Catching the moment

Contemporary photography has been elevated to a new level of legitimacy within the art world. Buy now, says Emma Crichton-Miller, while prices remain competitive.

September 04 2010
Emma Crichton-Miller

Earlier this year, in the grand surroundings of Somerset House, an exhibition of photographs opened. Called A Positive View, this was a charity show – almost all the work was auctioned at Christie’s on April 15 in aid of Crisis, the homelessness charity – and all the 100 or more signed vintage and contemporary works had been donated by the artists or their representatives. Among outstanding pieces by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Horst P Horst, Irving Penn, Mario Testino and other big names, were two prints by novices: a photograph of Prince William by Jeff Hubbard, a formerly homeless person, and a photograph by Prince William of Jeff Hubbard.

Knocked down for £24,000, the Crisis Royal Diptych was the media-friendly draw: two huge colour images, overseen by the leading fashion photographer Rankin, which were advertisements for contemporary photography’s democratic, levelling spirit. But the real revelation of the event was the sheer range of work on offer. There was gritty photojournalism from Don McCullin (an image of a man walking home past an armed soldier in Northern Ireland in 1971) but also from the Iranian photographer Abbas Kowsari; there were glamorous portraits of Kate Moss and Audrey Hepburn, but also giant images of homeless men, by Roderik Henderson; there were classic fashion photos from Frank Horvat and Mario Testino, and painterly still-lifes, of quite different moods, by Sheila Metzner (of a lily, 1980) and Robert Polidori (of damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina, 2006).

There were documentary images capturing Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” and elaborately staged constructions, such as Wang Qingsong’s Another Battle #2; there were moody monochrome landscapes and luridly coloured urban images and one of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s monumental industrialised landscapes; there were photographs by long-established professional photographers and artful images by “lens-based artists” and photographs by clients of Crisis that stood their ground. Above all, there was work by artists from all across the world – from China, Korea, Iran, India and Africa as well as Europe and North and South America.

This was the third edition of A Positive View (the first ran in 1994, the second in 2000) and offered as neat a summary as you could wish of how decisively the field of collectable photography has changed over the intervening 10 years. The traditional categories – Magnum-style photojournalism, fashion, landscape, travel, celebrity images, historical images, art photography – are still there, but augmented by work that challenges, crosses and transcends these boundaries. Old hierarchies of value setting colour against black-and-white, or differentiating techniques and formats, have broken down before the overwhelming technical advances of digital technology. And the idea that photography is to be valued, above all, as a representation of reality has given way to a more nuanced appreciation that truth through photography can be achieved by many routes, including artifice. What matters is the strength and resonance of the image, both formal and conceptual.

For much of its existence, since its birth in the 1840s, photography has been regarded as an illegitimate sibling of true art, an offspring of the creative imagination’s misguided dalliance with the real and the mechanical. Throughout that time there have been great artists using photography and, indeed, inspired collectors who have seen the beauty and cultural significance of this art form. But it is only over the past 10 years or so that photography has finally thrown off this second-class status.

By a twist of this much-bemoaned fate, it is this late-coming to the art table that makes it a particularly interesting medium to collect today. The re-evaluation of classic photography has only just begun. You can buy prints that have defined not just the history of photography but epochs of taste for a fraction of the sum you’d spend on a modern painting or contemporary sculpture. You can buy contemporary photographs – an image by the young, fashionable American Ryan McGinley, a Jeff Wall, even a piece by the older master William Eggleston – for thousands, tens of thousands or, for the best, hundreds of thousands of pounds, whereas a contemporary painting or sculpture by an artist of similar stature would start at the kind of price where photography ends.

The most expensive photograph ever to be sold at auction was a vividly coloured print by the contemporary German photographer Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001), which sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2007 for £1.7m. Before that, the most expensive photograph had been the grand master Edward Steichen’s The Pond – Moonlight, a beautiful, impressionistic, softly coloured image from 1904, which sold at Sotheby’s New York a year earlier for $2.9m.

Even that barrier-crashing figure is a fraction of the price attained by Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932), which in May became the most expensive work of art ever bought at auction, fetching $106m (£70m) – superseding the record of $104m set just three months earlier by Giacometti’s sculpture Walking Man I (1960).

Whereas in the past it would have been unthinkable to have allowed critical comparison between these different media, today that barrier is eroding. So for the moment at least, there is a price gap yet increasingly less of a gap in cultural value – and that is good news for canny collectors.

There are many reasons for the surge of interest in photography. One is the erosion of two long-held objections: first, that photography as a creative process is intrinsically mechanical; and, second, that more than one print may exist. Contemporary art is made in so many different ways, with degrees of artist involvement – from elbow deep in materials to arm’s-length fabrication to all the potential of digital media – that the camera itself seems a modestly artisanal intervention. And as for limited editions – well, as Tim Jefferies, director of Hamiltons Gallery, a leading source of traditionally made photographs by modern masters such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Helmut Newton, reminded me, “that Giacometti sculpture was an edition too”.

Another factor has undoubtedly been the belated, but now enthusiastic, embracing of photography by Britain’s leading cultural institutions. Whereas MoMA in New York established a photography department in 1940, Tate Modern ran its first big photography show in 2003. Tate Britain’s How We Are: Photographing Britain in 2007 was the first major exhibition here of British photography. Now, with the recent arrival of Tate’s first dedicated curator of photography, Simon Baker, it is to be hoped that things will change. There is finally a recognition in the UK, as in the US and France and Germany, that photography is as central a medium for contemporary art as any other.

A glance at current and upcoming shows just in London – Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera at Tate Modern (until October 3); Eadweard Muybridge at Tate Britain (September 8-January 16 2011); Camille Silvy: Photographer of Modern Life at the National Portrait Gallery (until October 24); and Shadow Catchers at the Victoria and Albert Museum (October 13-February 20 2011) – suggests a determined institutional endeavour to get us all up to speed.

The Photographers’ Gallery has recently moved to new premises in Soho and is planning to open two more floors next year. This is a primary place to start looking at and buying photography, from work by recent graduates to past masters such as Jacques Henri Lartigue, Sebastião Salgado and Lee Miller. As its director Brett Rogers explains: “There is phenomenal interest in and appetite for photography.” The scene in London may not yet bear comparison with New York or Paris, where there are many galleries, dealers and photography fairs, but it is definitely making rapid progress.

Even the recession hasn’t much dented collectors’ enthusiasm. Historically, downturns have been kind to photography – prompting a boost in the early 1990s and last year protecting the market against the kind of dramatic falls seen in other sectors. Confidence is returning to the market – reflected at Phillips de Pury, which last year appointed a new photography specialist in London, Louise Proud, and at Bonhams in London, which has just launched a dedicated photography department under Jocelyn Phillips: “The company could see that there was a demand and that this is a very popular, ubiquitous medium,” she says.

Both Phillips and Proud are themselves connoisseurs of vintage photography, and love the nitty-gritty of traditional connoisseurship: “It’s the hand printing and the papers and the chemicals that make photography so special,” says Proud, who talks of the excitement of owning an original print of one of the many images – whether a sublime portrait by Mapplethorpe or a war photograph by British photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths – that have become part of our collective memory: “How can you not be moved by that moment of history, captured?” says Proud. But both also recognise that part of the renewed interest in this field is owing to the trail blazed by contemporary art photographs.

For Philippe Garner, international head of photographs at Christie’s, whose career spans four decades, the biggest change over the past decade has been the shift in focus among collectors from 19th- and early-20th-material to postwar and contemporary photography: “There is a sense of excitement and ownership about the recent past. If you are buying relatively new work it is also a given that it will be perfect – it doesn’t involve the same levels of detective work, scholarship or connoisseurship.” Although the stars of the salerooms are still the modern masters – Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton – younger names, such as Robert Polidori, are coming through.

ArtTactic, the art market analysts, reported recently that the contemporary photography segment of current dedicated photography sales increased its market share from 21 per cent in 2008 to 33 per cent in 2009. “What we’ve also seen over the past decade is a significant expansion in creative photography,” Garner adds. The historic value of the photograph as a witness to the truth has been radically undermined by the Photoshopping tools now available to everyone. Conversely, the medium’s value to myth-makers and storytellers has increased enormously: “Since the advent of digital, it’s so much easier than it was. The artisanship of the darkroom is becoming a thing of the past.” And while in the darkroom, black-and-white photography is king, “now colour is the defining photography of our age,” says Garner.

A show of William Eggleston’s work at the Whitney in late 2008 drew more than 120,000 visitors to this American founding father of colour photography. He is revered for his capacity to transform the banal into the beautiful through colour and composition, and a recent exhibition of his work at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery confirmed his status in the UK. A selection of 75 images from his lifetime’s masterpiece, Los Alamos (a 2,200-image collection photographed between 1965 and 1974) was sold at Christie’s New York in 2008 for $1.02m, but individual Eggleston prints can be had for as little as $4,000. In Europe, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Paul Graham and Martin Parr, among others, have championed colour since the 1980s.

The real difficulty today for the aspiring collector is the sheer plethora of photography available. Ben Burdett, director of Atlas Gallery for 15 years, describes how, in response, the once-unified tradition he presides over has broken down. “In common with a lot of photography galleries, we don’t have a specialism. But increasingly you will see a lot more galleries dealing exclusively in contemporary photography. There is also an enormously valuable, hugely collectable market still in classic black-and-white 20th-century images, with many serious collectors of Modern British art now broadening into blue-chip names.”

Whereas in the past Burdett and other photography specialists were used to dealing with a handful of obsessives, now their collectors buy across all media – sculpture, painting, prints and drawings as well as photography: “And the huge amount of interest in contemporary art has encouraged increasing numbers of photographers to aim their sights there.” After all, as Burdett points out, while his most expensive Irving Penn print goes for around £250,000, a photography-based work of art by Gilbert and George can sell for getting on for £2m.

Many of the most ambitious artist photographers therefore now almost exclusively show in art galleries – Jeff Wall, Sam Taylor-Wood, Gregory Crewdson and Andreas Gursky, for instance, at White Cube; or Sally Mann, Richard Prince, Taryn Simon and Alec Soth at Gagosian. Here they are joined by the increasing numbers of artists who cross borders between photography and other art forms.

For Alison Jacques, whose central London gallery deals in both photography and contemporary art, this is as it should be: “I refuse to accept the photography/art distinction. I advise people interested in photography not to go to a photography gallery but to go to a gallery where there are artists using photography.”

She feels that keeping photographers in a separate category encourages special pleading. Since 1999 she has represented the estate of Robert Mapplethorpe: “This sets the bar very high,” she says. There is no doubt in her mind that Mapplethorpe was an artist of a very high calibre: “He created his own language through photography.” The few photography-based artists she represents, including American Ryan McGinley and the British artist Catherine Yass, are, in her eyes, just very good artists: “Ryan McGinley’s project Moonmilk (shown here last autumn) was very successful on every level. Catherine Yass has found her unique voice using a lightbox.”

But if Jacques represents the future of photography, there is currently, almost in reaction, a parallel growing interest in the infant world of photography these artists are leaving behind. As Michael Hoppen, whose Chelsea gallery opened in 1993, explains to me over the phone from the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, which has, for the first time, allowed a handful of photography galleries to exhibit: “Here I am surrounded by 400-year-old works of art, yet photography is only 160 years old. It is still in the process of being born.”

As photography shifts from the printed page into cyberspace, so there is a noticeable rekindling of excitement in the art form’s origins: “I am taking care of the last years of photography on paper, while we still have analogue and paper,” says Hoppen.

From whichever point of view you look at it, photography is at a turning point. The opportunities are there either for collectors to gather up what will become an increasingly valuable archive of seminal images from the past; or, for those inclined to ride the contemporary wave, to follow photography into an increasingly diverse art world that now welcomes its younger sibling as a peer.

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