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.

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