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PHOTOGRAPHY INTO ART INTO MONEY

 

Nacho Lopez
Photo courtesy of Instituto de México, Paris

 

 

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 30 AUGUST 2007—Art follows commerce, and connoisseurship follows art. Amsterdam and New York became centers of art making only after locals earned fortunes. Ars gratia artis ("art for art’s sake") has its defenders, but it makes for a bad business model and for artists with permanent day jobs—as servitors for locals striving to earn fortunes. And who, however lofty one’s aesthetic ideals, wants to be the only one in town not making money?

On the trail of the artists who come on the trail of the businessmen and bankers come the gallery owners. They may legitimately believe in the transformative power of art, but to hear them speak in sidebars at auction houses and at arts fairs is to hear art spoken of as a commodity: "I let Miriam have the run of the back room before the show, and she grabbed the Damien Hirst; I moved both Warhols and a Larry Rivers the first evening…"

In the first century and change since its invention, photography rarely suffered from such utilitarian but necessary degradations by art vendors because it was not considered a proper art, much in the way that novels were enjoyed but were not considered true literature for a long time after their popularity had been secured. The topic is one of debate, but it is possible to look to 1969, the year of the opening of the Witkin Gallery in New York, as the decisive turn that took photography on the road to acceptance as collectible art. There were informal rules: black & white only, please. Prices were denominated in the hundreds of dollars, in the main, but it was all quite an advance for a medium long held in suspicion because of its dependence on a mechanical device used by nearly everyone. Even now, there are purists who insist that, if a camera can make art, so can a can opener.

"Fine-art photography" had come of age aesthetically long before: in the 1920s, when it generally stopped trying to look like Impressionist painting and found its own visual "grammar," to borrow a phrase from music that music borrowed from writing. Different schools developed, but they were united in the idea that a photograph can be art and that an art photograph is a revelation of visual truth, abstracted into monochrome and two dimensions. Photography had a few relatively secluded decades to set its own aesthetic standards and to develop a collective oeuvre. On the business side, the major auction houses began trading in photographic prints—about as sure a sign of mainstream acceptance as an avant-garde actor earning his own TV series. Gradations of value were assigned not merely by virtue of edition numbering, as with other forms of printmaking, but by the distance in time from negative to print, with vintage prints—those made at or near the time of the exposure of the negative—being the most valuable. (A "vintage print" has been defined as one made by the photographer before he learned how to print properly, and it is frequently the case that later prints, made with the benefit of hindsight and better technology, are not only far cheaper than earlier ones but also vastly superior in quality.) In a medium in which blow-ups can be large or small, when it comes to value, size matters, with price going up somewhat in proportion to print size.

The community of galleries that developed around the embrace of photography as art was a committed core, roughly divided among: (a) those with an eye toward pioneering works in shades of sepia created in the nineteenth century; (b) sellers of the twin classical movements of the twentieth-century: "street" photography brought to fruition, most notably in the USA and France, by the introduction of the Leica 35mm camera, and the big-negative, detail-rich works in rugged shades of black and gray made by Group f/64; and (c) the brave and the few willing to support contemporary photography, including (at long last) color works. For a modern medium, photography quickly settled into a period of classicism, with many of its old masters still alive and with the most rare and sought-after photographic prints trading in the thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars.

And so rested the photography market, the engine humming at idle, watching with incredulity as the market for contemporary art in all media began a race from rationality. There are a number of reasons why that happened, but the simplest is that, just as art follows money, new art follows new money. With many good works by the great dead of art history already in museums and private collections, contemporary art represented open, unharvested ground. And if you are new at collecting, it is easy to get caught in the spectacle of it all: organizers of art fairs such as Art Basel Miami and TEFAF Maastricht boast about the number of private planes visiting their annual events. Contemporary artists are conveniently yet among the living, so there is fun in meeting them, and because they are alive, they have designated galleries that represent them, forming a network of relationships based on money, parties and general comradery. And the fact that you don’t really have to have studied or know much about the history of art to collect what’s new in art can’t be underestimated; you may have plenty of quiet time on your private jet to read Jacob Burkhardt or Kenneth Clark on Titian or van Dyck, but who would entertain the guests you’ve brought along to watch you spend $100,000 for a canvas by a promising twenty-eight-year-old from Yunnan Province or Macon County?

Around the turn of this century, word started filtering out of Paris that photography was just another medium of contemporary art. That could mean only one thing: contemporary photography was undervalued. For a once non-art that now not only has its old masters but traditional business practices, it has been rather a shock. Just as it now proves possible to pay more for a Jeff Koons than a Corot or for a Cy Twombly than a Rembrandt, Andreas Gursky, as the current record holder for the most expensive photograph ever taken (a color image of a discount store that went earlier this year for $3.3 million), apparently can sell one photograph for more than a museum full of old master photographers. Naturally, that will have a trickle-down effect: as with so many photographers who exhibit today, I can only say that, so appalled was I on hearing the first reports of the Gursky excess, I was moved to call my gallery and raise my own prices.

The new grammar of photography as contemporary art owes something to the earlier rise of photorealism: photography again imitating painting, only this time it is imitating painting that imitates or at least references photography. The new photography is often a seemingly incongruous blend of artifice and literalism that, as with all incongruities in art, occasionally produces sheer brilliance and mostly produces piles of high kitsch, meaning fine art that aspires toward resonance but accomplishes only easy sensation. In contemporary art, the common result is merely a cheap thrill. The problem with any newly minted kitsch is that you don’t know it when you see it; because it is so new, it even passes for cool. Victorians didn’t know the academic paintings they bought for their parlors were kitsch; they thought the art was quite in the mode, which it was. It’s always left to later generations to tell us that we were idiots to think the art of our time delivered so much more than it did.


Jeff Wall: "After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Preface, 1999-2001."
Photo courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago

As in years past, spring in New York brought major photography exhibitions at city museums, annual dealer fairs at the Seventh Regiment Armory, and the semi-annual photography auctions at the major houses. At The Museum of Modern Art, the Jeff Wall exhibition was attracting considerable notice. Wall is one of the photographers who have walked the bridge from photography to contemporary art; indeed, on its website page for the exhibition, MoMA upgraded his status from "photographer" to "artist." Wall’s works are large-format images, lighted from behind in light box format, of scenes staged by Wall—scenes inhabited by the stylized, illusory reality of cinema. When Wall wanted to photograph people waiting to get into a Vancouver nightclub, he had the club’s façade built in his studio, then separately captured and digitally assembled the pieces. In Wall’s photography, expression works according to plan, as in painting, making it the polar opposite to street photography (a bad term now supplanted by a worse one: "documentary" photography). The very point of documentary photography is that the photographer has revealed and ultimately interpreted a found, authentic event in a blink of an eye—that is (to use the famous phrase of Henri Cartier-Bresson), in the "decisive moment."

The fact that Wall, while alive and healthy, gets about one million dollars for a meticulously planned image and that late prints of iconic Henri Cartier-Bresson photographs have soared since the master’s death in 2004 from $4,500 to about $18,000 gives a hint of the upside down world that the photography market has become. It was only a few years ago that the photographic world tittered with indignation at the news that Robert Doisneau’s famous The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville (1950)—an image of a couple in full-bore smooch while the street life of Paris raced unnoticed around them—was not a decisive moment but a staged event, done with paid models. General indignation came from a sense of being cheated, of the photographer not having played fair under the rules of the game as then written. So faithfully did collectors believe in those rules, no one seemed to notice, despite the passage of decades, that the same models are apparently the couple seen kissing in another popular Doisneau image, Square du Vert-Galant (1950). Doisneau, even in death, does not command one million dollars for a print; he died (in 1994) a photographer, not an artist.


Robert Doisneau: Sur le canal
Photo : Robert Doisneau
Photo courtesy of La Mairie de Paris
From exhibition Robert Doisneau: Paris en liberté at the Hôtel de Ville

At the Works on Paper show at the armory this season, photography was treated like any other art made on fiber. A Swedish gallery was profiling the large photographs of a friend of a friend; I’d remembered the photographer from a Park Avenue party as both engaging and charming, but on display here was a self portrait showing her seated, one breast exposed, enthusiastically masturbating. Contemporary content is about nothing if not shock and self-absorption, and as I’ve demonstrated on these pages before, I support female autoeroticism in all its forms. More particularly, I wrote favorably about Christian Schad’s Two Girls (1928), executed in oil on canvas; the photograph, however, showed why the grammar of painting and photography split early on: what passes as inventive, profound and even lyrical in painting will, due to the literalism of the camera as a recording device, come across as crass and undignified in photography. I won’t say more about it because I believe the photographer has good work ahead of her, and because we all have our lapses and have bills to pay.

The Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) also held its annual show at the armory, following close upon Works on Paper. "There has been a big collision with contemporary art, and we’re trying to untangle it after it some got welded together on impact," said Burt Finger of Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery, which has just moved to a new location in Dallas. "It’s getting hard to tell the photographers from the painters without a catalogue," he added. "The prices are outrageous because we have collided with the art market we have taken on a bit of the luster of the art market—for good or bad, I don't know."

Peter Fetterman, who has an airy, eponymous gallery in Santa Monica, had also participated in Works on Paper and is well known for supporting decisive-moment photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sebastião Salgado. "It’s a booming market, isn’t it?" he said. "I think the whole of the photography market is exploding," with the effect that his segment of the market was benefiting from the collision of the new photography with contemporary art. However, he immediately added a note of caution: "I think the contemporary segment of the market is playing roulette.  You have to ask which of these artists will have longevity and I'm a little disturbed by that.  Some of these people are just out of photo school but are extremely hyped up," which is why, whatever the temptations presented by the new, Mr. Fetterman is sticking with the old masters and with living exponents of decisive-moment photography such as Salgado and Elliott Erwitt.

At his booth in a far corner, my fellow New Orleanian Joshua Mann Pailet, whose relaxed French Quarter gallery I’d recently visited, now added, "We’re drawing a bigger audience. Serious collectors are coming from other disciplines these days, such as painting; there is definitely a lot of drift and it’s affecting prices."

I’d not heard of Mona Kuhn before, but I counted at least three galleries showing her big color prints of good-looking young people at a nudist colony in France. I’d also not heard of Steven Klein, but Wessel + O’Connor Fine Art of Brooklyn carried his series showing a set of Clairol-blond German triplets and the fashion designer Tom Ford in various tableaux. The most intriguing of the series had Mr. Ford preparing to buff the bare backside one of the three with an electric furniture polisher while his brothers held him by the arms and legs, presumably burning with sibling jealousy over not sharing the experience. That picture brought a bit of artspeak from a gallery representative—about how the artist is providing commentary on the relationship between celebrity and reality in contemporary society. Because I don’t care all that much for explanations, I was quite content to read the image as: "There is Tom Ford, dressed in a nicely tailored suit, buffing a German’s bare ass." The very fact that an explanation was deemed necessary, however, shows one of the problems arising from the painful transition from photography to contemporary art: until now, photography has never required an explanation to be understood. Everyone "gets" a good photograph—the cognoscenti simply get it at a higher, more complex level. Much contemporary visual art, in contrast, fails as art without the buttress of verbal or written explanation.

To illustrate: some years ago, the Whitney Museum had an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. Whether it was a picture of an aircraft carrier at sea or rank homoerotic pornography, everyone who came to the exhibition understood what he was seeing. In contrast, I once latched onto a tour given at one of the museum’s sometimes-tortuous biennial reviews of American art. The docent took us to what looked like a rack of dishtowels made of plastic. The more our narrator talked, explaining the artist’s methods, intentions and Weltanschauung, the more the dishtowels grew into art. As soon as the docent left, however, the part of what I was looking at that was art picked up and trailed behind him, leaving me to stare once more at dishtowels. It was in part from that experience that I’ve developed Behr’s First Law of Contemporary Art: to be art, a work must be art independent of commentary. That is, if a piece needs to be explained in order to be understood by a reasonably sophisticated audience, it isn’t art. The contagion of required explanation has now passed to photography in its celebration as contemporary art—and it is likely to continue to spread, carried by the parasite of overpricing.

Unfortunately for me, I suppose, I’m strictly old school in my working habits: I shoulder camera and lens, stick some black & white film into a pocket (digital capture isn’t quite there yet), and off I go, preferably around New York City or Paris—the world’s two best cities for revealing the human comedy. I work from that faith that spurs on all decisive-moment photographers: the images are always there; if you don’t bring back interesting photographs, it’s because you’ve not been open to finding them. I continue to gain warm satisfaction from having never shown a sophisticated person a photograph and have him respond, "What does that mean, exactly?"

In all eras, all thinking men and women remember how much better things were when they were young; in truth, we only delude ourselves into believing that life was better back then, when it is youth itself that we miss. Yet I can fondly recall the time that, while I was still in college, I asked Ansel Adams what it would cost for a print of his incomparable Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California (1944); he answered it came in two sizes, for $300 and $500 respectively. My mother stepped in to remind me that both trust funds on which I depended for support were compellingly underfunded. I reflect on that missed opportunity each time I see the current auction estimates of later prints of the image, which run in the $30,000 to $50,000 range, but when you consider how far south of one million dollars you need spend for a masterpiece by an old master of the medium, we classicists can still take heart.

Alan Behr contributed to the Postcards from Paris show at Leica Gallery in New York this summer. Based in New York, he writes on art and photography for Culturekiosque.com .

 

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