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The Photo Marketplace and Contemporary Image Makers

art photography galleries artists

Swann Galleries

Not so long ago artists were viewed as bohemians who, unconventional by nature, worked in studios devoid of creature comforts and displayed little interest in promoting their work. The economic reality of selling pieces, though acknowledged, was far removed from an artist’s lifestyle. Dealers, on the other hand, were commonly seen as refined gentlemen and women of leisure who discretely “placed” (never sold) artwork. This perception was subsequently passed down from generation to generation. Public auctions were highbrow events in which tony patrons purchased materials from estates accompanied by detailed family histories. Today, such quaint notions associated with the art world are as dated as the silver halide darkroom. Indeed, the making, buying, and selling of art is big business. And, a photographer-artist with dreams of making it recognizes that being commercially savvy is as integral to their success as their work itself.

What exactly constitutes “the market”? The art market is composed of two distinct, but interrelated, components. The gallery system is the primary market. Gallerists, in contemporary parlance, discover new talent and foster mid-career artists by mounting shows. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of a well-conceived exhibition in which an artist’s latest objects are beautifully installed in a gallery setting, creatively promoted in the press, reproduced in an elegantly produced catalog, and, of course, actively sold. Expositions are the principal vehicles in which private collectors, museum curators, critics, and art advisers not only have an opportunity to see work but learn more about it. As any collector knows, gallery directors are often trained art historians as well as skilled salespeople.

Being represented by the right gallery is often the difference between having your work in the permanent collection of a blue chip museum or a celebrated private collection, and seeing it languish. With the growing popularity of photography the volume of art-photography galleries increases worldwide every year, but so does the number of artists seeking representation. Art galleries typically feature a roster of contemporary and historical figures, though most opt for a non-exclusive association. Finding the appropriate commercial venue is highly competitive and the most challenging task an artist faces. Publications like Photograph and ARTnews are useful tools for a photographer interested in pursuing a career as a fine artist. It is best to first research the universe of galleries to understand what they specialize in and which photographers they already work with. Art in America annually publishes an international gallery and museum guide that provides a panorama of useful information. Alternatively, if seeing your work in a public exhibition is not a top priority, another option is working with a private dealer. Art advisers build (curate) collections for private collectors, and also frequently act on behalf of corporate clients; for example, hotels, hospitals, and businesses that are buying art for decorative purposes.

The secondary or resale market is synonymous with auctions, a dynamic environment that simultaneously trades on social and commercial interests. Celebrities, collectors, curators, dealers, and agents alike are active players in international venues where works by contemporary artists who employ photographs as well as prints by classical photographers are sold amid spirited bidding. Auction houses specializing in fine art may be found in metropolitan centers throughout the world including New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid, Stockholm, Rome, Vienna, Sydney, and Tokyo, where public sales are conducted at least twice a year, in the spring and the fall. Historically, most of the material available at auction came from estates. Today, houses also rely on connoisseurs parting with well-respected collections, institutions de-accessioning duplicate pictures, dealers selling inventory, and speculators “flipping” (quickly turning over) works by cutting edge artists.

Galleries are destinations, places to meet artists and fall in love with artwork. Within the past decade, however, a new trend has developed: Collectors are buying at auction. Auction houses conduct previews, which are open to the public, at which time it is possible to sit and examine a treasured object. With the recent stratification of artists buyers increasingly seek out objects by a select group of “art stars.” Perhaps a collector wishes to purchase work by an artist—photographer for whom a gallery has a long waiting list. An auction offering work by this figure may be seen as a singular opportunity. However, a typical scenario is that, after the auctioneer announces the lot, frenzied bidding by multiple buyers results in a realized auction price often exceeding the retail value. Auction salesrooms, which were once settings of high decorum, are now volatile market barometers, powerhouses of the new “art world economy.” It is impossible to escape the attention paid by the media to stratospheric prices routinely paid for fine photographs as stories about “who outbid whom to pay what” are dramatically recounted in the art and business press. Since artists do not benefit directly from these robust sales figures by, say, garnering royalties, what impact does this new economy have on someone working today?

Photography was invented in 1839 but an international marketplace for fine art photographs became apparent only 30 years ago. Marge Neikrug, Lee Witkin, and Tom Halsted opened the first photography galleries in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Simultaneously the first auctions dedicated to 19th and 20th century photographs were conducted at Parke Bernet (later Sotheby’s Parke Bernet), Christie’s, and Swann Galleries in Manhattan. Auctions are historically prevalent in England but, from the beginning, New York set the pace for the photograph market and is to this day the center of the marketplace. Photographs, albums, and photographically illustrated books, broadly estimated from $10 to 3000, were sold to the highest bidder. Top prices featured an Ansel Adams photograph of Moonrise over Hernandez for $3000 or an issue of Alfred Stieglitz’ elegant magazine Camera Work , with multiple photogravure plates, for $200. In 1977, The New York Times reported that a pair of Carleton Watkins’s albums containing 100 photographs, which were found in a janitor’s broom closet, fetched an astounding $100,000 at Swann Galleries. Subsequently, public curiosity grew about a field that, for all intents and purposes, seemed accessible to anyone who operated a camera.

Today banner headlines hailing photography as “the medium of the moment” or “the art form of the century” are typically found in the press. It may be hard to believe that photography was not always such a well-regarded medium. Excoriated and ridiculed in the 1970s, a burgeoning community of photographers, dealers, curators, and collectors were undeterred. They struggled to counteract the critical perception that, since photography relied on a mechanical instrument (the camera), it was not an authentic art form. Curators such as John Szarkowski, Maria Morris Hambourg, and Weston Naef furthered a popular understanding of the medium as a distinctive art form. Exhibitions devoted to Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Eugene Atget, and Alfred Stieglitz presented photographic expression as a pictorial language at once accessible and distinguished. Publishers like Aperture, Twin Palms, Abrams, and Bulfinch produced sumptuous monographs, historical surveys, and collectors’ guides that went out of print quickly, and are now avidly sought by photographic literature collectors.

A landmark transaction that redefined photography’s status as a highly prized collectable occurred in 1984, at which time The Getty Museum, in a carefully orchestrated, highly secret deal, purchased the most important international collections of fine art photography in private hands. The price was a staggering $25 million—an extraordinary “steal” in today’s high-powered art market, especially given the high prices collectors regularly pay for Impressionist and Modernist paintings. Consider that Man Ray’s Glass Tears—an icon of 20th century photography—was reportedly purchased privately for $1 million more than 5 years ago. Vintage masterworks by Edward Weston and Paul Strand have sold for $500,000, and contemporary pictures by Andreas Gursky, Richard Prince, or Cindy Sherman routinely sell in the mid-six figures. Although contemporary artists represent a strong segment of the market, the highest prices paid at auction are for classical photographs by 19th century photographers. Gustave LeGray’s proto-modernist albumen seascape Grande Vague, Sete (1859) realized $871,739, in 2002, while an early architectural daguerreotype by Joseph Philbeit Girault de Prangey, Athenes Temple de Jupiter Olympien pris de l’Est (1842), measuring 7 × 9 inches, realized a remarkable $979,721 in 2003.

The story of how the Getty entered the photography market is a fascinating parable. To this day, for example, museums garner attention for their multimillion dollar acquisitions, blockbuster exhibitions, and sumptuous coffee table books. In truth, however, it is a market. Connoisseurs perceive value and beauty in artworks that are not sanctioned by the canon or, for that matter, the marketplace. Visionary photograph collector Sam Wagstaff, who may be best known for his patronage of a young photographer named Robert Mapplethorpe, spoke eloquently about photography as a uniquely democratic medium, one that made no distinction between a vintage Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother and a great vernacular snapshot of Bonnie and Clyde. This radical approach was the organizing principle of his own collection, which was one of the founding collections purchased by the Getty. The ability to recognize both new talent and innovative trends is vital to a field’s intellectual discourse, as well as a vigorous marketplace.

However, without the benefit of a personal introduction to a potential patron or prominent gallerist, how does an artist connect with the trade? Art or photography fairs, which include scores of galleries from around the globe, are extraordinary networking events. The Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD), which hosts a trade show every February in New York City, is not only an occasion to look at great vintage and modern prints, but also to see the sort of work a gallery presents and, ideally, meet its principal. Additional fairs include Photo San Francisco (late July); Photo Los Angeles (late January); and national trade events such as the Armory Show, in New York, Site Santa Fe, ArtMiami, and the Chicago Art Fair. International fairs include Paris London (May), Paris Photo (November), ArtBasel (June), Arles (July), Perpignon (August), and Paris’s FlAC (October).

For photographers who simply do not have the ambition to ply their trade in the rough-and-tumble art world, there are more populist approaches. Benefit auctions (where the proceeds of a sale are directed to a not-for-profit organization) are wonderful opportunities to have your photographs seen by collectors and curators, who are always on the lookout for great new images. A photographer looking for exposure might check out Black & White , a periodical with excellent production values that features full-page ads consisting of a photographer’s statement, a representative photograph, and contact information. Those who love doing portraits can create a market niche by focusing on pets or pregnant women or couples or children. For photographers interested in working for a picture agency, there are more and more options. Although Getty and Corbis continue to dominate the field, Photo District News regularly reports about upstart agencies with specialty interests chipping away at these behemoths’ market share. And e-businesses, such as, LiveBooks, offer photographers the technology to market their pictures directly to art buyers around the world.

Today the photographic marketplace is in transition. Increasingly segmented opportunities nonetheless abound. Classical photography galleries have not yet addressed the role of digital photography, highlighting instead vintage or modern prints by master practitioners. Contemporary galleries opt for the high concept, and technique is frequently overshadowed by an artist’s reputation. As digital technologies rapidly transform ideas associated with making images and, concomitantly, the definition of photography, the medium continues to thrive, continually reinventing itself to reflect the tenor of the times. Photography, once an “illegitimate” art form, now occupies front and center stage in the market. After a mere 30 years, the best is yet to come.

The Photographic Studio of the 21st Century - Some Introductory Thoughts, The Studio in the 21st Century [next] [back] The Perez Family (1995) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

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