Photography Biz Rallies after Sept. 11 Meltdown; the Terrorist Attacks and Bear Economy of the Last Year Heavily Affected the Fine Art Photography Market. but as We Head into Fall, Dealers Are Optimistically Moving Forward with Shows and Auctions

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The last year has been fraught with uncertainty for photography dealers, as it has been for every member of the art market. Between Sept. 11 and the stock market meltdown, it has been difficult for them to set a steady course and maintain an even keel. Shows and auctions have been particularly vulnerable because they require dealers and consignors to make commitments months in advance of the scheduled event.

The market for photography, however, remains strong. Indeed, due to its integral place in the contemporary art world, the proliferation of new styles and artists on the market and its lower price points, photography has continued to sell. But, as in the rest of the fine art market, quality quickly rises to the top in times of strife.

Stephen Cohen, director of photo 1.a. and Photo San Francisco and owner of the Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles, offered the adage that "good material will always bring strong prices." However, he said "good" need not necessarily be synonymous with "expensive." For example, dealers in "vernacular photographs" (quirky, unattributable or kitschy images) seem to have developed quite a following, and the pieces they offer are generally only in the low hundreds.

In tough times like these, Cohen said the photography market has an advantage over the paintings market because there are many entry-level photographs on often (By comparison, to start collecting original oils, the ante would likely fall in the four-figure range.) In general, he remains comfortable advising clients that the photo market is "still a good place for people to put money."

"Certainly, photography in the last five years has become much more collectible and acceptable than it was prior," added Barry Podgorsky, co-owner of Soho Triad Fine Art in New York, about the state of the market. "Most major museums have active photography departments. More and more, it has expanded its collector base."

Effects of Sept. 11 and the Economy

In spite of its continued prominence in the art community, the photography market was severely impacted by the terrorist attacks of last year and the faltering economy. "Sept. 11 made things difficult getting pieces from Europe to here," observed Cohen. Not only was there the matter of security-related airport delays, but the post-Sept. 11 art insurance situation may have also deterred some galleries from participating in last year's photo l.a. "It was really going great until Sept. 11," he wistfully said. Furthermore, he bemoaned the fact that the stale economy has caused "a kind of flatness in the business." He did, however, point out that the photography market is holding its own in this time of trouble.

According to Julie Saul, a member of the Advisory Committee for the newly formed The Armory Photography Show, the economy had already started to take its toll months before the terrorist attacks. "April 2001 was the moment things slowed down," she said, and there is ample support for her claim. A recent government report states that, contrary to earlier calculations, the U.S. recession had started way back in April 2001, not later in the year, as had been previously announced.

This assessment of the photo market is further confirmed by Leila Buckjune, vice president and head of the photographs department at Christie's, New York. By April 2001, "the market was already becoming more selective," she observed. Yet, she did offer a glimmer of hope, adding, "The market is always strong for good material; I hope that we will see that again this fall."

Photography Shows & Auctions

In spite of the economic problems, the existence of several photography shows and the establishment of a new show in a difficult market is perhaps a testament to the strength of photography. When it comes to these shows and the upcoming photography auctions at the seminal New York auction houses, just what does the market look like this fall; is there reason to be hopeful? …