PHO704 Week 8: Photography and its Fine Arts Markets

This week has been helpful for its insights into the world of galleries, dealers, auctioneers and museums.

However, there is a lack of nuts and bolts here. For example, if a gallery takes on an artist or photographer, what kind of contract is involved and what are the artist’s or photographer’s typical obligations? Some more on that would have been helpful. I have found some articles and contract templates online – see Artquest 2020 and Dan Schultz 2017 – but it is hard to know how relevant they are.

The two larger questions here, however, are whether Fine Arts is a market I fit into and what in fact ‘Fine Arts’ actually means in terms of photography.

There seems considerable debate about what Fine Arts Photography really involves. As a category it is generally regarded as slippery, going back at least to Modernism and the work of Steichen, O’Keeffe, Weston and probably much earlier. Perhaps a satisfactory approach is Stephen Shore’s observation that ‘Pictures exist on a mental level that may be coincident with the depictive level – what the picture is showing – but does not mirror it. The mental level elaborates, refines, and embellishes our perceptions of the depictive level’ (Shore 2007: 97). Fine Arts Photography prioritizes aesthetics and conception far above the simply depictive, something recently addressed in Medium Format Magazine in connection with Ansel Adams’ ideas of ‘visualization’ (Gordon 2020):

‘ … the fine art photographer synthesizes the external event (the thing worthy of having your camera pointed at it) with the internal event (the intuitive recognition of an idea or concept related to the thing). Credit is due to Ansel Adams for these terms, the internal and external events … Ansel said: “Visualization is the most important factor in the making of a photograph. Visualization includes all the steps from selecting the subject to making the final print.”

‘ … The representational photographer depicts physical appearances as found and doesn’t typically interfere with the subject or the light. In contrast, the fine art photograph may be entirely the result of interference. The finished print might scarcely resemble the found state’ (Gordon 2020).

This approach is not only true to my own experience, but it allows Fine Arts Photography to incorporate other genres such as landscape and portraiture when those merge into it. Fashion is notably one and an example would be the practice of Tim Walker. Conceptual art is another important genre within Fine Art Photography, as in the work of artists such as Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall.

However, one of the points in this week’s coursework  – see O’ Hagan 2012 and Heyman 2015 – is that what may motivate the artist and what the market makes of that may be very different things. It seems unlikely that, say, Paul Graham would consider himself a fine arts maker although to the art market he has become one. Tim Walker is forthright:

‘I find the word “art” a little bit self-congratulatory and I find it uncomfortable: I’m a photographer. Art isn’t decided at the moment it’s made – a lot of people would disagree with me, but I think time decides what art is. The most unlikely things become art. For me to say, “This is art photography,” I’m just not that sort of person; this is photography, this is me playing with a camera. Call it what you will but I would call it photography’ (Smith 2012).

While Snowdon is famously alleged to have claimed that photographs ‘should be seen in a magazine or a book and then be used to wrap up the fish and chucked away’.

Tim_Walker_Shoot-for-the-Moon
Fig. 1: Tim Walker 2019. From his book, Shoot for the Moon (Walker 2019). Walker has said, ‘I find the word “art” a little bit self-congratulatory and I find it uncomfortable: I’m a photographer’ (Smith 2012).

How do I fit into this? I think many of my images would fit into a fine arts definition since the images are made for conceptual and aesthetic reasons more than for documentary ones. I think I could see myself signing a contact with a gallery, on the basis of the kind of templates mentioned above. But I still see myself as a photographer rather than as an artist. Art is for others and the market to decide. Some of this week’s coursework suggests that the fine arts world is has more than its fair share of sharks, tycoons and money ramps, which is not really my world at all – even though as both Boll and Heyman point out, photograph is still only a very small percentage of the overall market for the arts (Boll 2011, Heyman 2015). In fact one can argue that the entire idea of Fine Arts Photography is something of a ramp following the ‘discovery’ of photography as a lucrative new revenue source by galleries and museums in the 1970s, as described by Douglas Crimp in his essay ‘The Museum’s Old, the Library’s New Subject’ (Crimp 1999). I could play ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ but I am better as a contrarian snapper.

References

ARTQUEST. 2020. ‘Contracts with Galleries’. Artquest [online]. Available at: https://www.artquest.org.uk/artlaw-article/contracts-with-galleries/ [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

BOLL, Dirk. 2011. ‘The Structure of the Art Market’. In Dirk BOLL (ed.). Art for Sale: A Candid View of the Art Market. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 29–49.

CRIMP, Douglas, 1999. ‘The Museum’s Old, the Library’s New Subject’. In Jessica EVANS and Stuart HALL (eds). 1999. Visual Culture: The Reader. London: SAGE, 213-23.

GORDON, Michael E. 2020. ‘Photography Is Easy. Art Is Hard.’ Medium Format Magazine [online]. Available at: https://mediumformat.com/photography-is-easy-art-is-hard/ [accessed 8 Nov 2020].

HEYMAN, Stephen. 2015. ‘Photography’s Place in the Global Art Market’. International New York Times [online]. Available at: https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/docview/1678821643/805AA85CE9144436PQ/1?accountid=15894 [accessed 9 Nov 2020].

O’HAGAN, Sean. 2012. ‘Photography: A Guardian Masterclass: The World’s Most Expensive Photograph …Is of a Scene That Doesn’t Exist. Photography Critic Sean O’Hagan Examines the Changing Landscape of a Thriving Medium’. The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/docview/1159222358?pq-origsite=summon [accessed 8 Nov 2020].

SCHULTZ, Dan. 2017. ‘Art Gallery Contract’. Dan Schultz Fine Art [online]. Available at: https://www.danschultzfineart.com/art-gallery-contract/ [accessed 8 Nov 2020].

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. London: Phaidon Press.

SMITH, Karl. 2012. ‘Interview with Tim Walker’. Tim Walker [online]. Available at: https://www.timwalkerphotography.com/articles/interview-with-tim-walker [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

WALKER, Tim. 2019. Shoot for the Moon. London: Thames and Hudson.

Figures

Figure 1. Tim WALKER. 2019. Untitled. From: Tim Walker. 2019. Shoot for the Moon. London: Thames and Hudson.