Why Photos Are Capturing Princely Sums

Peter Galassi, chief curator for MOMA's Photography Dept., talks about the changes in today's market that are pushing prices skyward

By Thane Peterson

Some big doings are going on in the photography market right now -- including two of the most significant sales ever of vintage prints. One is a Sotheby's auction in Paris on Mar. 21 and 22, in which hundreds of historically important photos from the collection of André and Marie-Théresè Jammes will be sold. Among the items for sale are dozens of rare prints by Charles Nègre (1820-1880), whose work only rarely has come onto the market.

Some record prices could well be in the offing. When the first half of the Jammes collection was sold in 1999, an anonymous Middle Eastern collector bought heavily, driving up prices. A photo by Gustav LeGray, another pioneer in photography, sold then for $840,000, a record for a photo.

Meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is selling more than 1,000 vintage prints by Eugéne Atget, another Frenchman. Some historians regard him as the greatest photographer ever. The prints -- duplicates of ones the museum will keep in its collection -- are priced from $3,000 to $150,000. The museum stands to reap $19 million if all the prints are sold.

To get a bead on the photo market, I checked in with Peter Galassi, chief curator in MOMA's Photography Dept., on Mar. 15. He's deeply involved in the Atget sale and is quite knowledgeable about the contemporary photography scene, which is being revolutionized not only by soaring prices but the shift to digital technology. He curated MOMA's 2001 show of the huge color prints of Andreas Gursky, the most prominent of a band of forty-something German photographers. A Gursky print recently sold for more than $600,000 at a Christie's auction in London -- a record for a contemporary photo. Here are edited excerpts of our talk:

Q: Why are photo prices soaring?


When I got interested in photography in college during the late '60s and [very] early '70s, every [photo] was worth $25 -- unless it had Abraham Lincoln in it, in which case it was worth $50. Then, beginning in the early 1970s, a photography market began to develop.

The first continuously operating, exclusively photography gallery in New York opened in 1969, other galleries opened, and the market began to really develop in the mid-1970s. It more or less has never stopped. The prices you see now are part of a continuum.

Q: What's the rationale behind MOMA's sale of the 1,000 or so prints by Atget?


Well, no collection that has our ambitions for quality and comprehensiveness is ever finished. That's particularly true in photography right now. Because of the development of the market and the avalanche of new scholarship...even if you had a great collection 20 years ago, if you'd stopped [adding to it] your collection would have been arrested at an early stage of nonmaturity. So, we feel we need to continue to collect, even in classic areas where we're already strong -- and that now costs a lot of money. One way to get the money is to sell [duplicates].

The collection we're selling is the third-greatest Atget collection in the world, [behind] the French public collections and our collection here of 5,000 Atget prints. Atget died in 1927, 75 years ago. Now, van Gogh died in 1890, so 75 years after his death would have been 1965. Can you imagine the third-best collection of van Gogh works being available for sale in 1965 -- at any price? It would have been unthinkable. We're talking about a photographer [Atget] who many historians would rank as the greatest ever -- or certainly in the top 5 or 10.

Q: Some collectors believe photography is still a relative bargain because eventually prints by master photographers like LeGray and Atget will rival the prices of Monets and Picassos.


I don't know if you can make that equivalence. There is usually more than one print [of a photo]. And [painting and photography] are very different mediums. For example, [MOMA] owns perhaps three paintings by van Gogh, and they come much closer to representing the achievement of van Gogh than three photographs could come to representing Atget. Because of the character of Atget's work, no collection of, say, 50 Atgets -- even if you can pick any 50 you want -- can represent his achievement. He [was very prolific], and he was trying to capture the totality of the physical expression of French culture, which is a very tall order to do in a few photos.

Q: I also wanted to ask you about contemporary Germany photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Thomas Demand, whose prices have also soared. You curated the Gursky show at MOMA last year. Why are these photos so significant?


It's easiest for me to talk about Andreas Gursky. I wouldn't have done the show if I didn't think he was one of the leading artists in photography of his generation. From a very wide variety of sources and impulses, he has crafted a very distinctive aesthetic that is really very much his own and that creates pictures of astonishing power. [At the MOMA] exhibition, everyone from age 4 to 94 responded to them. The heavy-duty, art-world-pretentious sophisticates loved them, and so did completely ordinary people who had never heard of the theoreticians.

Q: Gursky digitally alters some of his photos. Do you believe digital technology will completely change photography?


The darkroom is dead. It's a technology slated for extinction except in very limited cases. Digital photography is a technological revolution. We did a show of a century of photos in The New York Times back in 1996. Right about that time, they were shutting down their print darkroom. They still had a film darkroom for photographers who continued to use film, but as soon as that film was developed everything was immediately scanned [digitally].... An awful lot of the pictures you see in The New York Times are [taken with digital cameras].

But the notion that photography was ever "true" is mistaken. Of course, there are things that photos can prove in a court of law.... But the whole art of photography is based on the idea that the photograph and its subject are not the same thing. With Gursky, artistically speaking it doesn't matter if he has digitally fooled with the image or not. Artistically, he has fooled with all of them.

The most earnest documentary photograph doesn't show you what was right behind the photographer. It may be that there was a guy with a gun pointing it at both the photographer and the subject.

Q: Where is [digital revolution] going to lead us?


Oh, I have no idea. People who are certain they know what's going to happen are the ones who are certain to be wrong. We're at the beginning of a massive technological change. And as a curator...I'm not going to predict where I think the art is going. The art is going to go where the artists take it, not where curators predict it's going to go.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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