A middle-brow art?

Pierre Bourdieu once dismissed photography as an art that imitates art. BUT IT’S ALSO COLLECTABLE,
WRITES Kim Gurney

One of the consequences of the ongoing erosion of boundaries between contemporary art mediums is the application of photography in new ways. According to photographer and curator Claire Breukel, medium definitions are becoming more obsolete and photography is being employed in ways that transcend its traditional uses.

This experimentation has helped feed into the medium’s recent boost. Artists who would not describe themselves as photographers regularly produce lens-based work, often in collaboration with professional photographers. Berni Searle, Kathryn Smith, Robin Rhode, Sanell Aggenbach, Tracey Rose and Minnette Vári have all recently worked in this way. Michael Stevenson, gallery owner and art dealer, adds: “There is much more prominence given to photography but partly because the medium is not explored ad nauseum so there is the possibility to be creative and innovative … There is also a much greater consciousness of photography as a medium in itself.”

That appreciation has helped close the price gap between photography and other art works, particularly in the United States. Auction houses regularly fetch record prices on the back of a boom that started to register from 2003. Prints by photographers like Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky and Rineke Dijkstra can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

South Africa is obviously a different ball game. But some of our photographers have cracked the overseas market — Zwelethu Mthethwa, Roger Ballen and David Goldblatt among them. Their work fetches prices commensurate with international success. For collectors, there is a noticeable drop from this R50-thousand bracket to the next range of around R10-thousand for local artists not yet on the international radar.

Art dealer and gallery owner Andries Loots thinks South African photography as a whole is still highly undervalued — partly due to a lack of exposure.

“There is confusion amid the buying public,” says Loots. “The average South African thinks that art is painting and sculpture and that anybody can take a photograph.”Breukel agrees and thinks visual literacy is an issue.

“The arts in general are largely under-funded and this seems to harbour conservative thinking and understanding towards art — especially contemporary art — in a country where issues such as HIV/AIDS and poverty understandably take precedence.”

But art dealer Heidi Erdmann, who heads up Photographers Gallery za, insists that photography is no second cousin. She fingers the sometimes unprofessional presentation of the medium instead rather than calling photography generally undervalued.

“The South African photography market is unbelievably alive and active and rapidly growing,” says Erdmann. “The buying market has increased a great deal and there is a far better understanding of photography.”

However, intrinsic worth is difficult to ascribe to a photograph, according to Graeme Williams, the manager of South Photos.

“As soon as people believe something has value, it starts to have value and becomes self-perpetuating. The ball is rolling so it has to pick up,” he says.

Photographers making good sales through South include Goldblatt, Guy Tillim and Santu Mofokeng. Williams says of anomalies in price between photographers: “It is easy to whinge … but there are good reasons for that … it comes down to what you do.”

On new media, there is general agreement among commentators that it has undoubtedly helped make photography more accessible but some think it has also sown confusion. “The average buying public is not knowledgeable of the technical side and it scares them off buying photos,” says Loots.

The laboratory used for processing, chemicals and exposure, are indeed all-important considerations for conservation.

So what do South African photographers have to offer collectors? In a country where photography was historically welded to photojournalism, some practitioners have managed to decouple with great success; others, like Tillim, manage a successful cross-over between documentary and fine art.

A new generation is also forging their own style, as is apparent in the work of Ingrid Masondo, Vathisa Ruselo, Zanele Muholi, Nontsikelelo Veleko, Pieter Hugo, David Southwood and Mikhael Subotzky. Yet South’s Williams thinks there is still quite possibly a “journalistic, gritty edge” to South African work.

Dealers generally emphasise the rich subject matter. Erdmann says local photography often deals with real issues located within a South African framework rather than self-oriented work. She urges investors to be aware of pricing, authenticity and provenance when making a purchase.

Breukel says photography in general is affordable to collect. “South African photographers are hugely talented and have a country filled with unique diversity and boundless beauty to draw from. It’s all about exposure beyond the boundaries of our country, which unfortunately as it stands struggles to sustain its professional photographers.”

That being said, Breukel warns against pigeonholing artists from developing countries. “Photographers should not feel they need to follow a trend to appeal to international markets but rather the task is to gain recognition and acceptance as professional photographers of global quality.”Kim Gurney is a freelance journalist and Western Cape Editor of ArtThrob