Art Insider Vanessa Hallett: Investing in Fine Art Photography

Vanessa Hallett, worldwide head of photographs at Phillips, talks about the ever-growing interest in the medium as a collectible and investment. With iconic images selling for seven figures, Hallett gives us an insider’s take on how to size up this fast-expanding market in anticipation of the Phillips Photography Auction on April 3-4. 

Vanessa Hallett, worldwide head of photography at Phillips.

Prices for fine art photography have historically been lower than those by artists working in other sectors. Why is that?
By its very nature, photography is a medium of multiples. As a result, the concept of there not always being a single, unique “original” has contributed to photographs being less expensive than paintings. However, the more you learn about the medium, the more you begin to realize that not all photographic prints are alike, especially when discussing late-19th-century and early-20th-century photographs. I believe the price discrepancy between mediums will lessen as the most desirable photographs become increasingly scarce.

Which of the iconic 20th century names (Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Man Ray, Capa) are most in demand at auction today? 
Photographs by 20th-century masters such as the ones you mention are becoming increasingly rare and highly desired. This season, we offered stellar works by Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, and Robert Frank, among others, who are certainly part of the dialogue when it comes to discussing true masters of photography. Museum exhibitions also drive interest to these iconic names, and this season we saw that with Diane Arbus, whose work we offered concurrently with the Arbus exhibition at the Met Breuer.

Of the various photographic categories— vintage photography, 20th-century photography, fashion, photojournalism—which has seen the most appreciation in the last five to 10 years? And why do you feel that is? 
One of the great things about photography is that the medium is relatively young compared to other fine arts like painting or sculpture. That gives us the opportunity to offer the entire history of photography from the 19th century to the most contemporary works. There are always new photorgaphers to discover and new categories to explore. With the photography market being as stable as it is, we always encourage our clients to collect what speaks to them, whether it’s classic, fashion, or cutting-edge work.

Magnolia Blossom, 1925, by Imogen Cunningham. Estimate: $180,000-220,000, to be auctioned on April 3–-4, at Phillips Photographs Auction. Image: Courtesy of Phillips.

Who are the living photographers whose work has been appreciating rapidly at auction? For these names, to what do you attribute the rise in value? 
We were the first auction house to offer works by photographers such as Alex Prager and Ruud van Empel, whose prices have appreciated significantly. Specifically, we have an innovative section in our various owners auctions in London called ULTIMATE, which, in addition to classic works, also showcases sold-out editions and unique works by contemporary, living photographers. In November, the works that were offered in ULTIMATE were 98 percent sold by value, and I attribute this strong performance to the market’s desire for new material.

How has fashion photography fared in the last five to 10 years? Which names or styles of photography are most in demand? 
It’s an incredibly interesting time for fashion photography. We are now seeing the photographers of some of the most iconic images of the last 20 years revisiting their prints and transitioning into the fine art market. There was enormous demand in our selling exhibition for the work of Steven Meisel in 2014–2015, which opened in Paris and traveled to London, New York, and Miami. Most recently, we exhibited Mert + Marcus in London and Paris (the very first opportunity to acquire fine art prints by the artists). We set a world auction record for a work by Peter Lindbergh, and we’ve seen steady demand for classic fashion images by Horst P. Horst, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Helmut Newton. The world is in love with fashion photography.

What are top photography collectors in pursuit of now?
Collectors want rare-to-the-market material by masters of the medium— regardless of time period or genre. This can include the latest fashion photography as evidenced in the re- cent world auction record that Phillips set for Nick Knight, or classic 20th- century images including Robert Frank’s City Fathers, Hoboken, NJ,  which was offered in our New York Evening Sale. In addition, we’ve seen a renewed interest in the Düsseldorf School [an influential group of photographers in the 1970s and ’80s known for their documentary-style images], as we achieved an extraordinary price for Thomas Struth’s Art Institute of Chicago II, Chicago, 1990. Other photog- raphers in the Düsseldorf School, such as Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff— and their instructors Bernd and Hilla Becher—remain in great demand.

Is there more of an overlap today between modern and contemporary photography and the broader modern and contemporary art market? 
Some contemporary photographers such as Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gursky are seen as contemporary artists rather than solely as photographers, for example.There is certainly a crossover market, and that’s why we work so closely with Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art department to determine which works will sell best in which venue. As a result, we’re seeing success for these artists in both categories.

Alfred Stieglitz’s The Terminal, 1893; estimate: $120,000– $180,000, to be auctioned on April 3–-4, at Phillips Photographs Auction. Image: Courtesy of Phillips.

It has been said that buying photography is a real opportunity to own great art at a lower price. Can you give us a few examples? 
While we tend to focus on the higher end of the market, there are many examples of great photographs at lower prices. Alex Prager, a photographer we champion, can have prints come to auction for under $10,000. Additionally, larger editions by Cindy Sherman, such as her charming Untitled, Lucille Ball, also fall at a lower price point. And classic images such as André Kertész’s Melancholic Tulip or Satiric Dancer, printed decades after the negative date, can be purchased at very attractive prices. Early prints of these images, however, are more scarce and subsequently at the higher end of the market.

Who are the new names in photography attracting the most interest at auction?
There is a lot of experimentation right now with how photographers are approaching their pictures. This includes work by John Chiara, whose work first appeared at auction in 2015, and other photographers such as Chris McCaw and Alison Rossiter who are just start- ing to appear at auction. It will be interesting to see how their work develops as their market expands.

What types of photographers’ works do you collect?
I have the privilege of working each day with modern and contemporary masters of the medium. Therefore, my personal collecting interests relate to objects from my travels. At PhotoFair Shanghai, for example, I purchased a symbolic painting of a pair of birds— the beauty and strength of the limited strokes won me over. I am also a collector of photograph books, including some rare and out-of-print editions.