The exhibition Breaking Away: Modernism in Photography since World War I is a lens to another world, realised through a collection of 50 rare vintage photographs captured between the 1920s and ’60s. The show, held in conjunction with US-based Michael Shapiro Photographs and the Richard Nagy Gallery in London (where it is running from February 6 to March 27), features exceptional prints from some of the greatest photographers of the age.
“It’s the most important exhibition of vintage modernist photography ever to take place in a commercial London gallery,” says Michael Shapiro. “It encompasses major themes of early-20th-century photography, with a focus on the rarest vintage examples from 1922 to the 1930s. Great icons of 20th-century photography are featured with superlative work by Man Ray, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Bill Brandt, Margaret Bourke-White, Paul Strand and Irving Penn, among others.”
The imagery is fascinating, often provocative. One of the most captivating is Edward Weston’s Nude(Miriam Lerner: Torso, Hand on Hip) from 1925, a soft, sensuous portrait of the female form focusing on the angles and folds of the body, on sale for about $1m. Elsewhere, Man Ray’s study of the power of objects is expressed in L’Orateur (1935), a strikingly surreal image ($300,000 to $400,000), while American fashion photographer Irving Penn’s highly stylised Harlequin Dress, New York, dating from 1950 ($275,000 to $300,000), is an arresting portrait of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn – often referred to as the first supermodel – taken for Vogue and depicts her wearing a Jerry Parnis harlequin dress with pearls and confidently smoking a cigarette.
There are also exemplary examples of social documentary, including Frances with Flower by Consuelo Kanaga, from 1930 to 1932 ($50,000 to $70,000), an intimate portrait of an African-American woman at the time of segregation in the US. American photographer and documentarist Margaret Bourke-White, meanwhile, is represented by the utterly engaging Workers, Grand Coulee Dam, Columbia Basin Project, Washington State, from 1937 ($100,000 to $300,000) – a record of a group of workers standing cheerfully in front of a Depression-era “Warning” sign.