Eyeing Up Photography's Value

Article excerpt

Understand the formula for developing the fine art photography market--the medium of the 20th century

What is it that makes one photograph accrue in value while another, similar in such ways as size, content, time period, process and even artist authorship holds much less value? How do scarcity, visibility, technical elements, aesthetic and an exhibition track record, both galleries and museums, affect the value of a photographic work of art? These are the questions that collectors, photographers and dealers must consider on a daily basis as they participate in and help form the fine art photography marketplace globally.

Photo dealer Peter MacGill, guiding force of the Pace/MacGill Gallery in Manhattan, said his vision for success is photographically driven. "What makes a masterpiece of photography have value is that the picture is totally resolved, rock solid," he said. "Edition size is important in that, for example, I couldn't have sold Man Ray's `Glass Tears' for as much as it commanded [$1.3 million] had it not been so scarce--only three were made. But the physical size of the image, I think, is less important to value and is a matter of the artist's choosing. The artist makes the picture the size he sees the art, hopefully."

For Howard Read, owner of the Cheim/Read Gallery in the Chelsea Art District in New York, collecting and marketing fine art photography is all about the artist. "The impact of the career and life of the artist," Read explained, "combined with the importance of the individual work or works drive the market. Size and edition less so."

A case-in-point of the life of an artist impacting the market can be found with Robert Mapplethorpe, whose estate is represented by Read. The success of Mapplethorpe, whose prints at Read's early shows barely topped $1,000 and now can command $50,000, illustrates Read's theory on why important works accrue in value.

David Fahey, dealer emeritus at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles said aesthetic quality and visibility are the key to finding photographic success. This strategy was tested most notably with famed fashion photographer Herb Ritts, who Fahey took on in 1985. "My strategy was to package books, coordinate with publishers, mount the exhibition at my space and then travel the show around. I did this with Herb for the first book [Pictures] and we continue doing it now." The audience built with Fahey and Ritts has been nothing short of phenomenal; Ritts' one person museum show in Boston attracted more than 250,000 visitors, making it one of the most well-attended museum shows of the '90s. And Ritts' auction record parallels the growth of his popularity. In the mid '80s original Ritts prints were in the $750 to $1,500 range; a single print, "Djimon With Octopus" sold at Christie's for $22,000 recently.

Fahey has packaged books for exhibitions with a group of photographers, including author Allen Ginsberg and Richard Gere, who collaborated with the Dalai Lama. "My strategy has always been to explore all aspects of photography to keep expanding the market. When I showed Allen, I reached this literary audience who I had never connected with before. With Richard, there was that [another audience] too."

Fahey voices an opinion similar to that of Howard Read regarding the value of photography. "Editioning to show scarcity does not necessarily impress me," Fahey said. "People get worried because photography has a negative and they wonder if there are some large number of prints around because it isn't numbered. The photographers who do reportage, like Cartier-Bresson, rarely number prints. For me, authenticity--a signature and a solid provenance--is the key, combined with the right artist and a strong image. …