Obituary: Harry Lunn

Mark Haworth Booth
Monday 07 September 1998 23:02

HARRY LUNN was an extraordinary dealer in extraordinary photographs. He, more than anyone, created the modern market in fine photography.

In 1971, when Lunn began selling photographs, a print of the famous Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico by Ansel Adams fetched $150. At the spring auctions in New York this year a 16x20 inch print sold for $20,700. However, Lunn did more than secure a price rise for Moonrise. Of course, he sold great things to major museums in Paris, New York and London - the Canon Photography Gallery at the V&A exhibits some of the great photographs that passed through his hands. He acted as consultant to top corporate collections like the Gilman Paper Company, and was close to legends such as Robert Mapplethorpe and the collector Sam Wagstaff.

He supported the smaller galleries and scarcely known individuals too, and he spread the taste for collecting photographs far beyond the walls of the wealthy. More than that, Harry Lunn, with his finely domed head, Lincoln beard, booming voice, genuine bonhomie and great relish for life, personified the international photographic community that grew up around him. He networked long before the word was invented, but he patiently cultivated friendships and loyalties as well as the market. He was a great salesman with a great eye, but also a great friend.

Lunn was born in Detroit, majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, edited the student newspaper and was recruited in the Cold War years by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This explained the dash of Henry Lime about him. He said he loved the life of the spy. He worked with the international wing of the National Students Association until an article in Ramparts magazine in 1967 exposed it as a CIA front.

He could have taken a CIA deskjob but as he later told his friend Bill Turnage, he missed espionage, with its backstabbings, treachery and betrayal. Lunn joked that he moved into the civilian sphere which he thought most resembled his former profession, setting up as an art dealer in 1968. He dealt in prints and drawings in Washington DC, but a decisive moment occurred when he happened to see Ansel Adams' Moonrise - upside down, apparently - at the Manhattan office of a publisher of portfolios of etchings and photographs.

Lunn held his first Adams show in 1971, and was instrumental in raising America's great landscape photographer to a new level of both financial security and reputation. He treated Adams with respect and panache - the limousine from the airport, the suite at the good hotel. Lunn could be aggressive and controversial but Adams described him, perceptively, as "a lion". The Washington photographer Allan Janus recalls:

In person Harry could be irascible, courtly, funny as hell, and terrifying as all get out. "Harry stories" circulated widely in the days when he had a gallery here in DC. Seeing a photographer that he despised walk into the gallery on 7th Street, Harry stopped him dead in his tracks by pointing at him from his god-balcony and shouting - "I know WHO you are and WHAT your are! GET OUT!" And telling an acquaintance of mine, by way of compliment - "Steve, I could do a lot with your work - if you were dead . . ." But I also remember a long, leisurely lunch in the backyard of his old P Street Gallery, where he held forth in high humour, telling amazing stories. And, of course, going through the boxes and bins of his treasures was an education for a generation of Washington photographers and collectors - he would glower at us, and wonder when we were going to buy something, but the boxes kept coming.

Lunn's inventory was extraordinarily extensive - his holdings by Adams, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Berenice Abbot , Diane Atlas and others ran into thousands. Early French, turn-of-the-century photo secession, classic modern, William Eggleston's colour, Lunn had them in depth, plus precious one-offs - say a rare portrait of Toulouse-Lautrec - and scandalous contemporaries like Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. He liked shocking, he liked keeping up, but most of all he liked quality. He taught people not only how to recognise it and pay for it, but how to cherish it - and to honour its makers.

After 1983 he dealt privately in New York and Paris, where he lived with his wife and family on the Quai Voltaire, the Seine and the Louvre framed by the apartment's tall windows. He taught generations to drink the most dry of Martinis - the recipe was always the same ("up" with Tanqueray and a twist) - and he entertained en prince.

Lunn was a prime mover in taking photography into the art fairs of Basle and Bologna, in setting up the Association of International Photographic Art Dealers (AIPAD) in 1978, in commission-scholarly catalogues and the first photographic catalogue raisonne - of great photographers.

Philippe Garner of Sotheby's doubts whether Lunn missed any of his sales between 1972 and this Spring. On one occasion, a bidder wavering over an important Julia Margaret Cameron album found himself admonished "Have courage!" as Lunn virtually yanked the hesitant arm upwards for the bid which beat the reserve. I always sat next to him in the front row at the London auctions, hearing from his commentary what was really happening in the saleroom, and enjoying the ferociously filthy looks he threw at competitive bidders. A few months ago Lunn led the applause when a new world record price for a carte de visite photograph was set at Christie's in South Kensington. Fellow dealer Frish Brandt remarked that Harry, was the one who always knew how to honour the moment. Although close friends knew that he always had a beast on his back, Harry Lunn was like a cheery blaze in the hearth - which has suddenly, unaccountably, been extinguished.

Mark Haworth-Booth

Harry Hyatt Lunn Jr, photographic art dealer: born Detroit 29 April 1933; married 1963 Myriam Dosseur (one son, two daughters); died Paris 21 August 1998.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments