Perceived as the most underground of all of the arts not so long ago, photography now frequently hits the headlines, whether through a local school pupil winning their school’s top photography award, or a little-known photographer, Yvonne Todd, winning The Walters’ Prize, a new prestigious national art award. How does this increase in public awareness about photography as art benefit photographers and translate into actual sales? This feature is a snapshot of some current offerings of photographs for sale, and a record of some that sold.
There is an old adage about commerce, that there are always two prices, the asking price and the selling price. This is, perhaps, no more obvious than in the world of auctions, where it is rare for the actual photographer to gain any cash in hand. At best, a record price at auction means that the living artist could raise his or her prices in accordance to this newly perceived respect for at least one (or more) of their works. Such signs, of course, are no guarantee of improved sales in the future, unless there are more people wanting to buy their work.
Anecdotal evidence, visits to the homes or studios of photographer friends, and my own recent forays into submitting work for auction, indicate that few photographers collect other photographer’s work. In fact, it seems that most photographers are only interested in having their own work shown at galleries, and if not included in a show, tend not to go. The majority of photographers, to their detriment, don’t study other people’s work and, consequently, don’t engage in serious dialogue about images and ideas.
On the other hand, a growing number of art collectors have acquired a taste for photographs, and are able to buy rare and important works at what, inevitably, will be seen to be extremely modest prices.
Nevertheless, we are talking about New Zealand, so everything is on a small scale, compared to the sometimes huge (and ridiculously high) prices paid for some photographs overseas. It’s not that significant photographs are not worth as much as significant paintings, or other art works, intrinsically, but that the successful art business tends to buy low, promote hard, and sell high. A photographer with a smart dealer can benefit from this, but, generally speaking, with auctions, an artist may be locked out of the game between seller and buyer, but gain some beneficial publicity in the process. According to Peter Webb, on National Radio (12 December 2002), there is a danger for emerging artists selling at auction, because the likely (low) prices fetched may disadvantage later sales from realising (deservedly) higher prices.
Twenty-five years ago, in a seminal PhotoForum survey carried out by Ted Quinn, Auckland’s John Leech Gallery said ‘We do not intend at present to go in for exhibitions of photography. This gallery deals only with original works of art.’ Peter Webb Galleries replied that they had exhibited Peter Peryer in 1976, and had his work in stock. And that they intended to show the work of Paul Johns and Ian Macdonald. That was at the time that Snaps–A Photographers’ Gallery was under way and PhotoForum/Wellington was setting up. Today, the pioneer photographer-run galleries are gone, but Peter Webb and Leech’s John Gow are major players in promoting the collecting of photography as art. And photographers such as Peter Peryer and Laurence Aberhart now seem be able to make a living from the sale of their work.
On the international scene, a recent Sotheby’s auction of Australasian contemporary photographs, organised by Alison Holland, may also auger well for future sales and recognition for New Zealand photographers. The author of this feature entered some of his own work, and samples of other photographer’s work from his collection, into some of the auctions included in this report. Some work from PhotoForum’s collection has also been submitted to raise funds and test the current market for photographs in New Zealand.