The American Experience in Photographs

on September 4 | in Featured | by

Photography expert Denise Bethel ’73 spoke on campus last spring about an exhibition at the Wilson Museum that included work by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, and others.

By Karen Adams M.A. ’93 English and creative writing; M.A. ’00, M.F.A. ’10 children’s literature

Lewis Hine, gelatin silver print

Lewis Hine (American, 1874-1940), “Adolescent Girls in Bibb Mill #1, Macon Georgia, 1909,” gelatin silver print. Collection of Walter and Sally Rugaber.

Denise Bethel saw and auctioned thousands of photographs in her role as former chair of Photographs Americas at Sotheby’s New York, a career that she did not even know existed when she was a student at Hollins. Bethel returned to campus on April 18 to present a lecture on “The Documentary Photograph as a Work of Art,” in conjunction with an exhibit of photographs collected by Walter and Sally Rugaber. The loaned collection was exhibited February 21 through April 28 in the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum.

The Rugabers have long supported Hollins and the arts community. Walter Rugaber, former publisher and president of The Roanoke Times and Landmark Publishing Group, served on the Hollins Board of Trustees (1993–2007) and was the university’s interim president (2001–02).

Their collection of 53 photographs includes work by Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Danny Lyon, Sally Mann ’74, M.A. ’75, and many others. Bethel found the most moving images in the collection to be those that captured iconic moments in American history, including the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement. “Nothing tells the story of the American experience like these photographs,” she said. “Photographs do change lives.”

She considers herself fortunate to have gotten to know these images and others like them in her long career in the auction world and also to have witnessed, and influenced, the changing perception of documentary photography as fine art. “I hope the high values I set while at Sotheby’s helped draw attention to the field,” she said.

Denise Bethel

Photo by Michael Falco

Upon arriving at Hollins in 1969 from Richmond, Bethel planned to major in theatre. And while she did participate in theatre projects both on and behind the stage, she ended up with a double major in English and art history. Hollins’ famous English department and creative writing classes inspired her, but it was the art department that was a revelation, both in art history and studio.

Former Professor of Art History Tony Whitwell was her mentor in art historical practice and introduced her to the excitement of researching actual objects. And the studio art classes she took from Professor of Art Emeritus Bill White, painting and drawing in particular, were equally formative. “Bill White was a key person at Hollins for me,” she said. “His courses developed my eye.”

In the summer after her junior year, Bethel won one of three scholarships from the Richmond branch of the English-Speaking Union to spend six weeks studying in the British Isles. Each college and university in Virginia was allowed to submit one name for the competition. “Had I not been at Hollins, a women’s college, I might not have been nominated,” she observed, noting that the two other winners were men from coed schools.   

She chose an extramural program in 18th-century art and literature at the University of London. “That was life changing,” she said. “It was my first experience abroad, and it opened up my world. It’s one of those things that shape our lives, but we may not realize it at the time.”

After Hollins, Bethel earned a master’s degree with distinction from the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London. Later, after returning to the U.S. in 1975, she worked as curator for Richmond’s Edgar Allan Poe Foundation on a four-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1980, she decided to take a leap and move to New York to try “the trade” in art. She landed her first job at the rare book auction house Swann Galleries, where she learned to evaluate, among other things, rare photographs, a category of fine art that was just taking off at the time.

She then moved to Sotheby’s as a photo specialist and auctioneer in 1990, and by then, the market for photographs was booming. In her 25 years at Sotheby’s, she set dozens of records for rare photography, including the highest price for a single photograph at auction, $2.93 million in 2006, and the auction record for a collection of photographs, $21.3 million in 2014.

“Denise Bethel really has been a pioneer in that field, and you can tell how much she loves the medium,” said Jenine Culligan, director of the Wilson Museum, who curated the exhibit.

Brook Dickson ’95, interim executive assistant to the president and secretary for the Board of Trustees, had seen and appreciated the Rugabers’ photographs during visits to their home, and she alerted Culligan to the collection. When the Rugabers agreed to an exhibition, they also suggested a gallery talk by Bethel, whom they had met earlier on a Hollins trip to New York.

“It was amazing to see these images go from their home into a museum setting,” said Dickson. “It made quite an impact on everyone.” A range of visitors, from Hollins students and faculty to members of the community, attended Bethel’s presentation.

Bethel’s unique knowledge added significantly to the museum experience. “Besides her historical knowledge of photography, she has had so many photographs come through her own hands,” Culligan said.

Culligan noted how modest the Rugabers were about their collection, and how the museum setting affected their own perception of the photographs. “And then having Denise Bethel come and speak changed the meaning of the collection for them and made it even more special.”

Having left Sotheby’s in 2015, Bethel is now a consultant to private collectors and institutions. “I’ve had the privilege of working with rare photographs for almost 40 years now, and it was a pleasure to come back to Hollins to speak about the Rugabers’ wonderful collection,” she said. “Their photographs show just how powerful and important the medium can be.”

Karen Adams is a local writer.

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