Collectors have learned to love it, but others continue to argue about whether or not photography can ever really be considered an art. Smile, says Anthony Haden-Guest
THERE WAS A time when the world of professional photography could still have been rendered as a tri-state map. There was the realm of studio photography, where Avedon and Irving Penn ruled. There was reportage, where the high priests were Henri Cartier-Bresson and the purists of Magnum. And then there was ‘art’ photography, which meant the vertiginous nudes of Bill Brandt and Lucien Clergue, photographing twigs in wet sand.
But was photography an art? Yes, there had been artists who used the camera, such as László Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray. Warhol was also seen as an artist who fooled around with a camera, as was Cindy Sherman. But few thought that reportage and fashion photographers were making ‘real’ art — sometimes not even the photographers themselves. Cartier-Bresson retired in 1975 to become the painter he had originally set out to be. The great fashion photographer Guy Bourdin would frequently say he would have rather been a painter, too.
Yes, Avedon, Penn and Bailey archived and editioned their work, just as the makers of fine art prints do, but this was unusual. Most commercial photographers were simply working too hard and making too much money to bother. When the British Vogue photographer Terence Donovan died in 1996 his ‘archive’ was a pile of cardboard crates. Bill King’s photographs disappeared after his death into an unaccommodating estate.
It scarcely seemed to matter, though, because the market for photographs was hobbyist. At a 4 May 1995 auction of Photographic Images and Related Materials at Sotheby’s, London, a couple of Helmut Newtons were estimated at £2,000 to £3,000 for the pair and the estimates on four David Bailey studies of Jean Shrimpton ran from £200 to £300 for all four.
There was a shift when Matthew Marks showed Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency in his Manhattan gallery that same year. She had shown some of her raw, snapshotty pictures in the space the year before, but this sequence, in which many of the protagonists were dead of AIDS or an overdose, was establishing. It was photography. And not conceptual at all. Two years later Marks showed Andreas Gursky. And that was it. Art photography had become market-approved art.
Collectors swiftly went into reverse. They picked up on the fact that works by earlier art photographers, such as Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe, were relatively cheap compared with paintings by artists of comparable reputation. This energised the entire field. The purists of reportage, such as André Kertész, Lee Friedlander and Danny Lyon, soared in value. As, too, did the work of the great fashion and commercial photographers. The machinery of the art market was lurching into motion.
In 2006 an Irving Penn fetched $250,000 at Christie’s, New York. It was one from an edition of six, so a single photographic image was worth $1.5 million. Photography was up, up and away. Beyond criticism. Or so it seemed.
Shrewd art dealers were increasingly aware that photography had several things going for it. For one thing it was a field in which the line between fine and commercial art was seductively blurry, and for another, in an increasingly event-driven art world, sex and celebrity are hard to beat and photography was a playmate of both.
Those attending the opening at the well-regarded Stellan Holm Gallery on East 26th Street a few years back faced an unusual art-world sight: a corded-in group of a dozen avid paparrazi. The opening was for a show of naked and semi-naked photographs of Pamela Anderson by Sante D’Orazio. Anderson came to public attention through the TV series Baywatch and to further attention when a sex tape featuring herself and her then-husband, Tommy Lee, the drummer for Mötley Crüe, helped establish the internet.
So she was a super-celeb, the real thing, and the show had a history. The origin was a Playboy commission in 2000 to shoot the cover and centerfold over two days. Day one was dandy. ‘But that night Pam had some personal issues that had nothing to do with the shooting and she couldn’t make the next day,’ D’Orazio says. Playboy killed the story.
Stellan Holm saw one of the pictures in D’Orazio’s studio apartment. ‘She is lying on the grass,’ he says. ‘It was unusual. It was amazing, actually.’ He also saw the amazing possibilities. Hence the show.
Pamela Anderson hadn’t actually seen her pictures until the day of the opening. ‘It was intimidating,’ she told me. ‘I told Sante, “I can’t believe you got me to do this. I like doing pictures, but I’m not one to look at them.”’ Her voice was light, girly, unaffected. Soon after we spoke, Pamela Anderson was airborne. By the time of the opening she had been at Sundance. ‘She didn’t want all the attention,’ D’Orazio said. It was encouraging to find that the art world and Mondo Celebrity were still barking up different trees.
SUBTERFUGE HAS BEEN part of photography’s armoury from its very beginnings. Eadweard Muybridge would move clouds from one negative to another. Robert Flaherty, the revered father of documentary film, said, ‘Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.’
That said, reportage photography developed into a secular priesthood. Cartier-Bresson would disguise his camera with tape. If he saw that he had been spotted, the game was up. Danny Lyon spent two years as a member of the Outlaw motorbicycle club to make his book Bikeriders. Harry Benson went out on an operation with the IRA.
Yes, inevitably there were backsliders: The Falling Soldier, the famous 1936 shot by Robert Capa, one of the founders of Magnum, was almost certainly a set-up, and Robert Doisneau admitted that he had posed his most famous shot, Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville, to dispose of a lawsuit. But Capa died after stepping on a landmine while on assignment with the French army in Indochina. The dream was a hardy one. It was not, though, forever.
‘Photography as I knew it is over,’ says the great Magnum photographer Mary Ellen Mark. ‘If it’s just a business for you, then it’s still here. But I always tried to make it like an art form. But the world of Photoshop and digital has changed everything. It’s too bad.
‘That world is as dodo-dead as Life and Look. What we have now is a profusion of dazzling visual inventions in which a camera has somehow been used. Or several cameras, or perhaps no camera at all. Maybe a laptop, maybe a telephone.’
But then Mark made an unexpected comment. ‘But I do like David LaChapelle,’ she said. ‘Of all the Photoshop people, for me he’s the best. Because he really uses it in a way that’s most interesting and most inventive. And he doesn’t try to make it look like something it’s not.
‘There are all these people who fake it and try to pretend that they’re real pictures. And they are not. But he’s really good at it. It’s art directing. He’s a brilliant art director.’
She was talking about the photography of hyper-invention, photography that calls itself super-photography. There has been such photography since the medium was invented, but it now dominates. So this is the irony, and it deserves to be called a tragic one, which is that no sooner has classical photography ascended into the pantheon of ‘real’ art than it has begun to mutate into something wholly different. Though you could argue, I suppose, that being dead and done with is what has enabled it to be seen as a truly great — and hence truly collectable — art.
Middle: Cindy Sherman: Untitled film still number 14, 1978. Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London and Metro Pictures © Cindy Sherman
Bottom: Sante D’Orazio: Damien Hirst © Sante D’Orazio.