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Picture this: jumping from newsprint to gallery wall

Iconic news photography has never been more valuable as galleries and auction houses recognise it as an art form, reports Ian Burrell

Monday 15 June 2009 00:00 BST

When Jason Fraser was hanging by a harness from an Augusta 109 helicopter as it hovered above the 100,000 ant-like figures in the crowd at the historic Live Aid concert at Wembley in 1985, he was looking for the shot that would make a moment-defining double-page spread for a newspaper.

As the rushing wind and the whir of the rotor-blades mixed with the sound of the music from the most famous concert ever staged in Britain, he captured the image that ran in the press the next day but also took another, yet to be published, picture from directly above the stadium. That shot has now been mounted in a "floating frame" made of acrylic and aluminium, to be exhibited in a prestigious London art gallery and sold in a limited edition of 10.

Another 19 photographs from Fraser's portfolio will be mounted on 310-gram Hahnemuhler paper, placed behind museum glass, framed in solid oak and also offered for sale. They include portraits of Mikhail Gorbachev in Edinburgh in 1984, Margaret Thatcher clutching her handbag inside Finchley Town Hall at the election count of 1983, and a fresh-faced Paul McCartney with his wife Linda, beaming with joy and dressed in matching Aquascutum overcoats. There is a shot of the piano on which John Lennon composed "Imagine" and a view from the prime ministerial desk of John Major, topped with a box of tissues, a commemorative poppy and a couple of red dispatch cases.

Most striking of all is a picture of a lone Marlon Brando, his eyes closed, striding beneath the wall of the Embankment and with the shadow of the Houses of Parliament behind him. It was taken in 1983 when Fraser was 16 and trawling the streets of London for subject matter. "What I like is that Brando is not bloated, he still has that chiselled look," says the photographer, looking at the picture in his living room in London. "No other photographer was there. Brando just went on a boat ride up the Thames at dusk."

Another picture, taken just yards away, shows an IRA vehicle bursting into flames from an exploding incendiary device shortly after it was used to fire mortars at No 10 Downing Street in 1991. Fraser had heard the mortars and driven across Westminster Bridge before dumping his car in Whitehall, where people were fleeing in terror, and getting the shot. "I remember falling over when the device went off, feeling snow falling on my face and thinking 'I'm still here'," he recalls.

These signed and numbered pictures are expected to sell for between £4,500 and £25,000, with part of the money raised going to six charities. Fraser, 42, who left school to become a photojournalist for the Sipa press agency, and has since had countless front-page photographs in magazines and newspapers around the world, has an exceptional portfolio. But his exhibition also reflects the growing public demand for collectable news images and the prices they will fetch at auction houses and galleries.

All those ugly scrums outside the Royal Courts of Justice, long hauls on the political campaign trail and nights in the rain outside awards parties may yet pay big dividends for Britain's photographers. The traditional photography market of printed magazines and newspapers may have cut budgets, but the public demand for photojournalism displayed on a wall has never been higher. "As an art market, the prices of photography have doubled in a decade," says John Banks, a partner with the accountant Baker Tilly, who specialises in fashion and media. "Over the past 10 years it has become one of the fastest growing areas. There is a demand for pictures that are relevant to individuals' lives and to where they were at a particular time."

Those portfolios, filed away on a personal computer or gathering dust in a back room, can provide material for a gallery exhibition if the subject matter is sufficiently iconic. Christopher Burness, owner of the Cadogan Galley in Chelsea, South-west London, which normally specialises in contemporary painting and sculpture, says his decision to display Fraser's work – the gallery's first photography exhibition – is a response to demand.

"People took a long time to think it was an art form; they just thought that you had a camera and snapped away and that was not in the same calibre at all," he says. "Now I think they collect paintings and they collect photographs and don't see a distinction; they will buy both. It is a much wider market than it ever used to be. We have more and more people coming here and saying 'Do you sell photography?' and we haven't until now, but I have always wanted to."

Photographs are also holding their prices better than paintings. "Photography is probably the most successful art form out there to be sold. It is bucking the system," adds Burness. "Photographs are selling at very decent prices and not sinking down like some modern art prices that are not doing nearly as well in this recession."

The Olympia International Art and Antiques Fair was launched this month in west London with a photography section of unprecedented scale, in response to the surge in demand for photographs as collectable art. And from Friday, the Idea Generation Gallery in east London will be hosting an exhibition of 50 images of 1960s London by John "Hoppy" Hopkins, who worked for The Observer, The Sunday Times and Melody Maker.

"I freelanced in different subject areas for different media," says Hopkins, now 72. "The Sunday Times would send me up in aerobatic displays and hovercraft demonstrations, The Observer sent me on political stories. You had to travel at a moment's notice."

Among Hopkins's subjects featured in the exhibition are Martin Luther King, William Burroughs and The Beatles, and he captures the protest spirit of the era through news shots of anti-nuclear marches and youth movements such as the Rockers.

Janine Limb, gallery manager of the Proud galleries in London, says there is growing interest in buying photographs that capture periods in time. Proud recently staged an exhibition of shots taken by Murray Close, working behind the scenes during filming of the cult movie Withnail & I. A new exhibition will feature pictures taken by Lisa J Kristal at the legendary New York music venue CBGB, featuring images of Andy Warhol out for the night, as well as The Ramones, The Jam and Blondie, with prices starting at £250. "In terms of art, this is quite accessible and you can build up a piece here and a piece there," says Limb. "Everyone wants to own a little piece of history."

'Jason Fraser: Unseen', Cadogan Contemporary gallery, 87 Old Brompton Road, Chelsea, London SW7, until 24 June; 'Hoppy: Against Tyranny, Talking About A Revolutionary', Idea Generation Gallery, 11 Chance Street, London E2, from 19 June to 19 July; 'Budweiser Presents CBGB: The Home of Underground Rock', Proud Galleries, Camden, north London, until 9 August.

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