Photography - the Accessible, Affordable Darling of the Art World
When I was a little boy, my father’s Nikon cameras, with their gleaming lenses and technical paraphernalia, became the greatest objects of my desire. By the time I was eleven, my father bought me my own camera, and I became a photographer. The year was 1976. In the four decades since then, we have witnessed and participated in an explosive growth in the impact of photography on our lives, on society and on art.
What differentiates photography from other art forms is that it depicts images of the world around us with such realism that every photograph becomes a believable piece of truth. No other visual art form is as universally understood or as accessible to all people.
The digital age has made it easy for the world’s 7.6 billion people take pictures. Photography now defines how we interact with the world. Anyone with a cell phone can take and share images, Facebook is approaching 2 billion users, and we experience life through online imagery. This wasn’t the case a mere twenty years ago.
From the introduction of Louis Daguerre’s process in 1839 until Alfred Stieglitz’s 1902 Photo-Secession Exhibit at the National Arts Club in New York, photography was considered no more than a technical craft. Stieglitz’s vision as a photographer and as a leader of the modern art movement is credited with elevating it to an art form. Nonetheless, for most of the 20th century it remained a second-class art form, dominated by commercial work, glamour and journalism.
It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that auction houses started including photographs in their sales and until the late 70’s to early 80’s that photography galleries like Hamiltons in London and Howard Greenberg in New York first appeared on the scene. Today, photography can be found in virtually every important contemporary art gallery in the world. The market for photographs has also gone up tremendously in value in recent years. Fortunately, it is still a place where wonderful art can be found for relatively low prices.
I have illustrated this article with images by Stephen DiRado, Maureen Drennan, Cyrus Mahboubian and Raphael Shammaa. They are among my favorite contemporary photographers and are excellent examples of well-respected, critically reviewed artists whose works are powerful and undervalued.
Aquinnah MA Jenny August 21 2017, by Stephen DiRado
Worcester, Massachusetts based photographer, Stephen DiRado received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012 for his soulful and deeply intimate documentary images of ordinary people going about the rituals of their lives. He shoots the images on large format 8 x 10 film from which he produces beautiful silver gelatin prints. In today’s instant digital world his photographs are all but disposable. http://stephendirado.com
Shannan, by Maureen Drennan from the series Broad Channel
New York photographer Maureen Drennan shoots sensitive and probing images of private lives. Her work has been included in exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, the Tacoma Art Museum, The Rhode Island School of Design Museum, The Aperture Foundation and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center among others. She also has a book, titled The Sea That Surrounds Us, has received numerous critic reviews and currently teaches at the International Center of Photography. http://maureendrennan.net
Man With Panama Hat, by Raphael Shammaa
Egyptian born photographer Raphael Shammaa captures familiar images that feel like a fleeting memory, maybe from a daydreamor a from a lazy drift to where the mind wants to wander. His work has been widely published and is supported by important critics like Elizabeth Avedon and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe writer Mark Feeney. He has a book titled The Simplicity of the Moment.www.raphaelshammaa.com
Untitled image, 2015, from the Mulholland series, by Cyrus Mahboubian
London based photographer Cyrus Mahboubian (full disclosure: he is a cousin of the author) works exclusively in analog media, using mostly Polaroid type instant films. He has shown at the 11th Photografia Europea, SCOPE Miami, Photo LA and the Moscow Photo Salon as well as in galleries throughout Europe and in the United States. www.mahboubian.com
The photography collector’s market
For the collector entering the photography market for the first time, there are some concepts specific to this market that would be useful to know about, but the same rules apply as for buying any art. Never buy something you don’t love; never buy art assuming it will go up in value; and if you disagree with your spouse or partner on aesthetics, take turns choosing pieces rather than settling on a compromise each time. The best way to avoid a mistake is to do the research and then make an informed decision.
The photo market can be broken down into three broad subject groups: 19th century photographs, 20th century commercial work, and contemporary fine art photography. These categories can then be broken down further into sub-specialties, with specific markets and collectors for each type of work and some overlap between the categories.
It’s important to remember that most photographs are multiples, meaning that more than one print is made from the same negative or digital file. Prints have idiosyncrasies and each one is unique in its own way. In most cases, the value of a photograph is determined by the desirability of the image, together with the print’s rarity, quality, size, medium, historical significance, condition and provenance. The values for two otherwise identical prints can vary widely due to easy to overlook differences such as the paper quality, the condition, the signature or the printing date.
In the past, photographers usually made prints as they needed them. In recent years, it has become more common to print limited editions of a given image, often in two or three sizes. For example an image might be available as an edition of ten small prints with three artist proofs, as well as an edition of five medium sized prints with two artist proofs and an edition of three large prints with one artist proof. Once an edition has sold, no more prints will be made of the image in that size and the artist gets to keep the artist proofs for herself.
The pricing and rules for contemporary editions will vary from one artist or gallery to the next. Some will set the same price for each of the prints in an edition. Others will set a sliding scale that increases in price as an edition sells out and demand for it grows. It’s not uncommon for the last print in an edition to sell for twice the price of the first.
To the prospective collector of photography, I have one most important piece of advice. You can find photographs everywhere you look, so keep looking. Go to galleries and museums. Visit auction houses and, if possible attend the major international photography fairs like Photo London and Paris Photo, or AIPAD in New York. There is no substitute for seeing images up close and in person. The more you see, the more you will know.