The Magic in the Moment ; Photography Is the Great Democratic Artform, but Its Masterpieces Now Fetch Record Sums. What Better Time, Then, to Relaunch the Famous Photofile Series? by MICHAEL GLOVER
Glover, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
What is it about photography that so seduces us? The illusory, warts and all replication of reality. The things of the world are there for us again, exactly as we see them, miraculously made afresh. There, for example, is Aunt Jane in those high leather boots of hers, which turned her toes into ruddy pig's trotters. There, at her side, mewling a little, pulling at her skirt, is sad William, who died so soon after, and is now scarcely remembered, except on occasions such as this.
Wherever its appeal may lie, the stock of photography couldn't be higher at the moment. A fevered sale of "27 Exceptional Photographs" at Phillips de Pury & Co in New York last week brought in an exceptional $3.6m ([pound]1.8m). In February, Andreas Gursky stole the crown from Edward Steichen for the most expensive photograph ever sold - his gaudy montage of supermarket shelves, 99 Cent II, Diptych, went for $3.3m. At the end of this month, the fourth Photo- London fair will open its doors in the new, larger location of Old Billingsgate Market, this time focusing purely on works since 1970.
"It's the central medium of our time," says Valerie Fougeirol, chief curator of the fair. "There's been an increasing interest in photography over the last few years, and it's going to carry on for a few years to come." Zoe Bingham, print sales manager at the Photographers' Gallery in London, which attracts half a million visitors a year, agrees. "We're seeing a real trend in younger collectors starting up collections. There's a great appetite for buying photography and a lot of young talents emerging on the scene who are stirring up interest from both fine art circles and traditional photography buyers," Bingham says. "The works we have range from [pound]150 to [pound]30,000, so it is affordable for everyone. And something that you buy at [pound]300 could well be worth significantly more within a few years."
The decision of the publisher Thames & Hudson to bring back its Photofile series profiling great photographers of the 20th century means that everyone can enjoy the boom. From new books dedicated to Bill Brandt, Elliott Erwitt, Josef Koudelka, Sebastiao Salgado, Araki, Andre Kertes, Don McCullin and Walker Evans to reissues of those on Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helmut Newton, this landmark series is a comprehensive, accessible and affordable overview of the artform.
In a handy, companionable format, their width about the span of an adult's hand, they're the sort of tough book that can be put in the pocket and hoicked out as and when the mood arises - on the bus, for example. They consist, by and large, of full-page reproductions of some of the best photographs by the subject of each book, about 60 in all.
A short preface - sometimes by the photographer, sometimes not - helps to contextualise the work, but these are not tediously theoretical; rather, they are insightful and anecdotal. A useful bibliography gives some details of books to consult should we want to learn more, and there's an equally useful biography.
Today, these books show us the youngish art of photography beginning to flex its muscles and establish its claims. The fact that Walker Evans and Don McCullin will be added in the autumn is a demonstration of photography's breadth. Photography has helped to shape and change the world. Can that be said of painting in the past 150 years, for all its brilliant, experimental diversity? Photography is an artform, but often an entirely unselfconscious one because it exists also as an everyday tool, a tool of record and of accurate remembrance.
Did McCullin, when he was recording the murderous Biafran conflict of the 1960s, have the space and time to polish his lenses as he contemplated matters of aesthetics? No: his efforts were directed towards telling the truth about one of the most terrible conflicts of the century. The fact that the photographs he wrested from that war are grippingly, hauntingly memorable testifies to the fact that he was and is a great photographer, not to the fact that he was consciously engaged in the business of endeavouring to make great art. …