Photography loses its negative image

It used to be the poor relation of fine art, but now may be the time to snap up a bargain, says Oliver Bennett

Next weekend a new photography fair debuts, called photo-London. Billed as "London's first major photography fair", it testifies to the new maturity of photography as a valid art form - and also to its rise in collectability.

Next weekend a new photography fair debuts, called photo-London. Billed as "London's first major photography fair", it testifies to the new maturity of photography as a valid art form - and also to its rise in collectability.

It seems a bit tardy that, some 180 years after the photograph was invented, it is finally gathering a proper collector's market. "Yes, but the time does seem right at the moment," says Daniel Newburg, director of photo-London. "New York and Paris have photography fairs, and as London is a leading world city, it needed one as well. The market has grown: a few years ago, one could have pointed to three or four galleries doing photography. Here we have 50 galleries exhibiting photography, including a lot of art galleries showing photography as well."

The medium has broken through the traditional problem of playing Cinderella to the more significant "fine art", adds Mr Newburg. "In many ways, photography is much bigger than art. Here in photo-London you can see reportage, fashion and industrial/commercial photography as well as the kinds of contemporary photographic art that you might see in galleries." Prices range from "a few hundred to hundreds of thousands. There'll be plenty of things in the low hundreds: things like fashion prints from the 1960s, that are still undervalued."

Kate Stevens of HackelBury, a London photography gallery that is participating, is equally confident about the rise of the photography market. "It shows that there's enough demand just for a photography fair," she says, adding that HackelBury has set up a collectors club on its website. "We've had an incredible response to it," she says. "People can choose work that's just right for them." The gallery's biggest seller is the venerable photo-journalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work retails in the thousands, but Ms Stevens says there are many other photographers on sale at prices starting from about £400.

It is still possible for almost anyone to become a collector, according to Gerry Badger, the author of Collecting Photo- graphy (Mitchell Beazley, £25). "The great thing about collecting photography is that there are so many great people and themes yet to be discovered," says Mr Badger. "Consider what dealers do. When Man Ray [the key surrealist photographer] became too expensive, they moved on to other photographers from the 1920s. That's how it works." And that's what entry-point collectors should also do, he reckons. The top end is becoming rarer and is expensive, adds Mr Badger, but there's still a big middle and lower ground. A little ingenuity and a collection can be yours.

Another fair organiser who has seen interest in photography go up is Will Ramsay of the Affordable Art Fair. "We tried to put up a photography exhibition five years ago and it was a disaster," he says. "Now we have several photographic galleries in the fair." Mr Ramsay thinks that his buyers, who are mostly interested in domestic enhancement, are more in tune with photography than they were. "Interior architecture is changing, and a lot of people like clean cut modern spaces where traditional painting looks wrong," he says.

There are also specialist collectors, who plug into hobbies and interests. For instance, Guy White of Snap Galleries is a dealer in rock photography who gave up accountancy six months ago to set up his Northamptonshire gallery. "I made a decision to specialise, because I've been a fan of music photography for years," he says. Mr White started with the big Sixties names then moved through the decades, and now has photographs of Coldplay alongside ones of Jimi Hendrix. Abbey Road pictures by Iain McMillan cost £2,100 each, while a photograph of Altamont 69 by Ethan Russell costs £1,650. The clientele includes a large proportion of company directors in their fifties, and White thinks their investments will hold. "Prices are never going to go down," he avows.

Photography is arguably the youngest of the collectable art forms, and although it has a canon and plenty of experts - pre-eminent in the UK is Philippe Garner of Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg - the market is still taking shape. Some museums have been slow, too. New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has long been a great influence, with a well-established collection of photography, and in the UK, the Victoria and Albert Museum's Department of Photography under Mark Haworth-Booth has done much to educate the public in photographic history. But until recently, the Tate had notably neglected photography, indicating the medium's lack of weight and significance in the art market.

Indeed, it was only as recently as 1974 that the first major auction of photography took place in New York. Then in 1984 the Getty Museum grabbed the most important private collections of fine art photography, and since then certain parts of the market have soared, while other parts remain latent. "It's not a consolidated market like the contemporary art market," says Mr Badger, adding that there is no key tastemaker like Charles Saatchi in photography.

One of the things that puts off many people is the very essence of photography: its reproducibility. The way that a photograph acquires value is through the edition - like a print, only a certain number of copies are allowed to be produced. This is where collecting can get complicated and, of course, an infinite number of prints can theoretically be made from a negative.

Most contemporary photographers issue their photographs in limited editions, but not always. "Some photographers don't believe in editions because it's 'against the medium'," says Mr Badger. "But many realise that they have to limit their product, as a finite number gives value." Bear in mind, he says, that dealers are in the business of creating rarity.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to buy non-edition reproductions of famous photographs which are fun to live with, but which have no scarcity value. "There's a lot to be said for this if you want to enjoy the pictures," says Mr Badger. "Why not? It's just that there's no antique value in them."

But he says that it is particularly exciting to get an original or a "vintage" print - one made close in time to the making of the negative itself. This may not render it valuable necessarily, but there's still a special nostalgic pleasure there. "For instance, I got a picture of an old English football match for £5," says Badger. "It'll probably never be worth much, but I like it." Equally, one can still purchase an original Cartier-Bresson photograph, as this most fêted of photo-journalists is very much alive and signing prints.

Now is an extremely interesting time for photography, as it is being completely reassessed by the art marketplace. "Photography suffered from having been outside of the art historical mainstream," says Seamus Ryan of the Lupe Gallery in east London, which sells a vast array of work, with one of the favourites being monochrome images of Muhammad Ali by David King from around £700.

"But I think that people have finally accepted it, with shows like The Cruel and Tender at Tate Modern. Certainly in the US there's a very well-established market which makes it much more difficult for the less well-off to start a collection." If it's investment we're after, we have to be more ingenious.

But even the top pieces, says Mr Ryan, are "probably undervalued in relation to the art market. I reckon that for a few million quid, you could still buy the history of photography. That's got to be worth £50m in 20 year's time."

'It's wonderful to own a classic'

Philip Berryman, a photographer, is a nascent collector who has bought a few photographs from the HackelBury Gallery including prints by the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

"As a photographer myself, I had a feel for the medium, so it's wonderful to be able to own some of this classic work. To live with wonderful pieces by the likes of Cartier-Bresson is a joy, and it's also good to own something of value."

Equally, Berryman - whose website is at www.philipberryman.com - believes that his purchases are likely to be financial underpinning. "There's never a guarantee in any investment. But the way I see it is that I could have £6,000 in an Isa or Pep or whatever, or I could spend it on photographs.

"I'm reasonably happy that the photographs will go up in value over the next 10 or 20 years, so in a way, it's a liquid asset that can be cashed in, should I want to. After all, I'm not wealthy and can't make rash financial decisions." It's a progressive investment, he says; one that happens to also bring artistic and intellectual value into his home.

Meanwhile, Berryman hopes to continue collecting photographs. "A lot of photographic greats are still quite affordable - at least, when compared to the art market. You can pick up some great names for under £5,000."

FACT FILE: THE FULL PICTURE

* "Estate agents say 'location, location, location', says Gerry Badger, an expert in the field. "I say 'condition, condition, condition'. The best prints by the best photographers will not work if they're not in good condition."

* A themed interest is a good way to start. For instance, if you are interested in Egyptology, there are some great early images of tomb excavations around.

"It's a different way of giving collections worth," says Seamus Ryan. "If your passion is sailing, then you can end up with a unique set of sailing photographs, which will then become a collection, and it can auction as such." Popular themes are nudes, landscapes, portraits, architecture and still-lives - sometimes within a certain period range.

* Technique is a fascinating area, mostly of concern to connoisseurs. Daguerrotypes are one famous example and are collected by the guitarist Brian May.

* Go to a reputed dealer and try to get details of a photo's provenance or history or a certificate of authenticity. Reassure yourself that it is an original and not a lithographic reproduction.

* Find out about the photograph's process, its likely stability and any maintenance issues.

* Ask about the limited edition or try to find out how many prints of it could exist.

* Mr Badger believes the top end of the market is saturated: the Westons, the Kerteszes, the Brandts. "It's a law of increased demand and diminishing supply." Look instead at the lower tiers of the market and think laterally.

* Exercise your eye. Educate yourself by looking at museum shows, galleries, art fairs.

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