Crazy Collection

Terry Etherton shows off some of the photos he saved from the estate of a former customer

It was a dark and stormy day in Raleigh, N.C. No, wait, make that three dark and stormy days in Raleigh, N.C.

When Terry Etherton and another photography dealer went to a Raleigh boathouse last year to retrieve photographs worth $3 million, they were stymied, first by a tornado, then by an earthquake, and finally a hurricane.

"Three different natural disasters!" exclaims Etherton, whose eponymous Tucson gallery is now showing 64 of the retrieved works in the exhibition A Classic Collection: Photographs From the Estate of Julian T. Baker Jr. (1939-2011).

But nature wasn't the only thing that slowed down the salvage work.

"Inside this 800-square-foot house were 800 photos, not framed, scattered all over the place, some still in unopened FedEx packages," Etherton says. "It was a mess."

Julian T. Baker Jr., a lovable North Carolina collector, came to photography late, and in the last 10 to 15 years of his life, he amassed a sterling collection of "post World War II black-and-white American pictures," Etherton says.

With the help of Etherton and New York dealer Tom Gitterman, Baker bought up a startling number of photographs, including no fewer than 19 pristine works by the great Frederick Sommer. He picked up iconic pictures by Harry Callahan, Sally Mann, Ralph Gibson, Linda Connor, Aaron Siskind and a host of other eminences.

Baker had a strong showing of Chicago photographers and images, such as the view of the "L" tracks from the street in Kenneth Josephson's 1963 "Chicago." A handful of well-known Japanese photographers also attracted Baker's attention. Hiroshi Sugimoto's luminous "Bay of Sagami, Atami," a near-abstraction of the sea, is a highlight in a show bursting with masterpieces.

The collector had broad tastes, Etherton says, equally relishing Peter Stackpole's artful World War II photojournalism, Sommer's gorgeously textured still lifes ("Valise d'Adam," 1949) and Mann's nudes of her children ("Venus After School," 1992).

"He had a good eye and was not constrained by subject matter," Etherton says.

In his will, Baker stipulated that Etherton and Gitterman were to sell off the collection after his death, and turn over the proceeds to his heirs. But his family and executor had no idea of the works' value. When Baker died in February 2011, the electricity and air conditioning were turned off in his humid lakeside house, as a cost-saving measure.

"I tried to explain: There are millions of dollars' worth of photos in that collection," Etherton says. "They couldn't believe it."

The AC went back on in a hurry. But by the time the two dealers got to Raleigh three months after the death, some of the works were deteriorating. The two men started performing "triage," Etherton says, stuffing priceless images into bags and boxes, trying to get them out of the house and into climate-controlled storage.

Then the tornado hit.

"It was a pretty bad one," Etherton says. He and Gitterman cut their work short, and fled the small house. On a return trip, a damaging earthquake erupted, followed a few days later by Hurricane Irene. Again, the two worked as fast as they could, boxing up photographs and loading them into a borrowed SUV.

"The hurricane was about to happen," Etherton says. With the SUV jam-packed with photographic treasures, they sped into the wind. The storage place was 10 miles away.

"It was a race against time," Etherton exclaims with a laugh. "Here were two crackers from New York and Tucson in a van loaded with millions of dollars of pictures."

They got to the storage building just before the storm bore down on the city. Within minutes, Irene had dumped inches of water on Raleigh's streets, but Baker's artwork was safe, berthed in a unit on the second floor.

So far, the two dealers have each shipped 250 of the rescued works to their respective galleries, each taking photographers in which they specialize. Etherton got back many of the works he'd originally sold Baker, including the Sommers, Callahans and Richard Misrachs.

The Etherton show, exhibiting just a sampling of the saved photographs, reads like a who's-who of American photography of the last 65 years. Among the earliest pieces are Stackpole's extraordinary images of young Marines in the South Pacific.

"Marines, Second Division, Saipan," 1944, pictures the young soldiers bathing in the ocean, taking a break from horror and death. They've metamorphosed, from men trapped by war, to archetypal figures in nature, their bare flesh and idyllic setting recalling Thomas Eakins' lovely bather paintings of young men. A companion photo, "The Stare, Second Marines Division, WWII," also from 1944, captures the young fighting men in a far different mood. Dressed in fatigues and hemmed in by buildings, they stare blankly at the camera, their faces war-weary and shell-shocked.

Wynn Bullock's 1956 "Lynn, Point Lobos," evokes the post-war optimism of the decade that followed. On the opposite shore of the Pacific, a little girl in a dress stands in the shallow water, sunlight catching every shimmer of the sea.

Richard Misrach's split-toned gelatin silver prints are relics of the 1970s. Using a toning technique that's not possible today—the special paper required is no longer being made—Misrach gave a warm cast to his southwest landscapes. His "Palm #4, From Palm Suite," 1976, is infused with a golden light.

New to me is the photographer Wright Morris (1910-1998). His works are timeless Americana, offering a profound meditation on a way of life now lost in the heartland.

"Silverware in Drawer: The Home Place," 1947, shot in a Nebraska farmhouse, is a heartbreaking look at utensils that have outlasted the prairie wife who once cherished them and polished them. In Morris' picture, they still gleam in the darkness of the drawer.

In his "House in Winter Near Lincoln," 1941, Morris has pushed the horizon line up high, dividing a narrow swath of charcoal sky from a wide band of snow-covered land. The house looks lonely and small riding that high horizon. The silent snow nearly swallows up the whole scene, underlining the lonesomeness and quiet of the prairie.

Some of Baker's ravishing works have already found a permanent home. Benefiting from her brother's estate, Baker's sister donated $150,000 of her inheritance to the North Carolina Museum of Art, to buy up some of his best photographs for the permanent collection. The museum's Baker show is running at the same time as Etherton's, giving audiences on both sides of the country a chance to see the art that was saved from nature's ravages.

And Tucson's Center for Creative Photography is also a Baker beneficiary. On one of Baker's many visits to Tucson, Etherton brought him to the center, and then-director Doug Nickel "gave us a great tour," Etherton says. Baker was so impressed that he also named the center in his will.

"Every time we sell anything, the center gets a little," Etherton says. "That makes me happy."

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