Foreign Photography: Gaining Momentum: Museums, Expos and Economic Trends Whet Appetite for Photos from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa

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What is your stand on internationalism? Not politics--photographs. Like U.S. politicians, U.S. photography dealers are increasingly finding it necessary to choose between isolationism and multilateralism, with the latter being the trend.

According to Rick Wester, interim director of the Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, there is a "very strong international trade." He observes, "Internationalism affects every realm of the photographic art world--contemporary, vintage, [etc.]." As for why, he explains that there is "a strong appetite for new works.... Internationalism coincides with the desire to supply the market with new images."

Alex Novak, publisher of the E-photo Newsletter, Chalfont, PA, agrees with Wester that internationalism is on the rise in the United States, and he offers two additional explanations. First, he says, "American museums have been much more accepting [than foreign ones] of international photography. They have been less provincial; you can see much more international photography here." Clearly, what people see in museums can have an effect on what they will buy to hang on their own walls.

Second, "photography is becoming a more international marketplace," because, he explains, "exposition shows have changed the marketplace." He believes that many galleries have become expert globetrotters, exhibiting at all of the major expositions, be they in Basel, Paris, New York or San Francisco. Some have become like "hermit crabs" with no permanent homes. "A lot of galleries have even closed and are just doing expos," he notes, adding that the galleries can pick up pieces while in Europe, pack them up, and bring them back here to sell.

Our appetite for the works of hot foreign photographers may also be enhanced by economics; not only are the pieces novel, but they also may be more affordable. "A lot of their work is really well known and still [very] reasonable," opines Wester. In particular, he touts the works of a number of Europeans. The German photographers specifically, he says, "have a huge importance" in the marketplace.

Chinese Photographs Gaining Popularity

Some intrepid buyers, though, are looking beyond America and Europe, and to Asia for foreign works. "The 'Westerncentric' view is starting to change," he observes. "In the past four to five years ... interest in Chinese works has grown tremendously." Of course, it is only recently that Chinese artists have been allowed the freedom to pursue their careers abroad. Wester admits that their rise is, indeed, a "function of the opening of Chinese society in general." Yet, he still believes that the market has only recently expanded to the point where their works could be properly assimilated, appreciated and collected. "It would not have happened 20 years ago," he asserts. "People are more open-minded now."

Just what kinds of works are contemporary Chinese photographs? They are "consistently fascinating," enthuses Ethan Cohen, director of New York's Ethan Cohen Fine Arts gallery, which specializes in Asian and Asian-inspired works. Cohen says Chinese photographers "are pushing things to the max." There is no problem (for them at least), "if they want to experiment with photographing a human heart. It is so cutting edge; there are no limits in China."

When Cohen first promoted the works of Chinese photographers in the 1980s, there was some resistance; they were deemed "out in left field," he recalls. Recently, though, there were two major shows of their works at the International Center of Photography and the Asia Society, during which Cohen ran his "ON THE EDGE" contemporary Chinese photography and video exhibit. Now, he observes, "there are many major collectors who are collecting Chinese photography in a big way. Photography, since it is understandable ... appeals to a lot of the collectors now; people are so excited by the medium and the originality of the artists."

Still, though, one may not want to market the images of such photographers to squeamish collectors. …