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Home > Case Studies in Collecting > Exemplary Collections >Hands On! The Photography Collection of Henry Buhl

Hands On! The Photography Collection of Henry Buhl

By Sonja Klein Sugerman and Vivian L. Ebersman

Alfred Stieglitz, Hands with a Thimble, 1920, Vintage Gelatin Silver Print, 9 ½ x 7 ½ inches


The elegant landing space of Henry Buhl's fifth-floor Soho loft ushers one into a spacious gallery, housing a revolving selection of works from his monumental photography collection.  At present, the collection of the Buhl Foundation features over 1000 photographs with one unifying theme, hands.

When Buhl began collecting photographs he had yet to decide on a theme.  Inspiration hit in the fall of 1993 when he received a phone call advising him that Doris Bry, Alfred Stieglitz's longtime assistant and friend, was considering selling her silver gelatin print of Stieglitz's photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe's hands with a thimble.  Buhl immediately went to visit Bry with his friend, photography dealer Howard Greenberg.  The photograph was stunning.  The sale of Bry's print coincided with an upcoming Christie's auction where a palladium platinum print of the same image was up for sale.  Bry wanted Buhl to commit to purchase before the auction.  With two days to spare, Buhl bought the print.  The purchase of the Stieglitz was the turning point.  From then on, he dedicated his passionate quest to the purchase of photographs of hands.

Buhl had a second quest: he wanted his collection to encompass the entire history of photography.  With the help of his curator, Marianne Courville, he set about to complete this goal. Guided by their collaborative synergy, the collection continues to grow and sustain its vitality.  Some additions attest Buhls' immediate response to an image; others culminate a thoughtful search.  Many choices mark his interest in the full range of photographic media from albumen prints to silver gelatin to C prints.  In one case he has acquired two examples of the same image by Oscar Rejlander, one is an albumen print, the other a salt print.

Buhl's collection now spans 160 years of photography beginning with a work by William Henry Fox Talbot dated to about 1840 and continuing through the present day.  The 19th century photographs by Eadweard Muybridge, David Octavius Hill, and Julia Margaret Cameron command our attention.  The collection celebrates the greats of the 20th century, ranging from early artists like Ansel Adams, Alfred Eisenstadt, Walker Evans, Dora Maar, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, Weegee, and Edward Weston; to moderns Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Lee Friedlander, Louise Lawler, and Gary Winogrand.  It also includes selected works by contemporary artists ranging from well-known John Baldassari, Adam Fuss Sally Mann, and Nan Goldin, to the lesser known Jed Devine and Thomas Roma.  Adam Fuss, a particular favorite, is also featured in Buhl's personal collection with additional works other than hands.

The collection shows extraordinary variety.  Elliot Erwitt's Kitchen Cabinet Debate is a strong gestural image.  It records one moment in the heated debate between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon which took place in Moscow in 1959.  The camera captures the tension between the two leaders as they point at each other with forceful argument.  Another impactful print is by the French artist Touhami Ennadre, showing a pair of intertwined gnarled old hands on a simple black background.  It is solely about hands.  Without any other outside reference, the eye carefully investigates every detail apparent in the fingers, fingernails, skin, and veins.  Entitled Hand on Hand, from the series Les Mains du Monde, this potent image was chosen as cover for a catalog of the exhibition Collection in Context: Photographs from the Henry Buhl Collection, 68 Contemporary Photographers, which was held first at the Thread Waxing Space in 1996.

Edward Steichen's photograph Blossom of White Fingers from the 1920s, is a palladium print showing two forearms and hands in an uplifting gestures.  The light is reflected from the palm of the right hand and radiates around the image.  The hands are caught in motion as a flower captured in the instant of blossom.  It is the simplicity of Alfred Stieglitz's photograph of Hands with a Thimble from 1920 which accentuates the grace of the movement and the sensual beauty of the slim fingers.  One of the most interesting nuances about this image is that it can be viewed as complete from any angle.  The image is thought to have been taken horizontally, but it is most often displayed vertically.  Neither the thimble nor the lighting provides any clues to a correct vantage point.

Elliott Erwitt, Kitchen Cabinet Debate, c. 1959, Gelatin Silver Print, 8 x 12 inches
Image appears courtesy of Elliot Erwitt and Magnum Photos

Buhl's viewing gallery is changed with some frequency, sometimes weekly.  Collector and curator use it to examine recent acquisitions as a group.  At times the selection is chosen to complement a particular event hosted in the gallery. The dimly-lit library adjacent to the exhibition space houses the Stieglitz and one of Buhl's favorite prints by Adam Fuss.  This is a contemplative, intimate space.  Through the library are the vast living and dining rooms.  Furnished in dark oak furniture from the 15th century and modern tapestries commissioned by Buhl, the room conveys the grandeur of a Renaissance Palazzo.  The works of art in this large room rarely change.  Here Buhl blends photography with other media.

Henry Buhl is a Renaissance man.  He has already had two successful careers, and is now working hard at his third.  First a mutual funds manager and an investment banker, he then became a very successful commercial photographer, shooting wedding and ads all over the world.  At the high point of this career, he employed about six people just to keep the bookings and the proof printing straight.  In 1989 he purchased spaces in a nearly abandoned building on Greene Street, the fifth floor which became office and home to ten commercial photographers.  Today, the only memory of these years is a frieze of emblems—cameras, lenses, etc—created of paper micro-mosaic, and which Buhl commissioned for the gallery space.

That floor now houses the photography collection, although most of it is not always on display.  The building is also home to what has quickly become Buhl's third career.  In 1992 he founded the SoHo Partnership, which was expanded into the Association of Community Employment Programs (A.C.E.) for the Homeless in 1996 and now includes the TriBeCa Partnership (1998) and the Hudson Square Partnership (2001) in Manhattan.  The goal of these groups is to provide job training and jobs for the area's homeless.  This Foundation takes up almost all of Buhl's time.  For the past four years, he has printed a 52-week calendar featuring an image from his collection on every page as part of the fundraising effort. 

Buhl has found other ways to incorporate photography into the fundraising for his Homeless Partnerships.  On a biennial basis, he hosts an auction called photo.soho, a live and silent auction whose proceeds go to the Partnerships.  In recent years, he has even devised a way to give something back to the photography community which donates images to the auction.  In the off years the Foundation sponsors grants for three photographers selected by a jury of prominent professionals. 

The Buhl Foundation is currently preparing for an exhibition of the collection scheduled to open at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in September 2003.  It will then travel to other venues.  A new catalogue of more than 200 works and several essays will even include one by a neurologist, discussing how hands are related to the theory of the survival of the fittest.

As Shakespeare put it, "Speak, Hands, for me!," hands speak volumes about the eyes and the heart of Henry Buhl, collector and humanitarian. 

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Edward Steichen, Blossom of White Fingers (Dana Steichen's Hands), c. 1923, Vintage Palladium Print, 10 x 8 inches
Printed with the Permission of Joanna T. Steichen


Touhami Ennadre, Hand on Hand From the Series Les Mains du Monde, c. 1985, Gelatin Silver Print, 60 x 50 inches
Image appears courtesy of Touhami Ennadre