Contemporary Photography

Investing in and collecting photography


In 2011, Andreas Gursky’s photograph Rhein II (1999) was sold for $4.3m, shocking the art world. Not only was the large-scale landscape now the most expensive photograph of all time – surpassing work by early 20th century masters like Edward Weston, Richard Avedon and Alfred Stieglitz – but, in terms of Gursky’s oeuvre, it was arguably bland. Just three years later, in 2014, Gursky’s record was crushed by another photograph of a landscape, Peter Lik’s Phantom (1999). The black and white image of a ghostly ray of light penetrating a canyon in Arizona – likened by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones to “a posh poster you might find framed in a pretentious hotel room” – was sold to an unnamed buyer for $6.5m.

Regardless of whether these works were worthy of the millions bestowed upon them, their price tags signal a seismic shift in the art world in regards to photography. The art form that was once considered anything but an art form is growing in popularity among collectors.


This shift – especially in the UK where the market has historically been slow to catch up to places like New York – is helped in no small part by institutions such as the Tate Modern hiring its first Curator of Photography in 2009, Simon Baker, as well as their recent The Radical Eye exhibition, photography from Elton John’s personal collection. Firmly placing photography on the cultural agenda in the UK has a trickle-down effect as galleries and therefore auction houses show more of an interest in the medium and more photography-specific art fairs emerge.

In 1971, Sotheby’s was the first auction house in the UK to put on a specialist photography sale. While this particular auction, instigated by photography specialist Philippe Garner, was just a one-off, the primary market for print sales in galleries began to take off in the 80s and by the 90s there was a solid secondary market for Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips to begin their own photography-only auctions.

“With £100k in the photography market you can easily buy the best work of a photographer.”

While traditionally the photography market had to fight against the idea of reproduction – with a negative or digital file, in theory there could be several copies of a photograph and therefore collectors are not buying an original – this argument is gradually losing traction. “Potential buyers quickly realise that it’s a question of integrity,” says Brandei Estes, Head of Photography at Sotheby’s. “Most photographers of merit with good, reputable galleries do not do that. They stick to relatively small editions and once they’ve sold the edition then that’s it.”

With the questions of authenticity no longer being thrown around, photography has become an increasingly affordable and accessible option for collectors.

“With £100k you can buy work at a contemporary sale but it might be from a younger artist or a lesser-valued work of someone midcareer,” continues Estes. “But with £100k in the photography market you can easily buy the best work of a photographer, there’s a bigger list of names that you can spend that money on and you can get a masterpiece or start the foundations for building an exceptional photography collection.”

In terms of current trends, Estes has observed “a real interest in fashion photography, which has been happening for a few years now – fashion from the 30s up until the present day. We achieve excellent results with market favourites Horst P. Horst, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton and, in terms of present day, I am a big fan of Miles Aldridge, whose work is doing very well at auction.” 


This upsurge of interest in the photography market has brought with it the development of photography fairs, which are springing up all around the world.  Paris Photo, one of the largest art fairs dedicated solely to photography, will be putting on its 21st edition later this year. The much younger but no less ambitious Photo London opened the doors to its third fair on 18 May. Alongside its list of 101 exhibiting galleries and book publishers from Europe and abroad, it also organises a robust public programme of exhibitions and talks. 
“Photography is finally emerging as an established artistic medium in the art market and is receiving the recognition it deserves,” says Adrian Riches, Head of Development and Communications at Photo London.
 “Its relative affordability has made photography accessible to a wider group of collectors and prices have been on the rise since we launched the first Photo London in 2015.”

“At Photo London in 2017, specialist photography galleries were joined for the first time by leading contemporary galleries including Victoria Miro, Sprüth Magers and Alison Jacques Gallery,” adds Riches. 

“These great additions to our gallery list demonstrate there is a strong appetite for contemporary works amongst collectors visiting the fair. ”

Also participating at the 2017 Photo London is Magnum Photos, who presented the exhibition David Hurn’s Swaps, works collected by Magnum photographer Hurn and curated by Martin Parr. The photo agency, set up by four photographers in the aftermath of the Second World War, is known for its hard-hitting photojournalistic and documentary work and while some of the bigger name photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, have been collectible for decades, its newer documentary work is becoming more desirable in the art market.

“Many of our biggest names have outside gallery representation,” explains Sophie Wright, Global Cultural Director at Magnum Photos. “However, with over 90 photographers and estates there is a lot of work, both historic and by new members of Magnum, that we are working to increase awareness of. There are now also the contemporary documentary stars working in a more conceptual framework such as Alec Soth, Jim Goldberg or Martin Parr, who has been hugely influential in his role as a collector and curator as well as photographer.”

“Photography is finally emerging as an established artistic medium in the art market and is receiving the recognition it deserves”

With so much incredible work available on the market, coupled with the temptation to invest in a photograph that might appreciate in value, starting a collection of photography can seem daunting. The most universal piece of advice given to aspiring collectors is, however, quite simple: buy what you like.

“Know what you like, know what your budget is and do your homework,” says Estes. “Part of that is speaking to as many professionals in the industry as you can – gallerists, auction house specialists and advisors. And, of course, buy what you love; make that the priority over investment and you will never go wrong.”


To find out more about Weatherbys Private Bank and our services, please contact the Private Bank team