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Silver Eye benefit is great way to get into collecting

| Saturday, April 12, 2014, 7:51 p.m.
Teenie Harris, 'Arthur Oursley seated at a bar with Erin'Ma Pitts' Godfrey behind counter, in Ma Pitts Restaurant,' c. 1949.

It may be two weeks away, but Silver Eye Center for Photography's biennial photography auction is already much anticipated by collectors, many of whom crowded the opening reception of the preview exhibition April 4 to get a glimpse of the offerings.

You can, too, as the 30-plus images are on exhibit at Silver Eye until April 23. After that, they will be up for bidding April 27 at Clear Story Studio on nearby Sidney Street on the South Side.

One of the region's most anticipated charitable art events, the auction is the organization's largest fundraiser, says Brian Lang, auction co-chairman and Silver Eye's board president.

“What makes Silver Eye'sbenefit auction unique is that it supports an incredible organization that's been in existence for more than 30 years, dedicated to promoting photography as an art form,” Lang says. “The auction garners amazing donations of significant photographs from across the country. It has been instrumental in building great collections here in Pittsburgh and beyond.”

Proceeds from the auction help keep gallery admission free and all programs accessible to the widest possible audiences. Since its founding in 1979, Silver Eye has nurtured home-grown and national talent, and it still does through year-round, career-building workshops, competitive fellowship awards, portfolio reviews, studio visits and many other resources.

Silver Eye also boasts a membership of 216 active member photographers from 27 states and 10 foreign countries. One longstanding member who is being honored this year is the late Aaronel deRoy Gruber (1918-2011), who is just one of innumerable artists who received guidance and critical validation from Silver Eye.

Her two-toned silver-gelatin photograph “End of an Era” (1998), being offered with an estimated value of $2,200, has become a signature image for the photographer, prominently featuring what was once the last remnants of the Eliza Furnace.

With auction estimates ranging from about $500 to $6,000, Lang says, “Photography can also be a ‘buy' within the art-world realm, where prices for, say, painting and sculpture are reaching new heights.”

Marcia Rosenthal, an artconsultant and board member, agrees, and says that bodes well for budding art collectors. “Photographs are among the most affordable of the fine-art forms,” she says.

“If you are thinking about building a photography collection, read up, look and look some more,” she advises. “Buy something that pleases you, that you want to live with. Try it out. Keep looking and looking, and the direction is likely to come to you. Then, do not be surprised when, a few years down the road, your eye changes.”

Lang and Rosenthal concur that the appeal of collecting photography is that, as an art form, it's all about “the moment.”

“There is an immediacy to photography that many people find appealing; a captured moment that lives on in the image,” Lang says.

“Currently, much of the attraction is to technology, how it has changed and what the whole digital process can do,” Rosenthal says. “The current generation gets it and loves it. High schools and colleges offer serious courses in the art of photography and in its history. The classes are in demand.”

Lang says that as far as the latest trends in the field, “I'm seeing more and more abstraction in photography. And I love it.”

Amy Stevens' “Confections (adorned) #27” (2012) is an example of where abstract elements in pattern and color come together to form a delectable image that evokes the literal sweetness of a well-decorated cake.

Rosenthal says another trend is “the very large photograph, often shockingly large.”

At 2 feet wide each, Aaron Blum's “Bitter Sweet,” from his 2013 series “Born and Raised,” and Arne Svensen's “Neighbors #15” (2012-13) are examples of this trend. Both are real standouts in the exhibit for their rich tones and subtle, yet arresting, subject matter.

And, the largest among them, at 3 12 feet wide, Gavin Benjamin's “Old World Luxuries in a New Millennium” (2012) is perhaps the most arresting image of all, serving up a sumptuous still-life in the classical sense through rich, deep color and high contrast.

Of course, those interested in historical images of local interest will not be disappointed. “Ma Pitts Restaurant” (c. 1949) by Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908-98) features the rotund Arthur Oursley seated at a bar with Erin “Ma Pitts” Godfrey behind the counter. It's an image that cannot help but bring a smile to match that on Oursley's cherubic, chubby-cheeked face.

Asked if he has any tips for budding photography collectors, Lang says, “I always answer this question in three simple steps: 1. Find your passion; 2. Read what you can and look at as much as possible, then look more!; 3. Buy what you can't live without — within your means, of course.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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