Art versus technology

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2011, 12:00am


For anyone looking to begin an art collection, photography is generally considered a good place to start. The works are often sold in multiple editions, which is cheaper then buying an original artwork; yet their content is often equally as powerful in composition and execution.

In 2010, the year China became the leading global art market, the global photography market grew by 19 per cent. It is an ever-increasing art industry and with photographers constantly having to adapt and mutate their methods to meet changing technologies, the possibilities of creation are no longer constrained to capturing the real world.

When looking at photography as an investment, it is important to distinguish between the vintage and contemporary photography markets. The former has been a stable stalwart of the field for decades with prices staying relatively constant globally. Artists such as Man Ray, Edward Weston, Diane Arbus or Robert Frank garner substantial yet constant rates at auction. This market hasn't seen any kind of new cash infusions in recent years but is instead a constant benchmark by which to measure the growth of the medium.

'The vintage photography market is not benefiting from the newly developing collector bases, especially in Asia. One of the biggest factors is still a discomfort in Asia with photography at the higher levels of art buying,' says Jehan Chu, director of Vermillion Art Collections.

The real investment gambles are the much less predictable contemporary works. Since its birth as an autonomous art market in the 1990s, contemporary photography has been growing from strength to strength. This is due in large part to the affordability of photographic work in comparison to a unique artistic work such as a painting or sculpture. Mimi Gradel, director of the photographic gallery Blind Spot says: 'The photographic market has been the best performing art market for the past two decades. Prices for artist such as Andreas Gursky and Richard Prince have regularly exceeded US$1 million. These kinds of prices bring a new confidence into the top line of the medium.'

German visual artist and photographer Gursky has embraced burgeoning technologies since the late 1990s to create epic, grand-scale works of trading floors, hotel lobbies, raves, landscapes and F1 pit crews. His work in particular is filled with commentary and intellectual force, showing sweeping views of intimidating scale. As an aesthetic it has worked. He is currently the world's highest-priced photographer.

He has always been forthright about his use of image enhancing techniques such as Photoshop, but now even a photographer of his success must look beyond his previous methods and rise to new and often theatrical levels of creativity.

His 2009 F1 racing teams are enormous in scale, dubbed by renowned New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz: 'As big as a boat' and 'like a billboard.' The clear danger in this type of dramatic work is that the more exposed the viewer is to the working methods and technologies, the faster ennui sets in, forcing the photographer to rise to ever more spectacular heights of artistry.

With the work of Cuban-American photographer Abelardo Morell, artistic intention is the sole concern. He articulates the fundamentals of photography by literally turning the outside world on its head. His series of camera obscura works project inverted cityscapes, woodlands and landscapes onto opportunely placed interiors through the use of simple pinhole technology. The results are haunting images of misplaced beauty, confusing the viewer through the most simple of photographic mechanics, yet still garnering substantial price tags. His work has graced the pages of National Geographic and entered the collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Morell's quiet simplicity seems counter-intuitive to the barrage of modern technologies that have revolutionised photography and transformed the photographic market since the 1990s. 'I want to touch the very essence of what we perceive through cameras.' says Morell, 'Part of what I like to do is to give myself constraints. I could create these camera obscura projects very easily from my office and my 19-year-old daughter could do it on her laptop in five minutes, but I like the constraints of blending the real travel and the real staging of the subject. In that process the image becomes real.'

In this statement Morell touches on the major concern facing the contemporary photographic market. In a world where photography is such an intrinsic part of everyday life, it becomes increasingly difficult for the public to see photography in an art context. This means that a photographic artist must constantly imagine new methods and ways to create original works.

The problem of a jaded market audience is tackled head-on in the voyeuristic, paparazzi-style work of British photographer Alison Jackson. She has made an industry out of staging the images that every red-top tabloid editor would sell their first-born child to get their hands on. Her use of look-alike actors to depict extraordinary pictures of celebrities, politicians and royals in intimate, compromising positions captures the public fascination celebrity and the growing unreliability of photography as a document.

Her website offers mugs, t-shirts, mouse pads, innumerable prints, postcards and plates ranging in price from a couple of hundred pounds sterling to as little as five. 'We are not living our lives through concrete three-dimensional reality anymore. I just feel that that is an extraordinary position to be in. We are so divorced from anything authentic or real,' says Jackson.

Jackson's approach is gutsy and no-nonsense. 'I make badly crafted photographs commenting on everybody's badly crafted photographs.' she laughs, 'It is an age-old story - as soon as the shutter clicks that's one version of reality.'

Not everyone is so pragmatic. 'In my opinion, you do not decide to be a professional artistic photographer. You are considered professional once you earn money, but you are an artist if your vision or proposition is a personal and singular one and is received as such by others,' says photographer Denis Rouvre.

Perhaps it is his French temperament that makes him more romantic about the medium or the fact that Paris, where he is based, is home to the most illustrious photographic fairs in the world. Paris-Photo, for instance, has been one of the primary commercial destinations for photography globally since its creation in 1997. It was here in November 2010 that Christie's broke records with their sale of 65 pieces by the photographer Richard Avedon, the highest bid being GBP719,000 (HK$8.8 million) for a unique seven-foot high print of a model, Dovima, posing in a Christian Dior evening dress with elephants from the Cirque d'Hiver, Paris.

Fashion, celebrity and photography have been bedfellows from the start. Billion-dollar media empires are built off the back of this happy union. This is something Rouvre is all too familiar with and sees as a natural part of the industry. In 2010, he completed a series of intimate portraits of celebrity actors and directors at the Cannes film festival. This kind of exclusive access to otherwise inaccessible people and locations has always been one of the most alluring characteristics of the medium.

For Beijing-based Quentin Shih, there is a dichotomous tension between nationality and modern expectations. His somewhat surreal creations are eerie and distinctly Asian. Shot from above, his work Citizen of the State (US$6,000-$8,000) follows a singular hospital bed as ordinary people die on top of it. The work examines the powerlessness and vulnerability of the dead in a stark yet beautifully composed way. They are overt without being blatant. 'In my experience, hospitals - which have always determined life and death - are a symbol of power and violence,' says Shih, 'In this series, I wanted to use a precise pictorial composition to depict what happens at the death of normal people in a country fixated by heroism; the relationship between a few ordinary people and the state as I understood it.'

In China the environment and the role of photographers is changing rapidly. Established Chinese contemporary artists working with photography include Wang Qingsong, Yang Fudong and RongRong. They are already considered major contributors to the medium and their success means that now is an especially advantageous time to invest in photographers from Asia.

Recent social developments have seen government's support for the medium grow and more artists are choosing photography as their primary artistic outlet. 'Younger or emerging Chinese artists who work with photography include Jiang Pengyi (who has recently won the Jury Grand Prize of the Societe Generale Chinese Art Awards), Maleonn and Chen Wei. These artists are worth collecting because they have been consistently producing good works priced at a relatively lower price point,' says Blind Spot's Gradell.

When pioneers like Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand were first establishing photography as an autonomous art form in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they could not have conceived of a world where, at the click of a finger, images of every imagined form could be viewed instantly.

In her book titled On Photography, Susan Sontag says: 'To collect photography is to collect the world'. But today we are flooded with so much imagery that we can no longer trust or believe our eyes. The role of contemporary photographers is in a constant state of flux, with both great and meagre minds struggling to keep up. So when speaking to any gallerist or art consultant, the emphasis on what to buy is always firstly down to taste. Any photographic or art collector must like what they buy.

Art consultant Chu says emphatically that he encourages clients 'to buy with their eyes and not with their ears'. Like any art investment it is important to have a relationship with the work and understand the context and aesthetic. There is no point buying something that you are not prepared to see and live with everyday. There should be an instinctual connection to the image. Purchasing any art in another way is fundamentally missing the point.