Making a Photo Masterpiece

By Mckenzie, Michael | Art Business News, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Making a Photo Masterpiece


Mckenzie, Michael, Art Business News


Legendary photographers talk about creating their most famous works

The making of a photographic masterpiece requires not simply skill but extraordinary talent combined with effort. And the process barely begins with the idea, snap of the shutter or first print. A masterpiece needs constant exposure, assessment, re-assessment and long-term planning. The memorable image, the masterpiece, may well be the ultimate intellectual property.

The contemporary photographic masterpiece resonates with a remarkable power in this new millennium, given that the auction, exhibition and track record of photography in the last quarter of the 20th century has upped the ante by nearly 100 times. It seems hard to believe that less than 50 years ago the collector base for photography as a fine art was a small handful of serious investors, even the historical masters of photography rarely sold even their rarest or most famous works for in excess of $1,000. The photographers who emerged or even dominated the field from the 1940s through the 1970s had little heritage to call on to make them believe their signed works would one day sell for tens of thousands of dollars and more. Even Man Ray and Ansel Adams, whose best and rarest photographic works have now danced with the once unimaginable figure of $1 million, were barely eking out a marginal ticket price for the best of their works as late as the 1970s.

Towards the mid-'70s, photography galleries began cropping up in major American, Canadian, Japanese and European cities. Key images from major media publications such as Life and Vogue, particularly the memorable ones of cultural heroes such as Elvis, the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe, drew a wide paying audience and, like any property, demand can often drive price. By the late 1980s, photography was hot and major galleries and the auction houses were scrambling to get their hands on a piece of photography's evolving history. Lee Witkin, an early collector of photography who opened a photography gallery in the 1970s, perhaps summarized it best. "The way it happened," Witkin said, "was that collectors discovered that photography had a spectacular history full of masterpieces that spanned both the globe and a period of more than a century. They all discovered that it was all for sale, and they could afford these masterpieces, unlike the century's masterpieces of painting which were largely accounted for."

By the 1980s, photography's masters, such as Edward Weston, Adams, Man Ray and Paul Outterbridge, were no longer a secret to the great collectors and auction houses. The photographers who emerged around the fourth quarter of the 20th Century, including William Coupon, Joyce Tenneson and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, among many others, began signing and exhibiting their work right as their careers began. For this core group, as well as many other photographers now in mid-career or emerging, the possibility of earning a substantial income from exhibiting photography is a reality--and the creation of the photographic masterpiece an alluring possibility.

Joyce Tenneson, The Mona Lisa Approach

Joyce Tenneson is one of today's most revered exhibiting photographers. Her work taps a spiritual energy in portraiture and she is often the artist of choice when a major book, periodical or ad campaign wants to exhibit that ever pervasive `new age' look. For example, one of her images of Suzanne, one of her top models, was selected by Marianne Williamson to grace the cover of her book, which became a runaway best seller. Williamson, now a guru-like mentor to numerous media figures, including Oprah Winfrey, cited Tenneson's image as seminal to her success.

"I am not sure how the spiritual feeling comes into my images," Tenneson said, "but it isn't simply a technical thing. The feeling is there whether I shoot 35mm, large format or polaroids. It just appears."

Indeed, Tenneson's images "appear," veritable apparitions rendered on film.

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