Photographs are also relatively inexpensive, which makes them quite attractive to both collectors and the gallery owners who sell them. Galleries can test the waters, so to speak, without having to necessarily make a huge investment. “You can buy a picture by a contemporary master of traditional photography for $1,000 to $5,000, which is very little money compared to prints or original paintings,” said Perloff.
The potential collector base for photographs is also bigger than it’s ever been. No longer the darling of just the young and cutting-edge, photography has found a home in the collections of art lovers at all levels of the market. High-end collectors have been dropping millions at auction for work by such masters as Ansel Adams or Alfred Stieglitz. Yet other collectors are happy to plunk down a mere $500 to take home work by a yet-to-be-discovered artist.
“In a way, you have people with a lot of money at the high end and people with a little bit of money at the low end,” said The Photograph Collector’s Perloff. “Obviously, there are also any number of longtime collectors in between, as well.”
Podgorsky said the potential collector base is also quite large due to the accessibility of photographs. “Some of the old stuff that goes along with visiting galleries about how art-educated you have to be, how knowledgeable you have to be, sort of disappears when you look at photography,” he said. “You look at it and you know what it is. Everybody can identify in some way with a photograph.”
For many gallery owners who are hesitant to break into photography, the process isn’t as complicated or intimidating as it may seem. Most dealers agree that getting started in the photography market is really not all that different from bringing on a new artist in a medium you already carry or planning to bring sculpture into a gallery that traditionally only carried fine art prints or paintings.
“It’s just like moving into any other segment, like prints or sculpture or something they haven’t handled before,” said Perloff. “The drill is pretty much the same.”
The first and most important part of the process is education and research. Stock up on photography books. Bone up on the hottest photography exhibits at museums and galleries. Subscribe to the most up-to-date trade and consumer publications on the market, such as The Photo Review, Aperture or American Photo. It’s also vital to visit as many photo shows and important art fairs featuring photographs among the varied art offerings, such as Art Basel, Art Chicago, The Art Show and The Armory Show.
And when it is time to pick up photographers, it might be best to rely on the eyes of the experts. Visit the most respected photography galleries in art-heavy towns like New York or Los Angeles. “Go to the photography galleries. In New York, probably every significant photographer is represented at a gallery. And they might not have the exclusive, so there will be other people to find and forge relationships with,” Perloff advised. “There are lots of galleries who represent photographers who might look to strike deals in other places. So getting in touch with the galleries and seeing what they are exhibiting is important.”
Once you have decided to take the leap into photography and start checking out potential artists, it is also important to keep your current collector base in mind, as they will most likely be the first ones purchasing the work. “If you have been in business for some time, you’ve established a collector base, and you have to use your best guess and imagine if this new photographer is going to fit into the collections of your existing collector,” said Podgorsky. “It definitely doesn’t have to look the same as what you already carry. But you somehow have to imagine how the people who you’ve been selling art to for the past couple of years could see it in their collections. There is no science to that. It’s really a gut feeling a dealer has to have.”
And as in all forms of art, once you settle on the medium and select your first photographers, it is incredibly important to feel a passion about the photographs you decide to sell in your gallery. “You have to deal in work you feel very strongly about” said Richardson.
Unlimited Artistic Potential
According to many veteran photography dealers, one of the most exciting and convincing arguments for carrying photography is the open-mindedness of collectors to try out new artists, a trait not always displayed by traditional fine art collectors. In photography, it’s possible to break into the field and still attract strong collectors with rather inexpensive, unknown artists.
“I think a lot of my clients are interested in seeing new work and discovering new artists,” said Richardson. “They’re very excited to see the work when we take on a new artist, and they often buy it. These are people who are serious collectors who are always buying. That is where the contemporary art collector and a big chunk of the photography collectors fall.”
Podgorsky agreed, adding that collectors are more apt to take a chance on a lesser-known photographer in order to get a possible jump-start on the market of a future master. “There are a lot of people who, for the right price, are willing to discover someone or make an investment in a photographer who is not a household name,” he said. “That’s one of the really great things about this field. You can find someone really great, who is wonderful and exciting, for $500 to $1,000. There is a lot of excitement about discovering new photographers and trying to guess who might be the next Cindy Sherman or Ansel Adams.”
What to Sell?
Because the market for photography is so large and the possibilities are seemingly endless, there is no “sure thing” to focus your sights on. Black-and-white landscapes, photojournalism, color “God’s-eye-view” snapshots of nature, large color landscapes, fashion photography and city scenes are just a few things that seem to sell well. Some up-and-coming trends to also watch are digitally created art and video art, according to Perloff. “After a pretty slow start where people were playing with new toys, there’s a lot of great digital work being produced,” he said. “Now, there are some very beautiful prints–striking work. You can still kind of get in on the ground floor.”
But the best advice most photo vets can give is to choose what you like and don’t cave in to every trend you see, because the market is constantly changing, and good art will always sell well. “Don’t do it because it’s trendy,” Perloff advised. “And don’t do it if you don’t really understand it. There are all sorts of mistakes you can make by doing that.”
“What’s fashionable and en vogue is one thing, but what lasts in the history of art is another,” added Gitterman. “If you are collecting something, to live with it and to have it be a part of your life for a long period of time, you develop a relationship with it. For a work of art to be able to do that, it has to have some sort of depth.”
The truth is, photography just needs to fit into one formula for galleries to find success. “It must speak to you and your customers,” said Wild Apple’s Dunwell. “If it does that, it’s the right thing.”