also born from vernacular photography. However, they both take as starting point their own life instead of the exterior world. Tillmans focuses on the apparent ‘unimportant’ objects or moments of daily life, as seen in Still Life, Bourne Estate, where he depicts a part of his studio, making a comment on the hierarchy of images in the world of art. Araki is known to be a compulsive image-maker who documents everything from his meals to Tokyo or women. In A/Film #2, all the aspects of his life and practice come together as one single object created by the juxtaposition of the different positives.


Since the birth of photography, artists have learnt to perfect their craft in order to be in full control of every aspect. The studio was the main place where a photographer could fully create an image.

Frantisek Drtikol and Hoyningen-Heune became extremely versed in studio photography – from lighting to set design, there was nothing left to fate. Drtikol creates shapes in his image Untitled (Nude Reclining) which are reminiscent of the forms used by members of the Bauhaus in their ow photography such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. In The Divers the environment, including the set and lighting, is so brilliantly done, it creates the allusion of being at the sea, when in fact they are in an indoor space.

The use of the studio has continued to be stronger throughout the years. Malick Sidibe in the late 1950s quickly learnt that people, and especially the younger generation, adored having their picture taken in a place they felt comfortable and could prepare for – bringing their best attire or even possessions such as motorcycles.

In recent years, thanks to the progressions of technology, this controlled space that is the studio has given rise to new techniques. Chris Levine is recognized as one of the leading artists in light – creating astonishing works such as Lightness of Being, 2008. This magnificent portrait of Her Majesty the Queen, was taken in the yellow drawing room at Buckingham Palace with an ultraviolet cross and a camera that shot the sequence of stereo images. In between shots, the Queen rested her eyes and created this iconic portrait of calm and being.

The Decisive Moment

What is the secret behind a masterpiece of photography? For Henri -Cartier Bresson, the answer is in the title of his seminal photobook: The Decisive Moment, published 1952. In the book, still considered one of the most influential ever written about photography, the co-founder of the Magnum Agency explains how “Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression”
This simultaneity is perfectly illustrated in his iconic capture of Barcelona and is also demonstrated in one of the 19th centuries most famous photographs: 'La Vague Brisée, Mer Méditeranée No 15' by Gustave Le Gray. The very nature of a wave is ephemeral, and despite exposure times not being simultaneous with collodion plates, Le Gray pioneered an experimental approach involving a set of paired negatives, as if to place to the viewer at this very moment in time.

Artistic direction will always in conflict with nature. Peter Beard’s interest for Africa took him away from the New York fashion studios to less comfortable surroundings. His passion, and patience for his subject allowed him to depict wildlife as few ever have, as seen in Cheetah Cubs, his iconic image of a raw and beautifully balanced moment.

Innovative techniques have allowed contemporary Photographers many strings to their bow, but a fraction of second can change the whole story behind a picture. In Chris Levine’s Lightness of Being, a classical portrait of HM the Queen became an image of spiritual enlightenment, capturing an unforeseen fleeting moment when the Monarch rested her eyes between shots.

Artworks Available for Immediate Purchase

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