Edward Steichen - Inside the Photograph: Further Selections from the Peter C. Bunnell Collection New York Tuesday, October 10, 2023 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • After serving as an aerial photographer during World War I, Edward Steichen resumed life at his home in Voulangis, outside Paris, and began to refine a new method of photographing. The technical challenges involved in making a successful exposure from a juddering airplane had enforced upon the young photographer a different relationship with the medium. After the War, he began to investigate what could be done aesthetically with a sharper focus and a straightforward printing style. These images were a marked departure from the Impressionism of his early photographs and paved the way not only for his own future work, but for the general trend in serious photography in the years to come.


    During this period, he concentrated primarily on the natural world, especially his beloved flowers, and on his metaphysical still-life studies such as Time Space Continuum and Diagram of Doom. He also made occasional trips to New York City at the time, and there he began to explore the urban environment with his newfound clarity of vision. Laughing Boxes, West 86 St., is a signature image from this period. The photograph expands upon the Modernist explorations begun in France and represents a starting point for the photographs he would make of the New York cityscape after moving there permanently in 1923. With its clear account of detail and texture and the charming anthropomorphism of the titular boxes, the composition shows Steichen employing, in equal portions, his considerable technical abilities and his lively wit. 


    The remarkable selection of photographs offered in this online auction comes from the collection of Peter C. Bunnell (1937-2021), the pioneering curator, teacher, and photographic historian. Nearly all lots are sold with No Reserve and the proceeds will be distributed to six institutions with whom Bunnell was associated — Rochester Institute of Technology, Ohio University, Yale University, The George Eastman Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, and Princeton University Art Museum — to establish endowments to support the study of photographic history.


    Bunnell began his long career in photography as a student of Minor White’s at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the 1950s and was recruited by White to work on the seminal periodical of artistic photography, Aperture. He joined the staff of The Museum of Modern Art in 1966 as a collection cataloguer, becoming Associate Curator and then Curator of Photography. At MoMA he curated the noteworthy exhibitions Photography as Printmaking (1968), Photography into Sculpture (1970), and the first retrospective of the work of Clarence H. White (1971). In 1972, he was hired as the inaugural David Hunter McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art at Princeton University. 


    Bunnell served as Director of the Princeton University Art Museum from 1973 to 1978, and as Acting Director from 1998 to 2000, and was also the Museum’s Curator of Photography throughout the entirety of his tenure. Bunnell built a broad-ranging collection of photographs at the Museum, the firsthand examination of which became a central element of the student experience in his classes and seminars. Bunnell also assembled a personal collection of photography over the course of his long career that reflects his vast and deep understanding of the medium. Begun in the 1950s, before photography galleries and dealers were commonplace, Bunnell’s collection is a deeply personal one, put together with a sense of joy and curiosity that includes both icons and lesser-known gems spanning the history of photography.


    • Provenance

      Collection of Peter C. Bunnell, Princeton, New Jersey

    • Literature

      Steichen, A Life in Photography, pl. 90
      Steichen, J., Steichen's Legacy: Photographs, 1895 - 1973, pl. 206

Inside the Photograph: Further Selections from the Peter C. Bunnell Collection


Laughing Boxes, West 86th St., New York City

Gelatin silver print.
9 5/8 x 7 1/2 in. (24.4 x 19.1 cm)
Titled in an unidentified hand in pencil on the verso.

Full Cataloguing

$12,000 - 18,000 

Contact Specialist

Christopher Mahoney
Senior International Specialist

Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Deputy Chairwoman

Inside the Photograph: Further Selections from the Peter C. Bunnell Collection

10 - 17 October 2023