Everybody with a camera phone is a photographer these days — has an era ever been so thoroughly documented? But photography’s extreme accessibility has done nothing to slow its ascent to the highest levels of contemporary art.
“As a tool for contemporary artists, (photography) has become so pervasive,” says Judith Keller, Senior Curator of Photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “It’s not thought of as this kind of borderline, almost-worthy art form. It’s very much in the center of things.”
In fact, she points out that critics are calling photographer Cindy Sherman, who currently has a retrospective at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, one of the most important American artists working today.
Photography: A technology-driven medium
As a technology-driven medium, photography’s aesthetics keep changing with the times. For example, advances that allow large-scale printing have fueled a supersizing of photographic images. “The kind of wall power that these pieces carry is certainly equal to what paintings will provide,” says Keller.
Notable new photography today is not limited to work produced by photographers. “Many artists are intrigued by whatever the latest electronic media is,” says Keller. “Someone like David Hockney keeps learning how to work with new media. He’s done a lot of work with photography, doing large pieces using 16 different cameras at once.”
Getting started collecting photography
Any well-chosen contemporary art collection these days contains photographs, and many connoisseurs buy photography as part of a broader art collection. Others focus on photography alone.
“In a lot of ways, (photography and contemporary art) are two different markets,” says Jessica May, Curator of Contemporary and Modern Art at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. “There are photographers and collectors who are deeply invested in a tradition that stretches back in this country over 100 years, which is the pursuit of the fine print. These collectors and photographers tend to be particularly mindful of the history of photography specifically.”
As with many collections, the best approach to building a photography collection with integrity is to have a focus. Pick one artist or one particular subject, says Keller — as did Henry Buhl, whose renowned collection of photos of hands will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in December 2012.
Or pick a particular style. “Theatrical staged photography has been a constant in the world of photography by substantial artists in the last 15 to 20 years,” Keller says. “It’s still very strong as a motif and there are very good people out there of all ages, from someone like Gregory Crewdson or Cindy Sherman, to much younger artists.”
Sometimes styles are dictated by a master and his students or followers. “The William Eggleston school of photography is also thriving,” Keller notes. “You can choose to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a work by Bill Eggleston, or five to fifteen thousand on someone who is following in his footsteps.”
The Getty Museum published Gordon Baldwin’s book titled Looking at Photographs, which is a primer on the aesthetics and technology of photography.
What to pay, where to buy
The prices for photography at the highest levels of quality are no lower than those of in-demand paintings. Often, price correlates to the artist’s reputation and time in the genre. The leading names have been exhibiting for at least 10 years, if not 25, according to Keller.
A vintage print by an important photographer at the height of his or her career is very costly, “unless it’s badly damaged,” says May. “Generally later prints, non-vintage, are less expensive.”
Whether to buy old or newer prints by the masters can be a matter of personal taste for individual collectors, says May. “For example, as Ansel Adams got older he printed with a higher contrast. He wanted whiter whites and blacker blacks. For some people, the idea of what an Ansel Adams print is is the incredibly rich contrast. They want the later prints because they want that drama. Whereas, (representing) a museum, I want the thing that represents what Ansel Adams was working on at the moment. I want that piece of history.”
And to get your photography collection going, says May, “Art fairs are really great for affordable art. Photo LA (the annual International Los Angeles Photographic Art Exposition) is every year, and many cities have fairs. Fairs in general can be really, really helpful and interesting.
“And go to photo galleries in your community. There’s a pretty wide market for under five thousand dollars. You can buy really nice photographs if you really take the time and talk to the dealers about what you like.”