Photo books have entered the mainstream and not only are they in vogue, but they are also proving to be a good place for investors' money. Christie's is to hold the first ever auction entirely dedicated to photo books in two weeks' time.
More than 200 books will be on sale, including work from traditional photographers such as John Thomson and Eadweard Muybridge, as well as from contemporary artist photographers such as Ed Ruscha, William Eggleston and David Bailey.
"I'd noticed over the last few years how these books were becoming rarer and prices were increasing," says Christie's book specialist Sven Becker. "There have been a number of books published on the genre, which have helped focus attention and opened collectors' eyes to work produced outside of the usual North American and European axis. Plus, over the last few years there has been an increasing rise in interest of photography as a valid art form."
Most of the important photo book prices have at least doubled in the past five years. For example a copy of Ed Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations could have been bought just a couple of years ago for £2,000 - today you won't get one for less than £6,000.
"Some people who have been collecting for a long time feel prices are getting out of control," adds Becker. "But photo books have been, and continue to be, undervalued - some of the key books, such as Germaine Krull's Metal or Man Ray's Electricity, which three or four years ago were expensive and still relatively easy to obtain, but are no longer around."
These books are rare for a variety of reasons. They were produced in much smaller print runs than literature because they were more expensive to print. Also, many have been cut up over the years as people have taken pages out and had them framed. In addition, photo books have a longer life cycle as they are used for reference by photographers, dealers and collectors so they are kept and not discarded as quickly.
The Christie's sale should bring the market into the mainstream and is being watched by many. "Just as 20th century photography has really taken off so photo books have followed," says John Cumming at Bloomsbury Book Auctions. "Those which have particularly risen in price are artist photographers: contemporary photographers of the last 10 years who have blurred the line between fine art and photography."
"There is a real feeling that this is one of the last chances you are going to get to buy some of these books at a comparatively low price," Becker adds.
"Generally, the market is undervalued, prices are comparatively higher than a few years ago but that is a reflection on the fact people weren't aware of them. Some photo books are just as rare as books from the 16th century but their prices are very low in comparison.
"If you look at them in perspective to photographs being collected then you see they are very cheap."
Just as the perception of photographs as an art form has completely transformed that market, so the change in attitudes towards photo books is fuelling this one.
Many photographers used to communicate through books at a time when galleries didn't even consider a photograph as worthy of hanging on their walls. These books are important works in their own right, not mere records of single images that act like photographic encyclopedias.
Christie's Rare Photobooks (sale 18 May): 020 7389 2154, www.christies.com
Bloomsbury Auctions (sale 24 May): 020 7495 9494, www.bloomsbury-book-auct.com.Reuse content