In the 16 years since the iPhone was introduced and a decade or so after Instagram invaded the art world, the ubiquity of pictures has clouded perceptions of what constitutes great photography. Billions of images are shared online every day. But the market for contemporary photography has cratered, sending many camera-toting market stars crashing down to earth.
Markets tend to overcorrect, which is what I suspect is happening with contemporary photography today. But a medium that has added so much to the world—and the history of art—deserves a renaissance.
I’ve appreciated photography as art and included it in my mix since I began collecting in 2000. I recall early editions of Art Basel Miami Beach when booths were awash in large and bold contemporary photographs. I was impressed by the scale that photography offered relative to price, as well as the storytelling possibilities that the medium possessed.
In the past few years, however, it seems like the monetary value of contemporary photography has dimmed because of the ubiquity of pictures all around us. With that in mind, I think it’s time for collectors to revisit their relationship with photography and separate selfies from the sublime. I suggest this not with an investor’s eye but as a true believer convinced that those who reengage with the medium will be rewarded with museum-quality works, at attractive prices, while discovering a new generation of artists deploying photography in challenging ways, even as their paint-loving peers still command center stage.
To understand how far the market has fallen in the last decade, consider the case of Andreas Gursky, arguably the greatest photographer of his generation. Between 2006 and 2017, 32 of his photographs sold for more than $1 million at auction—while none has reached such a price since. In November 2010, one of his impressive images shot in North Korea—part of his “Pyongyang” series that surveys the totalitarian control that the government there wields over its people—sold at Sotheby’s London for $2.13 million. A decade later, in October 2021, a similar piece from that series of seven images (which I am told had sold for more than $1 million on the primary market) was bought-in with an estimate of $440,000 to $577,000.
From Thomas Struth to Hiroshi Sugimoto, there are many other examples of great works that have diminished in value. In 2007 and 2008, four of Sugimoto’s famed seascape photographs sold for more than $1 million. More recently, from 2009 to this year, more than a dozen sold at auction for $300,000 to $500,000, at a time when the artist’s international acclaim and museum representation has only grown.
Monetary value and historical impact are also out of sync with the works of Louise Lawler, a key figure of the Pictures Generation. The subject of a significant survey at MoMA in 2016, Lawler is represented in many of the major museums around the world. Her top auction price is $341,000, for a photograph of a painting of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol. But her sales at auction today are more modest—most for less than $75,000, and some failing to sell as passed lots.
Compare that with young painters whose works regularly top $1 million with no major (or even minor) museum shows to speak of. Many of these painters have great promise, but, even in the best case, they are likely decades away from the kind of critical judgement bestowed on Lawler.
It’s clear that the existence of editions in photography—with some photographers selling as many as 10 prints of a given picture—has some impact on price. But editions existed in the early 2000s when the market was most active and accelerating.
About the decline in prices over time, I wonder: why?
I may have stumbled across part of the answer last fall when dozens of friends and neighbors heeded a call from my wife for a “Back-to-Fall Summer Photo Contest” that we hosted above a coffee shop near our home in Washington, D.C. It was mainly an excuse to reconnect and show off our best vacation pictures, and there were many submissions, with an array of photographs printed at large scale and some of them even mounted.
The pictures covered the gamut of well-known styles, from landscapes to abstraction. In my quest to emulate the great Wolfgang Tillmans—who had a blockbuster show at MoMA in 2022—I picked out a snapshot I’d taken of a yellow line of a fly-fishing rod against a bright blue sky and pinned it to the wall.
After some wine and beer, a winner was crowned, with the prize going to an intriguing image from a friend who had been inspired by the great French photographer Ilse Bing’s technique of using mirrors to capture the subject she was after. Our friend is no Ilse Bing, however, and try as I might to be Wolfgang Tillmans, I am definitely not Wolfgang Tillmans.
After many of us posted our valiant efforts on Instagram, it dawned on me as I scanned our offerings that Ansel Adams had it right when he said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” Our pictures were clearly just taken, rapid-fire on our phones, happy accidents rather than painstakingly planned compositions or evidence of some kind of singular spontaneous vision.
While the number of photographs on our smartphones rises (I have 13,000 and counting) as the prices at auction for masterworks of contemporary photography fall, too many of us are missing the thrilling exploration through this medium that is happening right before our eyes. Artists from across the globe, from Zanele Muholi of South Africa to New York-based Deana Lawson are using photography to challenge viewers on issues of race, gender, and inequality. In his 2019 book The New Black Vanguard, Antwaun Sargent—who rose from his station as a writer and independent curator to become a director at Gagosian—explores how a new generation of Black artists has been blurring the lines between fashion photography and fine art to stunning effect, elevating artists like Awol Erizku. In conceptual climes, photographers such as Elad Lassry and Taryn Simon are building on the history of Lawler and others.
When I asked him about the downturn of the photography market of late, Darius Himes, the international head of photographs at Christie’s, offered me an enticing longer-view perspective. He said that the 25 top-selling contemporary photographers now are represented by large blue-chip galleries that show artists across all mediums, rather than photo-specific specialists. Photography, Himes said, is no longer regarded a niche, as it had been throughout most of the 20th century.
He also cited bright spots in the market around surging prices for rare 19th– and 20th–century masterworks as a sign that photography is part of a robust market that will thrive and endure. And then of course there is support from great museums. From MoMA’s Tillmans show to the Hirshhorn’s current survey of cutting-edge contemporary photography from China to Tate Modern’s 2021 show of Muholi, photography continues to be taking its rightful place in the art-world hierarchy.
“We won the war,” Himes said. “Photography is now considered art.”
Perhaps like all other art, the market for photography will move in cycles. And when we allow ourselves to look up from our smartphones, contemporary photography will yet again enjoy its deserved moment in the spotlight.