South African photographer Guy Tillim

The growth of photographs as an important part of major museum and private collections around the world means that we have moved on from the debate about photographs as merely a tool for documentation and journalism; photographs hold their own as a fine art medium, comparable to painting and other practices.

South Africa and the wider continent have a substantial number of artists who work exclusively with photography, or as part of their mix of mediums. Prominent names include Malian Malick Sidibé, Kenyan Cyrus Kabiru and Zimbabwean Kudzanai Chiurai, to South Africans like David Goldblatt, Guy Tillim, Mikhael Subotzky, Pieter Hugo, Athi-Patra Ruga and the much-vaunted Zanele Muholi.

In global terms, the photographs market shows a sometimes erratic but consistently and unequivocally upward trajectory over the last three decades. Between 1990 and 2017, when last reliably measured, auction turnover on photography rose 1 330%. In 1990 the average price for a photograph at auction was close to $5 000. Today it is more than double that at $10 200. Yet still, the entire segment accounts for just 1.1% of global fine art auction turnover. This indicates a highly specialised market with plenty of room for growth in its prices and collector base.

The highest verified price ever paid for a single photograph at auction is German photographer Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II, which sold in 2011 for $4 338 500. Single photographs by Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, along with a multi-image work by venerated duo Gilbert and George, round out the top four, all with prices just shy of $4 million, with Gursky, Prince and Sherman all featuring more than once on the top-10 list.

By South African, Athi-Patra Ruga (we'ved used this before-I told James) South African photographer Pieter Hugo South African photographer David Goldblatt (we'ved used this before-I told James)

Photography is the serious art of our time. It also happens to be the most accessible and democratic way of making art that has ever been invented. Great art is a sequence of moving pictures of the human condition. Today, photography is the only art that seriously maintains this attention to the stuff that matters.” – Jonathan Jones, art critic.

These figures are currently more the exception than the norm, and photography still represents, for most collectors, a more affordable way of collecting. The medium is one of the best represented internationally, with many festivals and fairs devoted to photography around the world; many of the most prominent of these are in Africa. Paris Photo and Photo London are the world’s largest such forums, and closer to home we find Bamako Encounters, LagosPhoto and Addis Foto Fest.

Given the rising global interest in photographs, how should art lovers go about growing their own collections? Collecting the medium involves, as with all other types of art, first and foremost a passion for the work. But it also invites an engagement with an understanding of various types of prints and their condition. Over the past 180 years, scores of photographic processes have been invented and developed. Historical and contemporary photographers have used a wide range of materials for realising images, from silver and sheet metal to glass and paper, all bringing a different end result. While photographs are robust if properly cared for, they are subject to many of the same conditional issues found in prints and multiples: foxing, creasing, UV degradation and other factors must be taken into account.

Also crucial to the collecting process is understanding editioning. Edition sizes and numbers can vary widely, and are factors that will affect the price. But certain principles of collecting value hold true – handmade prints by the artist, signed and unique prints will generally be more valuable, as will editions with good provenance. So-called ‘vintage’ prints, made immediately or shortly after the negative is created, will also generally fetch higher prices.

South Africa’s photography market, despite a plethora of world-class fine art photographers, has developed more slowly than the major international markets. Aspire has realised consistent success with the medium, however. The auction house’s focus on quality and selectivity in photographs means that Aspire has achieved world-record prices at auction for renowned South African photographer Guy Tillim; South African records for Pieter Hugo and Mikhael Subotzky, prices in the hundreds of thousands of rand for David Goldblatt and Athi-Patra Ruga, and over a million rand for a photographic work by highly respected Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović.   

Given the history of success, Aspire has achieved with contemporary photography in previous sales, the auction house has decided to dedicate a special section of its forthcoming sale to photography. “Our approach as an industry thought leader is to focus on segments of the market where we feel we can grow and develop value and returns for our clients,” comments Aspire MD Ruarc Peffers. “Including top-quality work by the likes of Goldblatt, Tillim, Hugo and Muholi in our forthcoming auction on 2 June in Johannesburg, and focusing on photography as an important market niche going forward, is an integral part of that strategy.”