Issue #256  3/2/2023
Curator-extraordinaire and Photo Expert Pierre Apraxine Passes Away

By Alex Novak

Perhaps one of the very last photos taken of Pierre Apraxine at work at his apartment in New York City on January 26th by Serge Plantureux, who kindly shared this photo for the article.
Perhaps one of the very last photos taken of Pierre Apraxine at work at his apartment in New York City on January 26th by Serge Plantureux, who kindly shared this photo for the article.

"Collecting is not an intellectual experience but a visceral one."
--Pierre Apraxine

Pierre Apraxine, one of the photo world's most influential people, has passed away in New York City on February 27th after a long illness. I was one of the many fortunate to have met him numerous times and count him as a fond acquaintance.

Apraxine lived a complex and interesting life. He was born on December 10, 1934 in the Russian-speaking part of Estonia, which was later invaded and occupied by the Soviet army in 1940. Until that time, Halahalnia, which was where Apraxine grew up near the Pechory monastery, was the only Russian-speaking region that kept a traditional way of life and religious freedom. His family was exiled and immigrated to Brussels, Belgium, where he was educated in the Fine Arts. His status as a Russian count was a well-known fact of this elegant and intelligent connoisseur, whose relatives included an Admiral in Peter the Great's Imperial Navy. His dry sense of humor was legendary. His knowledge of photography, while mostly self-learned, was extraordinary.

In 1966, he became artistic adviser to the banker Léon Lambert in Brussels for the layout of its offices. They were the first to commission artists such as Sol LeWitt and Tony Smith in Europe.

As a recipient of a scholarship from the Fulbright Fellowship, he left for New York City at the end of 1969. Once in New York City he was hired by the Museum of Modern Art, first as an assistant curator of painting and sculpture, and then as curator of the its art lending service, a department of the museum which rented works to companies and members of the museum. It was in the latter position that Apraxine started working with photographs as a part of the service. At the same time, Apraxine started working briefly with Phyllis Lambert, presenting photographs to her and her architect for offices outside the Seagram building. But a strike at MoMA disrupted the relationship and Apraxine's job at MoMA.

After a brief stint back to Europe, Apraxine returned to New York where Marlborough Gallery offered him a position, where he worked with Paul Katz to put together a stable of photographers that included Brassai, Irving Penn, Berenice Abbott, Richard Avedon and Bill Brandt.

But Pierre was not meant for the sales part of the role, and so he interviewed for an art curatorial position at the Gilman Paper Co., where he eventually found his most important calling.

Apraxine was particularly known for his long-time role as builder and curator of the Gilman Paper Company collection of photography. The Gilman photography collection, started from scratch, only had one curator—Apraxine. Although it had its start in 1975, Apraxine had begun working earlier with CEO Howard Gilman on several other corporate art collections, including art and architectural drawings.

In 1985, the Gilman Paper Company published a book reproducing 200 images from the collection in high quality facsimiles, which is still sought after by photo book collectors.

Apraxine would go on to amass well over 8,000 photos and albums for Gilman, a small selection of which appeared at the 1993 blockbuster show and catalogue "The Waking Dream," which he co-curated with Maria Morris Hambourg at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Gilman collection is considered one of the great and largest collections of vintage photographs. It became a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's photography collection in 2005.

Reportedly Apraxine was still working on his autobiography just days before his death, which apparently will be published by Les Éditions courtes et longues (Paris) in 2024.

Novak has over 48 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formerly board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Photographic Historical Society (APHS). He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, or AIPAD. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and has sold at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, Art Miami, etc.