Portrait of Ellen Frank

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  • Provenance

    Collection of Esther Shub, acquired circa 1930
    Galerie Berinson, Berlin, 2001

  • Literature

    Roh, Moholy-Nagy 60 Fotos, no. 16
    Haus, Moholy-Nagy: Photographs & Photograms, pl. 56
    Fiedler, Photography at the Bauhaus, pl. 14
    Witkovsky, Eliel and Vail, Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, p. 214

  • Catalogue Essay

    László Moholy-Nagy’s portrait of actress Ellen Frank was one of an array of dynamic new photographs he exhibited in Film und Foto, the 1929 exhibition which, over three-quarters of a century later, continues to define photographic modernism (Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, p. 25). The image was first reproduced in Franz Roh’s 1930 book, Moholy-Nagy 60 Fotos, the definitive early anthology of Moholy’s work in the medium. There it is captioned, “maximum size through extreme closeness.” Moholy’s proximity to his subject takes the image out of the realm of objective portraiture and creates a subjective and formally complex record of his sitter.

    This photograph is from a series Moholy began in the late 1920s in which he pushed past conventions to create a new kind of portrait photography. Moholy’s earliest work with photography, at the start of the decade, was concerned almost exclusively with photograms, or cameraless images. In the mid-1920s, he began incorporating his photographs and found images into his graphic fotoplastik collages, after which point he explored what could be done by working directly with the camera to create images that would stand on their own as individual works. In his 1928 essay Photography is Creation With Light, Moholy charted a new course for camera photography, stating with characteristic enthusiasm that “The limits of photography are incalculable; everything is so recent that even the mere act of searching may lead to creative results.” In the same essay he advocates, among many other prescient prescriptions for creativity with the camera, “photographs made in an unconventional way: unusual views, transverse, top and bottom views . . .” This spirit of inspired experimentation infuses Moholy’s portrait of Ellen Frank.

    Ellen Frank (1904-1999) was an actress whose work over many decades was seen on stage, screen, and in her final years, on television. Frank and Moholy were romantically linked in the late 1920s following the dissolution of the artist’s marriage to Lucia Moholy. Frank’s sister Ilse married Moholy’s colleague, the architect Walter Gropius. Moholy made several portraits of Frank during their time together, each with its own unique, unconventional, but nonetheless affectionate, approach.

    This large exhibition print comes originally from the collection of Russian filmmaker Esther (or Esfir) Shub. Shub is best known for her epic historical trilogy, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, The Great Road, and Lev Tolstoy and The Russia of Nicolai II (1927-28). She was a pioneer in the use of historical footage and in early sound technology. Shub owned a collection of at least twenty of Moholy’s photographs, most in the same large format as the print offered here.

    Additional prints of this image are in the collection of the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, and the Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen Stiftung Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Berlin.

19

Portrait of Ellen Frank

circa 1929
Gelatin silver print.
10 7/8 x 8 1/4 in. (27.6 x 21 cm)
Signed, titled 'Die schauspielerin, Ellen Frank' in pencil and 'foto moholy-nagy' stamp on the verso.

Estimate
$50,000 - 70,000 

sold for $50,000

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The Odyssey of Collecting: Photographs from Joy of Giving Something Foundation

New York 3 October 2017