Steidl/Galerie Thomas Zander, 2015
Back in the mid-to-late 1980s when I was a young photography student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City I was infatuated with the history of American photography and specifically that rich era of the 1960s and 70s. In association with names like Garry Winogrand, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander I had heard about these print portfolios that were created and sold in the early 1970s called “The Double Elephant” Portfolios.
I never saw one in person but I knew that to publicize their sale, the publisher Double Elephant Press also created posters for each portfolio. I knew this because one of these posters, for the Winogrand portfolio, hung in a small postcard and bookstore on Broadway near 4th street in Greenwich Village. I wanted to own the poster so desperately I offered the owner the outrageous sum of $50 for it – he wasn’t selling it.
In celebration of these rare portfolios and that tiny moment in photography history, the Galerie Thomas Zander and Steidl has released a box set of four books each featuring the individual portfolios that appeared before the short-lived project went out of business. An additional paperback booklet included provides on the history of Double Elephant Press.
Each portfolio included fifteen photographs so each of these volumes is slim but elegantly printed and realized. Over the four portfolios, one can see that they contained many of the landmark photographs from each of the photographers, and perhaps as Susan Kismaric points out in her essay, “…some of the greatest photographs of the twentieth century.”
There is one annoying discrepancy to all of the information provided, there is no mention of the original selling price of the portfolios. This is something I always wondered about and sadly no answer is found here. Mention of the selling price would provide an important reference point to the ‘value’ at the time for photographic prints, which we all know was quite low. The medium was new, photographs were not valued as an investment or commodity like other mediums – the first gallery dedicated to the sale of photography Lee Witkin’s gallery, opened just a few years prior in 1969.
For many years I hadn’t ever seen the other three posters from the set until one day I stumbled across this Adam Bartos photograph from the late 70s. The tail end of the Manuel Alvarez Bravo poster can be seen hanging on the back wall.
One last thought, if this portfolio venture hadn’t failed and continued to publish, would they have gotten around to a portfolio by a woman photographer? And who would that have been?