The flamboyant youth of the photography market


Photography, particularly in the digital age, lends itself to reproduction and publishing more easily than any other medium, rendering it the most accessible art form. And so, the notion of rarity, which contributes greatly to the value of such works of art, (in so far as they are works of art, as according to European legislation, a photograph is a work of art if there are fewer than 30 copies made) seems to be lacking in the medium and only able to be introduced artificially. Adding to the still young history of photography, this accessibility has made it a generally less prestigious and less significant market than the classical art market. But on the eve of the 19th edition of the world’s largest photography fair, Paris Photo, running from 13 to 15 November 2015, the photography market is undergoing great change.

The market emerged in the 1970s, mostly with historical, black and white photographs. In 1971, Sotheby’s launched the first photography department of an auction house, two years before the foundation of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. It was not, however, until the 1990s that the interest of the public and collectors in photography began to grow significantly, with many institutions engaging in the promotion of this medium. The decade saw the inauguration of the annual exhibition “Photo LA” (1991), Los Angeles, Paris Photo Fair (1997), the opening of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (1990), the Tel -Hai Open Museum of Photography (1992), Israel, the Fotomuseum Winterthur (1993), Switzerland, the European House of Photography (1996), in Paris and the National Museum of Photography (1996) in Copenhagen, Denmark. 2005 marked a turning point with the first millionaire auction for a photograph (Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy) (1989), $1,248,000 in November 2005, at Christie’s, New York). Ten years later, the market is continuously expanding. In the current context, what becomes of the question of accessibility: still an obstacle or could it be an asset? And does this expansion not call for a reevaluation of borders, whether it be for the global market or for the medium?

An expanding market

The photography market is still far from achieving the revenues reached by the plastic arts such as painting and sculpture. The 91 millionaire auctions since 2005 only represent 10 artists, of whom the majority is Anglo-Saxon. Thus, many renowned photographers do not achieve the high prices in line with their great reputations, as in the plastic arts. By comparison, of the top 100 contemporary artists of 2015, 58 of them had conducted at least one millionaire auction that year and 6 had exceeded ten million. In photography, even a very famous work, such as Identical Twins by Diane Arbus is only estimated at $300,000 at Sotheby’s (“Back to Black: Photographs”, November 13, 2015, in Paris). The record of an artist of the caliber of Robert Mapplethorpe amounted to $643,200 for the Warhol portrait from 1987, sold at Christie’s New York in 2006, and only £85,250 for David LaChapelle, with Deluge Museum (2007) sold at Sotheby’s London in 2009.

Still modest compared to contemporary art, the photography market reached a turning point in the 2010s, led by a small group of elite, giving it more and more credibility, with the support of institutions. A figure such as Andreas Gursky, (with 26 millionaire auctions culminating in the sale of Rhein II (1999) for $4.33 million at Christie’s New York in 2011, and solo exhibitions at such prestigious institutions as MoMA, the Centre Pompidou and the Moderna Museet) leads the way along with Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Gilbert & George, Thomas Struth and Jeff Koons, who holds the auction record price for a self-portrait photograph at $9.4 million. Besides the artists, the platforms devoted to photography are comparable to large-scale celebrations of contemporary art: Paris Photo brings together 173 exhibitors, as does the FIAC, while Fotofever – also in Paris, from November 13 to 15 2015 – welcomes 90 exhibitors.

Since 2010, the expansion of the photography market, particularly contemporary, has accelerated sharply. The specialized fairs are flourishing, and not just in the West: Fotofever (2011); Unseen Photo Fair (2012), Amsterdam; the Triennale photography RAY (2012), in Francfort-sur-le-Main; Paris Photo LA (2013 ); Vienna Photo Book Festival (2013); Photo Independent (2014), Los Angeles; Photo Shanghai (2014); Photo London (2015); and Zona Maco Foto (2015) in Mexico City. The creation of these platforms was made possible by the launch of new specialised galleries in the 2000s, such as Les Douches La Galerie (Paris, 2006), present at Photo London and Paris Photo, the emerging Agency (Paris, 2010) at Fotofever; the German-Swedish gallery, Grundemark Nilsson (2007), at Unseen and Paris Photo; M97 Gallery (Shanghai, 2006) at Photo Shanghai, Paris Photo and Paris Photo LA; G/ P Gallery (Tokyo, 2008) at Unseen; and OPF Gallery One (Los Angeles, 2006), at Photo Independent. And the effects on the market are considerable: in 2015, photography represents 4.6% of the global turnover generated by contemporary art at auction, against 4.1% in 2014.

An accessible art: an obstacle, an asset, a commitment

At first glance, accessibility linked to the original reproducibility of photographs appears to be the major limitation to the development of a high-end market – compared to the plastic arts – for this medium. However, law defines a work of art by the limited number of copies, not by the uniqueness of the object. “A work can be original without being unique,” explains Cécile Schall. The founding director of Fotofever also recalls that the sculptures produced in several editions from the original mold do not inspire as much distrust on the part of collectors as photography. The public has this image of a photo as something that can be printed as many times as you want, just as anyone can do at home. But a limited edition is an original work in one case as in the other.

A chain of stores like YellowKorner specifically takes advantage of the reproducibility of the medium to render the art market more and more democratised, that is to say economically affordable. The chain was founded in 2006 by Alexandre de Metz and Paul-Antoine Briat to increase the number of photo prints for sale. With more than 70 galleries in the world and an online gallery, YellowKorner sells, on a large scale, works by emerging and established contemporary artists standing alongside great names in the history of photography. Cécile Schall sees it as an asset that must, however, be taken for what it is; “This large dissemination of images is positive for the market. But we mustn’t confuse the sale of art photography, whose editions are not really limited, with the sale of photographic works, which are fewer than thirty copies.” Then YellowKorner is built on a publishing model, which remunerates the artists much less than the galleries, at 5% against 40%.

If you look at the development of the photography market over the last ten years, it doesn’t appear that the accessibility of the medium has really held it back. The proliferation of fairs and auctions sales of Contemporary photography make appear on the market an increased artistic photographic production in which distinctions and hierarchies emerge, by the force of things, and more and more as the supply increases. What doesn’t prevent Fotofever, Unseen or Photo Independent, for example, is to claim the financial accessibility of emerging photography, which these fairs have chosen to defend. “We adapt the stands to the galleries’ budgets, for greter diversity.” added Cécile Schall.

Reconfiguration of borders

While Western photography – with some exceptions, such as Hiroshi Sugimoto – seems to monopolize for now the high-end fringe of the market, the visibility of artists from the south and from Eastern countries seem to be on the rise. Whether it be platforms like Rencontres de Bamako, LagosPhoto or even the new Biennale of Photography from the Contemporary Arab world, in Paris, until 17 January 2016, or artists like the Polish Piotr Uklanski, the Czech Jitka Hanzlova- laureate of the Contemporary Photography Prize at Paris Photo in 2007, or even the late Kiripi Katembo, (the Congolese photographer died at the age of 36 years in August in 2015), the increased presence of these images from South and Eastern Europe seems to announce the rise of an artistic elite that is both more important and more diversified on the global photography market. Besides this presence, the different opportunities of the art world are also being offered to non-Western talents, like the Iranian photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian, hailed by the 2014 Carmignac Prize and exhibited by the Kehrer Gallery at Paris Photo, his compatriot Niloufar Banisadr, the subject of a retrospective at the 55Bellechasse Gallery in 2015 and exhibited at Fotofever, and the South African photographers Sibusiso Bheka, Tshepiso Mazibuko and Lindokuhle Sobekwa presented at the 2015 International Photography Festival of Ghent in Belgium.

However, it should not be assumed that non-Western artists on the rise must wait for their salvation by the Western platforms. The still young Southern hemiphere art dealers and fairs have also launched to conquer the national, regional and international photography market. The fair Zona Maco Foto, an extension of Zona Maco, testifies to this as the responsiveness of a country like Mexico faced with the increased interest of collectors and institutions around the world for the medium. For its part, the Mexican gallery Patricia Conde, launched in 2009, follows an exemplary path: Madrid Foto, Lima Foto, Paris Photo, Paris Photo Los Angeles, Zona Maco Foto … and a return at the Grand Palais this year. An opportunity for both the artists and the dealers of the country in question. An Iranian photographer seen as Abbas Kowsari can count on the support of the recent Ag Gallery – founded in Tehran in 2015 to defend the contemporary Iranian photography – which exhibited in particular the Unseen artist, last September. Similarly, the Indian artist Jyoti Bhatt, known for his photographic documentation of rural India, seen at Paris Photo by the stand of the Tasveer gallery, founded in 2006, which entirely devotes its exhibition space to the artist. The message is clear: the Indian gallery shows that it can best promote an Indian artist on a European fair.

Finally, in search of new possibilities and perhaps also to enrich photographic art whose market is growing, the reconfiguring borders are also those of its format and of the near-uniformity of it, that is the border that seems to separate it from the plastic arts. For Cécile Schall, we must take into account the “creative potential of the medium beyond the printing, which inspires more and more artists who were not photographers originally.” Installation or sculpture based on photography, for example, may offer new features to make alive photographic work and push the boundaries of its usual size, like in the work of Brno Del Zou – particularly with The Fall, Photosculpture (2015) – exhibited by Courcelles contemporary Art at Fotofever. And this diversification of ways of working the materiality of the photographic image is not without inspiration. We can observe it, among others, in circular formats from the 1990s and 2000s of Lei Han, exhibited by the M97 Gallery at Paris Photo, or in the installations and montages of Nobuyoshi Araki, exhibited by the Galerie Alex Daniëls at Unseen in September 2015 and by several galleries in Paris Photo. The exhibition itself can integrate specific devices that can enrich the experience that comes from photography, like the works of Jeff Wall which are hung beneath lit-up neon lights. A more tenuous link can be made to contemporary art, which is senstive to the interest that non-specialized galleries are showing to photography, such as the Mai 36 Galerie, in Zurich, to the Grand Palais until 15 November 2015.

Today the market of photography focuses enthusiasm and clears a route wider and wider so that more diverse creative voices can express themselves, from cultures around the world. If its reproducibility and accessibility which can be left in the shadow of the elite contemporary art market, its large diffusion has equally done its strength, without detracting from its artistic qualities that the creators have not finished exploring. The participants in the art world cannot remain indifferent to the explosion of the photography market, which has smashed its borders to pieces. The energy of the eighth art is not in doubt.