It may be happening under the radar, but photography is being taken ever more seriously by art collectors and dealers alike. The world of photography can be a confusing one to navigate, not least because of the question of how rare or unique something that can be reproduced with relative ease can ever be deemed to be.
However, that has not deterred online art dealer artnet from embracing photography wholeheartedly, offering major photography sales throughout the year on its artnet Auctions site.
“There is a lot of photography out there and for many years it was overlooked as being a secondary art. In fact, there are still several very recognised in galleries in the art world who will not touch photography because they either believe it’s too inexpensive for their overheads or not important enough in the overall scheme of the art world,” says Miles Barth, artnet’s senior specialist, photographs and the author/editor of 11 books on photography.
He believes that for the foreseeable future there will be galleries that retain that attitude, but that they are becoming an ever smaller minority. Meanwhile, there are far more photography galleries and public institutions selling photography than there were 20 years ago; Barth estimates that the number has probably doubled.
“If you also include the private dealers and agents then that number is certainly substantial compared to what it might have been 20 years ago,” he says. He adds that if you also take into account the growing number of art fairs that are including photography, it is clear that the medium is enjoying vastly increased public exposure.
“This is what’s boosted the popularity of photography, bringing it into the art world as an integral part rather than a stepchild,” he says.
Asked whether collectors should question the value of a piece that may be one of many identical prints, Barth says it is advisable to be curious about the print’s provenance.
“Photography is not a subject for someone to go into without asking that very question, and speaking to somebody who would know how to properly answer it,” he says. “I certainly wouldn’t trust a dealer or gallery that I wasn’t sure of.
“Reputation in any field of collecting can be a great part of the satisfaction that you get from knowing that your money is going towards something that has a value at the moment that you purchase it and could potentially have an increased or improved value in the future.”
Part of artnet’s solution is, in the vast majority of cases, to sell prints that have been signed by the artist.
“We rely on the artist to sign a print and that signature is more than just an indication that the artist had his hand in the work; he’s also validating the work. With that signature much of your question can be responded to,” says Barth.
If prints have been made posthumously, they are made by the estate of the photographer under the supervision of someone who is known to the estate to be reputable and knowledgeable about the person whose work they are printed.
Other factors, such as the type of paper used, whether the print is one of a limited run, and whether the artist has done something to alter the print physically, such as adding a stain, varnish or handwriting, can all affect the extent to which a print can be deemed to be unique.
In order to make informed purchases, Barth recommends reading and studying the history of the medium, and visiting as many galleries as you can – possibly even taking a course at a university or a community arts centre that might have a lecture series by artists, historians or critics.
“Learn about the subject before you dive in,” he warns.