BLACK SHEEP OF CONTEMPORARY ART

British collectors have been very slow to appreciate photography as an art form. So dealer Michael Hoppen is taking a stand - at the 20th Century British Art Fair
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Handle those photographs with care: they belong to Michael Hoppen, the first photography dealer to exhibit at the 20th Century British Art Fair since it began eight years ago. He will be among 57 art dealers when the fair opens at the Royal College of Art on Wednesday, having been given the stand nearest the bar. Whether that will bring him provocation or solace is anybody's guess.

But is photography art? More than 150 years after its origination in this country, the hoary old controversy rumbles on. You might think that older Brits brought up on the popular weekly Picture Post (published 1938 to 1957), should by now have developed an artist's eye for photographs. Instead, the magazine's increasingly corny photo-journalism seems to have encouraged the notion that photographs belong to the printed page, ephemera to be chucked out with the newspapers. Moreover, British art colleges did not wake up to photography as an art form until the Eighties. As a result, the British market for photography has been slow to develop.

The British blind eye for photography was encountered earlier this year by the London dealer Zelda Cheatle, when she alone offered photographs at the Art 96 fair in Islington, London. "It was disastrous," she says, "the public handled the photographs terribly badly." Some grabbed armfuls from their boxes and bent them, one or two rifled through with one hand while holding a cigarette in the other.

"Absolutely no appreciation for the medium. None. Quite shocking," she continues. "It wasn't as if we were offering anything elitist or difficult. The prints were very classical, very contemporary." She sold only one, of a tulip, by the British contemporary John Blakemore, for pounds l75. "We'll not go back."

Mr Hoppen is phlegmatic about his forthcoming initiation. Photographs, he concedes, are the black sheep of contemporary art: "I can't wait to see the faces of people visiting the fair in search of their Hockneys and Nicholsons." At the very least, he hopes to "have nudged a few watercolours out of the way" - a reference to the tired landscapes and flower paintings that used to clog the fair before a sprightlier management gave it a jump- start last year.

Hoppen is 39, a lifelong collector of photographs and for 20 years a commercial photographer. His atmospheric images have appeared on posters for the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House. The stock of his gallery in Chelsea, opened two years ago, reflects a taste that is traditional and refined. To him, photographers are painters in a different medium. "Photography represents the mechanical art of the 20th century," he says, revealingly, "just as computer art will represent the art of the 21st century." Look around his gallery and you will find no computer-enhanced images, no mixed-media collages by artists toying with camerawork, and not much celebrity glamour. This is photography for photography's sake.

On the wall, when I visited, was a series of sombre images of the gnarled hands of peasants from the French Ardeche mountains. Each holds in the lap a duck, a pair of shoes or an outsize loaf of bread. These are by Tessa Traeger, a former Vogue photographer. It is not just her images that he prizes, but the fact that she herself developed and printed them with great care - which is how a "vintage" print is defined. They cost pounds 500 each, but fine paper, fine chemicals and skilled darkroom labour accounts for pounds l50 of that.

To him, a camera is no more than a device to wind film past a good lens. "People say: `Look, it's a photograph of James Dean - it must be valuable.' I say, `Never mind the celebrity baggage, look at the craftsmanship.' The pictures I show need to be looked at with the eye of an artist." So speaks a connoisseur taught to retouch prints by Picture Post's legendary contributor, Bill Brandt, indefatigable recorder of everyday British life.

Mr Hoppen is agent for the magnificent Hulton Getty collection of photographs, which contains the Picture Post archive, and which has given him some wry insights into the British taste, or lack of it, for photographs. A set of negatives taken by the renowned Bert Hardy at the Guinness brewery in Dublin included stark images of workers shovelling barley, stripped to the waist and with glistening rivulets of sweat coursing through the grain dust that covered them. The one marked up for publication was none of these, but a shot of old workers downing pints of the black stuff in a pub.

A small sepia print of 1858 in an oak frame, mounted on an easel, is a much-loved curio of his that represents the best that can be said for collecting without artistic connoisseurship. He picked it up for pounds 50 at a small London auction house six or seven years ago. It shows a man in a top hat with a racehorse obediently raising its right foreleg - identified on the back as a "Mr Rarey with Cruiser; the terror of trainers". It was not until Hoppen happened to read Nicholas Evans's book The Horse Whisperer, for which Robert Redford has bought the film rights, that he discovered that the man in the top hat was the original John Solomon Rarey - the American trainer cold-shouldered by the royal court at Windsor, where he was presented with the fearsome Cruiser as a comeuppance. After three hours with the beast, he led it out without its iron muzzle, gentle as a lamb.

British collectors go for memorabilia like that. Sotheby's Philippe Garner, who established the London auction market in photographs in the early Seventies, reports that the British tend to buy photographs as crossovers from other categories of collectables - military history, railwayana, British topography, for example - rather than as masterpieces of the art of photography.

So it comes as a surprise to find that Brits have started flocking to photography exhibitions, especially ones staged by the major galleries. This year, the Barbican's exhibition of works by the American Eve Arnold, the first woman photographer to be accepted by the Magnum collective of photo-journalists, attracted 62,334 visitors: an unusually high total for a summer show. Well, it did contain plenty of Marilyns and Marlenes. In November, the V&A is showing the New York Museum of Modern Art's travelling photography exhibition and is confident that it will be a blockbuster. The Hayward Gallery has similarly high hopes for its current exhibition (until 17 November) of the flowers and homo-erotic images of Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989.

But will big shows spur the Brits to put their hands in their pockets? Mr Garner has his doubts. "So far, these crowd pullers have not translated into a desire to collect," he says, ruefully. "Photography is still the ultimate democratic medium, a disposable commodity reaching the public through books and newspapers. Lapping up an image like a trainspotter is one thing, but it requires a long apprenticeship to learn to enjoy the enormous subtleties of photographic prints, to let the heart be reached through the eyes. So far, photographs have not attracted the fetishistic connoisseurship that collectors bestow on other bits of paper such as engravings and books."

Christie's spring sale in New York this year totalled pounds 2,063,330 ($3,115,629) compared with London's modest pounds 593,490. In London, sell-outs can be guaranteed only for the relatively unsophisticated genre of celebrity photographs. Bonhams has held buoyant sales of limited edition prints of Marilyn Monroe, by her various lover-photographers; a collection by Eve Arnold; and Dennis Stock's images of James Dean: one print fetched pounds 2,420.

Ironically, although the international market for photographs did not take off until the mid-Seventies, when book collectors discovered them, Victorians in Britain bought photography as art from its earliest days. The Royal Academy may have banned photographs, but the V&A, thanks to its founder, Sir Henry Cole, became the first museum to collect photographs as art and held the world's first photography exhibition in 1858. That encouraged a brisk trade in art photography. Julia Margaret Cameron (1825- 1879) used to sell through Agnews and issued catalogues.

The national collection at the V&A, of 300,000 images, is still second to none. Where else would you be allowed to handle boxes containing 250 Brandts or 400 Cartier-Bressons? The Tate, too, now acquires photographs made by photographers, not just painters and sculptors who have strayed into the medium.

For signs of a British revival, look to contemporary photographers such as John Davies and Graham Smith, represented by London's influential Hamilton Gallery, and in Chris Killip and Raymond Moore. Their work displays not only the social content of a Brandt but the sort of visual artistry made famous by yet unequalled Americans such as Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Edward Steichen (1879-1973), Edward Weston (1886-1958), or indeed Robert Mapplethorpe. A big Moore might cost you pounds 600. A Stieglitz fetched $398,500 at Christie's New York in 1993, the world-record price.

Perhaps this year's launch of photography's equivalent of the Turner prize will help break down the barrier between photo-journalism and photo- art: Citibank is offering an annual award of pounds 10,000 in the hope of finding new talent.

Hoppen has two women proteges. Echo is Chinese, aged 30, and earns her living in a herbalist's and his framing room. Then there is Renee Daru, a 37-year-old Hungarian. She sent him her photographs of a horseman beside a horse sitting on the ground - "looking like a couple", said Hoppen. "I called her up within minutes." Both use second-hand Roleis cameras worth about pounds 200 to pounds 300. Nevertheless, according to Hoppen: "In America their work would have been picked up a long time ago."

He has sent Echo to a photographic print maker for tuition in toning her prints. "I'd never send her to to a photographer, she'd be ruined." What would she have to lose? I ask. "The vision," he says.

! Michael Hoppen Gallery, 3 Jubilee Place, London SW3 3TD (0171 352 3649). Selling exhibition "A Face", featuring 19th and 20th century portrait photography, 17 September-19 October.

Four contemporary British photographers whose work is sold by Michael Hoppen. Far left, top: Peter Lavery has been a chronicler of circus life since 1970. Elephant and trainer, 1974, from an edition of 15, pounds 1,200

Far left, bottom: Tessa Traeger, is a former `Vogue' photographer who specialises in still- lifes which are taken using large-format cameras. `Hands of Ardeche Peasant with Duck', 1996, pounds 500

Centre: Robert Whitaker, while still a student in 1967, presented Salvador Dali with a collage of the artist's work and took photographs of him until Dali's death in 1989. `Dali's Eye', 1966, unique vintage print, pounds 2,500

Left: Nadav Kander is renowned for the exquisite quality of his prints. `Peru Nude Curtain' - a portrait of his wife, 1994, from an edition of seven, pounds 750

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