Sun, 20 Feb 2000

Photography: Soaring prices in Europe

By Kunang Helmi-Picard

PARIS (JP): Prices of collector item photo prints are sky- rocketing in Europe. Photography experts foresee that owing to the stock market boom, prices for impressionist painting and photography will continue to follow suit.

The first sign of the costly trend was the estimate for the century old vintage print by Gustave Le Gray. At just under a million U.S. dollars in Sotheby's fine photography October 1999 auction catalog in London, it took the world of photo collectors by surprise. The results of the sale of the Andri Jammes photo collection is overwhelming proof that photo aficionados now have to reach deep into their pockets for the privilege of owning a collector's print in pristine condition, whether vintage or modern.

In November 1999 in Paris, the third Paris Photo fair held at the Caroussel du Louvre quadrupled its results of the previous year. Each participating gallery sold at least US$45,000 worth of these highly perishable paper goods, with some galleries even attaining 10 times more. Daguerreotypes and vintage prints were among the front-runners in investment value, but even prints of contemporary artists such as American Cindy Sherman or German Thomas Struth found buyers willing to pay about 360,000 French francs (about $53,730 at current rate) for a print.

On Jan. 18, 91-year-old Henri Cartier-Bresson, who many consider to be the world's greatest photographer, opened a show of 80 black and white portraits at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris. Contemporary prints of his portraits were priced at a modest 20,000 francs ($2,985) and many were already sold at the opening. However, these prints are not of a limited edition, despite being signed by the photographer who was a pioneer photo- journalist. Cartier-Bresson muses: "Never would I have thought, when I seriously started to take photos in the 1930s, that I would be able to actually sell photo prints and make a decent living, even after paying all these taxes now in France." Among these prints which occasionally come up for sale are his visions of Indonesia taken half a century ago.

Just two weeks later, on Jan. 31, Magnum, the photo agency that Cartier-Bresson helped to found together with Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour 53 years ago in Paris, opened their big year 2000 show, Magnum essais sur le monde, at the old site of the Bibliotheque Nationale in central Paris. Long queues of invited visitors stretched out before the official opening. Serious photo fans are obliged to return in the weeks up to May 7 to actually see the contents of the show. London was already treated to the parallel show at the Barbican in December and Tokyo also had its Magnum exhibition.

Here in Paris, spread over two floors, 420 photo prints are displayed, both black and white or color, taken by 56 photographers from Cartier-Bresson to Martin Parr, from Josef Koudelka and Gueorgui Pinkhassov to Raymond Depardon.

Swiss Magnum member Reni Burri, a frequent visitor to Bali, told his visitors: "We gave ourselves a special budget in 1995 to help prepare photos for this anniversary show, so that our point of view is visibly stated and our particular style of documentation clear to all viewers!"

Magnum photographers are not usually considered "artists", but documentary photographers, yet their production has inevitably joined the commercial "art" fray. Now they do not only earn their living by collecting their copyright dues, but also participate in publicity campaigns besides carrying out assignments for the print media. Special exhibitions culminate either in sales of photo prints or of attractive photo books. Magnum's cultural section now accounts for about 40 percent of their income. Revealingly, the sponsors of the show include the FNAC company -- belonging to French mega-financier Pinault -- who runs 62 photo galleries in important cities in France and the rest of Europe, Brazil and Taiwan.

Fifteen Magnum-related shows in France are now able to be seen in the highly accessible FNAC galleries, expertly run by Laura Serani. Here one can also buy photo books, a less expensive way to collect photography. These include the "red collection," which, priced at only 49.50 francs ($7.50) each, are pocket books of a superior quality printed by Franco Sciardelli in Milan, where readers gain an intimate view of, among others, American playwright Arthur Miller by his wife, Austrian Magnum photographer Inge Morath, or of French Henri Cartier-Bresson by his wife, Belgian Magnum photographer Martine Franck. The millennium Magnum book published by Phaidon with a choice of French or English text, is also worth acquiring at only 399 francs ($60).

First to the 2000 celebrations, five Magnum female photographers -- Arnold, Franck, Meiselas, Morath and Silverstone -- who were already featured at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh last November in the show Magna Brava. Their finely printed catalog is also on sale for those not able to buy an original Magnum print. Such prints include those of Martine Franck and Inge Morath, which were also very popular at the recent Paris Photo fair.

Another current photo exhibition in Paris is open at the Picasso Museum until end April. This time Brassai/Picasso -- Conversations with light is more of a painterly nature. Hungarian photographer Brassai (1899-1984) met Picasso in 1932 through art publisher Teriade. From documenting Picasso's sculptures to discussing the respective natures of photography and sculpture with the artist, Brassai soon moved to working parallel with Picasso on glass negative photographic plates. Brassai's collection was recently bought by the Picasso foundation. His centennial is also celebrated with the publication of the magnificent book accompanying the show, 320 illustrations in color filling 344 pages.

Those who appreciate photography must realize that Picasso's experiments in photography are definitely more expensive to acquire than the fine photo prints available at the art market. All the more reason for those interested in building up a collection to select their photo prints with great care, and most important, before prices soar even higher.