Lots of people collect photographs, and many have been doing so for decades. Some great collectors have themes, or concentrate on particular periods or groups of artists. I don’t have the budget to be a great collector, but I do have a penchant for photographs which have been used on album covers.
I was at the Photo London art fair in 2015, where thousands of people come annually to buy photographs. One of the exhibitors, a leading American gallery, was offering a picture of a red ceiling. This piqued my interest, because the image had been used for the cover of an early Seventies album I like. So I asked the price. Unfortunately, at $225,000, it was way beyond my budget.
What’s going on here then? How can a simple photograph of a ceiling be worth that sort of money?
Overall, the thing to remember is what is being offered for sale. A ‘photograph’ is probably too generic and unhelpful a term. Its not just an image. It is an art object, imbued with the aura of (and validated by) the artist, often hand made to exacting standards using a particular process (in this case, something called ‘dye transfer’).
Once we’ve accepted this premise, there are then a large number of factors driving the price.
The first is the artist. The red ceiling was by New Orleans photographer William Eggleston, who is lauded as a pioneer of colour art photography and as an early postmodern artist. A big name, and a big name can translate into a big price tag.
A second reason is the image itself. It’s a renowned one, one of Eggleston’s best known pictures, a celebrated artwork in its own right. Generally, the famous photographs by established artists will command higher prices than their lesser-known works.
A third factor is the age of the print. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the interval between the photograph being taken and the print being made, the more valuable the print. This particular example was made by Eggleston in 1980, seven years after he’d taken the photograph. As such, it doesn’t qualify as a ‘vintage’ print, which generally means made no more than 3-5 years after the picture was taken (to photography collectors, a vintage print is a bit like a first edition to a rare book aficionado). So a similar ‘vintage’ Eggleston print might cost even more than this one.
Nonetheless, as an early print, this one will still command a higher price tag than, say, a 21st-century version. But even a photograph ‘printed later’ isn’t valueless. Even posthumous prints made many years after the fact by estates after the death of the artist end up in museum collections. And museums generally know what they’re doing.
A fourth consideration is the condition of the print. This one was in good order. If it’s dog-eared, torn or faded, then the price goes down.
A fifth factor is rarity. Many photographers now ‘edition’ their prints and guarantee a limited number. But note editioning is comparatively new. So while, say, Matthew Murray editions his prints, Ian Macdonald is a little more traditional, and doesn’t. Eggleston didn’t edition his ceiling picture, and in the 70s and 80s the practice of ‘editioning’ wasn’t particularly widespread. That said, there aren’t too many red ceilings of this age around.
But note the number made is all a bit less important than you might think. The laws of supply and demand apply to some extent, but just think for a minute about the art market in general and Andy Warhol in particular. There are plenty of Warhols to go around, many tens of thousands at least. They’re fairly easy to get hold of. But they’re all expensive - primarily because they’re Warhols, not because they’re particularly rare.
A sixth consideration is provenance: is our red ceiling really an Eggleston? Was it really printed by whom – and when – it purports to have been? Is there evidence to support that? In this case, there was plenty.
There are further factors which will impact the price of a photograph, such as the size of the print. If you want to look in more detail at what can drive the price of a photograph, or would like to look at some collecting options at a much more modest, entry-level price, click one of the buttons below.
"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.
The Hit the North exhibition celebrates northern photography across the past five decades, from incisive studio portraiture to grand rural vistas to quiet urban details.
In constant flux but obdurately unchanging, the North is revealed as a paradox, as contradictory and subjective as photography itself.
While Daniel Meadows’ magical Moss Side portraits from the early Seventies are filled with a community spirit, Chris Harrison’s mid-Nineties Salford lads portray a harder-edged, less innocent time. But the timelessness of Liza Dracup’s recent natures mortes – the stillest of still lives drawn from the nature of the North – contend that little ever really changes here.
Northern nature also fills Matthew Murray’s vast dark views of the Manchester-Yorkshire borderlands, but these are inner visions of a subtly managed landscape. Human intervention is more conspicuous in Ian Macdonald’s warm scenes of Teeside, made at the tail end of a now bygone industrial era. But Tessa Bunney’s micro views of the North Yorkshire managed landscape are a surprising reminder that dead industries from the distant past are sometimes reborn.
Paul Floyd Blake’s wry observations capture the abiding northern characteristics of resolute humour and eternal positivity. And while Salford-based Phoebe Kiely’s urban details show the North of today, her traditional analogue photographs could have been made at any time in the past half century.
Hit the North is curated by Manchester-based Hobo Photo, which aims to develop the appreciation of photography as art. As well as promoting new talent, we are particularly interested in recognising older work which has been overlooked.
All the photographs in the exhibition are for sale.
Hit the North
Until 30th June 2018
First Floor Exhibition Hall, Central Library, St Peter's Square, Manchester M2 5PD
Is photography art?
The question is as old as photography itself. It all started as a Victorian argument between photography pioneers and art-establishment traditionalists. Eventually, the traditionalists lost.
Over the past century, photographs have become increasingly significant in the world’s major art institutions, such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate. And despite their inherent lack of uniqueness, works by modern and contemporary photographers such as Edward Weston and Cindy Sherman are regularly auctioned at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, occasionally for millions of pounds. Photography is even an important aspect of the practice of many major artists not usually thought of as photographers, such as David Hockney and Tracey Emin.
It seems odd, then, that many people argue that photographs cannot be art. Why do they still cling to this view?
Perhaps it is because photographs are taken by an apparatus directly ‘from life’, the image made not by an artist, but by the light of the world. This leads many to see photographs as straightforward mechanical reproductions of people and things.
But often, photographs are by no means artless, unmediated records of the world, and have instead been subjected to a vast range of artistic meddling: scenic, technical, presentational, contextual, editorial, and so on. Sometimes we can see this artistic interference at first glance, as with Matthew Murray’s photograph above. But often the hand of the artist is not obvious, especially with more straightforward-looking pictures such as Ian Macdonald's beautifully shot, hand-printed silver gelatin photograph above. And if you can’t - or won’t - see the art in the work, it’s easy to presume that no art is involved.
But that would be wrong. Photographs are both a direct record created from the world AND an interpretation created by the photographer’s choices, whether conscious or unconscious. In other words, photographs are both document and art. This documentary aspect means a photograph can, in a sense, never be entirely art. But ‘part art’ does not equal ‘not art’. Yet many – art critics even – still look at photographs and see all document and no art.
This duality of art and document – the ‘rendered’ and the ‘real’ - is actually a great strength of photography. It helps explain why photographs can fascinate more than, say, sculpture or painting. It also helps explain how photographs can unexpectedly seem different from the world as we saw it. ‘The photograph isn’t what was photographed, it’s something else. It’s about transformation,’ said the American photographer Garry Winogrand, who took photographs of a thing ‘to see what that thing looks like photographed.’
Another reason photographs fascinate us is their dogged superficiality, which can create great mystery: photographs might pretend to tell us much, but in reality they are all inscrutable surface, all show and no tell, like Phoebe Kiely's photograph below. Moving pictures, especially with sound, contain much more contextual information, so they just don’t have this enigmatic quality. ‘A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know,’ said the photographer Diane Arbus, a contemporary of Winogrand.
Purely artistic media just do not have these complexities. Even in a photorealist painting, the marks are made by the hand of the artist alone, in no way drawn by ‘the pencil of nature’: it is all art and no document.
And while they can still be potent and have much to say, painting and sculpture today are - comparatively speaking - marginal, arcane activities, practised and consumed by hardly anyone. By contrast, how many people look at photographs every day? Probably billions. How many people practise photography? Easily more than a billion (many, many more than shoot video). If only the tiniest proportion of these people are among the most interesting artists of the present and of the future, then photography is set to be by far the most significant and exciting visual art medium in history.
Photography’s art/ document duality, its unpredictable and inscrutable character, and humankind’s ever-increasing mass engagement with it leave other visual media such as painting, sculpture, and video light years behind. Since photography is less than two centuries old, and its popularity is only just exploding, we may only be beginning to explore its artistic possibilities.
Photography isn’t just valid as a visual art. It's the most important one.