Cover Story: Investing in photography

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 6, 2017 - November 12, 2017.

Golden Gate Before the Bridge; Seascapes.

Eric Peris with his train photograph and one of the photographs of the graffiti at Pudu jail.

Andreas Gursky - Rhein II. Credit: Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

Cindy Sherman - Untitled #96 Credit: Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

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Photography as an art form has grown in popularity among collectors and investors. Established investors now include such works in their art collections while novice collectors see it as an entry point into art investment.

Galleries and auction houses such as Sotheby’s are increasingly exhibiting photographic works in the light of the demand. And the values of these works have been rising steadily. 

In 2011, the record for the most expensive photograph was broken twice in a space of six months. Untitled $96, a self-portrait by American photographer Cindy Sherman, sold for US$3,890,500 at a Christie’s auction. Then, German photographer Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II, which is an altered photograph of the German river, surpassed that by fetching US$4,338,500, also at a Christie’s auction. That record was broken in 2014 by Peter Lik’s Phantom — a photograph of the Antelope Canyon in Arizona, the US — which sold for US$6.5 million. 

Art fairs that only exhibit photographs are increasingly common. They include Photofairs in Shanghai and San Francisco, Photo17 in Singapore, the F11 Photo Museum in Hong Kong and Taiwan’s 1839 Contemporary Gallery.

“We believe that photography is the medium of our generation. It is the way we consume information. It is part of everyone’s life and I think it is important to show where photography has come from and to acknowledge where it is going as well as provide education to show the different techniques,” says Photofairs group fair director Georgia Griffiths.

“We believe in the medium and potential for growth. It is definitely still a developing market in Asia-Pacific, which is very exciting for us to be a part of.

“I think there is still a huge amount of potential in Asia because there is a lot of untapped communities and regions that have not yet looked into buying photography. We are in the region because there is a lot of potential for galleries to meet new clients and for clients to develop into serious collectors.”

Collecting photography may be a form of diversification for experienced art collectors as well as a foray into contemporary art. After all, according to a September report by UK private bank Coutts, the prices of paintings by Old Masters and 19th century artists had fallen by more than 40% since 2005 while the prices of post-war and contemporary art had risen by more than 60%. 

“We have very established collectors coming to the fair. For example, this year, we did an exhibition on collecting photography that brought together four major contemporary art collectors — Adrian Cheng of the K11 Art Foundation, Thomas Shao of the Modern Media Group, Jenny Wang of the Fosun Foundation and David Chau of the Cc Foundation. They mostly buy paintings, but they also purchase photographs and videos. We really wanted to show people that they could buy photography and be serious collectors and have really interesting and diverse collections,” says Griffiths. 

The most expensive photograph sold at its fair this year was by Japanese artist Masahisa Fukase, which sold for US$800,000. The price range of the works exhibited by the galleries at the fair was between US$2,000 and US$200,000.

“If you go to any fair, whether it is Frieze or Art Basel, you will see a significant amount of photography. So, it is not separate from the contemporary art market,” says Griffiths. 

“It has been an exciting four years for us at Photofairs because we have really seen a change in engagement. Each year, it grows more.

“There has been a shift in buying patterns since we first started. People tended to buy a lot of fashion photography, a lot of big names. But in the last four years, people have become a bit more ambitious in terms of what they are buying. 

“They are buying new young artists, larger pieces and more ambitious works. People are buying more conceptual work. They are buying a lot more contemporary pieces, not just historical ones.”

This trend of collecting photography has already arrived on our shores. Shalini Ganendra, owner of Shalini Ganendra Fine Art gallery, says collecting photography has been around for decades, but it has become more popular in recent years.

“As a recent appointee to one of Tate Gallery’s [in the UK] acquisitions committees, I can say that leading institutions such as museums are looking at photography, with dedicated curatorial and technical expertise. Collecting photography has been in fashion for decades and more recently, the inclusion of photographs into general collections or as a focus area in Malaysia. Photography is a hard sell in Malaysia and requires — as with all collecting — aesthetic appreciation and technical knowledge,” says Ganendra. 

The pricing for photography is relatively reasonable and may be ideal for both new and established collectors, she adds. Some of the photographic works her gallery has exhibited include Tin Mine Landscapes by Eric Peris, Seascapes by Eiffel Chong, the Living Series by Sujeewa Kumara and some works by Minstrel Kuik.

 

WHY INVEST IN PHOTOGRAPHY?

Photography has been touted as an affordable art investment because of the relatively lower prices compared with traditional artworks. That is because photographs can be reproduced and multiple copies may be available in the market.

According to Photofairs, the photographic works of a young artist tend to fetch between US$1,500 and US$5,000. “It offers a very interesting entry point for young collectors and buyers because there are lower price points for younger artists. So, you get great prices. It is a great way for new collectors or buyers to enter the scene and build their interest and profile,” says Griffiths.

However, there are people who are wary of collecting photography. Some question whether photography can be considered art while others have misgivings about the value of these collections as photographs can be easily reproduced. Also, anyone can take a photograph nowadays, so how does one identify a truly valuable photograph?

Paul Gadd, founder of photography studio and gallery The Print Room in Kuala Lumpur, says this is the reason photographic works have been overlooked and photographers are doing their best to change this perception. 

“Photography is a medium that has always been undervalued, primarily because the images can be replicated. Art lovers and buyers want pieces that are supposedly unique. Some photographers try to capitalise on this desire for rarity by doing only one print of their image and then destroying the negative. Yet, once an artist has become famous, people are more open to buying editions of the original print,” he says.

“I think people should stop categorising art — people tend to think in genres such as sculptures, paintings, installations and photography. They arrange these genres in a hierarchy, with some floating to the top and others dismissed out of hand.”

Photography has always been a collectable art, especially in the West where photographic societies originated and people understand the difference between signed or limited edition photographs and mass-produced ones, says Gadd.

This is a point that Lim Wei-Ling, founder of the Wei-Ling Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, agrees with. The art collecting community is still young in Southeast Asia, so the appreciation for photographic works as a medium is less mature. 

Lim says photography should not be seen as something separate from traditional art forms. Instead, collectors should look at photographic works just as how they would evaluate other artworks such as paintings.

Some artists dabble in photography and many works exhibited in galleries may not have been produced solely with a camera. Some are collages of photographs while others are photographs that have been painted on, for instance.

“As a gallery owner, my interest is always in the artist, who has done a project or created an artwork that has an interesting concept, or a project that documents a place in time that is no longer here. My interest is not necessarily in photography, but in presenting artists who work on such projects,” says Lim.

She has exhibited photography in her gallery many times. An example is the work of Diana Lui, whose photographs include one that depicts ordinary people wearing exotic costumes in a natural setting. 

“I think her first work went for about RM20,000 and the first edition went as high as RM50,000 or RM60,000. It is not a normal photo. You wonder about the sitter, where it is taken, whether it is natural — you question, whereas with some of the other photographers, you may not,” says Lim.

Photography may not just be in the form of prints. For instance, Lim recently held an exhibition by Malaysian artist Dr K Azril Ismail called Thirty Pieces of Silver. He had used an old technique of printing photographs on metal plates, which was once used by people to put pictures in lockets. 

A key difference between photography and other art forms such as paintings is its ability to capture a moment in time. This is a reason photographic works may increase in value over time.

For instance, the Golden Gate Before the Bridge — a black-and-white photograph of the site of the famous bridge in San Francisco before it was built — was sold for US$162,500 at a Bonhams auction in New York last month. It was taken by famous American photographer Ansel Adams, whose most expensive photo is a mural-sized one of Yosemite National Park at the end of a winter storm, which sold for US$722,500.

This unique quality of photography is a reason people are attracted to the art form. Peris, who holds at least one exhibition every year at Sutra Gallery, says some of his customers reflect this sentiment to him. He once sold a black-and-white photograph of a buffet car in a train, taken back in the days when there was a chef on board. 

“There is always a kicap bottle, a chilli bottle and a pepper bottle on the table next to the window. This is iconic. This is something you would see in the early days. The buyer said this took him back to the days of travelling by train,” says Peris. 

Photography, he adds, is something you can discuss. “For example, the picture of the train. You can discuss it with many people or tell them this was how you travelled, whereas paintings are abstract.” 

Peris, who sells his works for RM1,800 to RM2,000 each, says customers have resold his works for a few thousand ringgit more. One work of his, which he had painted over a black-and-white photo of Kyoto, garnered quite a bit of interest because of the nostalgia it evoked.

“My friend said in a note that my hand-coloured work depicting an autumn scene, which was only sold for US$600 in the 1980s, fetched US$4,000 in New York the following year. The whole thing was in black and white except the tree, which I had coloured. Maybe it reflected some interest in the buyer, who must have been to Kyoto before,” says Peris.

It can be hard to determine just how much a photograph could be worth in the future. Such works could be priceless, especially if the photographer had captured a time or situation that nobody had thought of remembering, says Lim. For instance, Ismail once had a series that examined the walls of the old Pudu jail, which no longer exists.

“Many years ago, he photographed the graffiti inside Pudu jail because a lot of the cells were covered in graffiti drawn by the inmates. Who really cared about the graffiti? No one. But eventually, the prison was demolished. He has 100 to 200 photographs that captured the hopes and fears of those imprisoned. These photographs are priceless because you cannot replicate them,” says Lim. 

“The value of the photographs will definitely increase because they are of something that the artist captured or documented in a time that has gone by. The documentation has become a social anthropological look at how the world has changed and he focused on these people when no one was interested.”

 

HOW TO CHOOSE GOOD PHOTOGRAPHS

There are a few things new art collectors should take note of when buying photographs. An often emphasised point is the number of editions that have been printed. Since photographs can be reproduced, it is important to ensure that only a limited number of them have been issued. The larger the number of editions in circulation, the lower the price of the photograph.

“Photography is an edition medium. I get it that it makes people nervous. Any good gallery or serious artist would never run wild with editions because they just become posters; they are not really artworks. So, when people buy photographs, they should look at the edition number. Personally, I think it is better to buy under 10 or 20 in terms of the edition number,” says Griffiths. 

Unique photographic works — such as those that have been painted on — tend to have higher values since they cannot be replicated. These include photographs on which rare techniques have been used, such as the Ilfochrome print, which could increase the value of the works. Ilfochrome, which is often used for archival prints, is known for its image clarity and colour purity.

“You may have seen a lot of artists disfiguring their work in some way. So, whether they are painting on a photograph or stitching onto it, there are a lot of unique photographic works out there,” says Griffiths. 

Another way to pick a good photograph is to focus on the artist. If the photograph is an important piece in the artist’s or photographer’s career, it may have a higher value. The reputation of the artist or photographer is also very important. 

“I think it has more to do with the artist than the medium. Chen Wei is a very good example. He has developed as an artist over the last few years and his price points have gone up. He is currently showing with Leo Xu Projects in Shanghai,” says Griffiths.

“You can see this also in the works of Irving Penn, which cost about US$200,000 each. It is very much at the same price point with major paintings and sculptures.” 

According to Leo Xu Projects, the price of Chen’s works has almost doubled since the gallery started working with him six years ago.

Ganendra says hand-printed photos can be more valuable than commercially printed ones and photographers who have had international showings and museum collections may be good artists to check out. 

According to Sotheby’s, well-known photographers have auction records that can be tracked on sites such as Artnet or Artprice. As for newer photographers, collectors can find out if they have won awards or have been featured in exhibitions or magazines. 

Collectors should also inquire about the print’s history, says Sotheby’s. The shorter the time between when it was made and when the photograph was shot, the greater the value of the photograph. It would be helpful if they understand the types of paper and printing processes that go into making the photographs.

Griffiths recommends that photography collectors, especially those in Asia, make sure that the works are not affected by the weather. “Make sure that the work is not exposed to direct sunlight because it can fade. I encourage people to have a conversation with the person who sold you the work. You should have a conversation on how to best look after the piece,” she says.

“The important thing with photography is the type of framing and glass that you use, just like with paintings and sculptures. You have to make sure it has the right frame and glass.”

If a collector wants to sell a photograph, he can approach galleries, says Griffiths. However, collectors have to bear in mind that selling their works through galleries and auction houses means a certain percentage will be taken as commission, says Gadd.

“However, galleries are the ones that know who to sell the works to and for how much. It is a win-win for everyone — you get your cut and the galleries gets theirs; also, the artist’s reputation and the value of his works goes up a notch,” he adds.

Lim suggests that collectors check out Asian artists such as Azri, Kuik, Yee I-Lann and Sohei Nishino. Griffiths recommends Chen; Birdhead, who is showing with ShanghART Gallery in Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore; Fukase, who is showing with see+ gallery in Beijing; and Cao Fei, who is showing with Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou. According to 

ShanghART Gallery, the price of Birdhead’s works ranges from RMB10,000 to more than RMB1 million, depending on the number of pieces in the collection.