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in the face of a gritty reality, photography collectors turn to traditional images at reasonable price points

Nostalgia and nature dominate photos trends: in the face of a gritty reality, photography collectors turn to traditional images at reasonable price points

Barden Prisant

Doom and gloom. That seems to be the sum total of what is on television these days. First, we are bombarded by a steady stream of disturbing images of international political turmoil. Then we are treated to footage of boarded-up corporate headquarters. America’s geopolitical and economic travails have not exactly put its citizens in a spending mood, and in the photo world, this has taken its toll. According to Alex Novak, the publisher of the E-Photo Newsletter, the photography market is slogging on at levels below those of two to three years ago.

Imagine if there were a way for dealers to improve their bottom lines while simultaneously lifting the public out of the doldrums. Is there really such a solution?

“People are looking to escape the sensory overload and recapture some peace,” observed Anita Kirk, a representative of the Canadian publisher Art in Motion. She believes that the “gritty images displayed through the media” have pounded Americans into submission.

To what, then, do they turn for relief? Nostalgia and nature are proving to be two areas of refuge.

A Victory for the Vintage Look

“The latest trends in photography in the open-edition market are focused on simpler times;” said Kirk. By way of example, consider the work entitled “Vintage Typewriter” by one of her firm’s new photographers, Tara Wrobel. After a day of watching the markets, an overwrought investor could surely muster at least a wry smile for such an iconic image of the pre-computer age.

One of Art in Motion’s other photographers, Richard Gaskins, not only generates vintage-looking images, but he duplicates age-old techniques to do so. In these days when you can squeeze 5-mega-pixel color images into a handheld Canon, he still goes to the effort of designing and building enormous room-size black-and-white cameras to ensure crisp resolution). His piece entitled “Star Magnolia” references the work of Imogen Cunningham. Since her vintage still life photographs can now fetch $50,000 or more, owning works by Gaskins may be as close as most of us can get to such beauty. His originals sell for $1,500 to $2,500 and Art In Motion’s prints of his images retail for $12.

While Art in Motion has decided to market vintage-looking images by contemporary photographers, other publishers have decided to go straight to the source and market reprints of vintage images. “Vintage photography comforts us with nostalgic icons,” said Allison Dailey of Portal Publications, a poster publisher located in Novato, Calif. Steve Hartman, president of the Contessa Gallery in Cleveland, also sees such iconography as a salve for our daily media trauma. “People think that the past was better, that the grass was greener,” he opined. “[It is something to which] they can look back in fondness.”

Dailey said, “Romantic photographs, especially those with European influence, rank among Portal’s top images.” At Contessa Gallery, photographs drawn from LIFE magazine have been very popular because, said Hartman, “people grew up with it.” This success is made all the more serendipitous by the fact that he has only recently started carrying photographs.

His supplier for images from the LIFE Picture Collection is iPHOTOART, which calls itself the “nation’s leading publisher and distributor of photographic prints to the trade.” According to left Linton, the firm’s vice president of sales and marketing, Nyack, N.Y.-based photo publisher has found that the appeal of such images has helped the firm “convert fine-art galleries into fine-art and photo galleries.” The success of the LIFE photographs lies in the fact that “the images are old, in that you are familiar with them; but new, in that you have never before been able to purchase them as wall art.”

Many of the pictures that appeared in LIFE over the years have become part of American iconography: a theatre crowded with viewers wearing 3-D glasses, a sailor and a nurse kissing on V-J Day in Times Square, Babe Ruth standing before the microphones at Yankee Stadium. “Historic photojournalism strikes a chord amongst galleries and photo collectors in these challenging times,” said Linton.

For the well-heeled collector, iPHOTOART offers the LIFE Master Edition prints, which can cost as much as $48,000 each. Most are s/n limited-editions which are hand printed from the photographer’s original negatives. For the more budget-conscious, open-editions can be purchased for as little as $69.95. Either way, these are pictures far superior to the clipped, crumpled pages from LIFE many Americans remember taping to their dorm room walls.

iPHOTOART augments the LIFE collection with numerous others that are chock-full of vintage images such as The Associated Press Collection, which comprises more than 60 million images. Amongst them are 28 Pulitzer prize winners, including “Flag Raising at Iwo Jima,” which has been described as “perhaps the most recognizable image in American photojournalism history.” iPHOTOART also carries images from the George Eastman House, which was the first U.S. museum dedicated to preserving and exhibiting photography.

Which, of all of the vintage examples on offer, have been most popular? In general, said Linton, “Americana, sports, jazz and dance are some of the genre’s that are selling well.”

While we have “Americana” photographs to tug at our heart strings, other countries have their own beloved vintage images. Stephen Cohen, director of the photo l.a. and Photo San Francisco shows, and owner of the Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles, has found success with certain Japanese photographs. He has been marketing pieces by a recently rediscovered photographer named Asano, who documented mid-20th-century Japanese festivals. All in all, Cohen concurred that “more traditional images are faring better,” be they American or foreign.

Back to Nature

Today’s traditional images, however, do not always show moments in world history. Sometimes, they show moments in natural history.

It is logical that travelogue-style photography depicting nature in its glory would be popular with today’s collectors. How many viewers would rather watch Discovery Channel programs set in Tahiti than news coverage from Iraq? What applies in the world of moving pictures also applies in the world of still ones. According to Kirk, “for the decorative home-decor market, non-figural images are popular.” Dailey also attests to this interest when she observed that “Portal’s best selling photographic themes include tropical beaches and tranquil landscapes.”

Stephen Cohen, and Yancey Richardson Gallery of New York, who both exhibited at Photo San Francisco, found success with the images of Lynn Geesaman. Hers are straightforward scenes depicting public gardens, which often include rows of trees neatly extending into the distance. Her images extol the virtues of orderliness and nature, and collectors living in urban areas often have a short supply of both. It is no wonder that they have found a following.

iPHOTOART, has recently moved to augment its supply of historical photographs with, in the words of Linton “soothing, uncontroversial images” that focus on the great outdoors. This year, the company formed an exclusive licensing relationship to publish and distribute prints of photos that appeared in the pages of National Geographic. Although the have only just started marketing these works, Linton noted that “the early indications are very good that that material will be popular.” This is not surprising since the titles alone–“Gliding Through the Mist,” “Sailboats Silhouetted,” “Star Streaks Over Sandstone Formations”–seem designed to relax today’s stressed out public.

The Price is Right

Collectors are gravitating towards vintage and natural history photography as an antidote to these challenging times. When potential customer shows interest in such pieces, is there anything that a dealer car do to help seal a deal?

“People are looking for value today,” observes Hartman. He said he is confident that “photos have been undervalued in relation to fine art” and so have a natural appeal to today’s savvy shoppers with shallow pockets. “With the current slow economy, consumers are looking for quality art at affordable prices,” confirmed Dailey.

Linton has also witnessed similar trends. “Because of the economy, more galleries are looking at photographs because of the price point,” he said. He sees inexpensive vintage images as “the one-two punch” for today’s market, and although he has not yet had enough time to draw a firm conclusion, it is also possible that inexpensive natural ones may sell just as well.

Whichever they choose, though, collectors will go home with photographs that they love twice over. First, they will enjoy the photos themselves (especially after watching the news), and second, they will feel a warm glow in their wallets when they recall just how thrifty they were in purchasing them. Perhaps these pieces are just what both the public and the photo world need to fend off the doom and gloom.

SOURCES

* Art in Motion, www.artinmotion.com

* Contessa Gallery, www.contessa-gallery.com

* E-Photo Newsletter, www.iphotocentral.com

* iPHOTOART, www.iphotoart.com

* Portal Publications, www.portalpublications.com

* Stephen Cohen Gallery, www.stephencohengallery.com

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