Ernestas Parulskis: the price of art photography


The beginnings of art photography (in the context of the art market this is not what I call a set of photographic styles, tools or creative ideologies, but a photographic production for which collectors or experienced dilettantes are willing to pay an agreed price) pricing began in the middle of the 19th century, taking over or imitating the dissemination principles of other reproducible art and graphics: valued are only signed, printed by or with the supervision by the artist, limited editions. Any other graphic product created using the same cliché, above the limited edition numbers, without the supervision of the artist or after his death, are referred to as copies of the original and do not hold any value in the art market.

This pricing strategy in photography was especially strong in the middle of the 20th century, when photographs began to have a museum aura and a uge abundance of copies began to be valued from the position of rarity. The originality of photographs – which plays the most important part in determining the price – started to be valued by experts of chemistry, processes, styles and dark room magic professionals. This, of course, is a very conservative, based on museum and classical art history knowledge that has formed the fundamental pricing criteria for art photography, which I will discuss.

The most important and obvious out of all of them – the photographer’s symbolic capital, which is formed by the story of the personality and creativity. Here, its relationship with the price is the simplest – the longer the photographer’s biography, the higher the institutional demand, the higher the price of his/her works. Let’s name this hypothetical, already dead photographer – with a heavy symbolic capital – Johnson, who was working, let’s say, between 1958 and 1989. How does the price play out?

Firstly, we need to study the photograph. Everything is important – when the shot was taken, does the photograph fit within Johnson’s classical work cannon or does it fall out of it? What is the photograph’s place in the history of photography? How has it been interpreted? After making these assessments, we conclude, again, hypothetically, that we are holding a classic landscape photograph that has been reproduced and shown at exhibitions numerous times. Johnson frequently photographed landscapes, and his rare portraits are not highly valued.

Do we have a price yet? No, not yet.

We need to find the print date of the picture. The shot itself was made in 1947 – this is written onto the nagtive in the archive. If the photographer printed it himself or personally oversaw the laboratory technicians printing it that same year, then we have an original vintage print. But this is not the only way. The photographer could have printed the successful shot in 1980 or maybe even before his death. Then the picture looses its vintage status and becomes an artist’s copy. Still, there is another way – the photograph was printed by his son, who is also a photographer, several years after his father’s death, making it not an artist’s, but heir’s copy. Having inspected the print, we understand that the technique used was not Johnson’s favourite pratinum printing and not even gelatin silver print, but digital printing from a scanned negative. On the back of the reproduction we find the Johnson Foundation print – this means that it is an inexpensive souvenir that does not breach copyight laws.

What would happen if we could find the same print, but without the artist’s signature? The price falls drasically? Not always. Some photographers never signed their prints and it would be strange to find such prints with a photographer’s signature on the art market, but also on the contrary – a picture made by a pedantic photographer without his signature can become an important deal-breaker in lowering its price.

Thus, signature are important, but not the most interesting factors of a photograph. The biggest intrigue is caused by its provenance, origin and history of existance. Exhibition releases, custom bands, certificates from galleries and auction houses can expand the price margins of a series of identical photographs by tenfold. Exactly the same happens with the formats of a series of pictures – larger prints have fewer edition numbers and, automatically, they become more expensive.

Such is the situation in terms of the traditional art photography market. For once, I will repeat the expanse of photography evaluation starting from the cheapest to the most expensive:

Heir’s print

A photograph, which has been printed by the descendants of the photographer or another group of people, who hold the photographer’s copyrights. Frequently the descendants have the right to print photographs at their own discretion and affix them with a special sign of the foundation or other.

Limited edition heir’s print

A photographer or his descendants may choose to print a certain amount of photographic reproductions from one negative. The limited edition print is numbered, signed or marked by the descendants. After the release of a limited edition series of prints, the photographer or his descendants do not have the right to repreat prints from the same negative and the same format.

Artist’s copy

Artist’s copies are made from old negatives by the photographer or technicians under the photographer’s supervision. The artist’s copies are signed and two dates – the creation of a negative and the printed copy.

Vintage print

A photograph, which is printed at the same time when the shot was taken. A vintage photograph is not necessarily old: if the photographer takes a shot today and quickly prints it, he makes a vintage print.

By setting the most obvious points it is worth discussing the negative paradox, referring to a recent Adams’ case.

This story of negatives by Ansel Adams, the legendary USA photographic landscape photographer, which we could compare to our Jan Bulhak, started in 2000 when a builder and amateur painter Rick Norisigian, after considerable negotiations, bought 65 glass plate negatives for 45 dollars at a flea market. After two years, the builder decided that the negatives are more valuable than the purchase price and he hired a financial advisor Arnold Peter. He stated that the negatives are A. Adams’ early works, which were thought to have disappeared during a fire in the photographer’s studio. Another expert, David W. Street, valued the negatives at 200 million dollars. All this happened in the summer of 2010. The journalists immediately broke the news – how else? Bought for 45 dollars, now has 200 million!

R. Norsigian did not hestitate to take advantage of the unexpected situation: he created a website and started selling prints made using the negatuves, with an asking price for a dark room print of 7500 and a digital version – 1500 dollars. And there were people, who bought them.

At the end of the summer, the situation was clear. A. Adams’ foundation, which holds 44 000 photographer’s negatives, refused to credit the authorship of the found negatives. By the way, those thousands of negatives already raised questions about the experts’ valuation. The arithemetics are simple – if 65 plates are worth 200 million, then the foundation is in possession of an incredible (hypothetically, of course) nearly 150 billion dollars worth of works? This is a ten year Lithuanian budget giving each year is successful.

Later, it turned out, that the experts hired by the builder are unknown in the photography art martket and D. W. Streets’ mistake was obvious. He came up with the amount of hundreds of millions basing it on the results of a Sotheby’s auction in which A. Adams’ polaroid pincture was sold for 772 500 dollars. Bu the experts for that Polaroid produces unique photographs. Here, the reproduction is impossible and this polaroids should not be compared to photography or even graphic art, but painting princes.

It also became clear that in validating the authorship of A. Adams, R. Norsigian has not right to sell copies, because the copyright laws belong to the descendants until 2054. The story was put to an end by an Oregon resident Marion Walton. She saw the prints made by R. Norsigian for sale in a newspaper and showed several identical photographs to the public. They were made not by A. Adams, but her uncle Earl, who liked to take photographs in the Yosemite National Park. Thus, the price of 65 negatives returned to the correct 45 dollar amount.

This particular story provoked a lot of discussion among experts and amateurs and as always about the copyright laws, subtleties of collecting and the value of historical photographic negatives.

All of these insights can be presented succinctly: some argue that a negative is a true original and more valuable than a print, others – that it’s only a production cliche, a foundation for a work of art, and the third side says that negatives are valuable to museums as the most accurate time witnesses and to consumers, lovers and collectors of photography they are almost irrelevant and meaningless.

But the power of story is very strong. It was 45 dollars for the negatives, now the print cost from 200 to 2000, depending on their size.

Negatives and prints, it might seem, are the relics of the modernist era, so in terms of photography pricing we need to also talk about digital photography. I have one digital photograph. I bought it in a digital arts shop, the most famous of this type of market place is Sedition art. It was founded in 2011 by a former Saatchi Art employee, therefore one key trait is evident in the structure of the main site: here, artworks are divided into curated and openly uploaded. The similarities end there. A collector, who has bought an artwork from Sedition, receives a certificate of ownership and the opportunity to show their possession using a selected device: computer, tablet or mobile phone. They cannot possess it in a tangible form, there even is no possibility to print it. But the owner has the right to lend the artworks to be shown at exhibitions (together with the device) or to re-sell it on the same Sedition. The artist’s names are well known and the prices are low. Everything is adjusted to meet the needs of snobs, who do not want to spend a lot of money.

The pricing strategy on Sedition is not meticulous – in order to check the possibilities I was forced to pay a little and, without looking too long, I bought Damien Hirst’s picture with butterflies. I paid 7 Euros and I became a collector of this particular artist together with other few thousand people. After six months the platform was celebrating it’s one year anniversary and each client received a 10 Euro reward, which I used to buy photographs by Wim Wenders, and now I have two pretty good artworks in my digital safe. From time to time I check if their price hasn’t increased. No, not yet. I also inspect their certificates of authenticity. They show that in the instrument of production in a reproduction-based art market does not have a significant impact – the buyers will always want a proof of ownership that is best presented in physical form. Therefore, contemporary photographers – amateurs, professionals, pinhole, lomography, analog SLR and digital smartphone enthusiasts cannot ignore tradition – at least a few times a year they need to review their negatives and files, choose the best shots, take them to dark rooms or digital laboratories, choose the best archival paper, print the series using archival paint, write down limited edition numbers, date, sign and securely place them together with other series. Someday someone, maybe even the photographer himself, will pull out and sell to an enthusiastic art lover.


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