For most workaday photographers, the world of auctions, collectors and the art market can seem very far away. But that doesn’t stop just about everyone who picks up a camera from dreaming about it. While few photographers seriously expect their wedding formals or baby portraits to change hands for six-figure sums, many would certainly like to believe that one day, just maybe, they’ll see their landscapes or their street photography hanging in a gallery, reviewed by critics, adored by curators and fought over by collectors.
Not only it could happen for photographers with the right talent but according to art expert, Lauren Gentile, photographers might even be in an enviable position in comparison to some other artists. Because many copies of a photo can be produced from a single shot, the prices for each print are lower and therefore easier for art-lovers to add to their collections.
“Photography is becoming more collectible because it is accessible in terms of price,” Lauren told us. “You can get a nice photograph for a couple thousand – this is so, and differs from collecting painting because photography is editioned like traditional prints.”
For major buyers, though, those low prices aren’t necessarily an attraction. Lauren, who is an Assistant Director and Director of Sales at the Irvine Contemporary gallery in Washington D.C., reports that her collectors are now buying “blue-chip” photographs (works by top-sellers like Andreas Gursky whose 99 Cent II Diptych sold for $3.34 million in 2007) or artworks from “the emerging sector,” and often both. From new artists, collectors are interested in photographs that she describes as either edgy or nostalgic. Irvine Contemporary’s list of artists includes Marla Rutherford, for example, a fashion, editorial and advertising photographer whose photographs includes fetish images that have been exhibited at SCOPE Miami Art Basel.
If all that talk of “blue-chips” and “emerging sectors” sounds very financial however, perhaps that’s not too surprising, despite the artistic context. Lauren’s own background includes researching art funds – investment portfolios made up of artworks that are intended to rise in value like stocks – and she describes herself as a “specullector,” a fine art collector who looks not only at a work’s artistic value but also its market price and the potential of that price to grow.
Clearly, predicting those changes is not easy to do — which is why Lauren says that she can only speculate. The prices of works created by artists completing their Masters in Fine Arts (MFA), such as those included in Irvine Contemporary’s “Introductions4” on show through August, can only rise, she notes, but for established photographers, some research can offer clues to the chances an artist’s work will become more valuable.
“If the artist is mid-career I look at what exhibitions they have scheduled for the future, who they will be showing with, is their work being contextualized with the works of higher valued artists? Whether or not critics are reviewing their works in Aperture, ArtForum, etc. and what curators have included them in shows and where? Also if museums have started to collect their work, and what ‘tastemakers’ do too.”
The increasing numbers of buyers in China and Russia is also raising the prices of work by established artists, Lauren notes, but as the art heads east, the money flowing west leaves European and American collectors more cash to spend on new, lower-priced emerging artists.
Chinese Buyers Help Emerging Photographers
So what can a photographer dreaming of breaking into the art world do to raise their profile and take their share of the sales?
Building a website is one necessity, says Lauren. Finding gallery representation is another. While one of those is obviously much easier than the other, working with a gallery can provide all sorts of benefits that allow the artist the freedom and time to work. The gallery will also provide guidance, career management and help to develop price structures.
But there is a price to be paid for this success and it goes beyond the share of the sales price taken by the gallery. The photograph can disappear from view.
“Works of art that are bought purely for investment reasons are put in a storage facility,” Lauren explained. “[F]or tax purposes these works of art cannot be displayed because then the collector (or fund manager) is deriving physical benefits from being able to view the work — the IRS has a big problem with that.”
Artists still waiting for their big gallery break then can console themselves that while their photographs have yet to make the big time, people can at least see and enjoy them.