You do have to play by the art market rules

- - Art

This story in the Financial Times Magazine on Annie L. is fascinating, but not because I want to revel in her financial misfortune or the “disparity between Annie’s importance as a photographer and the price fetched by her work in the art market.”

I recall a very smart quote from one of my commenters admonishing readers to “make no mistake, fine art photography is as commercial as commercial photography.” So, for me the thread in the story on how the photography art market works and how difficult it is for editorial and commercial photographers to play is very fascinating. As Michael Wilson, a producer of Bond films and owner one of the largest private collections of photography in the world puts it: “Art is basically what a bunch of collectors and curators say it is, there is no getting around that.”

The Leibovitz story, however, is more than a tale of a photographer who got absorbed into the high-spending world of the people she portrays. It is a reflection of something unexpected – that, despite all her celebrity and talent, Leibovitz lacks earning power as an artist.

The whole story is (here).

via, conscientious.

There Are 22 Comments On This Article.

  1. Maybe the reason she is having problems in the art realm is that her work is not art. A.L. is a great, great commercial/editorial photographer. But groovy picture of Richard Gear does not hold weight with a Andreas Gursky. Her work just does not raise those kinds of questions – the kinds of questions that propel photography into the art realm.

    • Donnar Party

      @bg, on the nose. As much as I admire her commercial work, I don’t think she has a point of view. Whether something is Art is ofetn a question of intent. I don’t think AL ever intended any of her photographs to be anything but fantastic commercial images.

      • @Donnar Party,
        And let’s not forget that the art she’s selling through galleries is just her commercial and editorial work with the ‘art’ label slapped on.
        There are quite a few commercial/editorial photographers who also have a leg in the art world but they usually have their own (non-commissioned) projects that convey their point of view and are separate from their commercial work.

      • @Donnar Party,
        Tell me about it. Annie’s work doesn’t raise any of the kinds of questions that Ansel Adams’ work does.

        *tongue planted firmly in cheek*

        To the proverbial question, what is art…
        Anything an artist spits is art. Art is either works of historical significance, or as Michael Wilson said, “basically what a bunch of collectors and curators say it is.”

        Why isn’t her work selling? I think it probably has to do with the price.
        Perhaps the perceived value of her work has been eroded by its accessibility and recognizability? It probably just needs to cellar for a while.

        • Donnar Party

          @JKM, I’m not a fan of Adams, never lit my fire.

          As someone else wrote, its her commercial work with an art label slapped on it. If she never intended it as “art”, why should the gallerists and buyers? The effort of slapping an art label on her commercial work may have worked ten years ago, but the environemnt is much different. Maybe in 50 years?

          • @Donnar Party,

            What classifies it as commercial?
            I don’t think the fact that a piece of work was shot for a magazine automatically classifies it as commercial and therefore, NOT art.

            Avedon has had a major retrospective exhibit in ever major NYC museum in the past couple years.

            What is art is dictated by historians, academics, and COMMERCIAL art dealers.

            • @JKM,
              I’d say what classifies it as commercial is the fact that it was commissioned for use in a commercial outlet (magazine). That doesn’t mean that it’s automatically disqualified from being art but it does often (not always) mean that it was produced with a different target audience in mind. In AL’s case it’s usually an audience whose main interest lies in celebrity and glamour.

              Avedon has indeed had restrospectives in many major museums and so did AL. Both still remain known for being commercial photographers. Just like AL’s Avedon’s work, while being a bit more expensive, doesn’t fetch nearly as much as the work of the likes of Cindy Sherman or Andreas Gursky.

  2. I call bullshit on the above post.

    Art is 99% subjective.

    AL is just as much an artist as Andreas Gursky. What kind of questions (that you mentioned) does Gursky’s work raise? It can easily be argued that AL’s work is far more question-raising and provocative.

    That doesn’t mean I like AL’s work more (I don’t). But it is no less art.

    It is elementary economics–buyers do not expect AL’s work to appreciate in value. So they don’t buy it.

    The purchasing of high priced fine art is 90% business and 10% emotion.

    • @Greg,

      But you’re confusing the effect for the cause. Of course the reason that her work doesn’t sell is that buyers don’t expect it to appreciate in value. But the question is why do they not expect it?
      Celebrity culture is the epitome of superficiality and ALs celebrity portraits are arguably the epitome of celebrity portraiture. It’s nice to look at but that’s mostly it.

      It’s true that “Art is basically what a bunch of collectors and curators say it is” but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have reasons for saying something is art. Art might be 99% subjective but the art market isn’t.

      • @Ian,

        oops. Sorry about the empty post.

        I was just thinking that subjective or not, if a lot of people think it’s corporate schlock, then the opinion spreads.

    • @Greg, You’re right its bullshit, BUT that game of bullshit pays and when it does it pays well. That’s the economy of art, a game of bullshit, blow and who you know.

      I don’t like it much but I accept it.

  3. @greg I was wondering if you are talking about the comments or the post itself. If you are talking about the comments I concur with throwing out the bullshit flag.

    I think the article makes a couple of valid points that affect AL’s sales of her work. One she wasn’t really interested in marketing her work at art. Two based on the recent sales of notable artists and the economic climate investors are a bit more conservative in purchases. Another point was raised that AL has more life left in her career and thus she will be producing more work that in the art market the more you make the less you earn, at least as I see the market for photographers.

    If AL still has more life in her career then what is the prognosis for Gursky do they expect him to croak soon shortening the amount of time he has left in his career? I think he and AL are about the same age.

    I also think the primary difference between AL and Gursky as an example is that he gave more attention to the art world early on. beyond that neither garners more emotion or story telling than others when it comes to comparing their work.

  4. scott Rex Ely

    It’s about worship. Do you want to worship your print as an investment or worship it for its transcendency?
    Is her work common or holy?

  5. I predicted that demise of film would signal the ascendancy of film photography into the realm of high art…. hummm, I guess I didn’t get that one right either. But give it some time, you’ll see. (smiling)

  6. I agree with Donnar Party about intent and her lack of intent or possibly her inability to articulate her intent.

    I think there is another issue worth thinking about. One of art’s roles, as we accept it today, has been to remain outside of culture (to some degree) so that that it can reflect a critical perspective with the goal of elevating consciousness or discourse, give voice to different perspectives, etc. with the goal of creating change . This takes many forms, both inward and outward.

    I like to think that one way this can happen is from within popular culture, in both the editorial and advertising realms. It’s more subtle, but great photographers who infuse their work with depth and authenticity are also creating change by bringing something real into the marketplace, even possibly while selling us dish soap. Not that I’d want to see this work in a gallery, but makes me think.

    And certainly many fashion photographers bring qualities of beauty and respect to their work that are redemptive in their own right (i.e., Bassman) sell their commercial work in fine art galleries.

    So no real conclusion other than it made me think. I’d like to hear what Ralph Rugoff would have to say on this subject.

  7. A good friend of mine the nephew of painter David Barbero, often quotes his uncle, “Art is an agreement system.”

    Essentially if parties agree some thing has value and they choose to call that thing art, that thing is now art of value.

  8. I have been thinking a lot about the twin issues of the art market for photography (which is the real meat of the article ) and Leibovitz (who is the bun for t the meat.)

    The ironic thing is if Leibovitz could have stopped being a commercial /editorial photographer around the time of her first American Express ad campaign (early ’80s?) she’d be universally thought of as a great portrait photographer and the work from that period would have greater value in the marketplace for collectible photography.

    I think what has hurt her is the bulk of the work she has done since then.

    It isn’t that her legendary discipline and work ethic, technical quality and rigorous attention to detail in her work have fallen off since then – quite the opposite – it is just that increasingly I have the sense that over the past twenty odd years she has become bored with what she is doing. Not with every shoot and every subject of course, but with the bulk of the ones I’ve seen. I don’t think she is “phoning it in”, she is too much of a professional for that, but perhaps she feels trapped.

    Can she muster the energy and will to escape? I think she must still have a deep reservoir of photographic talent but maybe it just isn’t for doing commercial and editorial work anymore and I’d hate to see it further dissipated.

    Few of us know when to stop doing what we know once worked and to start doing something new. Fewer have the capacity to then chuck the familiar. Even fewer have the wherewithall to do that. She does.

  9. in the 90’s, i was represented by a top photo gallery in LA. when they began to tell me exactly what to shoot, down to the props, color, and focal length, i realized that was no different than shooting stock. my 2 cents on fine art.

    rc