Back in 1991, CEPA Gallery was the happy recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Advancement Grant for $55,000. Only trouble was, it came with a whopping stipulation: The photography gallery would have to match the amount three times over, and in only a two-year span.

What to do?

The answer came in the form of the CEPA Gallery first biennial Photography Art Auction. Attracting donations from local artists as well as from every part of the country and beyond, the event was a hit its first time out. Its immediate success allowed the gallery to negotiate the tricky bumps and hollows of the art economy of 1992.

With the help of auctions that would follow, CEPA not only survived but also established itself as one of the most vital and exciting photography organizations anywhere.

Now in its seventh year, the CEPA auction is more than a charging war horse of a fund-raiser. It has become known as an event that lays out a fabulous array of photography covering everything from the latest contemporary art to historical photographs. The auction is a place where collectors - or people who think they might want to become collectors - can get an overview of photographic art and perhaps acquire a piece by an artist of some note.

The CEPA seventh biennial Photography Art Auction will be held Saturday evening in the atrium of the Market Arcade - the building where CEPA is housed - at 617 Main St. The event will kick off with a reception at 5:30 that includes an open bar and an extensive array of hors d'oeuvres.

The auction will follow at 7. Former Christie's auctioneer Dale Stulz, well known from previous CEPA auctions, will conduct the bidding. The $45 ticket for the event includes the reception, plus drinks served during the auction itself. Wine pourers will cater to seated bidders. Call the gallery at 856-2717. Seating is limited.

A preview showing of all auction pieces is currently on view in the CEPA galleries through Friday. Or you can go online at to view the works. Absentee bids can be made online as well.

Lawrence Brose, CEPA executive director (and one of the artists whose work is up for bid), says this year's auction has been shortened considerably.

"Last time it ran well over three hours," Brose says. "We had 140 works, and it just took too much time to get through them all. This year, to quicken the pace, we decided to pare the number of pieces to 92. I think that it makes a more concentrated auction with more consistent quality."

If there is any kind of work that is vaguely related to the field of photography then it probably can be found in this auction. There are conventional camera-made photographs - images like Patricia Layman Bazelon's beautifully lyrical view of Lackawanna Steel's administration building at sunrise - and works that use the latest digital technology. Historical prints or more traditional modern works vie for attention with the most daring and innovation recent work.

A shot of the 1939 New York World's Fair by an unknown photographer is included, and further back, the painfully nostalgic 1910 hand-colored picture, "Eventide," by Londoner Percy F. Murray, an artist who eventually landed in Williamsville. The recent work ranges from Ellen Cary's optical abstractions and Michael Bosworth's 3-D light box to Peter Goin's C-print of an inexplicable nude middle-aged woman wandering into a starkly illuminated forest.

Like Cary, Goin is a famous name. These two are joined by a host of highly collected photographers. Onetime Buffalonian Cindy Sherman is there, as she always is, and so is the formidable John Baldessari. Baldessari says his work is "a lifelong venture of trying to put a square peg in a round hole, of trying somehow to make a hybrid out of painting and photography."

"Hybrid" is the operative word for many of the works. An actual old camera with a painted scene with toy figures inside makes up an intriguing piece by Joshua R. Marks, while Gerald C. Mead Jr. incorporates a slide viewer to reveal tiny collages. Brose's image is a print extracted from one of his films. Joseph Sheer makes dauntingly intricate scans of actual butterflies. And Juan Perdiguero assembles multiple photographic pieces to fashion a squat little bulldog.

Among the other figures of international fame is the familiar William Wegman, who gives us another dog - this one a devilishly cute puppy exposing its round belly. Other artists of fame include the always surreal Jerry Uelsmann and one of Buffalo's most noted photographers, John Pfahl.

And then there's Milton Rogovin, who donated his 1973 juke-joint photo called "Johnny and Zeke Dancing." Rogovin is also the Honorary Artist Chair for the auction. (Auction chairs are Robert Travers and Shuman Basuroy, with former Albright-Knox Art Gallery director Douglas Schultz and George Eastman House director Anthony Bannon serving as honorary co-chairs.)

From even this brief summary, anyone can see that this is a collection of staggering variety. But it is not just a collection that skips merrily over the rich surface of what photography offers. It also reveals the incredible invention of photographers, how they range over all sorts of subjects and continually find new ways to treat these subjects. It puts on display a wild array of techniques, some as old as photography itself, others that arrived with the new millennium.

This is an auction, yes. But it is also a statement about the state of photography today.