Allen G. Thomas Jr. had a couple of big shocks during the past year. First the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh asked if it could mount an exhibit of the edgy contemporary photography that he had been collecting for the past decade. "I had just been going out and buying things I loved, so I was quite surprised they would be interested," says Thomas, 39, who manages his family's law firm in nearby Wilson, N.C. Then he was "bowled over" when he had the collection appraised: Many of the pieces had doubled and tripled in value.
That kind of thing happens when a discerning collector is riding a wave. In the four years ended Dec. 31, the price of contemporary photos -- works by photographers born since 1940 -- soared 80.4%, according to Artprice.com, a French company that tracks auctions. In the same period, painting prices rose 55.9%, and the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index fell 8%. At major auctions the most coveted contemporary photos now often top $500,000; in November a series of three women by New York artist Richard Prince went for a record $736,000 at Sotheby's (BID ). One reason collectors are clamoring for the work is that the period since the late 1980s is coming be viewed as a Golden Age in photography, says Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. As digital and color processes have advanced and artists and photographers alike have experimented with the medium, there has been a burst of creativity that Naef compares with the rise of the Impressionist painters in the 1870s and 1880s.
As a result, an astonishing number of quality works are on the market, ranging from traditional black-and-white photos to big, painting-like color prints by artists such as Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Germany's Andreas Gursky. Prices have soared, but major collectors such as Richard Sandor, CEO of the Chicago Climate Exchange, contend that photography remains cheap. "Great paintings by artists like Pollock, Warhol, and Matisse sell for $10 million to $70 million, but you can still get great photos for $25,000 to $50,000," he says. The big difference, of course, is that photos are usually sold in numbered series in the way lithographs are. Some collectors prefer to buy from small editions of, say, five or fewer.
If you're intrigued, the recent book Collecting Photography by Gerry Badger (Mitchell Beazley, $39.95) is an excellent primer. Serious collectors haunt venues such as the Julie Saul and Robert Mann galleries in New York, Daiter Contemporary in Chicago, Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, and Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif. They also spend time studying photo books, auction catalogs, and magazines such as Aperture, Black & White, and Art Forum. You don't have to be wealthy to get in the game: Artprice says 23% of the photos sold at auction last year went for under $1,000.
One crop of photographers to consider buying includes veterans such as William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, and Bruce Davidson, all born in the 1930s. Dealers and collectors expect prices of their work to rise closer to those of younger artists such as Prince and Gursky, whose pieces sometimes top $350,000 at auction. Their photos will be on sale in late April at New York photography auctions at Sotheby's, Christie's, and Phillips for $5,000 and up. Prints sometimes can be found at galleries for $3,000 or so.
The real coup is to find newcomers on the rise. Thomas, for instance, was so smitten with the often otherworldly color prints of Sarah Anne Johnson, 28, of Winnipeg, Man., who just had a show at the Julie Saul Gallery and whose work goes for $1,000 to $6,000, that he bought 17 of them. Sandor and his wife, Ellen, recently paid $900 for a piece by Terry Dixon, 35, a jazz- and hip-hop-inspired artist who integrates photos into the graffiti-style paintings that he sells on the Internet (artistterry.com). Oddly enough, one of the hottest genres in collecting is snapshots taken by unknown photographers who will most likely stay unknown. Such "vernacular" photos have been the subject of museum shows and are sold at galleries, but you can also find them at flea markets and thrift shops. Hollywood movie producer Dan Fauci, 66, a serious collector, was delighted this Christmas when his daughter gave him a box of old photos she had bought on eBay for $25. The appeal, Fauci says, "is finding stuff you think is beautiful and costs little. It's great for beginning collectors."
Photo lovers often find their taste evolves, says Fisher Stevens, the New York actor, director, and movie producer, who got into collecting in 1986 through Fauci. His first purchase was a classic Margaret Bourke-White shot of a Depression-era bread line. These days he's more adventurous, buying a boxed set of Larry Clark's gritty photos of drug addicts and digitally constructed color prints by the Polish photographers Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga.
Part of the fun is meeting and supporting artists you admire. San Francisco money manager Gary Sokol recalls fording a creek to get to the rural Pennsylvania retreat of Paula Chamlee and Michael Smith, who use big old bellows cameras and sell their prints for $1,000 or $2,500 (michaelandpaula.com). Daniel Greenberg, CEO of Electro Rent in Los Angeles, was so charmed by Mary Ellen Mark at a dinner two years ago that he signed on to help fund the $150,000-plus cost of making vivid new dye transfer prints of her well-known photo-essay on Bombay street prostitutes. He'll get some photos in return.
Study up before buying, because there are many nuances to take into account. For instance, some photographers make only a few prints of each image before moving on to shoot more film. Others will issue a second edition in different dimensions once the first edition is sold out. So you can't just go by the announced edition size to know how rare a given print is; you need to ask questions.
Also, photos fade and turn yellow if exposed to sunlight. Recent digital prints are more stable than delicate color prints from the 1970s and '80s. Check out wilhelm-research.com for information on how long different digital prints are likely to last. Charlotte Cotton, author of The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, $16.95), recommends probing dealers about paper type and exactly how newer works were made and mounted. She also suggests asking for reprinting rights in case technology advances or your print is damaged.
Demand for contemporary photos should remain strong partly because the weak dollar is luring overseas buyers into the market, says Christopher Mahoney, Sotheby's senior vice-president. But even without foreigners, as Allen Thomas has discovered, the market is attracting plenty of interest.
By Thane Peterson