As an artistic medium, it is less than 200 years old, the time- span between the early daguerreotypes and the digital camera Yet already traditional fine art photography has become a thing of the past because new technology allows anyone with a mobile phone and a computer to become a creative genius. Theoretically.
But even as we mourn the passing of the era of great black-and- white photographers - such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn or Robert Mapplethorpe - dealers and auction houses on both sides of the Atlantic are revelling at the premium values such work is attracting. Even earlier prints by less well-known photographers from the late 19th century or early 20th century are selling for record amounts.
Dealers are predicting prices are likely to rise further as collectors become aware of the rarity status of images in a market driven by the boom in sales of all contemporary art.
At the same time, there has been a steady increase in interest among institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, which holds regular photography exhibitions, and there are now more than 40 galleries specialising in photography in London, compared to a handful just a few years ago.
Artprice, which monitors auction sales, reports that prices have risen by 30 per cent in the past year and more than 200 per cent over the past 10 years. This has been created by sales such as that of Edward Steichen's The Pond - Moonlight, shot in 1904 and which sold for pounds 1.6m at Sotheby's in New York in February, a world record auction price for a photograph and double its estimated value. As an example of the money to be made by investing in photographs, Artprice estimates that Steichen's value has quintupled in the past decade: EUR100 invested in a Ste-ichen image in 1997 is worth an average EUR540 today.
In May, in London, at a Sotheby's sale of classic black-and- white photographs by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton prices more than doubled their estimates. This sale included a set of 1976 Avedon photographs of the Rolling Stones, sold for pounds 153,000.
At Christie's in April, pounds 197,000 was paid for a 1950 Irving Penn image, Harlequin Dress, again a world record for Penn and double its estimated value' last month another world record price of pounds 230,000 was set for Elec-tricite, a work by the surrealist Man Ray, who created his own type of photograph, known as a Rayograph.
All this frantic activity is tinged with a genuine feeling of nostalgia that the conventional photograph is heading the same way the vinyl record and the videotape. Tim Jeffries, the owner of Hamilton's Gallery in central Lon-don who has been involved in photographic sales for more than 20 years, said: "Traditional art photography as we know it is ceasing to exist in our lifetime and I don't think the great mass has realised the fact. But it is one reason why we are seeing such a huge rise in prices.'
Daniel Newburg, a dealer and founder of Photo-London, Britain's first art photography fair, now in its third year, agrees. "The era of great art photography has reached an end. And now our culture is looking back and deciding …