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CYBERMARKETING THE FAMOUS, WELL-DRESSED AND NUDE

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 30 JULY 2008 — Every year or so I meet up with a Viennese art dealer who, knowing I'm a photographer, punctuates each rendez-vous by saying that Austrians do not understand, and will rarely buy, fine-art photography. You can debate whether the new virtual art gallery at www.photographerslimitededitions.com, recently launched from Vienna, refutes or supports that proposition.

As conceived by its founder, Andrea Preiss, the website sells complete series and single images by reputable photographers in the fields it defines as "art, fashion and celebrity" photography. That has been done before, but what is apparently new here is that all the photographers have established reputations and all works are sold as closed editions.

Virtually every type of traditional business has been attempted in an Internet-based equivalent. After much trial and error and the gaining and losing of paper fortunes, we now understand that it is fairly easy to sell staples over the Internet (such as jeans, groceries and airline tickets), but things of real value that commonly need to be seen and touched to be understood are not cyber-ready commodities. That has been the problem with Internet art sales, as Sotheby's found out when, after much expense, it was forced to shut down its online auction affiliate, switching its website to the support of its physical auctions.


Ben Watts: Wrestlers 1, Iowa, 2001
Print: Kodak Endura paper, 50x60 inches
Edition of: 7
© Ben Watts | All Rights Reserved
Photo courtesy of photographers limited editions

Preiss seeks to combat that with a formula. The first part of it is to sell new works, rather than to enter Sotheby's market, which is essentially for the resale of "used art." Photographs, as with other works on paper, are particularly fragile - easily damaged not merely by handling but by exposure to sunlight or even, longer term, to bright interior lighting. Once a photograph has been in the marketplace, the sophisticated prospective buyer knows to get a condition report and to have the auction house take the image from its frame so he can view it in raking light - the better to catch touchups and damage.

The second part of the formula is the closed edition, which has become something of a trend urged on photographers by gallery owners who, like monks, survivalists and other pessimists, thrive on limitations. (To be fair, art dealers, who daily gamble their savings on that painful intercession between the talents of artists and the tastes of patrons, deserve more respect than they've been given by art critics and historians.) The seemingly counter-intuitive idea behind a closed edition of something as easily reproducible as a photograph is to make the customer aware of the premature scarcity of the work and then steadily increase the price until the edition sells out. Because most photography still moves at prices that require the sales of quite a few copies to assure the photographer a comfortable retirement, any photographer who agrees to such a scheme for his best work had better first consult his financial advisor, unless...

He has a good day job, which is the case with those photographers in PhotographersLimitedEditions.com's stable. As the website's stated mission implies, most of them earn a living shooting fashion and other commercial projects. No dishonor there. What becomes quickly apparent from a stroll through the website, however, is that their collective definition of art photography references the eroticized entertainments of recently-departed masters such as Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe. As I've mentioned before on these pages, that style of photography, with its embrace of form over substance and its dependence on staged motifs from magazine illustration and advertising, produces works of shock and dazzle that form the photographic wing of the New Kitsch. Dragging fine art from the aesthetic of fashion photography of any age is tough work; Richard Avedon, perhaps the greatest fashion photographer of his day, produced maybe two photographs worth including in the medium's canon (Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955 and a portrait of Marilyn Monroe). But Christie's, where I have enhanced my own photographic stockpile, recently built an entire New York auction around a collection that included iconic New Kitsch images (displayed in tandem with a sale from a collection of works by the chief American yin to the New Kitsch yang, Ansel Adams). At the auction, a Michel Comte photograph of Carla Bruni (Madame Sarkozy), standing pigeon-toed and in the nude, went for $91,000, and one of Brigitte Bardot sold for twice that price. The market surely appears robust, and no one can fault an auction house, gallery or website from selling what the market will buy.

PhotographersLimitedEditions.com allows the better of today's fashion and glamour photographers to tap that market - to make and sell prints of photographs that have presumably done their commercial rounds. As I mentioned, art dealing is not a business for the faint-hearted, and I'd likely have launched the website with the kind of sure-hit works chosen by Preiss. We can only wish her success and hope that, as the site becomes profitable, she will add more substantial, emotionally resonant photography to her catalogue.


Marc Baptiste: Fishnet, 2005
C-Print, 50x70 inches
Edition of: 25
© Marc Baptiste | All Rights Reserved
Photo courtesy of photographers limited editions

In the meantime, if you are the kind of collector who likes the slickness, the unassailable professionalism and stylishness of New Kitsch, there is no reason not to consider the website an additional source for what you collect. And if, after you've bought works by respectable contemporary photographers such as Arthur Elgot (for Kate Moss standing, crescent-moon breast in view, on a table at Café Lipp in Paris) and Marc Baptiste (for a tight, sublime rump and thighs in fishnet stockings), you develop a taste for the transcendent art of August Sander, Josef Sudek and Edward Weston, to name three among dozens, PhotographersLimitedEditions.com will have done more than its share to promote and serve the medium.

Alan Behr is a partner at Alston & Bird LLP, where he practices intellectual-property law. He is profiled in the current issue of fotoMAGAZIN (Germany), www.fotomagazin.de; the feature includes excerpts from his series "The Good Life," a photographic chronicle of New York society.

Calendar Tips: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

Paris

Richard Avedon, Photographs 1946 - 2004
Through 28 September 2008
Jeu de Paume
Paris

Zurich

Jedermann Collection
Through 12 October 2008
Fotomuseum Winterthur
Zurich, Switzerland

Budapest

Soul and Body: Kertész to Mapplethorpe through the Eyes of the Greatest Masters of Photography
Through 24 August 2008
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Budapest, Hungary

Houston, Texas

Charles "Teenie" Harris: Rhapsody in Black and White
Until 2 August 2008
Blaffer Gallery / University of Houston
Houston, Texas
U.S.A.

Barcelona

Ramón Masats : La Nueva Mirada
Until 2 August 2008
Kowasa Gallery
Barcelona, Spain

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