‘To collect photographs is to collect the world,’ said essayist Susan Sontag. Judging by auction results at Christie’s, Phillips de Pury and Sotheby’s in New York this spring, all of a sudden collecting photographs costs the earth too. Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent diptych broke all records at $3 million, and more than $37m was spent on photographs in April alone.
The collectors were treated to the very best: Ansel Adams, Stieglitz, Margaret Cameron, Irving Penn, Mapplethorpe, Man Ray, Fox Talbot, Weston, Paul Strand, Avedon and on and on through the greats. Sumptuous, haunting, raw and ravishingly stylish — they couldn’t get enough of them.
All this for works that, until recently, much of the art world wouldn’t call art at all. Some commentators said the New York sales were merely evidence of new billionaires throwing indiscriminate money around. But surely what we’re seeing, at last, is photography being taken seriously.
It has to be said that photographs are easier to fall in love with than much contemporary art. No matter what techniques are used, every eye can read them in an augenblick. Photography is about us: our humdrum reality, our icons, our mythology and our world.
When did photography begin to rise to the stature of art? Was it Robert Mapplethorpe’s magnificent, uncompromising images that did it? Or David Hockney’s mind-altering Polaroid collages? Was it the persistence of the Rencontre d’Arles photography fair? Perhaps Sontag’s book On Photography? And will Leibowitz’s magnificent portrait of the Queen convince the last doubters? I don’t know.
I ask some photographers and get surprising answers. Tony Snowdon stops me in horror. ‘Art? It’s certainly not art!’ he says. ‘I take pictures because I’m a very bad painter and it’s so much quicker.’ But he does admit exceptions, ‘There are great photographers. Cartier-Bresson. Irving Penn.’ And he stops right there.
I try Terry O’Neil. ‘It’s staggering the amount of money being spent on photographs,’ he says. He thinks he was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. That’s how he got great shots of Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn and many others (he just sold a limited-edition print of Frank Sinatra on the boardwalk to Arnold Schwarzenegger). But if you push him, he’ll admit that photography is art. ‘The eye, the composition, is everything,’ he says.
David Montgomery is unsettled by the recent sales. ‘I know the business is growing,’ he says. ‘Galleries have started doing numbered editions and it’s all gone crazy.’ He’s not complaining — a limited boxed edition of his portraits went for nearly £30,000 at the Scream Gallery. ‘Is it art? Good question.’
All of them agree that, in part, what’s driving the market is scarcity. Like glaciers, traditional photographs taken on film and hand-printed by masters are disappearing. The negative has been superseded by the chip, and the darkroom print replaced by Iris inkjets.
A minority are excited by the possibilities of digital photography. On the other hand, Don McCullin, David Hockney, leading gallerists like Michael Hoppen and many, many others, are passionately against it. As far as they’re concerned the chemical age of photography had truth, and now we have nothing but manipulated digital lies.
Digital prints are supposed to be archive quality, and inkjet manufacturers maintain that the inks will last. But no one can prove it. Master printers will tell you that the image on a silver gelatin print is embedded into the paper (like a fresco) and looks alive, whereas digital ink lies on the surface and looks like dead data. For serious collectors, after an original signed darkroom print, next best are vintage editions — printed within five years of the shoot. Last come later limited editions and digital prints, which are to be avoided.
There are still opportunities to collect originals at reasonable prices. Small auctions are popping up in Lisbon, Paris and elsewhere. Important galleries have appeared in backwaters, like the IPG in Battle with its Terry O’Neil award for newcomers and interesting work by Malcolm Glover and others. The Michael Hoppen gallery will be showing at the Photo-London fair this year among 56 exhibitors from ten countries. The big three auction houses have upcoming London sales, and prices should be calmer than in New York.
I notice the Sotheby’s catalogue includes several J.H. Lartigues and it actually makes me feel like weeping. I know what I would buy in an augenblick.
31 May–3 June, Old Billingsgate
29 May, Photographs 2pm
Phillips de Pury
22 June, Bloomsbury Square
31 May King Street
6 June, South Kensington