Click! The art of the camera

The arrival of digital cameras has created a huge market in traditional fine art photography. Terry Kirby reports on the rising power - and price - of the print

As an artistic medium, it is less than 200 years old, the time-span between the early daguerreotypes and the digital camera. Yet already traditional fine art photography has become a thing of the past because new technology allows anyone with a mobile phone and a computer to become a creative genius. Theoretically.

But even as we mourn the passing of the era of great black-and-white photographers - such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn or Robert Mapplethorpe - dealers and auction houses on both sides of the Atlantic are revelling at the premium values such work is attracting. Even earlier prints by less well-known photographers from the late 19th century or early 20th century are selling for record amounts.

Dealers are predicting prices are likely to rise further as collectors become aware of the rarity status of images in a market driven by the boom in sales of all contemporary art.

At the same time, there has been a steady increase in interest among institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, which holds regular photography exhibitions, and there are now more than 40 galleries specialising in photography in London, compared to a handful just a few years ago.

Artprice, which monitors auction sales, reports that prices have risen by 30 per cent in the past year and more than 200 per cent over the past 10 years. This has been created by sales such as that of Edward Steichen's The Pond - Moonlight, shot in 1904 and which sold for £1.6m at Sotheby's in New York in February, a world record auction price for a photograph and double its estimated value. As an example of the money to be made by investing in photographs, Artprice estimates that Steichen's value has quintupled in the past decade: €100 invested in a Steichen image in 1997 is worth an average €540 today.

In May, in London, at a Sotheby's sale of classic black-and-white photographs by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton prices more than doubled their estimates. This sale included a set of 1976 Avedon photographs of the Rolling Stones, sold for £153,000.

At Christie's in April, £197,000 was paid for a 1950 Irving Penn image, Harlequin Dress, again a world record for Penn and double its estimated value; last month another world record price of £230,000 was set for Electricite, a work by the surrealist Man Ray, who created his own type of photograph, known as a Rayograph.

All this frantic activity is tinged with a genuine feeling of nostalgia that the conventional photograph is heading the same way the vinyl record and the videotape. Tim Jeffries, the owner of Hamilton's Gallery in central London who has been involved in photographic sales for more than 20 years, said: "Traditional art photography as we know it is ceasing to exist in our lifetime and I don't think the great mass has realised the fact. But it is one reason why we are seeing such a huge rise in prices."

Daniel Newburg, a dealer and founder of Photo-London, Britain's first art photography fair, now in its third year, agrees. "The era of great art photography has reached an end. And now our culture is looking back and deciding what is significant."

But the process has also prompted a debate over the relative merits of film and digital images and the direction the medium will take. Mr Jeffries added: "Companies such as Agfa and Kodak are not making the cameras, the paper or chemicals in bulk any more. They are going to become very difficult and expensive to obtain and people cannot be bothered in an age when anyone with a phone and a computer can be a photographer."

For him, there is no doubt in his mind where his preference lies. "While there are very good, digitally made prints, you can still tell the difference from a silver-made print, or better still, a platinum-made one. It's the difference between handmade and factory produced."

Mr Newburg differs. "Photography has always been a technical medium and adapts to change, so I think there is absolutely great art still to come, but I can't predict what it will look like."

Phillipe Garner, the international head of photography at Christie's in London, believes that the rise in prices is also due to people feeling nostalgic for the 20th century, which suddenly feels like a bygone era. He points out that modern photographers such as Richard Prince and Andreas Gursky, both of whom have attracted controversy for using computers and montages, also fetch high prices at auction, but accepts there is now a change in perception over what photography means.

He said: "The old sense that photography was the medium of truth has been overtaken by post-modern, new technologies in which we can create whatever image we chose. Perhaps that does make people value the earlier era of innocence."

Specialists agree photography has finally began to achieve the same status as other art forms, including painting. Denise Bethal, director of photography at Christie's in New York said: "It is now taking its rightful place in context of the history of art."

The price boom, she believes, has been fuelled largely by the rarity value of the work. "Before the 1960s, there was essentially no photographic market, there were no galleries or auctions and so people such as Avedon or Diane Arbus didn't make dozens of prints, because they would not have known what to do with them. They were only interested in the reproduction rights in magazines, which made them money."

Arbus, she said, gave away a photograph, taken in 1970, of a Jewish family in New York, which sold for $388,000 in 2004.

Only now, after the deaths of the great photographers, is their work fetching the kind of prices they could only dream about in their lifetime. And Tim Jeffries said the market has still got a long way to go.

"Prices have been ridiculously low and will only increase. Look at someone like Penn, for instance. He's 89 now, been working for nearly 70 years, he's produced dozens of books and his work is in every major US institution. Until about 18 months ago, the most you could expect to pay for a work was $100,000, laughable when you consider his status. Now it's three times that much."

The lords of the lens

By Mark Dearn and Terry Kirby

Robert Mapplethorpe

Although praised by art critics for his formal composition and design, Mapplethorpe, born in New York to British-Irish parents, created enormous controversy for his stark, homoerotic photographs and often highly sexual and stylised S&M images. Although he took exquisite photographs of flowers and still life he is most remembered for the sexual content of his photographs, such as the one with a bullwhip inserted in his anus. He also took many portraits of rock stars, including Patti Smith and Deborah Harry, as well as celebrities such as Andy Warhol. He died from Aids in 1989, aged 42.

Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus specialised in people on the margins of society, confessing that she experienced "terrific excitement" when snapping "freaks". her subjects included albino sword-swallowers, Jewish giants, hermaphrodites, twins and transvestites, and her work appeared in magazines in The Sunday Times, and in Esquire and Harper's Bazaar. She was the first photographer to be shown at the Venice Biennale. Arbus committed suicide in Greenwich Village, in 1971. She was 48. This year, her life will be revealed in the biographical film Fur, in which she is played by Nicole Kidman.

Edward Steichen

Although not a household name, Steichen, born in Luxembourg, in 1879, is considered a pioneer of photography as art, with his work commanding high prices at auction. A painter before taking an interest in photography, he became an American citizen after his family moved to the United States. During The First World, he headed the photographic division of the American Expeditionary Forces, later becoming a fashion photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue. As director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, he created "The Family of Man" in 1955, a vast exhibition of more than 500 photos that depicted life, love and death in 68 countries. He died in 1973.

Richard Avedon

Avedon, another American photographer from a Jewish background, started in the 1940s, taking identification pictures for seaman but, by the end of the 1950s, Hollywood had fictionalised his early life in the Fred Astaire-led film, Funny Face. A major chronicler of the 1960s and 1970s, Avedon worked for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, and, in 1992, became the first staff photographer employed by The New Yorker. Although most well known for his fashion pictures and portraiture of pop and film stars - including the famous psychedelic images of the Beatles in 1967 - Avedon later branched out by taking pictures of Vietnam war protesters, the civil rights movement and patients of mental hospitals. He died in September 2004, aged 81, while photographing the US presidential election for The New Yorker.

Voices
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014
voices

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Voices
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

News
news

Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Life and Style
tech

Company says data is only collected under 'temporary' identities that are discarded every 15 minutes

News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Life and Style
health

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teacher Jobs in Blackpool

Negotiable: Randstad Education Preston: Primary Teacher Jobs in BlackpoolWe ar...

Health & Social Teacher

Competitive & Flexible : Randstad Education Cambridge: The JobRandstad Educati...

***SEN British Sign Language Teacher***

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Successful candidate should hav...

Early Years and Foundation Stage Primary Teachers in Blackpool

Negotiable: Randstad Education Preston: Early Years and Foundation Stage Prima...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album