Collecting Contemporary Photography – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by | Jun 30, 2020 | Strictly Business Blog

From 1975-1991, Stephen White was the president and owner of the Stephen White Gallery in Los Angeles, California. Since then, he has become a private dealer, curator and collector. He was the founding president of The Association of International Photography Art Dealers. He has been associated with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, a founding member of the J. Paul Getty Museum Photography Advisory Board and the Photographic Arts Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

By Stephen White

If photography is a form of illusion, is the marketing of it also an illusion? LUMAS advertises on the internet, has over 30 galleries across the world from Europe to Australia, with each selling their limited or unlimited editions of contemporary work at an affordable price. On its website, LUMAS offers primarily signed photographs in large editions of 75 to 150 photographs for a reasonable price compared to the traditional art gallery that often sells editions limited to 10 or less. But do these photographs retain any long-term value or is the purchaser just buying an attractive piece of decorative paper? While Lumas lists auction resale prices for a few of its artists, these are primarily from an internet auction site called Artnet. And while the resale prices do show a growth in value, as much as two or three hundred percent of the purchase price in some cases, they do not reveal the true story. Many photographs, both vintage and contemporary, at auction go unsold, and the majority of contemporary photographs are not accepted by an auction house at all because they have no established resale potential. While LUMAS covers all the bases in marketing their artists, and they explain their philosophy satisfactorily, they represent the lowest tier of the contemporary photography market, galleries that are seizing on the trendiness of photography as the hottest art form.

At the other end of the spectrum is Perfect Likeness, the contemporary exhibition that opened in June, 2015 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles curated by Russell Ferguson, an art history professor at UCLA. In his essay for the catalogue, Ferguson writes, “More photographs are now taken every day than in the first hundred years of photography’s existence.”

No sentence could more clearly delineate photography’s past from the present age of digital photography where every person possessing an iPhone perceives himself or herself as an undiscovered photographer.

In the 19th century, the act of taking a photograph could be an excruciating, complicated and exacting process. In those early days of photographic development the kind of paper the image was printed on, the printing process, and the printing, sometimes done in a tent under horrendous conditions all contributed to the finished print. By the early 20thcentury, the amateur had easy access to a line of Kodak cameras, but still needed to have each negative processed and a print made from it. Starting with Kodak, labs began to mass-produce the printing of negatives and positive photos, and the finished prints became more standardized. 

For those who may have never encountered a negative, it is a reversal of a positive print developed in a darkroom with chemicals and used as the basis of making any number of positive prints, usually in black and white though color photographs became common and popular after the 1960s. 

After the arrival of the Kodak, photographers wanted to set themselves apart from the “snapshooters,” as amateurs were called at the beginning of the last century, and tried to imitate a painterly look with a soft focus subject and an emphasis on high quality printing techniques and papers. Great photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand made beautiful pictorial prints, but eventually, they together with a new generation of photographers, developed a more straightforward and modernist approach through the 1920s and 30s.

Fast forward to today with the millions upon millions of photographs taken each day by iPhones, digital cameras, and the like, creating individual archives that can run into the thousands, a running visual story that chronicles each person’s life over the age of five. Any of us with a camera or I phone and sufficient energy can probably take more photographs in a single day than a 19th century photographer produced in his entire working life. There is no negative to develop, no chemicals to mix, no prints to be dodged or highlighted, just shoot and store it all in files on a computer, and if you want alterations go to photoshop.

Ferguson defined the purpose of his exhibition at the Hammer. “For artists who began their work in the era of unlimited and ubiquitous images, however, it was perhaps inevitable that at some point there would be a turn away from the glut to reexamine the possibility of making work that could claim a singularity.”

The conundrum Ferguson’s comment first poses, then addresses, in his exhibition, is how does the serious art photographer separate his or her work from those millions and millions of photos taken daily? What makes any artist’s work significant and therefore of economic value as opposed to the myriad work of the snapshooting world at large?

Thomas Von Lintel, a gallery owner showing contemporary work in Los Angeles after having galleries in New York and Munich, has his own answer to this question. (Photographers should) “do something new and or take something that has been done before and push it to a fabulous new territory.”

Paul Kopetkin, another Los Angeles gallery owner who shows contemporary work has a slightly different take. He thinks a photographer must “make unique work that has something about it that is going to get people’s attention. Easier said than done and rarely done intentionally.”

How does the newly minted contemporary photographer striving for artistic acceptance begin to establish the singularity Ferguson speaks about in his essay?

The gallery is the nexus around which contemporary art photography revolves. There is a hierarchy here with three levels of galleries. Top galleries like Matthew Marks, Larry Gagosian, Metro Pictures, Mary Boone, handle a mix of established artists as well as some rising stars they promote with the intent of bringing them to the top.

A rung below this select group are a large number of legitimate galleries like Von Lintel and Kopetkin showing and promoting contemporary artists through gallery exhibitions, and by bringing the work to art fairs. To establish the artist, according to Von Lintel, “we work with key collectors and museum curators to get the work acquired by museums as well as included in exhibitions where the artist is in good company.”

At the bottom of this pyramid are a large number of galleries like the LUMAS group showing work for decoration, or for corporate offices, or for young collectors on very limited budgets. The work can look stunning, but it often has no track record in the art world and the gallery’s focus is primarily on marketing, not on developing a serious art market for the artist. Some highly successful commercial photographers have either opened their own galleries like Peter Lik, who has fourteen galleries selling his own landscape work in ridiculous editions of almost a thousand for each image, and capitalizing on the success of the art market to lure buyers who may know little or nothing about what they are buying.

The serious contemporary artist generally follows a process of development that leads up the steps of the pyramid in search of the branding necessary for singularity and the recognition that comes with it. Perfect Likeness focuses primarily on photographers who have proven track records and have risen to the top, or sit just below the top. 

As one wanders through the Hammer exhibition, he or she might wonder what exactly makes the singularity. In many cases it is Ferguson himself, using extensive captions to explain the dynamics of the artist’s intent. Without the verbal explanation, to the untrained eye, the photographs might have no more or less appeal than those selling for a few hundred dollars in the LUMAS galleries around the world, for some of those images, on first glance, are equally appealing.

But this exhibition represents established photographers whose work sells anywhere from the low thousands to the low millions. What process has separated them from their contemporaries who offer work for far less money? With a few exceptions, generally the first step toward photographic success is to study under the right teacher or teachers, preferably established photographers. Two highly successful contemporary photographers, Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky, both shown in the Perfect Likeness exhibition, studied with the Bechers in Germany. The late Bernd and Hilla Bechers, a married couple, were influential photographers who created photographic grids of industrial sites around Europe in the 1970s and 80s, and later went on to mentor several of the most recognized European photographers. Cindy Sherman, another superstar, while at school in Buffalo, was influenced by Robert Longo and her teacher, Barbara Jo Revelle. Robert Mapplethorpe, long a partner of the great collector Sam Wagstaff, had his work promoted by his influential lover.

Gregory Crewdson, a photographer and professor at Yale could give any aspiring photographer of promise a heads-up, provided of course he or she had the funds and the grades to get into the university.  

Connections often run from key teachers to prominent gallery owners. Crewdson is represented by the most successful gallery worldwide, Gagosian. Teachers like Crewdson or the Bechers helped to open doors for talented students that often led to important gallery representation, inclusion in museum exhibitions, magazine, book and catalogue publications, access to collectors who used a credit card or checkbook to respond  to the work. All this helped build up the photographer’s name, a foundation for the work, and eventually a reputation. This is a formula for rising to the top in a very crowded field.

The mythology that surrounds the success of contemporary photography begins with the sale of two photographs in 2011, by two iconic artists using photography. At a Christie’s auction in the fall of 2011, Andreas Gursky sold a large 73 by 143 inch chromogenic photograph of the Rhine taken in 1999 and mounted on acrylic glass for a record price of $4.3 million dollars. Longevity has always been an issue that has dogged contemporary color photography. Epson has recently claimed that under optimal storage conditions their newest HD pigment inks can survive more than 200 years and UltraChrome HD inks that use Epson’s “advanced Black and White print mode” will exceed 400 years.

A few months before the record price for the Gursky photo, a photograph by Cindy Sherman, the durable portrayer of herself, untitled #96, sold for $3.8 million, also at Christie’s. The photograph, taken in 1983 in color and 24 x 48 inches, at the time became the most expensive photograph sold. Since the image was one of an edition of ten, plus possible artist proofs, the entire series could be valued at a minimum of $38 million dollars.

This level of prices could only be achieved once contemporary art collectors entered the photography market. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the wealthiest collectors prefer to hire art consultants to bid for them, relying on someone else’s judgment about what to buy or collect. In the article titled, “The New Hired Guns in a Wild West Art World,” old time advisors complain that the new breed of art advisors often substitute aggressiveness for connoisseurship. “Many veteran advisers view their new competition with concern. Some practitioners are too inexperienced to provide good counsel, they say, or use tactics that they warn threaten to sully the profession, like dealing on the side, or demanding broker’s fees from both their clients and the galleries that sell to them.”

By examining one year of Gursky’s work sold at auction, we can get a glimpse into the difficulty of buying an artist, even a top artist, through auction. Martin Gordon catalogues, produced each year, list all photographs sold as well as those not sold (or bought in to use an auction term) of each artist’s work in the previous year at auction. In 2013. Gursky had 46 photographs listed.  The Chicago Board of Trade 56, x 78 inches brought $2.3, while the Chicago Board of Trade III, 78 x 111 inches, brought $3.3, each of these printed in an edition of six.  Nine of Gursky’s photographs were bought in, meaning they did not meet the reserve price in the auction bidding. The lowest auction price for any Gursky was for Duisberg II at a Munich auction, $4,706. That image was 11 x 15 inches.  With Gursky, as with many contemporary photographers, size matters. Six of his pieces, each of them a large-sized print, brought over a million dollars apiece.

Staggering prices, like those Gursky commands, puts the fizz in the contemporary photography market and peaks the interest of both the serious and neophyte collector. The most successful artists are sold in auctions in America and Europe to an international clientele as well as in galleries and important art fairs like Paris Photo or Basle Miami. Riding on the tail of these economic comets are thousands of contemporary photographers, many associated with serious galleries that work hard to promote their artist’s work through exhibitions, sales, art fairs and museum shows. 

On the other hand there are those galleries previously mentioned that capitalize on the interest in contemporary work to take artists who will never achieve recognition or success, but show them and sell them to an unsuspecting public. To collect intelligently and to avoid the mythology that all contemporary photography has value requires some homework, at least enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. You should know the reputation of the place you are buying from, how long the dealer has been in business, the museums he has sold to, how the photographers he handles are perceived by others in the field.  Best is to join a support group for your local museum where you will have access to curators who can help to point you in the right direction. Remember one caveat, reputation means a great deal in the art world.

Thomas Von Lintel puts it this way. “I tend to sell to people who LOVE the work and are not buying trophies, so a very large percentage of the work just stays put. If work comes up for resale, we will offer to sell the work if it makes sense. In some cases I have convinced the sellers to let me find a museum they can donate to. This is of course my favorite solution since it makes everyone happy. I try hard to keep the work away from auctions, which of course is not always possible.”

Art fairs have grown in importance around the world. The top photographic artists are included in shows by top galleries at the high-end art shows.  Satellite shows abound around Basel Miami, Paris Photo, and AIPAD in New York, three major annual events in the ever-developing photographic world. Shanghai has a September photo fair, and Hong Kong is doing some photography auctions as interest in making photographic works and selling them spreads throughout the Asian continent. The internet is a major player in developing worldwide interest in photography.

This is the new digital world of photography where size equates to value and the rush to create “art” supersedes all else. Even a few older and more established photographers who in past times would have been content to exhibit standard 8 x 10 or 11 x 14 black-and-white prints have joined the race and are printing in large sizes with dazzling colors, working on their Epson or Canon printers at home, using Photoshop and other gimmicks to create special effects, working hard to outdo the competition. Photography in the digital age has become a commodity, and the rush to get on the ship has led to a dangerous overcrowding. And we all know what can happen to an overcrowded boat.

What we have today is two photographic worlds vying for the same pool of collectors, critics, museum curators, art fair space, reviews, etc. One has existed and evolved in complex ways over the past 175 years, while the other has popped up in the last few years, a product of the new digital age.

So let us turn now to the other side of the coin, namely the photographs from 1839 when photography was announced to the world until around the year 2000 when digital began to change the photography world. 

Those photographs and the constantly improving photographic processes over that approximately 160 year period covered the evolution of a new medium that depended on advances in technology, and emerged totally separate from the mass produced images of today.

Photographs were used to record all facets of existence during those first hundred years. Travelers took cameras to record for the first time exotic locations and people in the lands they visited; medical doctors recorded the recovery of their patients; journalists, with all the limitations in the early years, covered wars and historic events; architects used photographs to record construction progress or finished buildings, and artists often photographed nature scenes to use them in secret as a base for their paintings. Tourists bought photographs of famous sites from commercial photographers all through the 19th century. While many millions of photographs and negatives were destroyed over this period of time, the ones that remain give us a clear picture of many aspects of the world’s history from a different perspective than the written word.

Ferguson’s contention about the number of images made in the past as opposed to the number made on any day raises a curious question. Is not each photograph that remains from the pre-millenium period a rare and valuable record of an event or an idea?

For fifteen years, beginning in 1975, I maintained a modest photography gallery in Los Angeles. When I began there were maybe twenty photo galleries in the entire country. Photography had few collectors, including museums, and even the most famous photographers work was little valued.

Once the photo market began to attract collecting interest in the 1970s, dealers focused on a few classic photographers, most of them written about in the bible of 20th century photography, The History of Photography by the former Museum of Modern Art Photography curator, Beaumont Newhall. Photographers like Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston were readily available at modest prices by today’s standards. At that time, fashion photography, photojournalism, architectural images, ethnographic work, and many other genre forms of photography were not considered “art” photography, and only a few museums collected photography in a serious way.  

After a tough recession in the early 1980s, photography was by 1985 “going nowhere” according to NY Times critic, Andy Grundberg. He was particularly harsh on the fashion photographers of the day. “The onslaught of fashion-photography-as-art that arrived in New York in the fall clearly meant something, but the message may have been only that to sell photographs you have to keep dressing them in new clothes. Of all the fashion work exhibited, Irving Penn’s at the Museum of Modern Art most asked to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, due to Mr. Penn’s urge to turn his fashion pictures into art by reprinting them in dingy platinum, the show wasn’t as pleasurable as might have been anticipated. By the time one had been to see the pictures of Bruce Weber, Horst P. Horst, Francesco Scavullo and a half dozen other skilled glamorizers, fashion photography seemed as significant and lasting a trend as the miniskirt.”

In an earlier article (April 11) for the Times, Grundberg gave a generally negative assessment of the field, but concluded with an interesting take on contemporary photography. “Ultimately and lastly, though, the health of any visual medium rests with its practitioners, whose responsibility it is to define the visual issues of their day. In this respect, photography continues to flourish, especially in the work of those artists attempting to move beyond the Modernist dictates of photograph qua photography to some re-engagement with the culture as a whole-either by critically examining the stereotypes to reveal the world with fresh eyes. The continued existence of such vanguard and vital work leads to the conclusion that what is suffering is photography’s milieu, not the medium itself.”

About that time there was a breakthrough that changed the direction of photography, opening up an area of potential for the aspiring artist. Cindy Sherman with her famous series of self-portrait role playing in film stills began to be shown in an art gallery, Metro Pictures, in New York, while Richard Prince, another photographer who re-photographed advertisements and various iconic images such as the Marlboro Man, paved the way for photographers to be shown, accepted, and most importantly priced, as artists.

At that time, in the 1970s and 80s, galleries would often handle both vintage and contemporary photography. They would produce portfolios by known or lesser-known photographers grouping ten or twelve prints of a photographer’s work in a case, with each image signed by the photographer. While some galleries restricted the kinds of photography they chose to include in their inventory, the majority worked in survival mode and kept all options open.

Flash forward to 2015. Today, there are photography galleries in almost every city in Europe and the States, as well as many other countries around the world. Photography has been embraced by the younger generation of art lovers, collectors of contemporary art, and even the general public. Large exhibitions are held each year at the Armory in New York, sponsored by AIPAD, the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, (an organization for which I served as the founding President) and Paris Photo which has taken over the prestigious Grand Palais in Paris each November to present the largest gathering of galleries, publishers, and other photo related purveyors. Concurrent with Paris Photo all across Paris are smaller satellite photo fairs and scores of gallery exhibitions.

When I was just beginning as a gallery owner, I made a pilgrimage in 1978, to Arles, an ancient city in Southern France that held a festival each year that brought together exhibitions of various photographers including those of newly discovered emerging artists, lectures, classrooms, famous photographers, a forum, and other events. A few years later, in 1986, I attended the first Photofest, which was held in Houston, Texas. Photo exhibitions were hung in galleries and exhibition spaces around the city, AIPAD dealers offered goods in the ballroom of the host hotel, the Warwick, and there was an opportunity for young photographers to have professionals evaluate their work in what is called, a photo-review.

This year, I have just returned from a photo festival in Dali, China, one of many festivals held in China each year. Some of these festivals are annual, others, bi-annual, but all offer the opportunity for young and established photographers to display work, to meet like-minded people in the field, and to expose the general public to a full menu of photography, both the artistic, and the documentary. This year the directors of photography festivals from across the world were invited to Dali to discuss the subject of increased recognition for Asian photography on the world stage. Festival directors came from Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Siem Reap, as well as Denmark, Norway, Hong Kong, and other cities in China.

These festivals are the foundation of exposing the work of young photographers, and at the same time offering young photographers a chance to see work by photographers of all kinds from various lands. Young people today dream of a chance to be a relevant part of this modern phenomenon known as photography.

Auction houses, including the famous ones like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, have been a staple of the developing photographic market since the 1970s. For a long time, most of the photographic specialists would take very few contemporary photographs for their auctions because the work would not sell at auction. Even the well-known photographers like Penn, Mapplethorpe, Hockney, and Newton brought little return in the 1980s. Most of these photographers had gallery representation with a wider choice and fixed prices, something an auction house could not provide. A photographer’s death often proved a stimulant to the sale of that photographer’s work, though it benefited the photographer not at all.

In 1998, Phillips Auction House in New York City, then a small player in the photo market, offered the collection of Washington DC collector, Joshua Smith. Smith had collected color work, some of it quite large, throughout the 70s and 80s. Much to his regret, the auction bombed, and the majority of the work in the two auctions Phillips offered was bought in. The buzz was that color photography had fading issues (true in some cases) and that there was just no precedent for adding this kind of work into either public or private collections. This did not hold true for all photographers of color. Ten dye-transfer photographs by Bill Eggleston, whose work had been heavily promoted by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art with a controversial exhibition in 1976, had a limited market, but he was one of very few. 

Even universally acknowledged great photographer, Harry Callahan, bombed with a color portfolio he produced for Light Gallery in the 1980s. At that time, they offered my gallery a portfolio at a 60% discount, an unheard of discount for contemporary work. Color was just too “real,” collectors said. Black and white was what photography should be about.

What a difference twenty-five years can make to an art market. Today color is the predominant contemporary choice for photography collectors with few asking about its longevity, though, as mentioned, its long-term prognosis is far more positive than in the past.

The vintage market has remained steady despite competition from the contemporary work. Galleries like Tom Gitterman’s space in New York handle high quality vintage work as well as some contemporary photography. Vintage work, like contemporary, can have a limited resale market. “I am careful to price work so resale is a big deal. However, I always emphasize the often lack of liquidity.”

Reputable dealers never offer works for sale based on their potential for resale. Collectors are buying at retail and if they sell, are selling at wholesale, unless they have held the work a long time and it has appreciated considerably. Gitterman recommends, “buy it because you like it and it enhances your life in some way, pay what is comfortable for you and work with dealers you trust and that have good reputations.”

In the vintage market, rare vintage prints by great photographers, mostly black and white and often as small as 8 x 10 inches can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars for each image. Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Edward Weston, Stieglitz, Steichen, Robert Frank, Avedon, Penn, these are names at the top of the market. While vintage work has generally not attained the top prices of Gursky or Sherman, the work has a much broader across the board appreciation, as rarity ensures a demand by institutions and collectors.

What about lesser material, vintage work in a price range comparable to third tier contemporary photographers, generally under $5000 a print?

There is broad opportunity to buy amazing vintage images, many by lesser-known photographers, sometimes lesser-known images by famous photographers, or photographs by well-known photographers that were printed later but in the photographer’s lifetime. As with contemporary, it pays to do your homework. There are dozens of books on the history of photography, monographs on famous and less famous photographers, records of auction sales like the ones listed in the Martin Gordon price index, and reputable dealers like Gitterman who can guide a collector into satisfying purchases.  

Classic photographers generally didn’t produce single images in large numbers before the 1970s as no market existed to purchase them. Photographic exhibitions were limited through the first part of the twentieth century, and most photographers had to earn a living doing commercial work or teaching.  Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind both taught, as did Minor White, and even Ansel Adams on various occasions. Irving Penn and Richard Avedon made reputations as highly successful fashion photographers. By the millennium, many of the great vintage pieces by the best photographers had dried up leading to a spike in the market and leading in the first decade to jumps in prices for some artists. Robert Frank, the great Swiss chronicler of American life, saw his prices rise exponentially. As late as 1998, a piece like Frank’s iconic New Orleans trolley sold for under $10,000, (I know because I sold one) and within five years of that date the same image brought over a hundred thousand dollars at auction. Irving Penn, whose work had long been carefully editioned, price-controlled and developed by Penn in conjunction with the art gallery, Marlborough, in New York, suddenly saw a large price leap for his work in the first decade of the Twenty-First century, with a number of images selling for six figures.

In the twenty-five years prior to the Millenium, a growing interest by museums played a major role in elevating the works of well-known and lesser-known photographers whose work fed into the growing art market. A few museums were ahead of the curve, such as work shown by the brilliant curator, Els Barrant, then at the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam. In the 1970’s Els currated exhibitions of photographers like Mapplethorpe, Sherman, Warhol, and other cutting edge photographic artists.

A handful of museums had supported photography early on, exhibiting it, and emphasizing its significance. Cliff Ackley at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, John Bullard, Director at the New Orleans Museum, Anne Tucker at Houston, and Van Daren Coke at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, were some of the pioneer supporters of the field. At the forefront of the growing photographic phenomenon was the Museum of Modern Art, an institution that had supported the development of the art of photography since the early 1940s when the young museum (begun in 1929) named Beaumont Newhall as the first photographic curator in America in 1941. Newhall was followed by Edward Steichen, and then the brilliant but controversial curator, John Szarkowski. Each of these curators opened wider doors for photographers to gain recognition for their work, and encouraged public involvement in all forms of photography. Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition in 1955 popularized the photographic image, while Ansel Adam’s exhibition, This is the American Earth, done in conjunction with the Sierra Club in the same year, led to the beginning of the Environmental movement. 

MOMA’s photography department also began to do thematic shows that broadened the public’s understanding of photography, or exhibitions that showcased a great artistic eye such as that of Eugene Smith or Henri Cartier-Bresson. These exhibitions demonstrated documentary work that fit comfortably into the art world.

During the 1980s, museums began to catch on to the public’s growing interest in photography. Forward thinking museum directors realized that societies were undergoing a transition from written information to visual information. Prior to the selfie, the cell- phone, the digital camera and the tablet, a subtle shift was taking place in the world’s psyche, spurred by the new media: film, photography, and graphics, and a shift from the real to the virtual world. Even those museums that had avoided showing photographic work, had long considered it second- rate or an insignificant art form, were forced to hop on the growing bandwagon. Museums around the world began to take an interest, buying up collections, and showing traveling exhibitions to satisfy public demand.

In the new millennium myriad changes occurred in the photography world.  Vintage photography, particularly by major artists, dried up, making significant gallery exhibitions almost impossible. Galleries scrambled to introduce lesser-known photographers from the past, while some turned to a steady diet of more easily accessible contemporary photography.

With the advent of digital, and an economic upturn, after the beginning of the Millenium, an enormous number of new galleries opened in countries all around the world, most of them focused on contemporary photography. There have always been an abundance of photographers eager to cash in on the evolving market. Some have done so successfully, others less so, but as new galleries multiply, and each new gallery needs a stable of artists to promote and exhibit, the opportunities broadened allowing for a staggering amount of work of dubious quality that could generously be called “decorative” and “artsy” if not in any way original in ideas. Styles of artists of the past were copied knowingly or unknowingly. Commercial photographers developed their work for the art market.  Amateurs tried to figure out how to cash in. What we have today is a hodge-podge of contemporary work shown here, there and everywhere, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let the buyer beware of where he chooses to put his money down.

Art is often bought on impulse. One responds to a work of art most often for some highly personal reason. A visit to Yosemite can trigger an interest in Ansel Adams work. For those who love New York, a number of images of the city made in the past or present could bring a nostalgic response. Auction houses rely heavily on buyers who forget themselves and often go all out to purchase an image at far above its retail price.

Much of the contemporary market works this same way. Visitors to galleries or art fairs often respond emotionally to a combination of colors, subject matter, radical Photoshop generated uniqueness, an altered portrait style, that could be underwritten by genuine artistic talent or the tempting gimmicky unleashed by Photoshop. The appeal of the contemporary image is to the eye. One has to know little if anything about the history of the field to plunge into the action.  

There is little doubt that the top players in the contemporary art field will hold their value, and quite possibly increase in value over time. The buyer who can afford to invest in leading trend setters will no doubt be able to resell the items down the road and at least have a return on his or her investment along with years of pleasure from the images purchased.

But the vast number of contemporary photographs will have no resale market and little if any value in the future. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be purchased as long as the mythology surrounding contemporary photography is understood. Buy to enjoy with no expectation of return. And be suspicious of anyone who tries to sell a photograph to you by telling you otherwise.

Contemporary work can be engaging and visually exciting. I own a small amount in my own collection displayed on the walls of my home, none bought with the idea of reselling for profit. Most of these pieces are for my wife and me to enjoy alongside the vintage pieces that form the majority of my own collection.

Stephen White

c. 2015

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