This is New York: Henry Buhl, Photographer & Artist

April 29, 2012 Updated: June 27, 2012
Henry Buhl sitting on a sculpture in his studio in SoHo
Henry Buhl sitting on a sculpture in his studio in SoHo (Photo courtesy of Henry Buhl)

NEW YORK—Henry Buhl is just one of those “right time, right place” kind of guys. At 82, he has had four careers, any one of which one person would love to succeed in.

Buhl, who began working on the New York Stock Exchange in 1951, enjoyed a 25-year career in the finance world. He started as a stock specialist but quickly moved on to stock analyst, where his career took off.

In 1961, he moved to Geneva, Switzerland, hired as the 13th employee for Investors Overseas Service. When the company went public in 1969, the Geneva office had grown to 2,500 employees and the company more than 18,000 employees worldwide.

Buhl lived a luxurious lifestyle in Geneva for 12 years, but his crowning achievements were yet to come.

Talent Exposed

In 1980, Buhl was invited to his niece’s wedding on Long Island and asked if he could take pictures. “I never took a camera or photography class, but I bought a camera to see what I could do,” he said.

He shadowed the professional photographer, snapping everything from formal photos to dinner and dancing.

“About 3 to 4 days after the wedding, I got a call from the hostess asking how my pictures came out,” Buhl said. When he told her he thought they were ok, Buhl said the hostess told him, “I hope they came out, because not one of the professional photographer’s pictures came out because her camera jammed.”

Buhl was stunned. He had a professional photographer help him create proof sheets and a presentation book.

“The bride came back from her honeymoon and I took my book out and showed them the pictures and they said they liked them,” he said.

Buhl was set up with 13 other weddings. At one of them, he met an Italian PR woman who offered him a job to shoot the opening of the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on Madison Avenue.

“They offered me more money than I had ever dreamed of getting for one of my weddings,” he said. The celebrity presence attracted the attention of a magazine called Quest, who contacted Buhl and asked to use one of his photos.

Quest asked Buhl how much money he wanted to publish the photo and he said had been paid enough for the job. He only asked for a byline.

“I got a byline and from that point on I never stopped working as a photographer. I got so many calls and I was out every night,” he said. Buhl said he photographed weddings in Argentina, Paris, Bali, Indonesia, and all over the world. He even photographed the Olympics.

Henry Buhl has a striking resemblance to actor Sir Anthony Hopkins
Henry Buhl has a striking resemblance to actor Sir Anthony Hopkins (Photo courtesy of Henry Buhl)


Lucky Hand

Buhl is not as widely known for the photographs he took during his years as a wedding photographer, but more for the photos he has collected. His collection includes 1,100 images of hands—either famous hands or hands taken by famous photographers.

His collection began in 1993, when his girlfriend at the time asked if he would like to see a picture of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands taken in 1920 by the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

Doris Bry, who had been an assistant to O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, was selling what she claimed was the only silver gelatin of that picture.

The catch was, Bry wanted to sell it before eight palladium platinum prints were sold at a Christie’s auction a few days later.

The palladium prints were priced at $100,000 to $150,000 before the auction, so Bry sold Buhl her lesser-valued print for around $50,000.

On Oct. 8, 1993, just two days after he purchased his silver print, the palladium prints sold for an astonishing $398,000, sending the value of his print to $200,000.

Buhl called his acquisition a “very lucky thing.”

“It took me six more months to go out and buy my second-hand picture,” he said. “I just bought well-known artists to begin with. Later on, when I got more confidence, I started buying unknown artists.”

His collection was featured at the Guggenheim in New York City in 2004 and has since traveled all over the globe.

This December, Buhl will sell his photograph collection at Sotheby’s.

Celebrities to Street Sweeping

In 1992, Buhl said he often noticed a man sweeping the sidewalks near his photography studio in SoHo.

“When we would come back from lunch, we would often see him sleeping in a door well and figured he had been to Fanelli’s Cafe and had too much to drink,” Buhl recalled.

One day that summer, Buhl said the man approached him and asked to borrow $20. He balked, saying, “Why should I give you $20? You have a job.”

The man told Buhl he had been fired. Buhl was not surprised.

Buhl found out the man had worked for Tony Goldman, a local real estate broker, and he paid Goldman a visit to find out if he would be hiring another sweeper. Goldman, who had just purchased property in Miami, told Buhl he would not be around for the next few years but gave his blessing to find a replacement.

Buhl had no idea where to look, and his assistant suggested the Bowery Residence Committee, a government-funded organization that helped rehabilitate the homeless.

The executive at the Bowery Residence Committee explained the vicious cycle that he noticed the men in his program go through. He said they would rehabilitate the men, but because they had criminal records, they were not offered jobs and would end up back on the streets.

Buhl saw an opportunity to not only help keep his streets clean, but a way to help get these men out of the cycle of homelessness.

Buhl asked the executive if he could recommend a man for a street sweeping job and if he did well, Buhl would hire him for an outside job. Buhl said the executive, “threw up his hands and said, ‘hallelujah, you could be my savior!'”

Buhl bought some rolling garbage pails, brooms, designed a logo, and started the SoHo Partnership with one man on the streets. “Within three months, we had eight people on the street and eight different routes,” Buhl said.

Over the years he added partnerships all over the city, helping homeless people escape the cycle by providing them not just with something to do, but the skills and a support network to live on their own.

In 1997, all the partnerships were put under the umbrella of one organization, the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless, or ACE. Buhl is still active in the organization today.

Henry Buhl was successful for 25 years in the financial world, traveled the world as a celebrity wedding photographer, and became a world-renowned art collector and local philanthropist. If you meet him on the streets however, you might not know who he is, but notice his striking resemblance to actor Sir Anthony Hopkins.

He said he signs autographs as Anthony Hopkins all the time. “They put pictures of me in the papers here and say, ‘Sir Anthony Hopkins was buying a hot dog on the street.’ They thought he [Hopkins] was buying it.”

The striking resemblance to celebrity royalty is just the icing on the cake for a man whom fortune has smiled upon for much of his life.