Robert Frank - Photographs New York Thursday, October 7, 2021 | Phillips

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  • "My photographs are not planned or composed in advance and I do not anticipate that the onlooker will share my viewpoint. However, I feel that if my photograph leaves an image on his mind—something has been accomplished."
    —Robert Frank 

    Robert Frank drove into Butte, Montana, in May of 1956, after receiving word of the renewal of the Guggenheim Fellowship funding his project to create a photographic document of America. He traveled from San Francisco through Nevada and Utah, making photographs in each state that would be included in his final selection of images for The Americans, before heading north to Montana. Butte was, in its own way, a classic western town, home to one of the largest mineral mining operations in the world and with a rough-hewn reputation. While Frank may have hoped to photograph mining operations in the area as he had covered the automobile industry in Detroit, what ultimately inspired him were scenes that fell outside the industrial life of the town: a table game in a luncheonette; a woman and her children in their car; and the photograph offered here, taken from the window of the Hotel Finlen, which captures the rooftops of the town in mid-light with the vast expanse of the open-pit mine beyond. The print offered here is notable for its especially fine rendering of detail, which remains consistent through the receding space. The town’s architecture, streets, and the vast spread of its mining operations are all rendered with a distinctness that is especially evocative of the time and place.


    This photograph comes from the collection of pioneering New Zealand gallerist Peter McLeavey. McLeavey’s father worked for the railroad, and his job required the family to make frequent moves throughout New Zealand. McLeavey purchased this print of one of Frank’s most iconic pictures in 1989, just as he was beginning to find his way as a collector of photography. In 2009 McLeavey stated, 'I didn’t realize at the time what I was doing, in a sense. I bought photographs that I responded to and the first photograph was the Robert Frank photograph from the view of the hotel window in Butte, Montana, which I bought because it reminded me of my childhood, of hotel rooms I’d stayed in with my parents, looking out across the roofs of another one-horse town we were going to stay and live in for a couple of years. And that photograph resonates in me incredibly powerfully.'


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

    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. 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.


    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, 1989

    • 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. 12 (this print)
      The Americans, no. 26
      Greenough, Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, pp. 240, 468, Contact no. 26
      Frank, The Lines of My Hand, p. 83
      'Robert Frank: The Lines of My Hand,' U.S. Camera/Camera 35 Annual, 1972, n.p.
      Aperture, Robert Frank, p. 29
      Aperture, Robert Frank: The Aperture History of Photography, Vol. 2, p. 39
      Galassi, Robert Frank: In America, p. 84
      Greenough and Brookman, Robert Frank: Moving Out, p. 188
      Papageorge, Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence, p. 13
      Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960, p. 17
      Aperture, The Open Road: Photography & The American Road Trip, p. 48
      Davis, An American Century of Photography: from Dry-Plate to Digital: The Hallmark Photographic Collection, pl. 301

    • Artist Biography

      Robert Frank

      Swiss • 1924

      As one of the leading visionaries of mid-century American photography, Robert Frank has created an indelible body of work, rich in insight and poignant in foresight. In his famed series The Americans, Frank travelled the United States, capturing the parade of characters, hierarchies and imbalances that conveyed his view of the great American social landscape.

      Frank broke the mold of what was considered successful documentary photography with his "snapshot aesthetic." It is Frank's portrayal of the United States through grit and grain that once brought his work to the apex of criticism, but has now come to define the art of documentary photography.

      View More Works

Property from the Collection of Peter McLeavey


View from Hotel Window -- Butte, Montana

Gelatin silver print, printed circa 1970.
8 3/4 x 13 3/8 in. (22.2 x 34 cm)
Signed, dated and annotated 'Butte, Montana' in ink in the margin.

Full Cataloguing

$60,000 - 80,000 

Sold for $126,000

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department
+1 212 940 1225


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


New York Auction 7 October 2021