I’ve just been watching a great video by Erik Wahlstrom, a man who produces consistently good, if occasional, Youtube content on photography. In it he’s posing the question of what a photograph is worth, both in monetary terms and personally. I’m not going to recap, go and watch it, then come back…
…okay, so now you’ve seen it. I don’t know about you (feel free to comment) but I think he’s spot on, especially in his comment about ‘country club bragging rights bidding wars’, not just photography but what you might call significant art sells for sums of money which are ludicrous. The effect of which is frequently to put art in the hands of collectors from where it never sees the light of day at prices public galleries can’t afford. The prices don’t reflect the art, they reflect the identity of the artist; prove it’s not ‘school of xxxx’ but ‘by xxxx’ and the price rockets. It’s the same art, it looks the same as it did when it was ‘school of’ but somehow it’s worth a whole load more. I always in a way think it’s sad on programs like Antiques Roadshow when somebody finds the photo auntie Dot bought at a jumble sale in the 70s for 25p is a lost masterwork valued in the hundreds of thousands..because now they’ll never be able to risk leaving it on the wall of the living room because it’s going to be a theft magnet and they can’t manage the insurance, so it’s going to be sold and they can’t enjoy it any more. If I had a painting I thought might be valuable which I enjoyed there is no way on earth I’d get it assessed and appraised, I just enjoy it.
So, you’re reading my _photography_ blog, and Eric was talking about _photography_, so where am I going with all this talk about great art and school of somebody or other? Well, I think super-value photography is a particularly ridiculous idea, far more so than a painting really. Because, at the end of the day, the huge difference is that there is only one Mona Lisa, or Bar at the Folies-Bergere, or Seagram Murals; the one the artist created. Okay, so they might have returned to the subject multiple times but the results are all that bit different. With photography, as Fox Talbot rather intended, multiple reproductions are not only possible, but desirable. With a photograph you’re not seeing the unique hand of the artist in the finished work. Okay so Ansel Adams printed his own negatives, and the Weston family are a dynasty of printers, and there are others, but generally for a photograph the act of creating the image in the camera is the ‘thing’, not creating the finished product. I’m not saying that’s not an amazing skill, it really is, but when you look at a photo on a gallery wall generally it’s not the name of the printer you’re celebrating.
So, where does the worth of a photo derive? I’d say from two places. The first is the creative mind behind it and the second is the actual work taken to secure it; we can marvel at the sure eye of Bailey photographing Shrimpton, or marvel at the nerve of Capa on bloody Omaha. Both of these photos have ‘worth’ for that…but I’d also say the worth should go to Bailey and Capa because they were the people who put their minds or well being into the images. A print of one of the photos should, I’d say, be worth far less even if it’s done in a real darkroom from the original negatives. Not worth-less, worth far less, you’ll notice, a skilled professional went into a darkroom and used all that skill to produce the print but the worth again should derive from the labour power of the artisan, not because of the original photographer or subject. Obviously, if you could find a print of one of Capa’s D-Day series, which you could guarantee was actually printed by Capa, then I’m not dumb enough to argue that wouldn’t be worth more!