The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art opened to the public last month in Cape Town with an inaugural exhibition that gives a prominent place to photographic works. Museum goers are treated to a diverse presentation of photographs by contemporary African artists such as the Gabonese Owanto, Beninese Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, Kenyan Cyrus Kabiru, Zimbabwean Kudzanai Chiurai, American born Roger Ballen, and South Africans Zanele Muholi, Athi Patra-Ruga, Mohau Modisakeng, Thania Petersen and Nandipha Mntambo amongst others. In some instances, photography constitutes the exclusive practice of the featured artists, in others it forms part of their medium mix.

Photography emerged in the 19th century long spawning a debate around its acceptability as an art form. Its critics accused it of being too literal, reducing it to a mere mechanical recording medium, while its advocates praised its ability to capture and elevate the artist’s vision. It’s worth noting here that there is a distinction between documentary photography and photojournalism, and more conceptual works produced by artists whose approach stems from the fine arts. Today, photography is widely recognised as an important art form. Museums collect photography, major exhibitions, fairs and festivals are devoted to the medium, and collectors are actively committing to it.

Photography represents 1% of the total secondary art market. In the first half of 2015, it made up $73 million of sales against $7.1 billion for fine art as a whole. This doesn’t mean collectors are not paying top dollar for photographic works. German photographer Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II sold in 2011 for $4,338,500, the highest price ever paid for a photograph. The works of Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman take second and third place in the list of most expensive photographs, at just under the $4 million mark each. In fact, Gursky, Prince and Sherman collectively account for 25% of the global turnover in this medium.

But these figures are more the exception than the norm, and for most collectors photography is one of the most affordable art forms. Many fairs and festivals are devoted today to photography making the medium widely accessible. The annual Paris Photo is arguably the largest and a must-see for anyone interested in photography. Unseen, which takes place every year in Amsterdam since 2012, focuses on what’s new in photography. On the continent, major festivals take a close look at African photography. The Bamako Encounters, the photography biennale that was established in 1994 and introduced to the world the legendary Malian photographers Malick Sidibé and Seydou Kaïta, celebrates photography and video produced in Africa, while LagosPhoto and Addis Foto Fest, are both held annually, focus on contemporary African photography.

Collectors often ask us what they should specifically look out for when selecting photographic artworks. The market for photography is very diverse and the standard advice about personal taste holds. One should start with images that really grab and are likely to retain their impact over time. It is advisable to view as much photography as possible to get a grasp of the various styles and genres and to develop one’s own taste too.

Photography is a fragile medium and it is particularly important to understand condition. Damage may include scratches, handling marks that look like curved creases on the paper surface and fading. There are many printing processes to get familiar with. Photographic prints can be gelatin silver, albumen, chromogenic, dye-transfer or digital amongst others. In any case, photographs require special care. They must be kept away from direct sunlight and from humid environments, and must be framed with archival material. For further preservation, UV protective glass is a good option.

Anyone interested in the medium should also get an understanding of editions. Photographs that are printed from the negative are called originals. Originals are usually issued in an edition, that is to say a fixed number that is binding on the artist and the printmaker. The edition size affects price and smaller editions are more expensive than large ones. Editions of 3, 5 or 8 prints for instance are considered small editions. It can get a bit complicated with the same image having multiple editions in varying sizes. For this reason, it’s worth finding out about the total number of copies across sizes.

In some instances, the print’s order in the edition can have an impact on price too. As availability decreases, prices go up. Among the things that can increase value are the artist signature, the provenance when works appear on the secondary market, or the time the print was produced. A vintage print refers to a print made shortly after the negative was created and early prints normally fetch higher prices.

The market for photography in South Africa is still lagging when compared to other countries. One of our most celebrated photographer, David Goldblatt, established the Market Photo Workshop in 1989 to train students technically and conceptually and to ensure that photographic visual literacy is open to all in South African society. This successful platform has helped develop such talents as Jodi Bieber, Zanele Muholi or Musa Nxumalo. What photography still needs to develop further is the commitment of local collectors. Time perhaps to emulate the German-American collector and former Goldman Sachs partner Artur Walther, who started collecting photography in the late 1990’s after his retirement and who arguably owns today the largest collection of African photography.

© 2020 by Walker Scott.

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