Photography Comes of Age

Sam Wagstaff, one of the pioneering collectors of photography, once commented, “I don’t think any collector knows his true motivation. An obsession – like any sort of love – is blinding.” In the early days of the modern photography market, during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Wagstaff virtually had his obsession to himself.

Photography was invented in two different forms in 1839, by William Henry Fox Talbot, working in England, and Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, in France. According to Merry Foresta, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, in Washington, D.C., “Initially, photography held all the cards. It was both an art form, and, as a product of the industrial revolution, a technological achievement and a scientific tool.” The market for fine art photography, however, was slow to develop. The new medium suffered from the perception that it was less noble or creative than painting or sculpture, and dealt primarily with found images.

 At the onset of the 20th century, Alfred Stieglitz, a great photographer in his own right, promoted appreciation for the newest art form through a series of publications and galleries. However, he was more successful showing modern artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley, than photography. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Julien Levy exhibited photographers like Stieglitz, Man Ray, George Platt Lynes, Edward Steichen and Walker Evans, though there was little market for the work. In the 1950s, Helen Gee operated a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village that featured a photography gallery in the back; even with prints priced at $15, few sold, though. Even by the late 1960s, there were less than a handful of galleries, located in Boston, New York and Washington, devoted to photography. A few institutions, like the Museum of Modern Art, and fewer individuals, actively collected photographs. As a consequence, photography was a field with limited scholarship, only a handful of collectors, a naissant concept of connoisseurship, no provenance, and, in sum, sorry prospects.

 But where others saw nothing, Wagstaff and a few other devotees, saw opportunity. Based in New York, Wagstaff would buy dozens, sometimes hundreds, of photographs at a time. Though he was independently wealthy, he guarded his pennies. Refusing to indulge in taxis, he would take the subways with his haul stuffed in brown paper shopping bags. Wagstaff notoriously loved to be surrounded by his collection; the floors of his penthouse were covered with pictures by Frederick Evans, Gustave LeGray, Nadar, Talbot, Roger Fenton, Cecil Beaton, Baron de Meyer, Baron von Gloeden, as well as anonymous 19th century cartes-de-visites, postcards, stereographs, illustrated books and yearbook albums. Daniel Wolf, one of the few dealers active at that time, recalled that “There were just a handful of people in New York who really cared about photography, and we’d sit around and say ‘Isn’t it amazing that nobody else appreciates it? What can we do to get it out there?’”

 Considering how dim the prospects for developing a viable photography market seemed just 30 years ago, its almost miraculous that the market for photography is now one of the most dynamic in the fine art world. 

Fueled by a series of landmark auction house sales, prices for photographs that Wagstaff might have paid hundreds or perhaps a few thousand dollars for, are now reaching new stratospheres. In 1993, Christie’s hammered down a portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe by Stieglitz for $398,500, the record for a single photograph sold at auction. Sotheby’s sold a daguerreotype of the U.S. Capitol by John Plumbe for $189,500, the highest price ever achieved for daguerreotypes, once the purvey of flea markets and musty attics. The most expensive 19th century photographic work ever sold publicly, a Nadar, was auctioned last year in Paris for $215,000. A complete set of Edward Curtis’s monumental, 40 volume, publishing project, Tribes of the North American Indian was purchased in 1993 for $662,500. Three years earlier, an album of photographs by the 19th century Frenchman, Felix Teynard, was acquired for just short of $779,000. That sale represented the record for a group of photographs until an album of 18 prints of Mecca and Medina sold last year for the staggering sum of $2.26 million. Even contemporary work is setting new records – a piece by the post-modernist, Cindy Sherman, recently went for over $144,000. Nor are these prices the results of a few obsessive collectors operating in isolation. Museums have also gotten into the game in a big way. In 1984, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, simultaneously purchased five major private collections, including Wagstaff’s, for $18 million. MoMA bought a complete set of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled, Film Stills series, and last year, the Metropolitan Museum acquired a group of 77 photographs from the collection of San Francisco publisher William Rubel for a figure which knowledgeable insiders put at $4.5 million. Photography has clearly come of age.

 The current market for photography is no boomtown phenomenon. Almost every major museum in the world now acquires photographic works. Significantly, all the major museums in New York, the center of the art world and the epicenter of the photography community, are actively building photography collections. The Metropolitan Museum and MoMA are longstanding players in the field, but the cornerstone for the Guggenheim’s photography collection was laid in 1992 when the Robert Mapplethorpe Estate gave the museum a gift of $2 million in cash and 200 of the artist’s photographs, valued at $3 million. Last year, the Guggenheim also inaugurated a photography acquisitions committee, and will show the results of their efforts in a new exhibition this spring. The Met, MoMA, and the Whitney also have photography committees guiding, and funding, their purchases. The Whitney also just announced their intention to hire a photography curator, a first for the museum. Other cities in the U.S. with important museum photography collections include Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Internationally, Paris and London remain the primary centers for photography collecting, but from Toronto to Tokyo there are institutions exhibiting work.

The gallery scene supports this museum activity. In New York alone, there are over 200 galleries that regularly exhibit photo-based work. For the past 25 years, photography dealers were in the vanguard, operating in splendid isolation as they fought for acceptance in the marketplace. Today, there’s hardly a contemporary art gallery that doesn’t include photo-based work as part of its exhibition program. As contemporary art galleries like Gagosian, Matthew Marks, Luhring Augustine, and others show more photographic work, many wonder if the future of the medium is moving away from the traditional photography galleries. ARTISTS, LIKE CINDY SHERMAN, WORKING WITH PHOTOGRAPHY  ARE INSPIIRED BY WHAT’S GOING ON IN EVERY MEDIUM – PAINTING, SCULPTURE, PERFORMANCE ART, VIDEO, FILM, TELEVISION, EVEN ADVERTISING. BUT THEY CHOOSE TO WORK WITH PHOTOGRAPHY AS THE PERFECT EXPRESSIVE MEDIUM OF OUR TIMES. RATHER THAN BEING THE SPIRITUAL HEIRS OF STIEGLITZ, THEY REPRESENT A NEW, DIFFERENT GENERATION OF PHOTO-BASED ARTISTS. The old-line photography dealers aren’t worried, though. James Danziger, who operates a gallery in New York, notes that “Our strength is with the rare vintage material we handle.” Atlanta-based Jane Jackson agrees: “The contemporary art galleries add to, rather than take away from the collector base for photographs. Both types of dealers see fundamental differences between traditional photography done by photographers living today, and the photo-based work done by contemporary artists. “We put image first,” asserts Danziger, who finds the cutting edge work “more conceptually driven.” Marks believes that the new work being done today is “determined by the artists, not the market. The artists now regard photography as just another medium to choose from. This is the ultimate success of photography.”

Crossover has consequently become the buzzword of the moment. Will the collectors and institutions crossover from the traditional to the contemporary? The auction houses and dealers are spending significant dollars trying to market photography to new and different buyers. There are over 20 auctions a year, highlighted by the semi-annual season of photography sales in New York led by Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, and the Swann Galleries. In addition, photography sales have been held regularly in London and Paris since the 1960s; Butterfield & Butterfield engages the West Coast audience, and the two major houses also feature significant contemporary photography in their contemporary art sales held in New York and London each fall and spring.  Its not uncommon now to see galleries like Marks team up with a prominent photo dealer like Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco to do a joint venue show. In a similar vein, Gagosian last year opened a Sally Mann show in Los Angeles simultaneously with Edwynn Houk, the New York photography gallery that represents her. “Photography is the most popular medium in 20th century art,” says New York gallerist Howard Greenberg. “Different galleries will show different aspects of it.” Interestingly, it is Marks who is the most emphatic: “You can’t reflect this day and age in your collection if you won’t buy a photograph. If you’re going to collect contemporary art, you’re really missing out if you don’t look at what’s going on in photography today.”

Today there is an established pantheon of blue chip artists who are acknowledged to have created seminal masterpieces of the medium. Ranging from Stieglitz, Man Ray, Paul Strand, Andre Kertesz, Paul Outerbridge, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, to Cindy Sherman, works by these artists regularly attract prices that Wagstaff would scarcely recognize. The marketplace infrastructure is in place, and there is a degree of historical appreciation, scholarship, connoisseurship and provenance that never existed until recently. However, Wagstaff’s approach would still stand him well. “The common thread throughout is quality,” he said. “I don’t collect by subject, but by what interests me – a bare ass or a sunset, a waterfall or Lincoln, an American Indian or a dead soldier or Louise Brooks, who was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived…You can’t collect with someone else’s eye. It’s putting your own stake in the ground…It’s about yourself.”

COLLECTIONS MAGAZINE

15 January 1999