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Sunday, 07 October 2012


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Messonier is not considered better than Van Gogh by anybody I know of -- although there are probably a few among the "Boston School" and "atelier" painters who do think that. But your other comment about Atget being considered better than Curtis, I'd ask...by whom? I'm not quite so sure that this is true, or if it was, for a while, when Modernism was all the rage, then it was a relatively short while, I think. Curtis has always had some stature in American photography, and was not forgotten even with the rise of Modernism, as Messonier was. I can tell you that if I had a choice between the two photos you show here, I'd take the Curtis. (Messonier's most famous painting, by the way, is on display at the Met in NY. Or was the last time I was there.)

Oh come on Mike, that's too easy!

Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier
Musketeer 1870


The Night Café
Vincent van Gogh 1888

Oops, just noticed the mouseover has the artist name and title of the work. Nevermind...

Re this post and the earlier on on Doug Rickard, the pix you showed in the Rickard post reminded me somewhat of the Ashcan school paintings of a century ago, which were much maligned for both subject and execution. Hmmm, how will Rickard be remembered in a century--if at all.

An interesting Interview on NPR about this very subject. Interesting to note that JP Morgan ended up owning the copyright to the work. Work for hire? Obviously not a good deal in the end for Curtis, and I don't know if I'd call it "winning".

And here's the NPR link.


Not only was Curtis impoverished but I believe he sold the copyright to his work to Morgan [it was to Morgan's son, Jack—J.P. the elder died in 1913 —Ed.] to pay off his debt, as much as that was possible.

Also, in the portrait of Morgan I love the way the arm of the chair is lit and the way it looks like a sharp knife ready to stick someone. Very telling.

I suppose Vivian Maier is another example of the unrecognized genius type with perhaps more appeal today than during her time (though she wasn't exactly the fame-seeking sort). Just got the book you mentioned a couple weeks ago, and it's very beautiful. Interesting story between the chapters too. Who would be her 1950's and 60's foil?

Even Shakespeare's reputation has gone up and down along the centuries. I think the mystery of art is a reflection of the mystery of human existence ("full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"), hence its neverending shift of meaning.

Mike, would you please put a good link to the best book of Henry Wessel? I don't know his work.

I asked myself always the same. You mentioned paintings and music but I have the need to include literature. The writers have the same doubts. Include you have a Fausto variation that mentioned a poet that want to know if he will be known in the future. I read with attention the letters to Theo of Van Gogh and is very depressing know the lot of privations he had and how very few payed attention to his paintings. He really needed some comments about his work. But there are other people that are impermeable to the outer world, comes to my mind the recent case of Vivian Maier, she don't exposed to the critics or the world her inner needs to see and make photos. I asked myself too why the world give prizes or awards to some people whose work I don't admire. Taste appears have to have a very arbitrary path. I don't like the Duchamp's urinary. I understand the approach and meaning, but I don't feel nothing. Worst with Cindy Sherman. I can't understand or feel his futile self portraits.
But what you think who are the lasted unknown genious of photography? who are the names some readers will be bet will be more important in the future?

Hi Mike.
I think, the difference between Mr. Curtis and Mr. Atget have more to do with what I have pointed to you before: recording images in places, that have witnessed the presence of many centuries of civilisation, rather than wildlife. If Mr. Atget lived in the prerie, and Mr Curtis in Paris, likely their visual style preferences would have been different too.
As to what people appreciate or not, my guess is, that this will change in the future, and you will have a much broader spectrum of opinions, simply because, the moltiplication of "Art" has become exponential.
In any case, I would dissent about Mr Wessel. He could at most be regarded as an intermediate link between a decent photographer and Google maps. If he put his photos on Flickr today, most group administrators would eliminate them as too boring and repetitive, and rightly so.

Sure, here you go.

This is just out of print. Expensive, but it won't get any cheaper from here on out.

Some say the reproductions are too flat (i.e., low contrast), but that's the way Henry likes it.

Waikiki is also supposed to be good, but I haven't seen it.


"I would dissent about Mr Wessel. He could at most be regarded as an intermediate link between a decent photographer and Google maps. If he put his photos on Flickr today, most group administrators would eliminate them as too boring and repetitive, and rightly so."

Wow. You're entitled to your opinion, but it's an incomprehensible opinion to me.


"And that people then will wonder what we saw in some of our own historical moment's most exalted art stars"

Many of us wonder now!

Of course Curtis impoverished himself publishing his magnum opus. Gosh, he hired Imogene Cunningham as a darkroom printer.

I would prefer to be paid handsomely in this life, and recognized as the genius I am after I'm gone.

On second thought...

Bach and Matisse, of course.

Surveys are like economists: one can find one to support most any stance.

@ Marek Fogiel: Yes, your opinion is your privilege. But I wonder if it's firmly anchored in knowledge? I have never never before heard anyone refer to his images as "repetitive". It's hard for me to imagine your conclusion.

You might actually enjoy this short KQED video on Wessel (from during his 2007 SFMoMA show several years ago).

Or this SFMoMA "ArtBabble" video on Wessel.

And perhaps a rough Google-style survey of some of his images.

It is an unfortunate decision for you to use the phrase "mentally Ill " as a defining description of Van Gogh when you could choose so many other ways to describe him.
If it takes being ill to create with such talent, I'll take it.

A contemporary of Curtis, whose photographic studies of American Indians are of similar quality, but whose work is hardly known now, is Roland Reed. He specialized in Indians of the upper Midwest. A book has just been published, "Alone with the Past: The Life and Photographic Art of ROLAND W. REED" by E.R. Lawrence, that gives Reed some of the recognition he deserves. See

On Mike's "accidents of history"

Ascendancy in the world of art and the world of politics (and would that the twain won't meet) over time owes both to exceptional individuals and zeitgeist. The former is the Carlylist view ("History is the biography of great men."); while the latter privileges transcendent "historical forces" (as proposed by Marxists).

What makes art iconic in its time and well beyond? Is it the singular vision and talent of the artist? What influence did the patrons of great artists exert on the reception of the works of their favored artists, being themselves the powers that be who succesfully rode the tide of history during their time? (For example, the Medicis of Florence, which was the European hub of the Silk Road trade before mercantilism, not to mention a locus of power of the Roman Catholic papacy.)

With the "democratization" of wealth in our time, which makes "accounting for taste" of the big art spenders problematic, why does a work of art—be it a painting or a photograph—fetch the amount it gets in the auction market? Do the gatekeepers (say, the curator of MOMA, or the honchos of the great auction houses themselves) influence the big spenders?

What is the record auction price for an Atget?

In the case of Vincent Van Gogh, I'm with Carlyle. A painter of singular talent and vision who didn't a sell a single painting while he was alive and only had his brother as "patron" to keep him going. (I don't think his tragic demise had any post-mortem effect on the intrinsic value of his paintings. He was prolific, too, short-lived though he was.)

As an aside, my choice of Van Gogh has been influenced by your curation. I'm not sure who the painter of your first example is. (Disclosure: Besides a liberal arts baccalaureate education, I have no formal schooling in art, or history, for that matter.)

I'd consider Ansel Adams a "Van Gogh" in photography. I don't know about Gursky.

My last question is not entirely rhetorical:

Is TOP a historical accident? Is it riding with or against the *currents* of contemporary photography?

(I'm with Carlyle here, too.)

I'm very pleased to say that I have a Curtis photogravure framed and displayed in my living room. It's not a vintage print but a modern restrike of one of the plates originally created for him.

Curtis' depiction of the American native people has been considered controversial by some however without his work we would now be missing some important anthropological knowledge of the past cultures of the North American Indian.


I meant to say Gursky's works reflects the zeitgeist of his time. He has successfully deployed the materials and technology of his time, to produce work that appeals to his target audience, whose tastes in turn are a reflection of current zeitgeist. How much would a Gursky fetch 75 years from now (in today's prices)?

I wonder if Mozart's rise in greatness in the US in the '80's had something to do with Peter Schaffer's Amadeus? (Excellent film and play, btw)

It just goes to show you that you never know what will be a "masterpiece" in the future.

I didn't know Henry Wessell - so I had a poke around. I tend to agree with your opinion about how his value (cash and intellectual) in the future might compare with some of today's superstars. People looking back will learn different things by looking at these two different phenomena. In one case they will find out more about the nature of the art market, than the subjects of the photographs.

However, I was looking through this old Christies lot


and as much as I now find I like Mr Wessell's work, I wondered why it was outselling a lot of the other fine work on offer. There are so many good photographers with personal vision, that it seems a bit unfair - but there isn't room for all of them

"I would dissent about Mr Wessel. He could at most be regarded as an intermediate link between a decent photographer and Google maps. If he put his photos on Flickr today, most group administrators would eliminate them as too boring and repetitive, and rightly so."

Would that say more about Henry Wessel, or more about group administrators?

There was a very successful TOP post (Mike, I am sure you have the link) some years ago that captured the power of groupthink and the awesome prescience of group administrators, applied to a series of ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful flickr submissions by HCB, Irving Penn, and the like...


@ Ahem

   Some for the Glories of This World, and some
   Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come,
   Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
   Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!

Kahlil Gibran
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

On a general note later ages seem to oppose conceptualism and prefer documentary content.

All this talk about Curtis got me thinking about the work of Don Doll.
His 1994 book Vision Quest: Men, Women and Sacred Sites of the Sioux Nation is wonderful but difficult to find.


OK, now John Camp has pushed me over the edge. Sooner or later someone's sure to whip out this classic old TOP article "Great Photographers on the Internet" in response to Marek's remark. Might as well be me.


John said "Would that say more about Henry Wessel, or more about group administrators?" and that reminded me of this 2006 post, called "Cartier-Breson Booted From Flickr."


I re-followed the link from that page and discovered that the thread is still (slightly) active, now 83 months long! People do get serious.

Oops. Wonder if someone will tell me I need to focus more on my spelling?

I think I even preferred Surloff's work to Wessel's, both being quite similar generically, and clearly contemporary to each other. Wessels are more wryly humorous perhaps and appear more spontaneous, whereas Surloffs are more consciously composed and contemplative. More self-conscious perhaps.

Much as I like them however, if I were to predict the long term icons of 20th century photography, I am not sure I would include either. Coming to both quite recently and with no baggage, they both strike me as exponents of a prevailing style for which the stage was set in the '60s, and which by then had the establishment firmly on message, rather than pushing the boundaries and causing waves. Master exponents perhaps, but not pioneers. Of course I could be corrected.

I will add that I have never really rated my preferences for anything as a sure indication of greatness, but even if you were to take the last half of the 20th century, and assume that only 20 or so artists ever make the cut as "iconic" of an era (seen from a distance of more than a generation) there would be far too many deserving candidates across those 50 amazing years.

It would be interesting know what the TOP readers' TOP 20 would be from 1950-2000. If previous posts are anything to go by I am certain to learn something.

"... artists are often perceived very differently by their contemporaries, in their own era, and, say, a century later."

Yeah, that's what I tell everyone. OK, you might not like my stuff now, but come back in a century, guys, and my photos will be brilliant!

I can't say who will be most valued among contemporary photographers in 50 or 100 years but I'd put a small wager on them being Chinese or working in China...

All very interesting to talk of style, date or not. I find it is much more important to note how Curtis's work is now much appreciated by many native communities. He thought he was capturing the last images of a dying people but, in fact, he preserved priceless visual documentation that has helped many native people in their quest to restore their customs and regalia from the lost generations of folks who were denied their heritage by the culture of assimilation.

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