How photography became accepted as a fine art — with a little help from 50 years of photographs sales at Christie’s
Philippe Garner, former deputy chairman at Christie’s, assesses how the market for photographs — initially focused on Victorian pioneers, and now reflecting a demand for living artists — has grown over the half century since Christie’s first dipped into the medium
On 14 December 1972, Christie’s held its first photographic sale in London. Featuring images and equipment that dated back to the dawn of photography, the auction was a success, and ushered in a great period of discovery as the public rifled through attics and dusted off old family albums to be valued at Christie’s.
Through these sales the master image-makers of the Victorian era emerged — among them William Henry Fox Talbot, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Roger Fenton — as well as a recognition of photography’s unique place in the history of communication and art.
‘Those sales revealed material that added substantially to the broader understanding of photography, enabling it to be written in a richer and more thoughtful way,’ says Philippe Garner, retired deputy chairman and now consultant at Christie’s.
Fifty years on from that groundbreaking first sale, Garner looks back on his highlights from the many that have followed in its wake.
Daguerreotype of Jabez Hogg and William S. Johnson, 1843
One driving force behind the first Photographs sales at Christie’s was the specialist Christopher Wood (1941-2009), who was among the leading champions of Pre-Raphaelite and High Victorian paintings and also had a keen interest in 19th-century photographs.
Early sales featured a mixture of imagery and technical equipment that charted the history of photography from 1839. This was the year in which the first two viable processes to capture and preserve an image were announced, by Louis Daguerre in France and William Henry Fox Talbot in Britain — the moment, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it, ‘the very shadow of the person lying there was fixed for ever’.
Daguerre’s breakthrough, the first to be announced, was a feat of chemistry and technology, but it also drew on years of experiment in optics, with such devices as the camera obscura, which dated back to Leonardo da Vinci and medieval China.
‘Those early sales appealed to collectors with an antiquarian background who could see where photography fitted into the wider history of image-making,’ says Garner.
The daguerreotype of Jabez Hogg (1817-1899) and Mr W.S. Johnson is ‘a great subject’, says Garner. ‘It depicts a photographer sitting for another photographer, a kind of virtuoso Daguerrean display.’ The image was sold for £5,800 on 10 March 1977 at Christie’s in London: ‘a terrific price at the time’. It was also one of the earliest occasions when British institutions recognised the importance of such treasures. An export licence was refused, and the daguerreotype was acquired for the nation.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Cassiopeia, June 1866
One of the most sought-after photographers at auction in the 1970s was the great 19th-century portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). She had a relatively short working life, just over 11 years, after she was given a camera as a present at the age of 48.
According to Garner, there were essentially two types of photographer in the 19th century: the committed professional, and the wealthy amateur who had the means and the time to experiment. Cameron was one of the latter: she was rich and well-connected, and soon became the celebrity photographer of the age, photographing such figures as Sir John Herschel, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Ellen Terry.
Cameron’s photographs are carefully composed, and often evoke the literary and mythological themes popular at the time. ‘She captures the intensity of the human face using soft focus. It gives the subjects a mysterious, ethereal character,’ says the specialist. ‘They feel very modern. There is an intimacy and a provocativeness to the work. You get a real sense of the power of the sitter.’
Roger Fenton, Reclining Odalisque, 1858
‘By the late 1970s it became clear that the market for photographs would be driven by collectors from the United States,’ says Garner, pointing out that the history of photography runs in parallel with the history of modern America.
‘Photography already had a prominent position in American museums, so it is not surprising that a great many key photographic works of the mid-19th century ended up in American collections.
‘Notable among the great photographers are those alert to history,’ says Garner, and perhaps no one encapsulated this more than the intrepid Roger Fenton (1819-1869), who travelled into the valley of death to document the Crimean War in 1855.
His haunting images were highly prized in the early sales at Christie’s. However, this reclining figure, inspired by the popularity of Orientalist subject matter in the mid-Victorian era, was a surprising hit when it sold for £5,400 in 1978. ‘It is a highly seductive image, the only known print, and deserves its place in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has one of the finest collections in the world,’ says Garner.
Alvin Langdon Coburn, The Eagle, 1917
In the 1980s and early 1990s, interest in the market for photographs shifted from the Victorian age to the great avant-garde experimenters of the early 20th century. ‘It was simply a case of supply and demand,’ says Garner. ‘As the popularity of photographs grew, collectors began looking at those innovative characters who used the camera as an experimental tool.’
The Boston-born visionary Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) was a keen promoter of Cubism. He constructed a three-mirrored device which, when placed between the lens and the subject, reflected and split the image to create angular, jagged forms.
‘The camera is freed from reality,’ proclaimed the modernist writer Ezra Pound, who christened the instrument the Vortescope and the images Vortographs, after the art movement Vorticism founded by Percy Wyndham Lewis.
Garner recalls the excitement following a sale of Vortographs by Coburn in 1992. ‘It really shook everyone up and made us realise that the focus was now firmly on the modern era,’ he says. ‘I consider it a landmark moment.’
Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Athens, 1842
By the late 1990s most of the great 19th-century treasures had been sold into museum collections. Great photographs by Fenton, Cameron and their contemporaries were hard to come by, so when a rare daguerreotype from 1842 by the French travel photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804-1892) came on the market in 2003, there was a high expectation it would do well.
The image depicted the Temple of Olympian Zeus on the Acropolis. ‘It was sold for £565,250 and marked the high point for 19th-century photography,’ says Garner. ‘From that moment the market entered a new phase: collectors turned their attention to the post-war era and a new enthusiasm for certain areas of editorial photography took off.’
Robert Mapplethorpe, Poppy, 1988
When Garner joined Christie’s as International Head of Photographs in 2004, he was keen to pioneer a new kind of sale. ‘One featuring just a single photographer,’ he says. ‘I thought if the auction was tightly curated and offered high-quality images, then it would work.’ The first such sale, Garner explains, focused on Robert Mapplethorpe’s flowers.
The New York-born Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) is best known for his homoerotic male nudes. ‘He started out making a very raw kind of photography,’ says Garner, ‘but very quickly he became a sophisticated picture-maker.’ Garner puts this development down to his relationship with Samuel Wagstaff (1921-1987), a curator who had been engaged with conceptual art and who brought an exceptional eye and perspective to the field of photography.
‘Sam was Mapplethorpe’s lover for a time, but he was also his mentor and a generous patron,’ says Garner. It was through Wagstaff's considerable collection of 19th-century photographs that Mapplethorpe started to rethink the way an image was presented.
‘He was a fast learner,’ says Garner, ‘and quickly understood the potential power of a still-life image.’ Poppy, made a year before Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, sold for £251,200, setting a world auction record for the photographer.
The Gert Elfering collection auction series, 2005-13
The success of Mapplethorpe’s flowers inspired further single-photographer sales, putting the spotlight on such preeminent figures as Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Peter Beard and Horst P. Horst. The Horst offering was from German collector Gert Elfering, whose exceptional collection, with its strong emphasis on fashion and style, was dispersed in five dedicated sales between 2005 and 2013.
‘We made our mark with those auctions,’ says Garner. ‘They were a game changer for the market, raising the visibility and status of those artists.’
The specialist sought out the work of photographers who had explored the unique characteristics of picture-making. ‘We looked for innovative practitioners who were pushing the boundaries of what photography could do. The camera does not record reality, it records an abstraction of reality. We wanted to promote photographers who set out to capture more than surface appearances.’
Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924
‘I work with a very different type of collector than those I met in the 1970s — today’s collectors are exacting, and the focus is on masterpieces,’ says Garner. The museum world has changed, too. In 2012, as if to give its seal of approval of photography amongst the arts, the National Gallery in London held its first photography show, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present.
‘This year we have had some great moments,’ says Garner. ‘Four photographs sold for a total of $30 million, which is beyond anything we could have imagined 50 years ago.’ Among those masterpieces was Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924, which sold in May at Christie’s in New York for $12.4 million.
Garner says the Philladelphia-born modernist has served him well over the years. ‘I remember the great excitement when Christie’s first broke the $1 million mark for his work, and then setting a new record with Noire et Blanche, 1926 in Paris in 2017, which sold for €2,688,750.’ Man Ray’s appeal, he believes, is down to the artist’s unique approach in using the camera as an experimental tool.
‘He was a polymath: he painted, sculpted, wrote, made photographs. He was a brilliant image-maker, everything he did was rule-breaking. He was very clever at conceiving an image that would wrong-foot and haunt you.’
William Eggleston, Untitled, 1971
‘Most of the pictures we have sold at Christie’s are by deceased photographers,’ says Garner, ‘so it is a joy to work with a living photographer. I treasure the time I spent with William Eggleston on two sales of his work in 2012, particularly the Photographic Masterpieces auction to benefit the Eggleston Artistic Trust.’
The master of American colour photography, whose unique style in the 1970s transformed the way we look at the world, had recently found the technology to scale up his images without losing detail.
‘The results were incredible,’ says Garner. Thirty-six photographs were offered in the sale. ‘Which is the number of frames on a roll of 35mm film. We liked the symmetry. It was great fun to be on the rostrum knowing Bill was in the sky box, looking down and enjoying every moment.’