Captivating modernist photography at Richard Nagy Gallery

From Man Ray to Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt and Irving Penn, modernism in vintage photography is explored in a new exhibition at London’s Richard Nagy Gallery

Harlequin Dress, New York, 1950, shot for Vogue by Irving Penn, estimated $275,000 to $300,000
Harlequin Dress, New York, 1950, shot for Vogue by Irving Penn, estimated $275,000 to $300,000 | Image: Conde Nast, courtesy of Michael Shapiro

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.

Nude (Miriam Lerner: Torso, Hand on Hip), 1925, by Edward Weston, estimated $1m
Nude (Miriam Lerner: Torso, Hand on Hip), 1925, by Edward Weston, estimated $1m | Image: Courtesy of 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents and Michael Shapiro
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“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.”

Frances with Flower, 1930-1932, by Consuelo Kanaga, estimated $50,000 to $70,000
Frances with Flower, 1930-1932, by Consuelo Kanaga, estimated $50,000 to $70,000 | Image: Courtesy of Michael Shapiro. Copyright of the artist
Mark Rothko, 1950, by Consuelo Kanaga
Mark Rothko, 1950, by Consuelo Kanaga | Image: Courtesy of Michael Shapiro. Copyright of the artist

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.

L’Orateur, 1935, by Man Ray, estimated $300,000 to $400,000
L’Orateur, 1935, by Man Ray, estimated $300,000 to $400,000 | Image: Man Ray 2015 Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019
Clearing Winter Storm, 1940, by Ansel Adams
Clearing Winter Storm, 1940, by Ansel Adams | Image: The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

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.

Workers, Grand Coulee Dam, Columbia Basin Project, Washington State, 1937, by Margaret Bourke-White, estimated $100,000 to $300,000
Workers, Grand Coulee Dam, Columbia Basin Project, Washington State, 1937, by Margaret Bourke-White, estimated $100,000 to $300,000 | Image: Margaret Bourke-White/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images, courtesy of Michael Shapiro
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