New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 17 April 17 to 23, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

The Fine Art Photo Market, from Birth to Today

AIPAD Panel 2013
Photo by Norman Borden . Source:
Norman Borden, "Aipad Panel 1" 2013.
The art market isn’t what it used to be, the Internet is where it’s at, nudes sell better online, and making big prints doesn’t mean they’re art. Those were just a few of the revelations that emerged during a very lively and informative panel discussion called “The Fine Art Photo Market, from Birth to Today” that was part of this year’s AIPAD show.

Each panelist brought his or her own perspective and personality to the discussion. For example, Duane Michals, now in his 80s and well known for his work that combines images and text, spoke of his early days in the 1950s when he tried combining painting with photography. He said, “I found that oil paint doesn’t dry and you can get your nose stuck in it.” Sixty years later, he tried the technique again by painting on original tintypes and created something new. Michals told how hard it was to sell his photography at the start of his career.

“I sold a photograph for $5 at the Underground Gallery.” He told how the pioneer photo gallerist Helen Gee pinned work on the walls of her Limelight Gallery in Sheridan Square and sold an Ansel Adams for $5. He said there were no great rewards in photography—you were there for the passion, not the money. Michals said, “If money entered into it, photography could become as corrupt as the art world.” That brought waves of laughter from the audience. But Michals felt that the paradigm shift was when photography became art because it was big. “It was considered art if it looked like the contemporary art of the time.” Michals brought more laughter when he observed, “ I don’t trust any photograph that’s so large it can only fit into a museum.” He added, “You should be in photography because you have a need to express something, not to get rich.”

Susanna Wenniger, of Artnet.com, showed the image by Cartier-Bresson, Rue Moueffetard (boy with wine bottles), as an example of what sells on the Internet. She explained, ”It’s not a vintage print, it’s a later print, but it’s an iconic image by a well-known artist. Buyers know it.” What they usually don’t know is that Cartier-Bresson’s work often has a lot of spotting and new collectors think it’s a flaw but it’s not. She said, “We have to do a certain amount of teaching.” Wenniger also mentioned that Artnet.com had sold a Mapplethorpe for $83,000, which is the largest online sale to date. It was feasible because collectors know the Mapplethorpe Trust is very protective of his work so they have a high comfort level in spending large sums online. Wenniger also mentioned that sexually provocative work sells well: “People are more comfortable buying it online than in a gallery.” Perhaps most surprising was hearing that Artnet.com’s sales volume was second only to Christie’s among the various auction houses.

Celso Gonzalez-Falla, as COB of the Aperture Foundation and married to Sondra Gilman, owner of one of the world’s finest photography collections, brought a completely different tone and perspective to the morning’s discussion.

Talking about the early days of Aperture in the 1950s, he told how Minor White along with Nancy and Beaumont Newhall published large portfolios by major photographers. That stimulated discussion of what photography was at the time, but once Minor White left Aperture, they began to publish important books. He also described what it’s like to be a collector. Gonzalez-Falla explained, “We like to follow artists for a long time. It’s very rare for us to buy someone that we don’t know. We like to see how artists evolve. We have to agree on what’s going into the collection, so we look a lot and visit art fairs, galleries, and the Internet. When something hits you, you have to buy it but that can take time. We had to wait 15 years before the print we wanted of Walker Evans’ Saratoga Springs came to market.”

Another point of view came from Catherine Edelman, a gallery owner from Chicago. Discussing how the fine art photo market has changed, she mentioned how art fairs and the Internet have changed her business in the past five years. She said, “It’s the way we exist, my collector base is worldwide because of them.” As a dealer, she shares her passion with collectors but there’s a big difference between collectors and buyers. The buyer is usually on a mission to fill the wall in his house and once they do, that’s it. Working with collectors is more rewarding. She said, “It’s an amazing relationship.... it usually starts out as a shrink session, they tell me what they like and don’t like and I usually end up knowing more about them than their spouses do. But the beauty of working with collectors is that you can watch them grow.“

When asked what the future would bring, Edelman said, “I don’t have a clue. The art market is changing; people are not coming into galleries but being driven by the Internet.” Michals said he hopes photographers wouldn’t lose their integrity and sell out. “Once they’re dictated to by the market and galleries, it’ will be a lost cause. “ Wenniger said she hopes to see photography become more integrated with the rest of the art market. Gonzalez-Falla made the most interesting prediction: “You’ll see more and more of the old processes coming back into the market. People will get tired of the current stuff.”

The Fine Art Photo Market, from Birth to Today by Norman Borden

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