ART + AUCTION
Richard B. Woodward
All photography dealers and curators have surely asked themselves at some point why the art market undervalues photojournalism as a collectable. After all, they – along with previous generations of Americans and Europeans - learned about photography mainly in the pages of Life, Picture Post, Stern, Geo, National Geographic and local newspapers. Images that speak eloquently about contemporary realities, with the power to unnerve today’s world leaders and enlighten tomorrow’s historians, have a huge audience, even if most art museums and top galleries ignore this fact.
Indeed, such material has never lacked popular appeal or recognition. Susan Meisela’s photograph of New Yorkers agog at the collapsing South Tower of the World Trade Center has been appreciated by far more people than have ever seen Robert Mapplethorpe’s platinum print of a calla lily. Yet the first is clearly labeled in our minds as ”news” and the second as “art,” a difference that can mean a chasm of hundreds of thousands of dollars, as seen in the auction record: Meiselas had fewer than 10 pictures at the auction, none for more than $6,000; a Mapplethorpe calla lily went for $242,700 at Christie’s in 2004.
There are any number of reasons, good or bad, for this striking discrepancy. First and foremost is the incompatibility between newsworthiness and much of what the market values. “What photojournalists do isn’t meant as art, as something to be framed on the wall,” says dealer Howard Greenberg. Photographers on a story in a dangerous place such as iraq or Afghanistan are there primarily to transmit information, not to create pleasing compositions.
The consequences of the disconnect between the news-reporting and the art-market mentally can be both trivial and profound – as Anne Wilkes Tucker , photography curator and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, can testify. Tucker is putting together and exhibition of war images for 2011, a huge project that has necessitated her working with a group of photojournalists she had not known before.
“Very few have representation,” she says. “they don’t know about editions or pricing. One of them asked me what size to make a print I wanted to buy for the collection. They’re concerned that their images are reproduced well. They think about them as objects.”
Tales about from aggrieved dealers who have tried to synchronize gallery schedules with the fitful lives of photojournalists. Greenberg, for instance, tells of mounting an ambitious show by Gilles Peress in 1996, a year after the Museum of Modern Art’s one-man exhibition of the acclaimed French-born New York based photographer, who has covered violent upheavals all over the world for more than 40 years.
“We did a whole wall that mixed different bodies of his work and put a lot of pictures up,” says Greenberg. “But it was terribly painful to get to the finishing line. Gilles drove the staff crazy before the opening. After is was over, we shook hands as friends but agreed it was not the best arrangement for either of us.”
Only a few prints sold. “A lot of his work is very tough,” Greenberg adds. “People just aren’t going to buy it to put on their walls.” Peress’s top price at auction was $2,629, at Christie’s New York in 2004, for a 1972 Northern Ireland street scene.
Tucker knows curators who have waited years to get a print they were promised by photojournalists. She had personal experience, as well. She has admired Spencer Platt’s image of affluent young Lebanese and a red convertible since it was named World Press Photo of the Year, in 2006, and wants to include it in her show. But Platt has yet to deliver a copy to her. “Many [photojournalists] don’t have time for us,” she says “They’re on the next assignment. It’s as much that we don’t fit into their world as they don’t fit into ours.”
Sarah Hasted and William Hunt, of Hasted Hunt, in Chelsea, have championed contemporary work ripped from the headlines, with mixed results. In 2003 they filled the gallery where they used to work, Ricco/Maresca, with a series of recent images by French photographer Luc Delahaye and had unexpectedly good fortune. Dead Taliban Fighter, Delahaye’s monumental (96 by 48 inches) 2001 portrait of a slain solider curled up in an afghan ditch, quickly four prints at $15,000 apiece. Other images were also snapped up.
Presentation can mean everything in te sale of such work. Even though he still shoots for Newsweek and other magazines, Delahaye bristles at the term photojournalist. In 2001 he adopted a large-format technique and publicly declared himself an artist. The J. Paul Getty museum, not known for highlighting still simmering trouble spots, recently put 10 of his enormous prints on its walls, including Dead Taliban Fighter, for the one-man show “Recent History,” which runs through November 25th.
“His photographs are still in a documentary from,” says the Getty’s assistant photography curator, Anne Lacoste. “But in their scale, they’re not about an event as much as they are about their relationship to history painting. He’s not illustrating an article; he’s questioning the limits of the medium. There’s a broader field of vision, a larger context.”
Hasted and Hunt have had less luck with photographers whose work is more clearly journalistic. Since 2005 the pair has shown hard-edged images, of the Asian tsunami and other human disasters, produced by members of VII, the small but high-profile photo agency founded in 2001. This elite group comprises James Nachtwey, Ron Haviv, Christopher Morris, Antonin Kratochvil, Lauren Greenfield, Gary Knight, John Stanmeyerm Joachim Ladefoged, Alexandra Boulat and Eugene Richards. Pick up any news magazine and you’re likely to see their work.
Sales were slow at first but have heated up. Ron Haviv’s 2005 portrait of three African girls walking in the Darfur desert has almost sold out in its larger size (30 by 40 inches) and edition of 12 priced at $3,000 apiece – respectable, if far short of the sums Delahaye commands.
The popularity of Haviv’s prints illustrates a fundamental truth about photos of all genres: “ People don’t mind bidding for work that’s pretty or tasteful,” says Denise Bethel, who runs the photography department at Sotheby’s New York. “ It was Tina Modotti’s [1925 platinum print] Roses that’s set the record [for a photograph at auction]” - $165,000, in 1991 at Sotheby’s – “Not her pictures of poor children running around Mexico.” Similarly. Mapplethorpe’s flower studies do much better than his graphic reports of S-and-M clubs.
Hunt doesn’t dispute this observation but sees the barrier to market acceptance arising as much from the photographers’ ambivalence about putting a price tag on image of horror they have witnessed as from collectors’ discomfort with these images. “There’s a reluctance among photojournalists to take themselves seriously,” he says. “When we had our Delahaye show, they were the ones most outrages that he was getting that kind of money. They had no appreciation that we were trying to display their kind of work in another context, as art. They’re the source for much of the stigmatizing in the art world about photojournalism.”
Magnum Photos, the renowned collective born from the ashes of World War II, has historically been riven by internecine debates over whether photographs by its members should ever be put on sale in galleries. Although prints be deceased founders Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson and Davis “Chim” Seymour are commonly seen at auction, several hard-core contemporary photojournalists in the organization are reportedly still hostile to the idea. “For me to do anything meaningful with Magnum, there would have to be unity,” says Greenberg. “After a while, it became apparent to me that could never happen.” He is not the only dealer to be thwarted in this way.
Postmodern critics and theorists have looked askance at attempts to bring photojournalism into the market. In a article in Guernica, a magazine devoted to art and politics, journalist and photo editor Ann Tornkvist asked, “Is it ethical to sell pictures portraying other people’s suffering? Is it ethical to buy them?” Documentary photographs not connected to topical hot-button issues and events have a far greater chance of escaping such scrutiny and enjoying the market acclaim. Vintage pictures by Andre Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank have lately gone for thousands of dollars. (Fans of this type of work can shop the October 17 Christie’s New York Photography sale, which focuses on street photography and includes the most significant group of Franks images ever to come on the block.)
The success of those older images also reflects the general rule that’s, with images of mayhem and deprivation, at least a decade, and probably longer, hast to pass before the aesthetics trump issues of exploitation. Immediate pain has to give way to a deeper sense of loss, this is to be expected with a medium offering the illusion of arrested and preserved time. The market for Capa, Cartier-Bresson and, more recently, the Mexican news photographer Enrique Metindes and the Swiss policeman Arnold Odermatt did not take off until collectors realized that the number of prints was finite and the scenes they recorded were receding at a fast clip into the past. Weegee did not become a hot artist until 1994, when vintage prints from the 1930s and ‘40s, such as Their First Murder, Bean to top $20,000.
“Photojournalism has always been a tricky market,” says Bethel. “Living photographers never do too well.” Among this group, Sebastiao Selgado, who records the heroic misery of laborers around the globe in moody black and white, is perhaps the only one who has sold prints for more than $10,000: A copy of his best seller, a 1986 picture of gold miners in his native Brazil, brought $16,800 at Sotheby’s in 2006.
Everyone agrees that the potential market for photojournalism is vast “ If we could find a couple of collectors who would make it sexy, photojournalism would take off,” say Hunt. His gallery has a London client who has hung a Meiselas photograph of s scene from the Nicaraguan civil war prominently in his living room. “It’s very fresh,” says the dealer, “and gives you this revealing picture of who [the collector] is.”
Images from the Cold War and the Vietnam era rarely bring a lot of money but sell steadily. “ Baby boomers are collecting their memories.” says Bonni Benrubi, whose New York gallery has tapped into nostalgia with shows of LeRoy Grannis’s 1960s and ‘70s California surfing pictures and Louis Stettner’s New York train commuters from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Hunt expresses surprise that collectors aren’t thronging to buy the work of Eugene Richards, whose gritty, empathic pictorial stories about the urban and rural poor make him the nearest contemporary kin to W. Eugene Smith, the greatest war correspondent and Magnum photographer. “ I don’t understand why I’m calling museums and they’re not calling me,” says Hunt, undeterred by the fact the Richards’s auction record is only $1,092, set at Swann Galleries in 1998. “They should be putting together a collection now, while the work is still inexpensive.”
Benrubi has recently taken on magnum member Paolo Pellegrin and has scheduled a show for June 2008. Pellegrin has enjoyed a stellar year, winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal as well as first place in World Press awards for general news. The romantic black0-and-white tonality of his prints, which soften the harsh conditions in the prisons and war zones that he shoots, could lure collectors to his work. Benrubi is nonetheless starting out slowly, pricing the work at $1,800, for 11-for-14-inch prints, and $7,500, for 30-by-40-inch ones.
“I told him I don’t know how many pictures we’re going to sell,” she says. “But I love photojournalism. It’s the lifeblood of photography. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is my favorite picture in the world. I think it’s important to have someone of Paolo’s substance – to maintain my own interest and faith in photography, if nothing else.”