"For me, this country has always turned its nose up at photography and treated photography as the poor relation of art...
I want people in England to [...]discover photography as art.
The very fact that I am having to say this is a bit ridiculous, but we’re stuck somehow."
Elton John, 2017
If you’re one of the sceptics and haven’t discovered photography as art, have a look at our previous blog post on that subject.
The reality is that lots of art collectors concentrate on photographs. Some of the smarter ones have been doing so for decades and have enviable photography collections worth multiples of their cost. Some are famous, such as Elton John or Jamie Lee Curtis. But there are lots of lower-profile people who have amassed very valuable photography collections such as Michael Wilson (the British producer of the James Bond films), Randi and Bob Fisher (of the Gap clothing dynasty) and Peter Cohen (an investment banker).
Sir Elton is right in much of the world is way ahead of Britain in appreciating photography as an art form. Big art fairs devoted to photography such as New York’s AIPAD and Paris Photo have been established for decades. Hundreds of galleries from around the world come together at such fairs and sell many thousands of photographs, with prices generally from the low thousands of pounds to the high hundreds of thousands. But Britain is starting to catch up: Photo London, an art fair of comparable stature and scale, has been running annually since 2015.
The many thousands of people buying photographs at art fairs and from galleries and dealers around the world are mostly not big collectors. While some of them are just starting modest collections, many are just looking for something special to put on their wall.
The art photography market only really got going in the 1970s, so while it’s long-established compared with, say, crypto-currency, it’s still less mature than longer-established art forms such as painting. One consequence of this is that prices for photographs are still much lower than for other art forms. These days acquiring a minor Old Master painting or a piece by a middleweight modern or contemporary artist is strictly for the very rich. But you can still buy work by even very famous photographers for a tiny fraction of these prices. For example, whilst a painting by David Hockney may sell for millions of pounds, his photography-based works are generally priced in the low thousands. You can still pick up photographs by acknowledged greats of the medium such as Henri Cartier Bresson or Ansel Adams for just few thousand pounds, and prices for works by other famous photographers start lower than that.
So where do you start? Of course there’s nothing wrong with just following your heart and buying what you like. But if you’re interested in photographs which can retain their value or even have investment potential, a good place to start is with validation: is the artist’s work supported by museums, galleries, dealers, prizes, critics, or publishers?
For museums, there is a long history of such validation. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has been collecting photography since 1928. MoMA is a comparative newcomer next to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which has been collecting photographs and putting on photography exhibitions since the 1850s.
But aren’t photographs infinitely reproducible? What’s to stop an artist making thousands of prints? These days many artists stake their reputation on producing photographs in editions strictly limited to low numbers, such as Chris Harrison and Matthew Murray. Other photographers have open editions, but supply is often naturally limited by the nature of the art object itself: for example Phoebe Kiely painstakingly hand prints her photographs individually using traditional methods and materials in a darkroom. Only one print exists of many of her images, and these early ‘vintage’ prints may well become the most coveted and valuable examples of her work in the future.
If you want to buy validated art which could retain its value, or even appreciate as an investment, and you don’t have a millionaire’s budget, then buying a photograph could be for you. It’s popular around the world, and it seems to be growing in Britain too. And it’s also the most fascinating and important visual art.