Photography’s Journey: from Stepchild to Co-Star
6 May 2020, 5:39 pm
In the art market, as in modern society, economic worth tends to be an indicator of the level of respect and importance. Until the 1970s, photographs were the step-children of the art world, deemed inferior to painting, drawing, and printmaking and thus worth far less. That has changed. The highest price paid at auction for a photograph to date, and thus the highest verifiable price, was for a work by Jeff Koons, who is not usually considered a photographer. The New Jeff Koons (1980), a transparency showing the artist as a child ready to color with his crayons, sold for $9,405,000 in 2013. The next highest auction price was $4.3 million, paid in November 2011 for Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II (1999), 81 x 161 x 2 inches. It is one print in an edition of six; thus theoretically, that edition is worth over $25 million. It was only in 2005 that a photograph first broke the million dollar mark in an auction. Spending $9.5 million or $4.3 million or even $1 million on a photograph seems like a significant amount of respect.
Why is the acceptance of photography as a full-fledged art form a fairly recent development? Historically, some folks believed that producing a photograph was too easy to be art — that it was “made” by a mechanical aparatus which defined and limited the photographer’s options. Until the advent of Photoshop, most people believed that the camera could only transcribe the objects and scenes that were in front of the lens when the shutter was snapped, thus tethering the images produced too closely to the “real world” to permit creativity and invention. But its practitioners had known from the earliest days of the medium that photography could be an art form capable of deep personal expression and creativity. Unfortunately for them, it took the art world around 130 years to catch up to that knowledge.
What factors elevated photography from a second class medium to a first class one in the market? And how did those changes alter our perception of the medium itself? To answer these questions, we must look back to the 1970s, when that seismic shift began to be felt.
Before the 1970s, few art museums collected photographs and if they did, they were often part of the collection of the institution’s library or slide library. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, had pioneered the creation of a separate department for the medium in 1937, but not until the mid-1970s did other institutions follow suit: the next ones were the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1973 and the Art Institute of Chicago in 1975. The United States government’s principal organization for arts funding, the National Endowment for the Arts, had been awarding money to painters and sculptors since 1965; in 1971, it established a formal program of photography grants.
Before the 1970s, photographers were generally classed as practitioners of a commercial trade. If universities and colleges offered classes in the medium, which was rare, they were usually housed within journalism schools. During the ‘70s, they moved into art departments. In 1964, there were 25 college-level programs granting a degree in photography in the United States; altogether they graduated 143 students that year. In 1991-1992, 29,046 college students were taking photography courses — many of them women — and 10,457 of those students were working towards a degree in the field.
A critical factor in elevating prices for photography was the establishment of a marketing structure in the United States and, to a lesser degree, in Europe. Magazines addressing photography as an art form multiplied. Auctions dedicated to the medium began to be held in the United States. Previously, photographs had been included in book auctions or occasionally in print auctions. The first major American auction was at Swann’s in New York in 1952, but it yielded poor results. Sotheby’s started holding regular photo auctions in London in 1971 and in New York in 1975; Christie’s began in 1978.
Over the preceding decades, several New York galleries featuring photography had opened but quickly faded away. It was only around the 1970s that galleries dedicated exlusively to fine art photography began to flourish. Two such businesses debuted in 1969, both of which are stil in operation: the Halsted Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan and the Witkin Gallery in New York. By the end of the 1970s, those pioneers had competition. More than 110 galleries across the United States were regularly exhibiting photography. The potential investment value of contemporary photography was enhanced when artists began to produce numbered, limited editions, a tradition borrowed from printmaking and popularized by an American icon, Ansel Adams. Before that, most photographic editions had been unlimited.
At the same time that photography galleries were multiplying, photography also began to appear in contemporary art galleries and to be acquired by the contemporary art departments in museums. Most often, these photographs were by artists who did not consider themselves photographers. Reacting against commercialism, these artists were trying to “de-materialize” art. To diminish the importance of the object, they turned to conceptual art, earth art, performances, and temporary installations and objects. Some might create all of the above — the boundaries between disciplines and media were breaking down. Photography was just one of a number of media from which to choose.
The medium did perform an important service by providing documentation and endowing temporal or ephemeral works with a lasting presence. Performances and happenings, whether acted out before an audience or created solely for the camera, were recorded. Sculptors like Robert Smithson, whose monumental earthworks were in distant, unpopulated locations and who made temporary sculptures, turned to photography to bring echoes of their presence into New York art galleries and onto the pages of the art magazines. While many of these artists cared about the visual power of these images, they valued them most as carriers of information and documentation, not as independent aesthetic objects. They might not process or even shoot the photos themselves.
The resulting photographic prints were usually exhibited in art galleries and museums alongside paintings, sculptures, and installations, a practice that would ultimately lead to an escalation in the size of photographic prints. Pointing the way were German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who were interested in the interrelationships between individual images in their series of winding towers, water towers, and other industrial structures taken in a “deadpan” style. Though professors of photography, the Bechers’ works were from the beginning exhibited with Minimalist painting and sculpture. The duo created large, striking installations by composing grids from standard-sized photographic prints. Seen as a whole from a distance, the group of images could hold its own against the grander scale of works in other media in the same galleries.
The next logical step was for photographers to begin making larger individual prints. Happily, technological advances came along in the 1970s that allowed the production of enormous, high quality photographic prints. These processes were quite expensive, available only in a few labs, and used primarily for advertising. But as they became more common in the commercial world, prices came down, and some fine art photographers — whose work, don’t forget, wasn’t fetching particularly high prices at the time — began to employ this technology. Canadian photographer Jeff Wall set an early example in the use of large-scale commercial techniques by adapting light boxes and Duratrans transparencies from urban advertising for his art. Wall started working with light boxes in the late 1970s and employed the technology not just for visual effect but also as part of his content, using it to subtly critique the impact of the mass media on our sense of reality.
Gursky and other Becher students soon adopted the new scale, and when the technology became available, many others did the same. The combination of scale and color has proved incredibly powerful and seductive for artists and collectors.
One of the first European photographers to go to a huge scale for his prints was Thomas Ruff, a student of the Bechers who knew of and admired Wall’s work. Ruff had been printing close-up portrait heads at 9 1/2 x 7 inches in unlimited editions. In 1986, he was invited to show at a gallery in Villeurbanne, France. The owner gave him the funding to try something he had wanted to do, but couldn’t previously afford — to have the heads printed in a very large format by a professional lab. Ruff had fourteen portraits printed at 82 x 65 inches each in editions of 3 or 4 plus an Artist’s Proof. Much larger in scale, these limited editions sold for a lot more than Ruff’s earlier prints had, which was a boon for dealer and artist. Andreas Gursky and other Becher students soon adopted the new scale, and as the technology became more widely available, many other photographers followed suit. Scale and color proved to be an incredibly powerful and seductive combination for artists and collectors.
Environment (art gallery vs. photo gallery) and scale were both determining factors in the pricing of photographs. Large-scale prints soon became a trend, one which remains dominant today. Photographs really are larger today than they used to be; the largest are astonishingly big. The photographs made in the early 1970s by the Bechers were physically much more like a Walker Evans print than like a 1990s Gursky, Wall, or Ruff. Not only is there a huge difference in price between their works and those of Walker Evans, but they are two very different kinds of objects.
In order to understand the art of Gursky, Wall, and Ruff, you must see their works in person to understand their impact. No reproduction in a book, however well printed, can convey the physical thrill of encountering a monumental print in a gallery and being swallowed up by it, having your field of vision enveloped within it. Viewing a Walker Evans can be a private, intimate experience. Viewing a Gursky, Wall, or Ruff is a public one, shared with those around you. These artists produce photographs that must be understood not just as images but also as objects. As objects, they seem appropriately situated in galleries that sell paintings and sculpture, which also elevates the prints to a higher economic stratum.
Viewing a Walker Evans can be a private, intimate experience. Viewing a Gursky, Wall, or Ruff is a public one, shared with those around you.
As the prices of photographs by big-name contemporary artists reached the stratosphere, the value of work by major historic photographers increased along with them, although it did not go nearly as high. For example, in 1978 a small museum in the American Midwest spent $10,000 on a group of 35 vintage prints by Walker Evans, one of the most significant American photographers of the 1930s, which comes to around $285 per print. In 1980, when the institution had them appraised, they were valued at around $1,000 each — a significant increase in just two years. The most expensive vintage Evans print sold to date was auctioned off in 2014 for $389,000. If we assume that the museum’s prints appreciated similarly, they increased over 1,365 times in value in around 25 years. Perhaps ironically, the highest prices for rising star contemporary artists Gursky and Koons are respectively 11 and 24 times more than the highest price for a work by a dead artist who is undisputably enshrined in the pantheon of the history of photography.
A final factor that coincided with, and amplified the rise in price and status of the photograph, was the art market boom of the 1980s. Prices for art shot up, and collectors of contemporary art and photography became among the most avid — almost rabid — to get the newest, hottest work first, no matter what the cost. Higher prices for vintage photographs, which had scarcity to help elevate its value, reinforced the presumption that new contemporary work would appreciate over the years and thus also was a good investment. And those predictions have proven true, at least for the ensuing three decades. Photography, while still valued at less than painting and sculpture, has attained at least a co-starring role in the annals of art history.