Magazine article The Spectator

Photo Opportunity

Magazine article The Spectator

Photo Opportunity

Article excerpt

'To collect photographs is to collect the world, ' said essayist Susan Sontag.

Judging by auction results at Christie's, Phillips de Pury and Sotheby's in New York this spring, all of a sudden collecting photographs costs the earth too. Andreas Gursky's 99 Cent diptych broke all records at $3 million, and more than $37m was spent on photographs in April alone.

The collectors were treated to the very best: Ansel Adams, Stieglitz, Margaret Cameron, Irving Penn, Mapplethorpe, Man Ray, Fox Talbot, Weston, Paul Strand, Avedon and on and on through the greats.

Sumptuous, haunting, raw and ravishingly stylish -- they couldn't get enough of them.

All this for works that, until recently, much of the art world wouldn't call art at all. Some commentators said the New York sales were merely evidence of new billionaires throwing indiscriminate money around. But surely what we're seeing, at last, is photography being taken seriously.

It has to be said that photographs are easier to fall in love with than much contemporary art. No matter what techniques are used, every eye can read them in an augenblick. Photography is about us: our humdrum reality, our icons, our mythology and our world.

When did photography begin to rise to the stature of art? Was it Robert Mapplethorpe's magnificent, uncompromising images that did it? Or David Hockney's mind-altering Polaroid collages? Was it the persistence of the Rencontre d'Arles photography fair? Perhaps Sontag's book On Photography? And will Leibowitz's magnificent portrait of the Queen convince the last doubters? I don't know.

I ask some photographers and get surprising answers. Tony Snowdon stops me in horror. 'Art? It's certainly not art!' he says. 'I take pictures because I'm a very bad painter and it's so much quicker.' But he does admit exceptions, 'There are great photographers.

Cartier-Bresson. Irving Penn.' And he stops right there.

I try Terry O'Neil. 'It's staggering the amount of money being spent on photographs, ' he says. He thinks he was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. That's how he got great shots of Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn and many others (he just sold a limited-edition print of Frank Sinatra on the boardwalk to Arnold Schwarzenegger). But if you push him, he'll admit that photography is art.

'The eye, the composition, is everything, ' he says. …

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