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  • "We use the camera as tool of research. Upon a tripod of photographs, captions, and text we rest themes evolved out of long observations in the field. We adhere to the standards of documentary photography as we have conceived them." —Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor, from the introduction to An American Exodus

    Dorothea Lange’s The Road West, New Mexico, shows the seemingly infinite highway traveled by so many Americans during the 1930s, when environmental and economic conditions drove them from the Southern and Plains states in search of a better life in California. Farmers, field workers, and laborers made up a mass migration across the continent and New Mexico was one of the main thoroughfares through which they traveled. This image appears in Lange’s 1939 book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, coauthored with her husband Paul Taylor, and serves as a thematic center within the sequence of images. Confronting this seemingly endless stretch of blacktop was an experience shared by millions of Americans in search of greener pastures. Upon arriving in California, many found the conditions just as harsh as those they had left, and the hope of prosperity just as unrealizable, and headed back in the opposite direction. This is borne out by the quotes Lange and Taylor chose to accompany this photograph in the book: 'They keep the road hot a goin' and a comin'' and 'They’ve got roamin’ in their head.' The Road West, New Mexico, serves as a symbol of the eternal search for a better life at the core of the American experience.

     

    The Road West, illustrated in An American Exodus, 1939

    This photograph attained even greater visibility in subsequent editions of An American Exodus, bookending the sequence as the first and last illustrations, and even appearing on the cover of a later version. The Road West was printed and reproduced in a variety of croppings over the years, in the orientation seen here, and in a mirrored orientation elsewhere. The example offered here, with the low white building on the horizon appearing to the left of the road, matches the orientation in An American Exodus. The reproduction of this image in The Museum of Modern Art catalogue for Lange’s 1966 retrospective is reversed.

     

    The Road West, illustrated in Dorothea Lange, The Museum of Modern Art, 1966

    Within the context of the Peter McLeavey collection, Lange’s photograph provides a counterpoint to his image of Robert Frank’s US 285, New Mexico (lot 139). Speaking of these two photographs in a 2009 interview, McLeavey said, ‘I love both these photographs because both in a sense show two different sides, if you like, to the quest or the voyage we all must take in life. The Dorothea Lange which was photographed at the height of the Depression, which was America and the world at its most depressed, is a photograph of optimism and hope. It’s full of light. The road is clear. The future looks bright. In the Frank photograph, photographed during the height of the Eisenhower period in America – America at its most prosperous, and its most fruitful – is a dark and threatening image. The road is more uncertain.’

     

    The remarkable selection of photographs offered in this auction as lots 139 through 156 all come from the collection of Peter McLeavey (1936-2015), the pioneering New Zealand gallerist who nearly single-handedly created the art market in that country. In 1966, McLeavey began exhibiting art in the bedroom of his flat in Wellington. Among his countrymen were artists whose work he believed needed to be seen, work that was on par with – yet fundamentally different from – that being created in New York, London, or Paris. He was driven, he said, by a desire to 'nurture the culture, feed the culture, expose the culture to people that didn’t know about it.' He became a vocal advocate for artists such as Toss Woolaston and Colin McCahon, among many others, creating a market for their paintings while at the same time maintaining his job at an insurance company.

     

    His dedication to supporting these artists is borne out by the precarious early finances of the gallery. In a 2009 interview he recounted, with some amusement, 'The first year I worked, every dollar I earned cost me four dollars to get it. The second year, every dollar I earned cost me three; the third year, every dollar earned cost me two dollars to get it.' In the face of this consistent, if slow, march toward profitability, McLeavey found a gallery space on Cuba Street in 1968, quit his insurance job, and became a full-time art dealer. McLeavey continued to operate out of his modest Cuba Street gallery for 40 years, ultimately becoming 'the most important commercial gallerist New Zealand has ever had, effectively the pre-eminent publisher of modern New Zealand art in the past 50 years,' according to Jeremy Diggle, Professor of Fine Arts, at Massey University.

     

    In the 1970s, McLeavey began to build a collection of photographs. He was attracted to photography, in one sense, because it did not conflict with the work he sold in his gallery and offered an artistic experience wholly apart from his stock-in-trade. More importantly, McLeavey found he had a deep affinity for photography, and his acquisitions often resonated with memories of his childhood, during which his father’s job as a railway worker required frequent moves. His first serious purchase was Robert Frank’s View from Hotel Window – Butte, Montana, which reminded him, he said, of looking out over the rooftops of whatever small New Zealand town would be his family’s new temporary home. McLeavey’s purchases were intensely personal, and often only concluded after much correspondence with dealers half a world away. From this distance McLeavey forged fruitful relationships with Fraenkel Gallery, Edwynn Houk, and Pace/MacGill, among others. McLeavey’s collection was exhibited posthumously in the 2018 exhibition, Still Looking: Peter McLeavey and the Last Photograph at Adam Art Gallery / Te Pātaka Toi in Wellington, curated by Geoffrey Batchen and Deidre Sullivan and accompanied by a printed catalogue.

     

    Page spread from Still Looking: Peter McLeavey and the Last Photograph, 2018

    McLeavey is the subject of the award-winning 2013 biography Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer by Jull Trevelyan. A full-length 2009 documentary on McLeavey, The Man in the Hat, was released in 2009. The documentary includes an interview with McLeavey at his home in which he speaks with eloquence and passion about the photographs he has collected, all of which hang behind him: 'Every photograph resonates at the deepest level within me. They’ve all been very carefully selected. They are very powerful things for me. I realized I was making a portrait of the self. That each photograph spoke to me at the deepest level of my being, about some aspect of my life, some emotional state I’d been in. They represent my parents, my childhood, places I’d been to . . . Photographs do something to me that no painting can do . . . The photograph has something very unique, and it takes me to a country, to a land, to a space within the soul where no painting can take me.'

    • Provenance

      Edwynn Houk Gallery, Chicago, 1990

    • Exhibited

      Still Looking: Peter McLeavey and the Last Photograph, Adam Art Gallery / Te Pātaka Toi, Wellington, New Zealand, October – December 2018

    • Literature

      Batchen and Sullivan, Still Looking: Peter McLeavey and the Last Photograph, p. 13 (this print)
      Lange and Taylor, An American Exodus; A Record of Human Erosion, p. 65
      The Museum of Modern Art, Dorothea Lange, p. 53
      Aperture, Dorothea Lange: Photographs of a Lifetime, p. 113
      Davis, The Photographs of Dorothea Lange, p. 37, there titled The Road West, U.S. Route 54 in southern New Mexico.
      Borhan, Dorothea Lange: The Heart and Mind of a Photographer, p. 151, there titled U.S. Route 54, The Road West, New Mexico.
      San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Dorothea Lange: American Photographs, pl. 12, there titled The Road West, U.S> 54 in southern New Mexico.
      Keller, In Focus: Dorothea Lange, Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, pl. 18, there titled The Road West, New Mexico/Highway to the West/U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico.

Property from the Collection of Peter McLeavey

141

The Road West, New Mexico

1938
Gelatin silver print, possibly printed later.
7 5/8 x 9 1/2 in. (19.4 x 24.1 cm)
'1163 Euclid Avenue, Berkeley, California' credit stamp on the verso.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$20,000 - 30,000 

Sold for $75,600

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department
+1 212 940 1225
[email protected]

 

Vanessa Hallett
Deputy Chairwoman, Americas and Worldwide Head of Photographs
+1 212 940 1243
[email protected]

Photographs

New York Auction 7 October 2021