Is the art photography market facing a crisis similar to that of the financial markets? There are numerous parallels. Manfred Heiting, a Los Angeles-based collector and editor, and Michael Maria Müller, photographer and owner of Artificial Image digital studio in Berlin, talk about a highly-charged taboo on the photo market. The conversation took place on 24 November 2008, at the invitation of „European Photography“, on the premises of Artificial Image, Berlin.
Heiting: In the early 1990s prices for classical photography sky-rocketed. This was justified, given that there was relatively little material available on the market. What is more, the quality differences from print to print were very evident. All this changed when the images got bigger and more colorful and gained an entrée into museums. The photographer was no longer in a position to make these large prints himself, but had to have his negatives, slides or digital files processed by machines. These could print one or a hundred copies at the mere press of a button – and what came out was always the same. In other words, the technical mastery was transferred from the photographer to the company specialized in making such prints. That is to say, it was outsourced to service companies such as yours . . .
Müller: . . . although I see myself in the position of mediator. After all, I was originally a photographer and as such always aspired to process my images myself, beginning with Cibachrome and going on to EP2 and black-and-white processes to silkscreen print and reprography. In the early 1990s, I had my first dealings with the Iris printer, with which very stable results could be achieved if it was well maintained. But the most fascinating thing about it was the possibility of printing on very different papers and materials. Originally, I tried and tested it all for my own personal use. Then some of the photographers and artists who had seen my results came to me and said they would like to have that too.
Heiting: In that case, you are indeed the exception, someone whomakes it possible for the technically less well-versed photographerto achieve good results. For example: For years, an internationally successful gallery-photographer has had his prints made in a studioin Los Angeles that processes his files and then, after tests and corrections, sends the prints directly to the gallery – without the photographer having seen them before hand! All he does is provide a certificate. In principle, one cannot really object to this procedure, it’s just that it is no longer the process that leads to a master print, which is, after all, what justifies the individual price. So the photographer comes to you, with his own ideas of course, and says, “now it’s up to you,” and then you produce the right product using the machine.
Müller: That’s not quite the way it works. I look upon it as a collaboration, with the aim of creating the best possible product. What I can say, however, is that many works would look quite different without us. Such divisions of labor already have a tradition in art. Some artists arrive with artworks that are simply appalling, technically. Photographers would probably come to grief with this kind of product, but with artists things are sometimes a bit different, because the criteria applied are different, on the art market too. So we sit together on the work and try to make something of it. For example a large print, which the artwork did not really provide the scope for, but which the gallery wants to have because large prints sell better.
Heiting: So we are back to the market again, which is not only ravenous, but also pays no attention whatsoever to what becomes of the prints later. Let’s take Richard Misrach, an excellent photographer from whom I bought color prints in the 1980s at the going price of 500 dollars then. Due to my work for Polaroid, I was aware that color prints are only partially lasting and that special storage rules had to be adhered to, but with a supposed durability of 20 to 25 years, it was an altogether reasonably-priced delight. Last year, three of Misrach’s early prints were offered to a gallery-owner, who then inquired of Misrach and his gallery what they were worth. You can imagine his astonishment when he was told that the prints had lost their color and were therefore worthless. Were the client to donate one of the three motifs on offer to a museum, however, he would be willing to make a new print of it at a cost-price of 450 dollars. I find this response very dubious. Why is a color print “worthless” after 20 years, and why must a client “donate” a print which is then renewed for a certain price, especially when three prints were on offer? Either the photographer renews his images or he doesn’t. But there is yet another problem involved here: When I buy a machine product, I am told precisely how to use and care for it. When I buy a machine-made color print, I am not told what is important: it has to be stored at a constant cool temperate, exposed to no UV light, have no front lamination! If such information is not provided at prices of 30,000 Euros and more, then lawyers are surely going to turn up some time and assert rights of recourse. I firmly believe that the market cannot function very much longer without transparency and expertise.
Müller: I was altogether shocked to realize that color photographs could almost totally fade after five years. That was in the mid-1980s. When I set up my own company in the late 1990s, light-resistant inks were available, but only three or four materials which had been tested by Henry Wilhelm in the United States and were recommended. We then had our own tests done and informed our clients. But instead of being grateful, they were completely unnerved. They didn’t really want to know. I realized that strict silence was being observed on the problem of durability and light-resistance, what is more, by all parties involved. When I go to an art fair and ask gallerists about the “protective” lamination on the photographs, for example, all I see are surprised faces. The problem is simply being ignored.
Heiting: Yes, that’s a fundamental problem and reminds me of thesub-prime mortgage crisis. You play along because everyone else is doing so, and no one dares to ask: Do you really know what you are buying and selling? I’m a member of several purchasing committees and rigorously assert the opinion that people should not buy color prints without precise information, should not buy laminated prints, and should have realistic prices in mind. Must a museum acquire prints at speculative market prices so that the prices can be driven even higher as a result? Is the cultural commodity of the photograph only about value appreciation? Today you occasionally hear a voice from the growing number of photo-conservationists saying, no, we cannot spend money on a picture under acrylic glass because when the first bubbles form after some time, it can no longer be restored.
Müller: The market wants large images, and it wants acrylic sealings. Every week I get inquiries about Diasec or acrylic sealings, but I refuse to work that way. You only have to smell the stuff to know that acid is used in them, and everyone knows how well paper and acid get on with one another.
Heiting: Recently, when purchasing photographic prints, U.S. museums have been using a fact sheet that demands from the seller technical details about the colors, printing process, printing machine and paper, in addition to information about the subject, provenance and copyrights. Let’s not deceive ourselves, a large number of the contemporary photographic prints being traded on the market are onehundred- percent technical mass products and not unique works. The latter have to have a “fact file” providing the buyer with information on how to preserve and care for the picture. The people involved are not doing themselves any favors by buying and selling something for which there are no “instruction for use” and instead trusting blindly that it will last forever and increase in value. Even the clients of that company, what’s it called, Limo… Luma…, with the chain of galleries in Germany . . .
Müller: . . . Lumas . . .
Heiting: . . . yes, even those customers hope that the prints they got for cheap will increase in value. That’s madness, as the U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis illustrates. I’m convinced that the wrong approach when acquiring a work is to consider the aspect of value increase. What is more, the production of large color prints is destined to decline in the coming years, and due to the world economic crises collectors – certainly museums in any case – will demand precise data about durability, and also more realistic prices.
Müller: I would be delighted if museums took a pioneering role here and established clear rules. We have always given our clients the technical data on their products. Whether they then passed them on is of course another matter. We certainly make no secret of our work.
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- • European Photography. The Independent Art Magazine
- • Kurzbiografie Manfred Heiting (in englischer Sprache)