Art News & Views

Photo Synthesis

Market Monitor

by Art Bug

Thousands versus thousands. The difference is, the former is counted in dollars whereas the latter is counted in rupees.

Let us take a look. SaffronArt's auction results show that in 2008, two of Raghu Rai's highest priced pieces were between Rs 125,000 and Rs 225,000. In comparison, a recent report from the duopoly's photograph auctions held in London last spring shows that the highest priced photograph was sold for $376,500.

Of course, there has been many a turn of events in the financial market between 2008 and 2011. Markets have fallen, affecting the secondary art market. And when Picassos suffer, it is only to be imagined what blows Cartier-Bressons may receive.

The photography market actually can never be compared with the market for traditional artlike paintings and sculptures. After all, photographs, according to market insiders, have always been the purview of a very niche' collector base, many of them corporates dealing with media. Besides, photography was never an auction favourite. Mostly because there are other ways that photographers have functioned.

An artist will always need a patronized market environment for prosperity. This has been true for painters and sculptors since the beginning of time. However, photography as an art form, which is definitely a 20th century invention, had been accepted by general perception much later, and only when it promised of lasting valuebe it in the technical or the thematic way.

After all, other than the name of the artist, it is the technical and structural aspect of a piece of art that commands the highest focus in the secondary market. In short its longevity, which adds to its resale value. In such a situation, a photograph has always suffered to a painting or a sculpture until recently, when digital prints and other technological combinations have made it possible to give a photograph the same technical longevity as say a painting. But before that, the secondary market has mainly fought shy of making a spectacle of a photograph show.

Besides, photographers have always found ready patrons in the media. This is especially true for India, where almost all the well-known names have been more or less associated with the mediaprint or videoat some point of their career or the other. Raghu Rai has worked for The Statesman, Kolkata during his early days, Ryan Lobo still makes films for Discovery, Animal Planet, PBS and several other television networks. Ram Rahman has been freelancing for various newspapers in America, Pablo Barthelemey has his own blog and he fashions himself more as a photo-journalist in search of human stories more than anything else. Gigi Scaria and Ryan Paul Lobo are perhaps the only exceptions to the rule. Hence, in one sense, all of them enjoy a ready and burgeoning domestic as well as an international market.

While planning this issue, we at ART news & views were in for a surprise. A random search on the auction performance of Indian origin artists at threw up just two results as under

Ryan Paul Lobo, Sonya's Wedding, Sale date: January 10, 2007, Hammer price: Euro 522. $745, Estimate: Euro 500-700, Artcurial (SVV) Paris sold it. The original photograph was dated 2005.

And the second result

Ram Rahman, The Assassination of Trotsky, Ernakulam, Coyoacan, Sale date: March 12, 2007, Hammer price: Euro 2,700/ $3953, Estimate: Euro 2900-3800

It was again sold by Artcurial (SVV), Paris. And the original photomontage was made in 2007 itself.

No Raghu Rai, we wondered! But it was true. Rai held his latest international exhibition in London last year. And in an interview to The Observer, said, “but it's fulfilling to know one is going deeper into the layers of complexity of my country … I like being among my own people. I merge with them. I don't carry camera bags, I don't wear stylish clothes. I have one camera with a zoom lens so I am not alarming people; no one is saying, 'Here comes a photographer!'" That is so typical of Rai and his way of functioning, which rests almost on the verge of simplicity. No talk of auctions, of money or of the market ever comes into the conversation. Yet, this man 'Championed in the west by Henri Cartier-Bresson… joined Magnum Photos in 1977 and went on to judge the World Press Photo Awards from 1990 to 1997'.

Global recognition has not eluded the others also. Ryan Lobo for example. Lobo has made several films for National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, Oprah Winfrey and other television networks. However, it is Lobo's photographs that engulf the viewer, evoking mirth, compassion, sorrow and melancholy, often at the same time. His portraits separate his subjects from a crowd, bringing their individual gaze to life. In his series titled 'Muharram', Lobo's images of young Shia men participating in 'Matam', artfully capture the spirit of joy and liberation behind the self-inflicted pain of ritual flagellation. In images contrary to these, Lobo draws the viewer's attention to the idea that the understanding of pain is indeed relative, and that suffering can also sometimes be a matter of opinion. In his photographs of his sister Nisha, who has a painful condition called icthyosis, Lobo portrays exactly this. One of his works had been estimated by SaffronArt in 2008 between $730 and $940. SaffronArt has also put on auction photographs of Gigi Scaria in various auctions recently and had estimated him between $4350 and $2050, which by contemporary Indian photographer's standard is quite high.

So where does all that leave us with?

  1. Indian photographers have the firepower, but they are still to arrive on the international auction scene.
  2. This is mainly because of lack of indigenous as well as individual patronage.
  3. The lack of auction patronage springs from the fact that most photographers choose to live in India and seek alternative patronage, and are thus free of the auction house calculations.
  4. Which by itself may be good for them individually, but there's definitely a nascent secondary market for photographs.
  5. The auction houses are also to blame because they have remained largely insensitive to the huge potential of the photography market in this part of the continent.

One can only hope that the scene will change if not in the near at least in the far future.

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art etc. news & views is a monthly magazine published from India in order to promote art and culture. It intends to raise awareness about art all around India and the world. The magazine covers art exhibitions, auction highlights, market trends, art happenings besides Antique, Collectibles, Fashion, Jewellery, Vintage, Furniture, Film, Music and Culture.