Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Harm van den Dorpel’s Algorithmic Art

Family Function: Harm van den Dorpel’s Algorithmic Art

Harm van den Dorpel: Shtonk Vtejuwoh Bonifac, 2016, multilayered UV prints with white channel on CNC-cut, laser polished plexiglas, unique edition, 39  by 39  inches. Courtesy the artist and Neumeister Bar-Am, Berlin.

Perhaps some aspects of the creative mind can be stored in code, but all of it? While the analytical capabilities of artificial intelligence are recognized as “real,” many refuse to acknowledge that simulations of taste can be equally authentic.  The common-sense consensus seems to be that aesthetic feeling is too complex to ever quantify, as it is generated by dozens of factors, from class upbringing and education, to social influences and pressures, to remembered and learned preferences.
In Death Imitates Language, Harm van den Dorpel attempts to formalize artistic agency through an automated fitness function. Over the course of three months, the Berlin-based artist has developed an algorithm that learns his aesthetic choices as he expresses them over thousands of iterations and accretive steps. As the algorithm is perfected, the images it produces should suggest something like his taste and, eventually, come close to replicating it, possibly through a neural network that he will design. The system will not only measure van den Dorpel’s aesthetic choices, but also regenerate and simulate them in order to run without his input.
Death Imitates Language takes the form of a website populated by hundreds of stunning, strange, and difficult digital paintings. Six pieces have been pulled from the site and executed as UV prints on CNC-cut, laser-polished Plexiglas, and are featured in wer nicht denken will fliegt raus,” a group exhibition organized by Heinrich Dietz at the Museum Kurhaus Kleve in Germany. (A seventh software piece shows an animation of all the paintings in the series.) The show—which includes eight other artists, including Hito Steyerl and Alice Channer—takes its title from a provocative saying by Joseph Beuys, which can be translated, “He who does not think will be thrown out.” In an interview, Dietz said he wanted to further explore Beuys’s suggestion that the engagement and interpretation of art is entirely contingent on the ability to think. The works by van den Dorpel challenge the notion that thinking and the capacity for making and appreciating art are exclusive to human beings.
Each work in Death Imitates Language is the child of two parents, which themselves are the children of their own parents, all the way back down the page to Painting 0 and Painting 1, which van den Dorpel titled Adam and Eve. Eve is a blank white square; Adam is a white, crumpled sheet, with a spiral of tiny circle outlines blossoming in the upper central field. At genesis, Adam and Eve passed down information sequences in phrases of code that determined the visual characteristics for each of their descendants by generating constellations of colors and forms, their repetition, scale, degree of transparency, and arrangement within the frame. The qualities are encoded as chromosomal sequences of 0s and 1s: Adam is set to all 0s, and Eve is all 1s.
Van den Dorpel based his algorithm on one widely used in the technical sciences—to refine radio antennae, for instance. The program chooses whether a “gene” will be taken from parent or both parents. Variation emerges over time as van den Dorpel steps in to select which children will live, which will breed, and which will get killed off. The ones that live fade through a simulated aging process.
As you scroll through the site, aspects repeat, shift, and evolve from one family to the next. Blurry spots, reminiscent of viral forms in a petri dish, multiply. Abstractions of diseased eyes on an ophthalmologist poster contract and expand. Heavy black L-shapes cut into outlines fine as needlepoint. Galactic spirals like the one in Adam move across the field and vanish, only to emerge a generation later, double the size or mirrored or with dozens more arms.
Eventually, the thousands of micro-feedbacks fed into this algorithm should constitute what van den Dorpel calls “a Harm-like taste.” Death Imitates Language suggests that the positive decisions that users offer to a network say more than they realize about what they really enjoy. “The algorithm itself is the aesthetic process,” van den Dorpel wrote in an email. “The ideology is in there, in the code.”
Van den Dorpel further pointed out how sudden shifts in art appreciation can result from social and political movements or the influence of institutions, art historians, and other hierarchical figures. “The outcome of such a process can be aggregated, analyzed, and reproduced by algorithms,” he said. But he added that algorithms couldn’t cause them. No current computational system could innovate or redefine taste. Human aesthetic feeling requires context. It occurs in a body that has grown up over time in a social matrix, with memories and experiences shaped by interpersonal relationships.
This past February, the Musée du quai Branly in Paris let a robot art critic named Berenson loose in its halls. The unsettling apparatus wore a white scarf and a bowler hat, tottered about the galleries, sharing its negative and positive opinions about pieces after analyzing museumgoers’ facial expressions. The project was most successful as a formal reflection of one crucial aspect of how we cultivate our own taste: by mimicking or rejecting the cues of our peers.
Death Imitates Language can replicate van den Dorpel’s aesthetic decisions. But it won’t object to his taste, or develop its own. “It might sound funny and unreasonable to expect this from an algorithm,” van den Dorpel said, “but for me, such traits would be prerequisites of intelligence.” He added that he admires the work of philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, whose research is based on what computers cannot yet do.
Anxiety over whether the creative mind could be stored in code often raises another considerable specter of fear, namely, of obsolescence. However, van den Dorpel’s work does not suggest that an aesthetic sensibility can make artificial intelligence fully human. Automata that can make and differentiate art are not a threat to personhood.
Some taste is simulated, and some taste is human, and they could exist in a hybrid system or a feedback loop. Van den Dorpel noted that his work of training the algorithm has influenced his own sensitivity for shapes and colors. As artificial intelligences approximate human attitudes and inclinations, they can be considered companions, not competitors. A future robot art critic running on the neural network that van den Dorpel may someday build could only enhance art criticism, challenging human and humanoid aesthetes to refine their own language for discussing taste.

Lee Ufan Refuses Police Request to Confirm 13 Forgeries of His Work

Lee Ufan Refuses Police Request to Confirm 13 Forgeries of His Work

The artist disagrees with police experts who say the works are fake.
South Korean artist Lee Ufan poses beside one of his installation artworks entitled L'Ombre des Etoiles (Shadow of the Stars), on June 11, 2014, at the Chateau de Versailles, during the exhibition
South Korean artist Lee Ufan poses beside one of his installation artworks entitled L'Ombre des Etoiles (Shadow of the Stars), on June 11, 2014, at the Chateau de Versailles, during the exhibition "Lee Ufan Versailles." Courtesy Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images.
Earlier this year, Seoul police launched a full investigation into 13 suspected forgeries of South Korean art star Lee Ufan‘s paintings. Now, having examined the works for himself, the artist maintains that the alleged fakes are real, despite a confession from South Korean art dealer named Hyeon.
“On June 27, police asked me to acknowledge that the four pieces that Mr. Hyeon admitted to having forged were indeed fakes in an attempt to reach a compromise,” Lee told reporters, according to Korea Joongang Daily. “But I refused.”
Related: Korean Art Dealer Indicted for Forged Lee Ufan Paintings
The National Forensic Service and Seoul Metropolitan Police had previously given forensic testimony suggesting that the paintings are counterfeit. Hyeon, who was indicted in June, reportedly admitted to forging and circulating counterfeits of the artist’s works at the Seoul Central District Court last week.
Lee Ufan, From Point (1974). Oil on canvas. Photo: Courtesy Kukje Gallery
Lee Ufan, From Point (1974). Courtesy of Kukje Gallery.
“I concluded that there is not anything strange with a single piece,” Lee said, adding: “The use of breath, rhythm and color were all my techniques.” Lee reportedly brought his magnifying glass and two catalogues of his work for good measure.
The Daily reports that Ufan was asked to come in for two separate examinations. A spokesperson for the police said that they will “respect Lee’s opinion,” but will proceed to investigate the forgeries, as the artist’s confirmations of the works’ authenticity conflicts with official forensics reports conducted by police authorities.
Related: ‘Poorly Forged’ Lee Ufan Paintings park Investigation in South Korea
According to the Korea Times, this was the first time that Ufan saw the suspected forgeries in person. “I was being discreet on the issue because I didn’t see the paintings personally,” Ufan added. “An artist can recognize his own piece at a glance.”
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Gallerists Are Finding Room for Art Where You’d Least Expect It

From a Bank Vault to a Deli, These Young London Gallerists Are Finding Room for Art Where You’d Least Expect It

Installation view of works by Marco Strappato, Jonathan Baldock, and Amy & Oliver Thomas-Irvine at the Averard Hotel, london. Photo courtesy of Slate Projects.
“It only lasted 10 days; we had to run generators off the roof, and it was incredibly cold,” says the young curator Alex Meurice, who works under the moniker Slate Projects. He’s describing the revelatory project, staged in an abandoned villa opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum, through which he uncovered the untapped potential for showing art in West London’s empty mansions. “There were lots of problems, but we had a very positive response.”
Unable to afford even the small, short-term warehouse spaces in the once-affordable East London, it was a galvanizing moment for Meurice when he realized that much larger, grander properties might be available further west, and so he began an active search. He came upon the Averard Hotel, a hulking slab of white stucco a stone’s throw from Hyde Park, by chance, through an advert on the online listings site Gumtree. Unbeknownst to the hotel’s owners, the posting was made by an errant employee who was hoping to make a quick buck on the sly. The property was in a transitional moment, awaiting its demise as luxury apartments go up in its place, and fortunately, the owners eventually saw the gains (read: hard cash) to be had by renting out the space to Meurice. “It’s not something they’d ever thought about,” he notes, “so there was quite a long process of explaining that we weren’t crazy.”
Meurice’s story resonates with the experiences of several other young gallerists navigating London’s art scene at present, who are turning property speculation to their advantage. While the prospect of renting out a sleek, glass-plated gallery in St James’s or Shoreditch is a pipe dream for most, these individuals have found what might be a way to hack the system—transient art programs run out of buildings left vacant or earmarked for redevelopment.
Installation view of works by Nicholas Johnson. Photo courtesy of Slate Projects.
The interior of the Averard Hotel is extraordinary—the definition of faded grandeur. As one wanders from room to voluminous room, many bedecked with elaborate plasterwork ceilings, paint peels, and water drips, footsteps echo across rough floorboards. The hotel’s atmosphere alone has proven to be a draw to big-name artists—Richard Wentworth was featured in a recent exhibition, while the current show, curated with Bianca Baroni, features in-demand artists Becky Beasley and Lawrence Lek. And even though the closure of the space is an imminent reality—its final day will be October 31st of this year—Meurice is sanguine. It’s had its challenges as well as its triumphs. “I couldn’t do another winter in the hotel,” he says, “it’s just too cold—colder inside than outside.” But he’s found the inherent ambiguity of a non-gallery exhibition space to be productive—the combination of contemporary art and crumbling architecture confounds people’s expectations. Now looking for another space, in London or further afield, he wouldn’t consider a purpose-built gallery.
Exhibitions at the Averard Hotel have been a positive presence in the community as well, Meurice notes. Locals were pleased to see an unoccupied building, a now-familiar sight, as West London’s mansions increasingly function to accumulate capital for investors as often as they house families, brought back to life. More than anything though, he sees occupying buildings like this as a way out of the bind of the commercial gallery model. By hiring spaces out for one-off events, he’s able to cover his costs, and to make creative decisions without the looming pressure to sell work.
This model of short-term challenges offset by longer-term gains is also invoked by Cornelia Marland, who runs Geddes Gallery together with Alice Bygraves in Kings Cross. Their program occupies a former Italian deli, once beloved by local residents, who were not quick to embrace the building’s new function. “People loved coming in here,” says Marland, “we had to make it very clear that we didn’t kick [Leo, the deli’s owner] out. He chose to retire!” Keenly aware of the role of art in gentrifying erstwhile down-at-heel areas, Marland points to the family-focused activities the gallery runs to engage the local community. “I think it’s hard to come into an area and say ‘this is now an art space, we’re here now, we’re bringing our people,’” she reflects, and also notes that local businesses have played an invaluable role for the gallery, from fixing leaky roofs to providing drinks for openings. 
Photos courtesy of Geddes Gallery.
A visit to Geddes Gallery—with its former shop fittings redolent of a bygone era largely still intact—suggests that the unique setting is an important factor in the gallery’s success. And like Meurice, Marland curates with the architecture of the building in mind. While the Averard Hotel’s high ceilings and ornate 19th-century fixtures sit well with art that deals with questions of imperialism, luxury, and economics, the outmoded and anachronistic “village shop” feel of Geddes Gallery compliments art that engages with ideas of the domestic. Exhibitions typically also make use of the apartment above the shop, where one finds an ancient sofa and a near-fossilized stove—unremarkable objects that manage to effect a sense of poignancy through their abandonment. For a recent show, artists Robert Rush and Rose de Borman filled the kitchen (even the oven), with ceramic foodstuffs in a play on abundance.
Geddes Gallery differs from Averard Hotel, though, in its operations—artists pay a hire fee to cover the costs of their exhibitions. Works on show generally don’t sell, in part because much of it is made in response to the space itself, yet Marland sees the current model as an experiment that will evolve. Both Marland and Bygraves currently work other jobs, and they acknowledge that a shift to more saleable shows is necessary for the gallery to be sustainable in the long term. Like the Averard Hotel, the building will be returned to the property developers this year and the gallerists will look for a new home for Geddes, ideally nearby.
While hard work and determination are clearly key to setting up an independent art program, chance also has a hand in the proceedings, particularly when it comes to finding a space. Gabriella Sonabend, who now runs The Koppel Project, an art space in a disused bank vault, developed her program after an impromptu meeting with her future mentor. “Although I always dreamed about running my own space and had many conversations about how my ideal space might be, I didn’t intend to start a gallery; I wasn't even looking for a space,” she recalls. Gallery owner and educator Gabriel Gherscovic changed all that when he took over the lease for a building on Baker Street and asked Sonabend to submit a proposal for creative use of the seemingly unusable bank vault in the basement.
Artists Sarah Roberts and Katie Hayward exploring the vault at The Koppel Project. Photo courtesy of The Koppel Project.
Though the space presented significant challenges—“the first time we tried to drill into the walls we realized we’d need a bank heist-style drill bit to penetrate the heavily reinforced vault walls”—Sonabend sees the architecture as a perfect mirror to her curatorial style, which she shares with collaborator Hannah Thorne. The labyrinthine layout proved to be an elegant match for their narrative-led exhibitions. Fittingly, for a project run out of a bank vault, The Koppel Project is built on a sustainable business model, with exhibitions funded by sales as well as partnership with a cafe and a Phaidon bookshop (the only London outlet is hosted by the gallery), both of which occupy the ground floor of the building.
As these models exemplify, an openness to unusual—bordering unusable—spaces can lead to unique exhibition programs that gleefully deviate from the template that many London galleries employ. This kind of creative opportunism means finding space where one can, and results in programs popping up in areas not previously colonized by galleries, diffusing their distribution across the city. Though these exhibitions may match their settings in their idiosyncrasies, budding, fresh galleries offer young artists memorable, inspiring surroundings; shows are most successful when they respond directly to their locations. By occupying spaces caught in the tide of redevelopment, these programs offer vantage points from which to comment on the housing bubble, a phenomenon that impacts the art world, dictating where artists live, have studios, and show their work. The uptake of these unlikely spaces, whether by choice or necessity, can pay dividends both to an art-going public tired of generic exhibitions and to gallerists eager to find curatorial freedom and challenge new contexts. Sonabend may capture the spirit of these programs best: “I would rather work with a bank vault than a white cube any day.”

—Laura Purseglove

“Maybe your lens is scratched?” is on view at the Averard Hotel, Jun. 24–Jul. 24, 2016.

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Paul Outerbridge

Paul Outerbridge, a friend of Man Ray's and Duchamp's, brought a witty eye and careful composition to early color photography.

Avedon, Unsigned

Unsettling in scale as well as content, it’s a half-length portrait, larger than life-size, of a curly-haired teenage boy who stands against a white background holding up the sagging skin and shiny entrails of an eviscerated rattlesnake. The headless animal’s dark blood is spattered across the bib of his overalls; its curdlike guts squish through the fingers on his right hand. The boy’s hieratic gesture is like that of someone performing an ancient sacrifice, and his hard gaze suggests he has been doing this for much of his young life.
Not many would choose such an image to welcome visitors. Mr. Hofmann is clearly proud of it, though, and more than 100 others like it.
As master printer on Avedon’s last major project, “In the American West,” Mr. Hofmann was responsible for bringing out the myriad gray shades and material details in “Boyd Fortin,” the portrait of the 13-year-old rattlesnake skinner, and the other images of weathered, hard-bitten characters featured in the landmark 1985 exhibition and book.
It was a job, said Mr. Hofmann, that took almost three years to complete, and one that he often could begin only after his other job — supervising the technical side of Avedon’s commercial operations — was over for the day. He and his assistant, David Liittschwager, would often work late into the night at the Modernage photo lab on Avenue of the Americas in Midtown Manhattan. Their task was to emerge from the darkroom with prints that met the photographer’s exacting standards: portraits that combined razor-sharp optics with psychological intensity.
“The eyes were always critical for Dick,” said Mr. Hofmann, pointing to the boy’s creased brow. “That’s the first place he looked in a print. If he didn’t like the eyes, it didn’t matter about the rest.”
Mr. Hofmann’s respectful memories of Avedon, who died in 2004, are tempered by a perplexed irritation with the Richard Avedon Foundation, which the photographer set up in 2003 and which oversees his estate, including copyright issues and exhibitions.
Mr. Hofmann has 126 prints from “In the American West,” 104 of them sized 16 by 20 inches, and 22 sized 41 by 57 inches. The prints are pristine, having been stored in archival boxes for decades. None has suffered the dings and scratches that can happen to photographs during shipment from venue to venue for an exhibition.
The prints were Mr. Hofmann’s reward for his labor, he said, explaining that he struck a deal with Avedon in the fall of 1984: instead of money, he would be paid with a signed print of everything he produced for the project.
“Dick had no conception of what people lived on, and asking him for money was difficult,” he explained. “Being paid in prints seemed the path of least resistance.”
But there is a snag. None of Mr. Hofmann’s prints from the series is signed.
In the art market, Avedon’s photographs can be high-priced commodities. His estate is currently represented by the Gagosian Gallery. A vintage print from 1955 of his “Dovima With the Elephants” sold at Christie’s in 2010 for $1,148,910. Two weeks ago, at Art Basel in Switzerland, a print from “In the American West” of the so-called “Bee-man” was offered for sale in one booth for $155,000.
All things being equal, Mr. Hofmann’s collection, which he is eager to sell, should be worth a high multiple of that figure.
But the Avedon Foundation has refused to authenticate them. It insists that Mr. Hofmann has not provided sufficient evidence that he made these prints under the terms he claims were agreed to with Avedon. What’s more, its lawyer and director have informed Mr. Hofmann in writing that should he ever attempt to reproduce any image for purposes of sale, they will demand a penalty from him of up to $150,000 per print. And should he sell them, they will sue the buyers, citing legal precedent in Lubell v. Guggenheim, a case devised to retrieve art stolen by the Nazis.
For now, then, their value cannot be determined: perhaps a lot, or a little, or next to nothing. No auction house would dare to offer them, for fear of a lawsuit. Museums, eager to stay in the good graces of the Avedon Foundation, which shares a block of West 53rd Street with the Museum of Modern Art, have been similarly wary.
So as things stand, these 126 rare and impeccable photographs have become as much a worry and a burden to their owner as they are a potential bonanza.
To complicate matters, the Avedon Foundation is involved in a legal wrangle with another master printer for the photographer, Gideon Lewin. Suits and countersuits have been filed concerning who controls the copyright of photographs Mr. Lewin took of Avedon working with clients in the studio. Questions have been raised over what is a photographic “gift” and what is stolen property, and over whether a ledger, designed to catalog every exhibition print made by the Avedon studio when he was alive, is reliable.
Ruedi Hofmann at his home with Richard Avedon’s image of Boyd Fortin, a 13-year-old rattlesnake skinner. Mr. Hofmann was responsible for printing the photo for Avedon’s exhibition “In the American West.” Credit Meredith Heuer for The New York Times
Separate though the cases are, both expose an open secret: that Avedon, like many of the other most revered names in art and fashion photography, did not do his own printing.
Mr. Hofmann is an unassuming figure. Sixty-two years old, slight and balding, with thick-frame glasses and a gray goatee, he speaks softly and carefully, his accent faintly Southern. He makes his living now shooting for advertisers and catalogs, but he is also in demand as a printer for special exhibitions.
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The son of Italian and Swiss immigrants — hence the unorthodox spelling of Ruedi — he grew up in South Carolina and Europe. Through much of the 1970s, he thought he might become a psychologist or an architect. In 1978 he enrolled at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif., where in 1979 a friend gave him a copy of “Avedon: Photographs 1947-1977,” the catalog for a 1978 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“It really changed everything for me,” Mr. Hofmann said. “I studied the book, tried to duplicate the pictures, see how they were done. I moved to New York for the express purpose of working for Richard Avedon.”
He got his wish in the winter of 1981 when he was hired as a lowly assistant. “I was told, ‘You’re going to pick up pastry, you’re going to do the floors,’” he recalled.
The Avedon studio on the Upper East Side was at the time one of the most prestigious in photography and probably the busiest, with a nonstop parade of fashion models and celebrities passing through its doors. In addition, lucrative advertising shoots for Calvin Klein and Dior kept everyone jumping.
Doing your job, said Mr. Hofmann, meant reading Avedon’s moods and anticipating his wishes. “Dick was very personable and engaging,” he said. “But he wasn’t someone with whom you had a conversation. He just expected results. And if the results weren’t what he expected, there was tension.”
The studio had an apprentice system, and Mr. Hofmann was trained by other assistants. By the end of the first week he was printing, he said, although it was some time before anything was deemed good enough to present to the boss himself. Only after he had earned his trust was Mr. Hofmann promoted.
Within six months, he was running the technical side of the studio and going on shoots with Avedon around the country, including journeys to desolate rural places where Avedon photographed the locals who would populate his magnum opus, “In the American West.”
Commissioned in 1979 by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., the venture paid Avedon $100,000 a year for five years. He and his crew traveled through 17 Western states and made portraits of 752 people. After it opened at the Amon Carter, the exhibition toured the country to wide acclaim. The catalog, published by Abrams, was a best-seller and is now a collector’s item. Mr. Hofmann left the Avedon studio in September 1985; he had agreed to stay on through the opening at the Amon Carter. A year later he opened his own studio in the meatpacking district, where he worked for 20 years.
The photographer Laura Wilson documented the project’s gestation and birth in her book “Avedon at Work: In the American West.” Published in 2003, it features several photographs of Mr. Hofmann, some in which he is holding cameras in the field for Avedon, others where he is working on exhibition prints at Modernage, a photography lab.
In support of Mr. Hofmann’s claim, and at his request, Ms. Wilson wrote a letter on April 5 this year that recalls a 1984 visit to the lab. “I was stunned by the amount of time involved, the long hours and painstaking skills necessary to do these large prints,” she wrote. “I remember saying, ‘Gosh, Ruedi, this is a lot of work. How are you being paid for all this extra work?’ Ruedi told me he was being paid with prints. Dick had agreed to give him a signed print for each image in the book and exhibition. I am clear about this, certain of the recollection.”
During our visit, Mr. Hofmann went to a desk in his dining room and read from three other recent letters written by others employed at that time, including Mr. Liittschwager and Norma Stevens, manager of Avedon’s studio for more than 30 years. They all attest that their employer and Mr. Hofmann had agreed orally to this financial pact.
The Richard Avedon Foundation disputes that any such arrangement could have taken place.
The photographer’s son, John Avedon, and John’s wife, Laura, have been mainstays of the board. Its current executive director is James Martin.
When asked to comment on Mr. Hofmann’s assertion, Mr. Martin responded by email that “no documentation proving the authenticity and ownership of even one of these prints — let alone 120+ unsigned prints — has been provided to the foundation.”
“The documentation we did review was drafted by Hoffman a decade after Avedon’s death,” he continued. “The notion that Richard Avedon knew these unsigned prints were in Hofmann’s possession is not credible given that Avedon did not conduct business in this wholesale and careless manner.” The foundation director also wrote that Mr. Hofmann had many years "during which he could have had Avedon sign, authenticate or otherwise transfer these prints if they were legitimately in Hofmann’s possession and meant as gifts or payments to him.”
Mr. Hofmann, center, preparing prints for an exhibition. Credit Laura Wilson
Mr. Martin did not respond further. “There is nothing more to be said,” he wrote.
Mr. Hofmann has sought legal counsel but has not pursued legal action. “I’ve tried to keep things as cordial as possible,” he said. “But I’ve made it clear that I want to sell these prints.”
Ms. Stevens, once the director of the foundation, said she had tried to serve as mediator in the situation. As longtime manager of the Avedon studio and the only other living witness to what she agrees was a 1984 agreement about the prints-as-payment, she has backed Mr. Hofmann’s version of events in a pair of letters, the first written more than three years ago.
“Ruedi is a wonderful printer and a great guy,” she said by phone. “Very ethical. He did a great job.”
But as it has become apparent that the foundation would threaten to punish Mr. Hofmann financially if he tried to sell the prints, she has looked for other ways in which he might be compensated.
At one point the foundation suggested a trade: a signed print, unframed on aluminum, from “In the American West,” in exchange for his turning over the unsigned prints.
“Those things are worth a lot of money,” Ms. Stevens noted, estimating its value at $180,000. She urged him to accept the offer. Mr. Hofmann thought it insufficient.
She — and everyone else from those days — is not sure why he kept this trove of prints for decades and never asked Avedon to complete his end of the bargain. She said that he “wasn’t aggressive enough,” and added, “Maybe he thought Dick was too busy and he didn’t want to bother him.”
“I don’t know why he didn’t get them signed,” she said. “But he just didn’t. I’d like to help him. But I can’t authenticate the prints, and the person who can is dead.”
When Avedon made an arrangement with Mr. Hofmann, he could have thought he was getting the better deal. The market for photographs was then in its infancy, and his own work was not in high demand. The record price for an Avedon in 1985 — a portrait of Marilyn Monroe — was $1,100. (A vintage print of this same image sold in 2008 at Christie’s for $457,000.)
It’s possible that as he watched his prices rapidly escalate in the 1990s, Avedon realized that he had made a poor wager. He was known as a tough businessman.
Just as likely, he simply forgot about the prints in the rush of life. In any case, he never offered to sign them, and his former employee never asked him to. “Perhaps he thought the privilege of working for him was payment enough,” Mr. Hofmann said in a frosty tone — one of the few moments during our interview that he was less than reverent about his former employer.
Mr. Hofmann himself was slow to comprehend what he possessed. Not until three years after Avedon’s death did he put up for auction a signed diptych of the rancher Richard Wheatcroft, one of the leathery men “In the American West.”
A gift from the photographer, one of a handful he gave to those who had worked with him over the long span of the project, it was chosen as the cover lot for the Sotheby’s New York photographs catalog in the spring of 2007 and sold for $160,000.
Only two complete sets of signed prints from the series are known to exist: one at the Amon Carter Museum; the other at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz., where the photographer’s negatives are stored.
An unsigned print is not necessarily less valuable than a signed one. According to Denise Bethel, former director of Sotheby’s Photographs Department for 25 years, “it depends on the artist and the rarity of the print, and its condition.”
“I can imagine, if rare enough, that distinction, between signed and unsigned, becomes almost academic,” she said.
Gideon Lewin, who was a master printer for Avedon, has been engaged in a legal tussle with the Avedon Foundation over a book he planned to publish. Credit Lindsay Morris for The New York Times
She cited two examples from 2006 in which Sotheby’s offered two palladium prints of Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz. One sold for $1.472 million; the other for $1.36 million. Neither was signed.
“The question collectors have to ask themselves is: How many other chances am I going to have to buy these exceedingly uncommon prints?” Ms. Bethel said. "Maybe zero. So the savvy collectors aren’t going to wait for the signed ones.”
“Provided,” she emphasized as a caveat, “there is no impediment to the sale.”
Mr. Hofmann is not the only former master printer to have a contentious relationship with the Richard Avedon Foundation.
Gideon Lewin, 77, is a photographer who from 1964 to 1980 had a role in the Avedon studio similar to the one Mr. Hofmann later assumed. During his 16-year tenure, Mr. Lewin claims to have printed the photographs for all of Avedon’s exhibitions.
“He had other things to do,” Mr. Lewin said by phone from his home in Manhattan. “He was too busy with the clients. He was the hardest-working man I’ve ever seen.”
Mr. Lewin said that while teaching at the Pratt Institute in 2006, and finding that his students had only a vague understanding of what the recently deceased photographer had done, he had an idea to do a book that would “show the lighter side of Richard Avedon, very young at heart, and very funny.” It would feature the hundreds of photographs he had taken of the master at work in the studio.
“Dick encouraged me to document him,” he said. “We were very close.”
In 2009, Mr. Lewin “got serious,” did layouts and signed a contract with a publisher, Assouline, for a volume to be called “Behind the Scenes With Richard Avedon.”
Mr. Lewin said he had the full cooperation of the Avedon Foundation until he submitted his essay. In it, he had written: “Avedon never went into the darkroom. He hasn’t printed since 1950, probably.” Laura Avedon was “enraged,” he said, laughing.
She wasn’t the only one. Ms. Stevens, then the head of the foundation, was also upset by the essay. “I was horrified by what he wrote,” she said. “Gideon is very arrogant. He claims he did everything. He got a lot of praise from Dick and was paid a lot of money. But he wasn’t in charge. He is a very good commercial photographer. But that’s it.”
By 2011, the foundation had decided to block publication of the book by insisting that all of the photographs Mr. Lewin had taken, because he was still an employee of the studio, were not in his copyright but in the foundation’s.
Mr. Lewin sued the foundation, which countersued. In 2012 a New York State magistrate judge ordered mediation.
“We were about 95 percent in agreement in 2014,” said Mr. Lewin, “and then they changed lawyers. So we started all over again.”
On June 23, United States Distict Court Judge Kimba M. Wood, having been advised that Mr. Lewin and the foundation had reached an agreement in principle to settle, ordered the case closed.
Mr. Lewin said he had been allowed copyright on his own images, but that “there are several unresolved issues.”
Mr. Martin wrote in an email: “If the settlement agreement can be consummated in a timely fashion, the foundation will agree not to challenge Lewin’s assertion of copyright in approximately 10 percent of the images that he sought to obtain in this lawsuit, with the foundation not being challenged by Lewin in the remaining 90 percent. Almost all of the tangible property at issue in this case will either be returned to the foundation or distributed to institutions of the foundation’s choosing.”
What unites the two grievances is that they both make clear that the startling lucidity that characterizes an Avedon print was only partly a result of his hand. Outsourcing, though, is anything but unusual in photography, or in the history of art. Just as Rembrandt and Rubens operated studios where assistants painted the fur or the armor, leaving the faces and the virtuosic blending of the ensemble to be completed by the master, numerous photographers through the 20th century employed technicians to develop film and print negatives.
Mr. Avedon in 1985 in front of one of the portraits from his book “In The American West.” Credit Jack Manning/The New York Times
Edward Steichen, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott and Cindy Sherman are only a few who at some point in their careers hired others to perform this labor-intensive, unheralded and often uncredited task.
The Avedon cases underline the ambiguous importance of the printer in art photography. Yes, the impeccable prints by Mr. Hofmann were the product of Avedon’s vision. Without Avedon’s immense intelligence, energy and manipulative charm, the portraits would lack the impact and psychological complexity that make them so prized. It was his eyes that determined if Boyd Fortin’s eyes in the portrait photograph were hauntingly affective and exactly what he wanted. But doesn’t the printer, like the cinematographer on a movie, deserve to share a screen credit along with the director?
Artists’ estates have a vested interest in playing down the role of printers and assistants and in keeping unsigned copies off the market. One reason has to do with commercial self-interest: It can be confusing or difficult to sell something if multiple people deserve an unknown measure of the praise for its excellence.
But another reason, more historically minded, is for purposes of cataloging an oeuvre after an artist’s death, for separating legitimate from ersatz and for preventing fraud. After all, not much deters anyone with access to a photographer’s negatives from printing a few unauthorized copies, late at night in the lab, and secreting them out the door.
The Avedon studio hired a librarian in 1975 whose job it was to list in a ledger all editions of prints made for exhibitions.
The foundation is arguing in its case against Mr. Lewin that a number of prints in his possession were illegally made because they are not mentioned in the ledger. He disputed this allegation — “Avedon gifted me quite a few prints, some of them quite valuable,” he said — and part of his defense rests on his contention that the ledger is far from complete or accurate.
But even if Mr. Lewin’s case is settled, it may not help Mr. Hofmann. There is no mention in the ledger of the “In the American West” prints now in his house, and neither he nor Ms. Stevens, who was in charge of the studio at the time, can explain why.
To conclude our visit, Mr. Hofmann, his wife, and their friend Richard Corman (another former Avedon employee) led me on a five-mile drive to a carriage house that has become a local arts center. Newburgh has a picturesque setting along the Hudson but has been gutted by decades of unemployment. We passed blocks of boarded-up houses and broken fences.
“The city is on its knees,” said Mr. Hofmann, who last fall used this same arts center to exhibit a show of his portraits of people in the community, a “Pivotal Project,” funded by the city’s residents.
Inside on this spring day, he had papered the four walls with photocopies of his Avedon prints. The sheets were blank except for the names of people in the portraits. “Boyd Fortin,” “Red Owens,” “Sandra Bennett.”
Mr. Hofmann would like to install his collection here.
Until then, he is calling this temporary exhibition “Unsigned 126: American West Collection.” Below this title he has hung six photocopies from Laura Wilson’s book that show him assisting on “In the American West.” But neither his name nor Avedon’s appears on the walls.
He told stories about his late-night work on the project. A single exhibition print might take 45 minutes, with each part of a face or item of clothing receiving its own dose of timed light as he masked, dodged and burned. “It was like a dance,” said Ann Hofmann, whose only chance to see him some days would be at the lab.
Mr. Hofmann’s high regard for his former boss as an artist is undiminished. “Dick worked with an 8-by-10 the way others worked with a 35,” he said. “I loved going through the Amon Carter with Dick and seeing the scale.” He said Avedon “had no problem” acknowledging in public his role as the printer of the series and at an Amon Carter symposium praised his contributions.
Why did he never ask Avedon to sign them?
It’s not as if he didn’t think about this piece of unfinished business repeatedly over the years.
He hesitated in answering. “Out of too much respect,” he ventured. “Maybe lack of self-esteem.” Then he corrected himself.
“No, not lack of self-esteem,” he said. “I thought I should just wait. Dick’s life was about what he was engaged in at the moment. He had an incredible life. He was active the second he woke up in the morning, always moving forward. The agreement was there. It just wasn’t on his mind.”
To make sure that he didn’t leave the impression that he was naïve about what he owned, or where his actions had led him, he spoke more forcefully: “I’m not a lemming. I am not a simpleton.”
He paused and then laughed, with more exasperation than amusement. “I just want to be paid,” he said. “My wages were the prints. And the check isn’t even in the mail.”
Correction: July 5, 2016
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the year of a photo shoot in which Ruedi Hofmann was working with Richard Avedon. It was 1983, not 1980.