artnet: Simon de Pury explains how the photographic medium will survive the proliferation of NFTs and moving image work
Each month in The Hammer, art industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art world insider, his brushes with fame and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the market. art.
Now nearly two hundred years ago, in 1826, French scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took what is believed to be the earliest surviving photograph. (I won’t go into the mythology of the Shroud of Turin which was first mentioned in 1354 and was supposed to show the image of Christ’s head in negative). During the 19th and 20th centuries, photography conquered the world and became ubiquitous. The artistic vision of some of the most talented photographers in the world was admired thanks to the exposure it obtained in newspapers, magazines, but also books and exhibitions.
After Niépce, however, it took 150 years for photography to begin to be accepted as something worth collecting. Sotheby’s and Christie’s started holding photography auctions in the early 1970s. I still vividly remember some of the comments that were made at the time. “Why spend money to acquire a photograph that its author could reproduce endlessly?” Nevertheless, a small community of mostly young and avid collectors has begun to turn this into a fascinating new area of collecting. It also provided a financially lower entry level for collectors who could not afford original artwork. The system of signed and numbered editions which had already proven itself in the world of prints (lithographs, engravings and serigraphs) was gradually adopted by photographers. With it, trust grew and photography grew as a market.
German photo artist Andreas Gursky poses in front of the photographic work Lager (2014) in the “Andreas Gursky” exhibition at the Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts, in Leipzig, eastern Germany, March 24, 2021 Photo by Jens Schlueter/AFP via Getty Images.
At first there was very little overlap between photography collectors and contemporary art collectors. Size had something to do with it. Before digital photography, there was a limit to the size of a negative that could be printed. Towards the end of the 1980s, things started to change. I remember the excitement of walking into the Ileana Sonnabend gallery in New York and seeing the exhibition by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. It was a series of beautifully realized ultra large format color photographs mounted with postcard motifs such as the Eiffel Tower, the Matterhorn or the Taj Mahal.
In 1992, I felt a similar emotion when I visited an exhibition by Andreas Gursky at the Kunsthalle in Zurich. The sheer scale of the works, besides their obvious quality and originality, was very alluring. At this time contemporary art collectors were attracted and very quickly there was more and more overlap between the markets for contemporary art and photography. So much so that from 2002, the contemporary sales of Sothebys, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury (which then made photography one of its main pillars alongside contemporary art and cutting-edge design) included a ever-growing photography or photography-based art. . There were occasional fights between contemporary art and photography specialists inside the major auction houses over which auctions certain photography-based works should be included in.
Photography itself has evolved quite rapidly. A milestone was the introduction of the Polaroid SX-70 camera in 1972. It was a nice, foldable thing that made a very satisfying noise when you pressed the shutter. The best photographers like Helmut Newton began to use Polaroids to visualize the initial compositions of their shots, like a painter would have made preparatory sketches. As a young specialist at Sotheby’s, I was given one. This allowed me to take multiple photos during customer visits, which I could then discuss with my more experienced colleagues back at headquarters. The Polaroids made by Andy Warhol are a treasure and contrary to what was expected at the time, the Polaroid photographs have aged quite well and have survived until now without serious physical deterioration.
Simon de Pury and Samuel Bourdin attend Phillips de Pury and Company’s private reception of ‘Guy Bourdin: A Message for You’ on November 26, 2008 in New York City. Photo by Scott Rudd/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.
The advent of digital photography and the availability of digital cameras from the late 1990s made taking photos much easier. Ever since I was little, I loved taking pictures but I hated carrying a camera everywhere. It made you look like a tourist and they were too complicated to use. The introduction of pocket cameras such as the Canon IXUS in 2000 changed everything. You could take it anywhere and breaking it was foolproof. It still meant, however, carrying around your first Blackberry and your pocket camera. The arrival of the iPhone was the final breakthrough. You had it all packed into one gadget.
Initially, the pixelation of images taken with the phone was too low, but with recent models it has improved significantly. Suddenly, every human being has become not only a photographer, but also an editor, artist, cinematographer, writer, commentator, influencer, follower, as well as a narcissist in their own right. The billions of photographs that are uploaded daily on Instagram and other social media platforms make us all great photography consumers and voyeurs. In order to keep up with competition like Snapchat and TikTok, Instagram has introduced Stories, Reels and Live where the moving image is overtaking the still image. One would have expected that the explosion of photography caused by the technological revolution would have a very beneficial effect on the photography market. It didn’t really happen. There is currently a slight decline in demand for the work of photographers who established themselves in the 90s and early 2000s.
Video and film began to be used quite widely by contemporary artists from the 1960s. It has remained, however, a largely institutional market with some notable exceptions such as the private collection of Richard and Pamela Kramlich which is housed in their Herzog & de Meuron building in Napa Valley. Back when I owned Phillips, I wanted to run the first ever auction dedicated entirely to video art. Fortunately my colleagues managed to dissuade me, because it would have been a total and absolute commercial flop. The arrival of NFTs and blockchain is changing all that. In the same way that limited numbered editions ultimately changed the photography market, uniqueness or numbered editions will make moving image based art eminently more collectable.
General views of David Lachapelle’s exhibition ‘Atti Divini’ (Divine Acts) at Reggia di Venaria Reale on June 13, 2019 in Turin, Italy. Photo by Roberto Serra – Iguana Press/Getty Images.
While artists today have infinitely more means, possibilities and supports to express themselves, techniques that have always existed, such as painting on canvas, sculpture in bronze, stone or wood as well as ceramics are flourishing. Works made in these proven techniques dominate the art market in monetary terms. After visiting with my two daughters the incredible interactive installations of teamLab in Tokyo, after being mesmerized by the dazzling moving works of art by Turkish genius Refik Anadol, I cannot escape the fascination with moving works of art . I try to analyze why I still prefer to collect art that does not move or should not be lit. Why do I always prefer to watch Instagram’s stills grid instead of all the mobile alternatives? Could it be because it creates the illusion of a suspension in time and therefore of timelessness? The constant movement of life around us constantly reminds us of the inexorable passage of time, and the final destination of our earthly journey.
As I age, my attention span becomes shorter than it has ever been. I rarely watch the full length of a piece of video art. I feel like it’s stealing my time, whereas if I’m standing in front of a still piece of art, it’s up to me whether I want to look at it for a split second or half an hour. Contemplating a large painting or a photograph makes you forget the passage of time. In front of a large photograph by Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Anton Corbijn (whose work I currently have the privilege of presenting in a virtual exhibition), Mario Testino, David LaChapelle or Jürgen Teller will always fascinate me, and from the point of view of market, there are bright days ahead for the photography collection but also, of course, for contemporary art and design.
Simon de Pury is the former President and Chief Auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former European President and Chief Auctioneer of Sotheby’s and former Curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Today he is an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, artistic advisor, photographer and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury
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