PHOTOGRAPHY is the popular art form of the 20th century. The opening chapters of its history were written from 1839 to 1900, but the technical possibilities of the medium have expanded at dizzying speed since then, and an ever-swelling army of enthusiasts has experimented, pulled, pushed, twisted and extended its visual possibilities in all conceivable - and several inconceivable - directions. Almost everyone takes photographs and photography has become a fundamental influence on how present-day people perceive reality.
Nevertheless, the idea of collecting photographs - treasuring them as objects rather than images - is still relatively young. Since any number of prints can be made from a negative, some people find it hard to understand why they should be valuable; others question their artistic value.
The first question can easily be answered. Every print is different. With different paper, chemicals and exposures the feel of every print developed from the same negative varies; when long periods of time, years or decades, separate two prints the difference is particularly dramatic. Secondly, the negatives of older images have mostly been lost or bought by institutions; for modern ones, the negatives remain with the photographers or their agents, who control their use during the 50-year copyright period and beyond. Some contemporary photographers print limited editions of their photographs, in the same way artists do with lithographs or etchings.
Certainly the market in fine photographic prints is roughly 25 years old, and while they are now keenly collected by museums and galleries in America, the same does not go for London. The Victoria and Albert Museum, which houses the national collection, does not even have a gallery devoted to their exhibition; the Tate still treats them with reserve. During the recession, while unrepeatable rarities continued to rise in price, auctions were left with huge numbers of unsold lots. There are still not enough collectors around to make the sale of great images a predictable business.
Over the next few weeks two historic sales, in New York and London, will turn the spotlight on photographs as 'objects' and on their saleability. And in September the Princess of Wales, Charles Saatchi, Vogue magazine and Sotheby's are collaborating in a charity exhibition and sale which promises to put photography on the high-society map - they expect to mount the best photography show seen in Europe for many years, covering 19th-century and 20th-century photographers.
The two spring auctions are likely to produce a smattering of sensational prices, too. On 23 April Sotheby's will sell 57 photographs from the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art - the first museum in the world to take photography seriously; the influential photographer Edward Steichen was curator of the collection from 1947 to 1962. While museums have slipped occasional duplicates into auctions in the past, this is the first time any museum has mounted a major dispersal.
On 12 May Christie's in London will hold the first ever auction for a photographic agency - Magnum Photographs Inc, the co-operative of photo-journalists founded in 1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David Seymour ('Chim'), George Rodger and William and Rita Vandivert - a Frenchman, a Hungarian, a Pole, an Englishman and two Americans. Magnum was established to fight for the rights of photographers, and has been hugely successful; it was responsible for establishing the principle of photographers' copyright. Magnum has remained a highly individualistic grouping of the world's best photo-journalists, and now has offices in London, Paris, Tokyo and New York.
Both sales focus on documentary photography, everyday reality recorded with a visual artistry that catches its 'feel' as well as its look - there is a separate tradition of photography which sets out to be 'art' but it is not represented in these sales. Most of the photographers have worked primarily for magazines or books and the images were not originally conceived as saleable
objects. Two separate types of prints are on offer: 'vintage' prints, which were made at the time, often by the photographer; and special, high-quality prints made recently from original negatives. Some people prefer to buy beautifully made modern prints, others love the nostalgia of old techniques and textures.
The most expensive photographs in the Moma sale are likely to be the quirky images of American life by Diane Arbus, the brilliant photographer who committed suicide in 1971. In 1972 Moma organised a retrospective of her work. Her picture of 'Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ' was on the cover of the catalogue, the Aperture Monograph; Sotheby's is offering a 1969 print with an estimate of dollars 40,000 to dollars 50,000 ( pounds 27,600- pounds 34,500).
All the photographers included in the sale have some special connection with Moma. When he was curator, Steichen bequeathed a number of prints that could be sold on the understanding that others were bought with the proceeds; they range from a portrait of his daughter estimated at dollars 4,000-dollars 5,000 ( pounds 2,760- pounds 3,450) to a 1907 portrait of George Bernard Shaw at dollars 30,000-dollars 50,000 ( pounds 20,700- pounds 34,500). There are also views of Paris by Eugene Atget (1857-1927) and great images of country life in California in the 1930s by Dorothea Lange. Price estimates start at dollars 2,000 ( pounds 1,380).
The Magnum photographs will be cheaper - estimates range from pounds 200 to pounds 2,000 - but the sale is more of an experiment. While work by the more famous Magnum photographers has been turning up in sales for some time, this is the first sale of photo-journalism per se. The work of 52 photographers is represented, with pictures taken between 1947 and the 1990s.
Cartier-Bresson's famous image of a little boy carrying two bottles of wine, 'Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954', is represented by a signed, gelatin silver print which carries the top estimate, as does Eve Arnold's picture of a smiling Marilyn Monroe with a script of The Misfits in her hand, taken in 1961 but only recently printed for sale; another modern print of this unpublished image was sold at Bonham's in November for pounds 3,500.
But there are many marvels with modest estimates: Erich Lessing's pear-shaped Charles de Gaulle, photographed from above in 1958, estimated at pounds 250- pounds 350; Inge Morath's 'Linda the Luscious Llama' sticking her head out of a car window in a traffic jam on Broadway, estimated at pounds 500- pounds 700; Wayne Miller's image of his naked son at the piano taken in 1990 and estimated at pounds 200- pounds 300, and much more - 134 lots in all.
The last lot in the sale is a portfolio of 236 specially printed images representing the best of Magnum's output. It comes from an edition of four; one has been touring the world since 1988 as an exhibition called 'Our Time - The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers'. Another has already been sold for an undisclosed six-figure sum to the Fuji Museum in Tokyo. Christie's is talking of a price around pounds 150,000 for this one.
Such prices are not without precedent in photography. The two volumes of photographs of 'Egypte et Nubie' published by Felix Teynard in 1858 hold the auction price record at FFr4m ( pounds 400,000); they were sold in Paris in 1990. The record for an single print is pounds 260,458 paid last year for Stieglitz's 'Hands with a Thimble'; the hands in question belonged to Georgia O'Keeffe.
When photographs were first collected, it was the early 19th- century images that were most sought-after. Curiously, rarities apart, these are now the cheap end of the market and can be found in markets such as Portobello Road in London. No doubt the pendulum will swing back again.-
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