Consuelo Kanaga - Photographs New York Wednesday, October 11, 2023 | Phillips

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  • She is a Tree of Life to Them was made by Consuelo Kanaga in Maitland, Florida, where she had taken up brief residence in an artists’ colony in the winter of 1950. Venturing into the reclaimed agricultural swampland around Maitland, she documented the lives of Black field workers. The image gained icon status, as well as its title, in Edward Steichen’s 1955 blockbuster exhibition The Family of Man. There it was paired with a phrase from Proverbs 3:18 – ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is everyone that retaineth her’ – and has been known by that title ever since. For Steichen, the photograph represented an archetype of motherhood, and he often referred to it as one of his favorite images in the show. He wrote, ‘How completely this picture speaks . . . for itself! This woman has been drawing her children to her, protecting them, for thousands of years against hurt and discrimination’ (The New York Times Magazine, 29 April 1962, pp. 62-63).


    Few photographers’ lives have threaded in and out of the history of 20th-century photography as did Consuelo Kanaga’s. Born in Oregon, she began her photographic career at the San Francisco Chronicle, and from there her work in the medium brought her into contact with a whole host of notables: from Albert Bender to Alfred Stieglitz, from photographers associated with Group f.64 to those of New York’s Photo League. A true individualist, she connected deeply with her colleagues in the field, but declined to become a member of any movement or devote herself to a single ideology. In a career that spanned decades, her approach to photography was driven exclusively by an overriding sense of empathy for her subjects.


    Much of Kanaga’s work is focused on the Black experience. Her photographs avoided the cliché, the dramatized, or the sentimental, and focused instead on the dignity of the individuals who came before her camera. She was socially progressive in a segregated America and a passionate champion of those ill-treated or ignored by society.

    • Provenance

      Acquired from the artist, 1970s

    • Literature

      Millstein and Lowe, Consuelo Kanaga: An American Photographer, pl. 90
      Steichen, Family of Man, p. 32


She is a Tree of Life to Them

Gelatin silver print, probably printed 1950s.
12 3/4 x 9 3/8 in. (32.4 x 23.8 cm)
Signed in pencil on the mount.

Full Cataloguing

$8,000 - 12,000 

Sold for $22,860

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department, Photographs


Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Chairwoman, Americas


New York Auction 11 October 2023