Photography in the Art Market in the Western World

Photography is a technical medium which came into existence with the development of the industrial age. It meanwhile came into age itself. The distinction between professionals and everyday photography vanished. The medium became democratised. Under the condition of internet, digitalisation and global economy the inflation of reproduced images seem to have taken over our perception of reality. Photography is an industry. Any photograph is taken or reproduced for consumption, specifically those photographs in the art market. Fine Art Photography became commodity, both in China and – with some advance – in the western world.

“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it.”

With this famous starting sentence in Chapter 1, 4 KARL MARX´ political economy, CAPITAL of 1867, unfolds the theory of commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism takes over and destroys the role of primary trade, social relationships, qualifications and intentions. Marx, in his argument, defines the difference between the “use-value”(which in Marx´ concept is determined by production and labour) and its abstraction from the “exchange-value” (the marketplace value) crucial for capitalism.

What was the use value of EDWARD STEICHEN´s “Moonlight Pond” (27x47cm)? What is the use value of ANDREAS GURSKY´s “99cents” (2×6 meters) or RICHARD PRINCE´s “Cowboy”? All three are great photographic works, admirable images, small editions; Steichen from the beginning of the last century and Gursky and Prince from its end. All three are products of labour. But what makes them exceptional?

Better than to understand and to even agree on their quality and use-value we can easily answer the question of their exchange value: Those three photographs are the most expensive photographic works ever sold. All in New York auction houses: 2.938, 3 and 3,4 million USD.

The growth of value of art photography in the Western World has been astonishing and massive. Between 1990-2007 photography prices went up by nearly 70%, which is more than shares in the stock market (Sources from auction houses, following figures given by experts at conference we held with The German Society of Photography (DGPh) in Frankfurt last week:

· 75 million USD have been spend on fine art photography in 2007
· Alone in the first half of this year 2008 it has been 65 million USD
· 40% of this have been spent in New York
· 19% in Paris and 9% in Paris
· The rest as we assume in Berlin, Cologne, Art Basel, Tokyo or Beijing

With this analysis three questions need to be focused here: How do we explain this development? How does this development change the role of art photography? What are the consequences?

Finding an explanation for the shaping elements of this particular market, lets again look at Karl Marx before talking about my daily work. “So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange value either in a pearl or a diamond. … Their value is realised only by exchange, that is, by means of a social process.”

The means of the social process of the photography art market can be quickly defined: Galleries, Art Fairs, Photography Fairs&Festivals, Art and Photography Auctions, Book Publishers, Museums and Curators and Photography Collectors.

The crucial elements on the side of the product are equally easy to name:

· Vintage photography
· Modern Prints
· Size
· Material of print
· Conservation
· Le « Sujet »
· Interconnectivity (other art medias, the political or cultural discourse etc.)

However, those two, the product elements and the different agents do not sufficiently explain the enormous dynamic of the photography market. More than other commodities in the post industrial world buying art and specifically photography became related to both, social prestige and investment interests. To many people (and buyers) the quality of photography remains uncertain. It’s the money, the exchange value which constructs certainty. What counts is that even difficult photography gets understood by its money value. In December 2006 the US-magazine Vanity Fair published an interview with Tobias Meyer, the director of Christies for contemporary art. He stated, that “at the auction the TRUTH becomes clear – this is the BEAUTY of it. The only questions is: Who´s QUALITY is the best.” This quotation is remarkable. It turns the concept of art on its head: truth, beauty and quality, the three western elements of art since PLATON, become defined by money value.

How does this change of paradigms influence the perception of art photography? Or: What means “Photography and Civilisation” under the condition of the current global art market? The question of quality is defined my the exchange value and the discourse of the art agents and their interests. The self-referentiality of the art world and their power structures mean the end of art. Its Jean Baudrillard, the French contemporary philosopher, who described the death of meaning and Susan Sontag in her book ON PHOTOGRAPHY that “the real does no longer exists” . Secondly, it means the alienation of photographers for their products.

Marx attributes four types of alienation in labour under capitalism:

· alienation of ‘essence’ as a human being rather than a machine => working according to the laws of the art market in contradiction to the need/concept of “the free artist”
· alienation between workers, since capitalism reduces labour to a commodity to be traded on the market, rather than a social relationship => dictatorship of the “style” in contradiction to the need/concept of “passion”
· alienation of the worker from the product, since this is appropriated by the capitalist class, and so escapes the worker’s control => what does the photographer get when his or her work gets auctioned in New York or Beijing?
· alienation from the act of production itself, such that work comes to be a meaningless activity, offering little or no intrinsic satisfactions => the artist becoming an art director in fabricating their market “brand”

This means that the overwhelming majority of artists and photographers are thrown with their work under the poverty line.

Fourth, losing the concept of refereciality, what a photographers work means to his or her time, how its routed in tradition or cultural identities.

Six, losing the discourse of photography which can´t sell because it reveals the unpleasant sides of the truth.

The treat of alienation is a foundational claim in Marxist theory. HEGEL described a succession of historic stages in the human “Geist” (Spirit), by which that Spirit progresses towards perfect self-understanding, away from ignorance. The role of the arts in the cultural process to overcome the primitive order also was reflected by the German poet FRIEDRICH SCHILLER in his letters UPON THE AESTHETIC EDUCATION OF MAN (1783). Schiller emphasised both: art needs freedom and art needs support. Last question: Can we turn art photography away from becoming commodity only? Can it keep a meaning beyond ignorance and Baudrillard´s loss of significance? How can the art of photography win the fight against the dragon of investment business?

Art photography can survive under nine conditions:

· Photographers need professional and passionate education
· Photographers must learn all the newest technical skills in relation to other medias
· The same time photographers need to know what shaped the tradition of this media
· Photographers need to understand and speak languages: visual languages and, of course languages of other cultures and countries
· The work needs to relate with the photographer´s cultural identity or the critic of perception
· Photographers need connect this work into a global context


· Artists need freedom
· Artists they must be able to perform
· The audience need to be educated and entertained

To finish, artists working with photographic mediums and with such qualifications might be recognized as the great wall against pure commodity fetishism – thus maintaining the treasures of photography in a global art market.

Bernd Fechner
Beijing, June 20, 2008

Beijing International Festival of Photography
“Photography and Civilization” Summit Forum

(speech, revised text)

Forum Guest List
June 19-20, 2008

1) Alka Pande India
2) Jim Dooley USA
3) Susan Dooley USA
4) Bernd Fechner Germany
5) Renate Gruber Germany
6) Harry Mattison USA
7) Anne Hoy USA
8) Rudolf Scheutle Germany
9) Minato Qihiro Japan


10) Wang Nanming China
Professional artist and critic
11) Wang Hui China
Professor in the School of Humanities at Tsinghua University
12) Zeng Huang China
Curator, Senior Photo Editor at the Xinhua News Agency
13) Dao Zi China
Poet, art critic and professor at the Art Academy of Qinghua University
14) Liu Shuyong China
Professor at the Central University of Finance and Economics
15) Jiang Wei China
Curator, photographer and cultural critic
16) Su Zhigang China
Dean and professor at the Photography College of the Beijing Film Academy
17) Zou Yuejin China
Associate professor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts
18) Sheng Wei China
Editor of Art Exit magazine, critic and curator
19) Yang Xiaoguang China
Dean and professor at the Film College of Dalian Medical University
20) Li Tuo China
Literary critic and member of the Chinese Writers Association
21) Kuo Li-hsin China
Associate professor of the NCCU Department of Radio and Television
22) Duan Yuting China
Art director for the Lianzhou International Year of Photography
23) Wang Yue China
Art and photo director of the Pingyao International Festival of Photography
24) Fan Di’an China
Director of the National Art Museum of China
25) Li Xianting China
Independent critic and project organizer
26) Li Shufeng China
Director of Film Art Research Center of the Chinese Art Research Institute
27) Bao Kun China
Curator and visual cultural critic
28) Ma Xiaolin China
Founder, Chairman and President of Chinese Blog Site: “blshe”
29) Li Mei China
Curator and photo reviewer
30) Guo Tan China
Publisher, Beijing Morning Post