How Much Would You Pay for Instagram Ancestors at Swann Galleries?

One of a group of 63 cyanotypes documenting the construction of a bridge in the French countryside, 1899-1902. Estimate $5,000 to $7,500. At auction April 17. Photo: Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

One of a group of 63 cyanotypes documenting the construction of a bridge in the French countryside, 1899–1902. Estimate $5,000–7,500. At auction April 17.
Photo: Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

No, that’s not an Instagram photo. It’s a 112-year-old print known as a cyanotype, which involves a specialized chemical process that imparts the slightly surreal, cerulean blue tint. It is one of more than 100 lots that will be offered at Swann Galleries’ first-ever sale of common, everyday snapshots, many with unknown or anonymous creators, to be held in New York on Thursday April 17, entitled “The Vernacular Eye: Photographic Albums, Snapshots & Objects.”

This genre of photography often encompasses pictures by lesser-known or amateur makers, including itinerant photographers, studio practitioners, and press photographers—many of whom worked outside the scope of fine art practices.

This particular turn-of-the-century print is one of a group of 60 cyanotype prints offered as one lot, which documents the construction of a vast trestle bridge in the southern French countryside near Carmaux, documenting the day-by-day building of the foundations, trestles, and spans. The group is estimated to sell for $5,000 to $7,500.

Though there is no specific name associated with the images, some are captioned with “Société de Construction des Batignelles.” Swann Photographs director Daile Kaplan said “part of what makes this market so interesting is that historic and aesthetic value is not dictated by brand, meaning the identity of the artist. Collectors love the notion that the image reigns supreme; as a result, context and narrative are more open-ended.”

Of the decision to dedicate an entire sale to this category of photos, Kaplan says that although vernacular imagery may appear “new,” snapshots, albums, and objects have been featured in museum shows since the 1990s. “There have been a core group of aficionados who have been buying this material for some time.”

Edward J. Kelty Group of 5 show-stopping panoramic photographs of circus performers, with the Al. G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus, Redd Finn and his Baggage Stock Dept., Tom Lynch and his Drivers, the Dining Department and Blacksmith Shop, and a composite of 157 wondrous circus faces of the Miller Bros., 101 Ranch. Silver prints (1928-1936) Estimate: $5,000 - 7,500. Photo: Courtesy of Swann Galleries.

One of a group of five panoramic photos of circus performers by Edward J. Kelty. Silver prints (1928–1936) Estimate: $5,000–7,500.
Photo: Courtesy of Swann Galleries.