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Not All Big Name Photography Has a Big Price

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With a reputation a mile high and a 2008 auction record of $1.6 million for a 1925 photograph of a nude, the closest most of us will ever get to one of Edward Weston's prints is looking at one behind glass in a museum. Or so it might seem. Photography long ago has won the battle to be considered a fine art, based not only on the esteem of connoisseurs but on prices that can match notable paintings and sculptures. Still, works by the most lionized photographers of the past century are much more affordable than those of their counterparts in painting and sculpture, and some can look downright cheap in comparison.

For instance, one can buy an Ansel Adams (1902-84) photograph for $225, an Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) for $300 and a Walker Evans (1903-75) for just $28. One may also spend a great deal more, and some people do - those who are purists or have investment potential in mind.
The price range of a Weston (1886-1958) photograph can be all over the lot, starting at around $10,000, even less if the picture is not in good condition, which can happen with these easily-damaged works on paper that are sensitive to light, heat and humidity. A variety of factors determine value in photography. The most expensive Westons are those whose subject is the female nude, sea shells or peppers that he printed in the darkroom himself, mounting and signing the picture. A 1927 Weston photograph titled "Nautilus Shell" sold at Sotheby's in 2007 for $1.1 million. By the late 1930s, Weston developed Parkinson's disease and became increasingly unable to take photographs or print from his negatives, and his son Brett took on the darkroom work, producing approximately 5,000 prints of some of his father's most noted images with Edward Weston's approval and assumed supervision. "Nautilus Shell" printed by Brett Weston "would go for under $100,000," said San Francisco photography dealer Paul Hertzmann. After Weston died, another son Cole took over the printing from his father's negatives (prints available from www.edward-weston.com, run by Cole's son, Kim); a posthumous "Nautilus Shell" that Cole printed would be priced at $10,000-12,000, Hertzmann said.

There may be another 5,000 or so Cole Weston prints of Edward Weston images, which sell for between $5,000 and $15,000, according to Kim Weston. He noted that the difference between a Brett and Cole Weston print of the same image is "night and day," because Brett printed on the same paper that his father used, while Cole printed on different stock, which contained less silver and did not produce the same strong tones. Between an Edward and Brett Weston print, Kim stated that it is "harder to tell the difference, "but Brett tended to print a bit more contrasty, which was his taste."

In the realm of what gives an esteemed black-and-white photograph market value, "originality" (the artist produces the negative and develops a printed image) and "vintage" (the printing takes place usually within five years of the negative being created) are key terms. The further away from the moment of creation and the artist's direct involvement, the more the price declines. There are exceptions to this. Two acclaimed photojournalists - Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) - did not do most of their own printing, leaving the process to others. Many of the editions of prints by Diane Arbus (1923-71) were completed posthumously by her friend and fellow photographer Neil Selkirk. The absence of the artists' direct involvement, however, does not adversely affect the prices, because of the renown of the photographers and the iconic stature of many of their images. "You take what you can get," New York photographer dealer Bruce Silverstein said.

On the other hand, the $225 Ansel Adams photographs in a "Yellowstone Special Edition" series (available from www.anseladams.com, which is run by the artist's grandson, Matthew Adams) have been printed by one of Adams' photographic assistants, Alan Ross. Presumably, Ross knows what Adams intended, but the lack of the photographer's personal involvement in the printing process - and Adams was well-acclaimed as a master of the darkroom - has kept prices affordable.
For newer generations of photographers, printing prowess has become largely irrelevant. "With Photoshop, many of the things photographers toiled over for days and weeks can now be done in 30 seconds," Silverstein noted. Neither Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) nor William Eggleston (b. 1939), both groundbreaking photographers of the postwar era, do any of their own printing, which has no effect on the prices for their work. Collectors buy on the basis of content rather than old-fashioned fussy darkroom skills.

The official start of the photography market as an investment-grade collectible is usually identified as 1976, when Sotheby's held its first photography auction. Younger photographers are generally more conscious of the market, artificially limiting the number of prints in an edition in the hope that scarcity will drive up prices. Earlier generations of photographers just printed up more when buyers asked for them (known as "unlimited editions"). Ansel Adams printed up more than 1,000 (no one knows the exact number) copies of his most famous 1941 photograph, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" over a period of decades. Robert Frank (b. 1924), who is best known for his "The Americans" series of black-and-white photographs from the 1950s, made new prints from old negatives over a period of decades. The volume in circulation has affected prices. Walker Evans' $28 photographs are ones regularly reprinted by the Library of Congress, which owns a number of his negatives that he took when he worked for the Farm Security Administration during the New Deal.

The price of a famous photograph may also be affected by the way a print is made. Alfred Stieglitz' 1892 hand-printed "The Terminal," in its large format (10" x 13") size sold for $215,000 at Christie's in 2000; the Lee Gallery in Winchester, Massachusetts sells a smaller (4" x 6") version of that same image, which had been printed in 1911 and pasted into Stieglitz's quarterly magazine Camera Work for $7,500. Same image, same process (photogravure, an ink-based printing process), just smaller and printed commercially almost 20 years later. Stieglitz also created prints in silver, platinum and palladium, which were produced in smaller quantities and have higher price points than the Camera Work photogravures. The auction record for a Stieglitz is a 1919 palladium print titled "Georgia O'Keeffe (Hands)," which sold for $1.472 million at Sotheby's in 2006.
The highest auction prices for Stieglitz's prints are for photographs of O'Keeffee, his wife. With many artists, some images are just more sought-after than others. Not every picture that Weston took is considered a great image or can be called characteristic. At some point in the latter part of his career (when it was difficult for him to travel around), he did a series of photographs of cats in his neighborhood, and the highest auction price for one of these (the 1944 "Johnny") was reached at Christie's this past October - $23,500. Most of his cat pictures can be purchased for closer to $10,000, because "the marketplace doesn't honor those works as much as the nudes or vegetables," Hertzmann said.