The Woman Behind the First Photography Gallery
Helen Gee risked everything to open Limelight in 1954, selling prints by Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, and Robert Frank.
“Helen Gee risked everything to open Limelight in 1954, selling prints by Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, and Robert Frank for less than fifty dollars each. Her tell-all memoir, Helen Gee: Limelight, a Greenwich Village Photography Gallery and Coffeehouse in the Fifties, is now available from Aperture as an e-book. Here, Denise Bethel’s introduction offers a preview of the late Gee’s story.
I am writing to let you know that, sixty years on, some of the questions are still the same: who succeeds as a photographer? And, whose photographs sell? When you opened your first show at Limelight, in 1954, you linked those questions together for a new generation of collectors, and they’ve been linked that way ever since. Galleries had been selling art for centuries, but you wanted your gallery to be only about photography. This was an act of courage and an act of faith. Stieglitz sold photographs, and Julien Levy too, but they both offered other art as well. Now, look at what’s happened. In 2014, when I auctioned a sale of photographs for over twenty-one million, I wished you’d been there to see it. I was wearing some of your jewelry that night, given to me by two of your closest friends. There were prints in that auction that sold for tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, many by some of the same photographers you’d struggled to sell for twenty or thirty or forty dollars a pop—Ansel Adams, Minor White, László Moholy-Nagy, Atget, Berenice Abbott, Gene Smith, Imogen Cunningham, Robert Frank, and more. The list is long. It’s ironic that one of your closing shows, the work of Edward Weston, saw some decent sales at seventy-five dollars a print. It’s all very different now. In my life as an auctioneer, I was as ambitious for the medium as you were, and finally, after years in the low-price trenches, I sold not one, but three photographs by Edward Weston for over one million dollars each.”
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