As photographic prints continue to rise in value in the art market more people are willing to invest large sums of money. Why? Where does this value come from?
Photography has struggled to gain a foothold as a fine art for more than 100 years. Arguably it has made it, but it is still considered by some to be painting's poorer cousin. The highest selling photograph (Peter Lik's "Phantom") sold for $6.5 million while the top selling painting (Paul Gauguin's "When Will You Marry Me?") sold for $300 million. Photography is gaining ground but has a long way to go.
Needless to say, in our market economy, prices are established in part by what people are willing to pay and sometimes their decisions are whimsical, irrational and unpredictable. At times value appears to be a product of arbitrary tastes, passing fashion trends and/or having too much money and too much time on their hands. We could pass it all off and say "the art world is populated by rich fools buying the emperor's 'new' clothes" or "any fool with a camera could have taken that". That may explain some of the motives but not all in the serious and diverse global art market.
Modern art value is not just or mainly about aesthetics and craftsmanship. They are important attributes but are not the sole or even the primary contributors to the value of the artwork. To say that a photograph is not beautiful or not technically accomplished is not sufficient in assessing its value.
We need to understand what art is today and what makes it different from crafts. Art is a way of seeing the world that challenges perceptions, evokes emotions and stimulates thought. Art pushes the boundaries of the medium, constantly offering new ways of seeing and understanding the world and ourselves.
The highest priced art are usually those works which represent the best (not necessarily the first) examples of a new movement in art. They show us something new and change the world around us. The works may represent unique turning points in the way art represents the world. The art world acknowledges this unique significance and reflects it in the monetary value placed on the works.
Terry Barret in his book, Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images (Mayfield Publishing, 1999), presents a useful way to think about and talk about photography and its value. Barret, a professor of art education at the University of North Texas, defines criticism as "informed discourse about photography in order to increase understanding and appreciation of photography". He provides a clear framework for studying photography through a process of a) describing (what is here?), b) interpreting (what is it about?), c) evaluating (is it good?) and c) theorizing (is it art?).
Like Minor White who asked the question "what else is it?", Barret encourages us to look beyond the two dimensional printed, inked and papered image to the issues and assumptions, how does it makes us feel, and what are the world views and values expressed or represented. How does the work make photography, photographs and the world more understandable?
A.D. Coleman, the American photography critic and the first photo critic for the New York Times, says that the art market for photographs has reached an all time high. Forty years of research and writing has raised an awareness of the history of photography in the west. Knowledgeable collectors can position works in the medium's evolution and can understand and appreciate its significance. He also notes that the emergence of wealthy Chinese collectors is making a significant impact on the global art market.
Let's have a look at the top ten, highest priced photographs in the world and try to discover why they might have such high value.
Keep in mind that seven of these prints are very large and the reproductions of all of them do not do justice to the richness of their tones and colour or to the power of their presence and detail.
Can you find any unique elements of value or any common elements of value?
The Pond was created before colour photography was invented so it is not a colour photograph. The print was made by Steichen himself and the impression of colour is innovatively created by manually applying layers of light-sensitive gums to the paper. The image is a defining image in the history of photography of the Pictorialist movement which was spearheaded by Steichen and Stieglitz.
It's interesting to note that half of the top selling photographs are made by conceptual artists. The idea expressed in the work is more important than the traditional aesthetic and technical concerns. There is usually a great deal more thinking, planning and staging of the conceptual work than goes into the actual execution of the work.
Eight of the top ten images were created in the past 35 years. The remaining two are over 100 years old. Often provenance is the deciding factor in value - the chronology of ownership (especially the status, celebrity or notoriety of the owner or previous owners), custody, location and authenticity.
After reviewing the top ten selling photographs in the world, I tend to agree with Sotheby's description of the "perfect storm" of photographic print value - scarcity, quality and condition, provenance, notable and extensive body of work, international stature and influence of its maker.
What do you think? What do you value in a photographic print? I'd be interested to hear your views.