ART MARKET; A positive development

With two contenders for a new gallery in London lining up, photography may finally be accepted in Britain as a collectable art. Geraldine Norman reports
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The Independent Culture
PHOTOGRAPHY, long excluded from the canon of serious collectable art in Britain, is about to earn an indisputable place. At long last it has been accepted that London needs a proper museum of photography, and two initiatives are under way to provide it. As with so many arts projects, lottery funding could be the catalyst turning the dream into a reality.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the contenders. It already houses the national collection of photographs, and wants to adapt a corridor for a permanent display of the history of photo-graphy and add a new gallery for changing exhibitions. The V&A's curator, Mark Haworth-Booth, has a model to demonstrate how it will look and is confident the new space will open in 1998.

The second contender is the Photo-graphers Gallery in Covent Garden, now 25 years old and planning a major expansion. The director, Paul Wombell, is cagey about the details of his scheme but concedes that it would involve a new building, a major increase in exhibition space and a massive investment in technology. "You can say that there will be a lottery bid in the post in the next 12 months," he says.

It seems fair to predict that by the end of the century beautifully printed photo-graphs will become a much more prominent form of art exhibit, and the number of collectors in Britain is likely to grow steadily. By international standards we have a lot of ground to make up.

There are 32 galleries in New York that are members of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, and more than a dozen in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Dallas, but only four in the whole of Britain. We have hardly started to understand about collecting, though the few major photography shows mounted here have proved hugely successful. The "Photography Now" exhibition at the V&A in 1989 attracted more than 100,000 visitors.

The four British members of the Photography Art Dealers' association are the Photographers' Gallery, Zelda Cheatle, Hamilton's, and Robert Hersh-kowitz, who has an office rather than a gallery in London and works mainly out of his Sussex home. All sell more abroad than they do in the home market but maybe that will change.The four of them offer buyers very different opportunities which underline the fundamental difference between collecting paintings and collecting photographs.

The Photographers Gallery was founded in 1971 by Sue Davies, who had worked for the Institute of Contempor-ary Arts and felt that London needed a gallery exclusively dedicated to photography. It is a registered charity with support from the Arts Council and other bodies. Its initial role was as an exhibition centre for contemporary photographers and great names from the past, such as Jacques-Henri Lartigue, who was born in 1904 and began to take photographs at the age of seven. The response was so enthusiastic that it expanded to include a bookshop, a cafe and a Print Room to handle the sale of collectable images.

The gallery's exhibitions are mainly focused on the work of photographers who earn a living working for magazines, fashion houses or advertising. Unlike paintings, most photographic images do not come into existence in order to be exhibited and sold. Some, however, are so imaginative that they transcend their original purpose - these are the ones that make a photographer "collectable". There are two kinds of collectable image: the "vintage print" made for a magazine or other user at the time it was taken, sometimes marked up for publication; and modern prints made for sale or exhibition from the old negative, created with special care on fine paper and under the supervision of the photographer, who then signs the print. The Photographers Gallery specialises in the latter.

In the gallery's early days, when they sold prints from their current exhibition from a trestle table, you could pick up a Bill Brandt for pounds 50. Brandt made his name as a magazine photographer in Britain in the 1930s, famously recorded the devastation of London during the Blitz and continued to capture great images up to his death in 1983. Today the Gallery Print Room sells Brandt prints between pounds 900 and pounds 3,000.

The cost of fine photographs no doubt discourages buyers; after all, the same image can often be snipped from books or magazines for a fraction of the cost. Nevertheless, fine prints signed by photographers of the Picture Post era, for which prices start around pounds 200, are among the Photographers Gallery's best sellers. Nostalgia is definitely "in" with collectors. The amazing images of New York taken in 1926, just before the Wall Street crash, by Fred Zinnemann, the Hollywood film director (of High Noon, Oklahoma!), sell out for pounds 325-pounds 600.

In an attempt to pull in new collectors the gallery has now introduced a scheme called "Prime Prints". With every contemporary show they ask the photographer to do an edition of 50 prints of one successful image, which are marketed at pounds 150 each. There is also "Patron Print Scheme" by which anyone signing up as a patron - which costs pounds 200 and includes discounts, free publications and invitations to social events - gets one print free from a set of six specially made for the gallery by leading photographers.

Zelda Cheatle ran the Photographers Gallery Print Room from 1980 to 1989, when she decided to branch out and start her own gallery. She has a small space off Charing Cross Road, two rickety floors where she can hold small exhibitions and hold the stock of the photographers for whom she is the agent. They represent a wider spectrum of photographic endeavour, including artists who regard photo-graphy as a medium rather than a profession. Among Cheatle's clients are Helen Chadwick, whose manipulated colour photographs of food and flowers wowed visitors to the Serpentine Gallery last year; Fay Godwin, whose landscapes capture an elegiac note; and the Old Master Bill Brandt. Cheatle's 20th-century prices range from around pounds 200 to pounds l0,000 but she also keeps a stock of 19th-century photographs at under pounds 100.

When collectors began to get interested in photography in the Sixties they focused on 19th-century photographs. Most of the star pieces have now been Hoovered up and locked away in museum collections; those that remain on the market are much cheaper than 20th-century images. They can be found at auctions, in street markets or - for those who need the reassurance of buying from a dealer - from Zelda Cheatle or Robert Hershkowitz. The latter specialises in the upper reaches of the 19th- century market, providing superb prints to museums which missed out the first time round or to knowledgeable collectors. An American and an enthusiast, he is well worth cultivating since he also has many inexpensive 19th-century images.

Hamilton's is an altogether different kind of venue. Right in the heart of Mayfair, it is a big gallery with white walls exquisitely hung with dazzling images. Fashion shots, nudes and a hint of bondage are mixed in among highlights of 19th- and 20th-century photography, with the main accent on the 1950s through to the present day. It is run by two rich young men who opened for business in 1984 and now show international stars. They are the exclusive representatives of David Bailey, Norman Parkinson, and other top names. Their prices are mostly in the pounds 1,500-pounds 6,000 range. This is glitzville but very well done; they plan to open a branch in Paris next year.

! The Photographers Gallery is at 5 Great Newport Street, London WC2; Zelda Cheatle at 8 Cecil Court, London WC2; Robert Hershkowitz at Cockaise, near Lindfield, West Sussex; Hamilton's at 13 Carlos Place, London W1.