artworldArt Business
Thursday, December 1st, 2005

For Your Eyes Only

Eighteen experts talk with Brian Appel on the $1,248,000 Richard Prince photograph that has set a new world auction record for photography.

Richard Prince Untitled (Cowboy) 1989 Ektacolor print, 50 x 70 inches This work is number one from an edition of two plus one artist proof Pre-auction estimate: $900,000 - 1,200,000 Sold at Christie's Post-War/Contemporary Art auction #1573 for $1,248,000 (including buyer's premium) on November 8th, 2005. Courtesy Christie's Images Limited, 2005
Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy) 1989 Ektacolor print, 50 x 70 inches This work is number one from an edition of two plus one artist proof. Pre-auction estimate: $900,000 - 1,200,000. Sold at Christie's Post-War/Contemporary Art auction #1573 for $1,248,000 (including buyer's premium) on November 8th, 2005. Courtesy Christie's Images Limited, 2005

“There wasn’t really a plan. I’ve never been included in any photography based survey, museum show, photo magazine. I’ve heard that Peter Galassi hates my work. That he would never acknowledge it in the photo department at MoMA. I think he’s wrong. I think my photo work is all about photography. But there was never an idea about where the work was going at the beginning when I started to re-photograph images. When you don’t have any training in a particular medium you can bring something to it that hasn’t been brung (sic). I “brung” the sheriff and I shot him. I killed photography. Maybe they hated that.. I always look for my name in Photography mags but I never see it. Maybe I should have “rescued” photography.”

On November the 9th, one day after Richard Prince had broken his own personal artist record at auction and set a new world auction record for the medium of photography I contacted the international head of photography at Christie’s auction house with the following e-mail:

BRIAN APPEL – Richard Prince is now the most successful photographer alive!

PHILIPPE GARNER – So – Richard Prince takes the crown as the author of THE MOST EXPENSIVE PHOTOGRAPH EVER SOLD AT AUCTION. I am pleased at a professional level, that this is a Christie’s achievement. Personally, this result sets me questioning the ways in which photographic history, and especially recent photographic history, has been written, seemingly reconfigured, by a relatively narrow audience. I am not saying that readings of photography that put Prince where he is are flawed. Clearly Prince is hailed as a Contemporary Artist, a man of ideas whose chosen medium is, perhaps appropriately, photographic. His admirers are not wrong. What I question is the disproportion between the consequences of acclaim in the Contemporary Art forum as against acclaim in other contexts not fueled by testosterone $$$s. What do you think?

BA – Excellent question. Given the fact that Christie’s has identified 82% of last evening’s buyers as American – testosterone does play an important role. The Prince piece, the cowboy image, is absolutely about this very mythology – the mythic, lone, powerfully independent American pioneer. Prince, of course, is really commenting on the machinery of America, the Madison Avenue advertising myth-making machinery that we export around the world and whose underlying meaning is all about what America needs to see reflected in its mirror. Prince nailed this back in the early 80s and here it is in all its hilarious glory sitting on your walls in the auction room right opposite and closest to your Honorary Chairman and Chief Auctioneer Christopher Burge and at the auction preview peaking out brilliantly so you could see it as you walked into the ‘great room’. It is also a victory for photography in that like the role the invention of photography performed at its inception liberating painting from the need to reflect what was happening in the world, Prince’s “Cowboy” releases the medium of photography from its burden to record what the camera is placed in front of. Prince’s piece is really about turning the camera inward.

Probably the buyer(s) of this work were not embracing these art historical meanings when they purchased this artwork, but they were smart enough to intuit that this work, and Prince’s work in general is important and somehow uniquely American. They also were wise enough to place it in their “BEST OF” category as they go about their business of collecting the very best seminal pieces for their “BEST OF” Contemporary collections.

PG – Excellent answer. I acknowledge that Prince’s subject matter is BIG – bigger than the overt content of the images.. He really does see a (metaphorical) bigger picture and expresses his position/attitude – call it what you will – very effectively with an exceptional economy of means. Hats off to him (Stetsons of course).

Prince’s isolation of the tokens of masculinity by re-photographing Madison Avenue’s longest-running fiction, the ridin’, ropin’ Marlboro man are generally thought to be the images that made the artist’s name in the art world. By using the camera to revisit a stage-managed, artificially constructed model created for mass consumption, Prince’s cowboy can be looked upon as not only a re-fashioning of history but also a denial of one of the main tenets of the medium of photography – its inherent ability to record ‘truth’. Excited by this exchange with Philippe and curious about what others would think about the impact of this momentous occurrence, I forwarded this e-mail correspondence to a number of art professionals under the heading – “A SHORT CONVERSATION WITH PHILIPPE GARNER, THE INTERNATIONAL HEAD OF PHOTOGRAPHY AT CHRISTIE’S REGARDING THE RICHARD PRINCE PHOTOGRAPH “Untitled (Cowboy)”, 1989, THAT BROKE THE WORLD AUCTION RECORD FOR ANY PHOTOGRAPH”. Additionally, as I received responses, I sent those out to the same list. In the order I received comments, I bring you, dear reader, their unedited, verbatim thoughts. “For Your Eyes Only” is the beginning, I hope, of more articles that introduce important events in the world of art that are addressed in a ‘round-table’ e-mail format by a number of specialists who share their thoughts on the subject.

BRIAN PAUL CLAMP – director of photo gallery / ClampArt, New York – It is telling that the first photograph to fetch more than one million dollars was a contemporary artwork by a living artist as opposed to a classic, vintage print. Of course, the significance of Richard Prince’s contribution to postmodern art cannot be underestimated. His Marlboro men (along with Cindy Sherman’s untitled film stills) typify the “death of painting” discourse popular in the late 70s and early 80s that set the stage for much of the contemporary art being produced today. Nonetheless, despite my own enthusiasm for and investment in contemporary art, one must first acknowledge that it certainly is the flavor of the day, and the fact that an editioned print by a living artist can fetch far more at auction than a vintage photograph by an acknowledged “master” (whatever that means), may speak more of fashion than sound financial speculation (in the short term, anyway). Granted, such a statement likely seems a bit snarky. Perhaps the traditional photography market is still poised for a major upswing. Or, could it be that the art dealers’ construction of the complicated and troublesome concept of a “vintage print” (typically defined as a photograph made within one to five years of the negative date) has never been wholly accepted or embraced by the large part of the art-buying public?

ALEX NOVAK – photo dealer / Vintage Works Ltd., Chalfont, Pa. / writer, publisher / E – Photo Newsletter – Yeah, I was watching this one too. It’s a shame it sold. I don’t think a lot about Prince’s color copy prints of ads. Anyone could do this work, and I don’t think much about his explanation for it.

His concepts are tired, simplistic ideas that have little to add to any dialogue. And his derivative images just plain bore the heck out of me. Will he go up in value? Most probably, at least for the short to medium term. But that is a fake market value being built up around him and a few other “contemporary artists” by the art market. I hope the actual photographer he is ripping off and Marlboro both sue the hell out of Prince and his dealer. There is plenty of legal precedent for that.

DAVID ZWIRNER – art dealer / David Zwirner, New York – It is surprising that the first million dollar photograph would be a contemporary work and not a vintage photograph. However, given the importance of photography in the artist’s output over the last 25 years and the technological breakthroughs in large-scale color photography it was only a matter of time until the million dollar mark would be broken. It is of course ironic that it would be an appropriated image that makes the leap, thus throwing a question mark at the traditional role of authorship that dominates the vintage photography market.

GREGOR MUIR – director of exhibitions / Hauser + Wirth, London – Prince has made a significant contribution to contemporary art through his use of “re-photography”. Of all the different series using this technique, the “Cowboy” series remains the most profound. That Prince appropriated these images from Marlboro advertisements does not take away from the fact that the finished art works are so recognizably his. This is an important artist, an important body of work, and “UNTITLED (COWBOY)” is an exceptional example. One might say it’s a good day for the “re-photography” market.

DAILE KAPLAN – V.P., director of photographs / Swann Galleries, New York – It’s a measure of photography’s ubiquity in the popular imagination that a photograph has broken the million dollar barrier. That this work was created by a contemporary artist raises a number of interesting issues, not least of which is “what is a photograph?” From my perspective as an auction house specialist and scholar, post-modern discourse has fast-forwarded thinking about photography in a culture that, for the most part, is visually illiterate. Yes, the record for Richard Prince’s photograph is a marvelous watershed for our community. But, it also speaks to the need to cultivate a broader understanding of photographic expression in all its forms.

AVI SPIRA – art consultant / Art Ventures International, Inc., New York – Hard to add much as it’s a brief conversation thus far. The comments are certainly all appreciated (especially David’s [Zwirner]). I just think in 2005 we are so far removed from photography being defined as an artist taking his camera to the “street” and photographing reality, whatever that might be. Thomas Ruff makes camera-less photographs and Jeff Wall makes images that in actuality are a combination of hundreds. Vik Muniz makes photographs of precious collages based on paintings and Sugimoto’s portraits are not even photographs of real people. The list could go on and on. Photography is such a malleable and loosely defined medium at this point that I think any discussion of record prices for a photograph are somewhat moot.

I think the more important angle to “the Richard Prince story” is the real star of today’s market boom – Andy Warhol – as almost all successful artistic paths increasingly seem to now run through Warhol’s indelible and enormous footprints.

ROBERT MANN – Robert Mann Gallery, New York – I think this is a wonderful milestone for the art world! I am especially thrilled that you are succinctly classifying the Prince as a photograph. Along with David Zwirner, I too am surprised that the first photograph sold publicly for over one million dollars is not a vintage work by a classical photographer. I would venture to say that this record will be broken this winter when Sotheby’s auctions off works from the Metropolitan Museum of Art / Gilman Paper Company Collection. The Edward Steichen “The Pond – Moonlight” print will more than likely top the Prince.

MARLA HAMBURG KENNEDY – photo publisher / Picture This Publications, photo consultant / HK Photo, New York – I have been thinking about this a great deal. I find it very apropos that the new world record would be a photograph that has been made under the auspices of contemporary fine art. This is an artist that is clearly considered not a photographer but a fine artist who utilizes for some of his work, photography. It is far away from traditional classic photography concerns but ensconced in conceptual issues. Moreover it shows still the great gap between prices of classic photography that is shown in photography galleries and sold in photography auctions and contemporary photography that is shown in art galleries and sold at the contemporary sales. To wit, a major perhaps vintage unique photograph by one of the century’s greatest photographers (Arbus, Weston, Strand, Stieglitz, Frank) can be acquired for under $500,000, while this price is comparable to photographic works done in editions of 10 by an artist like Andreas Gursky (or Richard Prince).

In sum, in my opinion, this shows the stupendous opportunity to buy great works of photography at a relatively very low price compared to the other mediums, and growth potential in the market. I cannot encourage the collecting of important photography more!

MAUREEN BRAY – director of exhibitions / L&M Arts, New York – I think the Prince work is worth every penny that it made at auction. Zwirner makes an interesting point about contemporary photo vs. vintage print. I think the world is finally at a point where contemporary photography and fine art is synonymous. Therefore, we’ll see even more contemporary artists working in the photo medium achieve these auction results. But perhaps the older, vintage photographs may always be seen as a subset of “art”. As they continue to grow in historical significance, they will gain in value, but they may always be considered a subset. I look forward to watching that development. The question might be: what is the cut-off parameters for historical photographs or contemporary art that is in a photographic medium?

PETER MacGILL – photo dealer / Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York – Maureen Bray makes a lot of interesting points, but I don’t really agree that older, vintage photographs may always be seen as a subset of “art”. Even a cursory examination of art history reveals that photography and the other arts are clearly intertwined. Can one really consider Duchamp without Man Ray or vice versa? Those who have embraced this understanding have collected mightily and are, probably, the big winners for they have the goods. Collectors of contemporary art are collecting “vintage” photographs as they recognize their importance, place in history, rarity and archival qualities.  Do you think people understand the permanence issues relating to color photography?

STUART ALEXANDER – photo specialist / Christie’s, New York – In response to David Zwirner’s remark, I would say that there is no “question mark” because the “author” of the appropriated Marlboro ad is Richard Prince and not a lesser-known or anonymous artist, thus “authorship” still matters. In order for a “ready-made” to sell for large amounts of money it must be signed by the well-known artist.

SIMON de PURY – chairman and chief auctioneer / Phillips de Pury & Company, New York – This result in no way constitutes a surprise. First it is only a catching up of the public market place with the private one where the million dollar mark for photographs by Richard Prince had been surpassed on at least two occasions. If over the last two years new record prices for his work have been broken with great frequency it is only a long overdue recognition of the market for one of the greatest artists living today. This is an artist constantly evolving and whose recent and current work is as strong as anything he has ever done. Of the twenty most expensive Prince works sold to date at auction, six were photographs. Photography is just one of the mediums that this artist is working in with equal impact.

The art market in general and the photography market in particular are going through major changes so that in my view in the future the million dollar mark will often be beaten by major works of Richard Prince in any medium and in the photography market by a range of photographers both contemporary and past.

PAUL SACK – photo collector (Top 25 “ARTnews”) / San Francisco – I just think it is too bad that, with all the great photographs that have been taken since 1839, the first to sell at auction for more than $1million is a photograph of another photograph.

ROGER SZMULEWICZ – photo dealer / Fifty One Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium – I must say I am divided regarding this important event. On the one hand, I am delighted that a photograph has finally reached the one million dollar mark at auction as it has been dealing with the stigma of being seen as a ‘slightly lesser’ medium of the fine arts because of its unique properties – one of which is its potential for infinite reproduction. Certainly for a photograph to receive prices that are consistent with the other mediums such as painting and sculpture is a change in credibility that is late in coming. On the other hand, buying at auction can be an environment where anything is possible in terms of motivation to purchase. Craving social status, the desire to do something that is seen as intellectual or prescient, or buying for speculation purposes only could be factors motivating buyers besides the passion for the work of art itself. I do think however, that, whatever the motivations on behalf of buyers at auction, this activity is not a fad or a blip in the history of the medium. More of the same is on the horizon.

LESLIE TONKONOW – art dealer / Leslie Tonkonow, New York – Richard Prince is among the most significant artists of his generation. His ideas transcend the various mediums in which he works and his photographic pieces from the late 1970s and 1980s are among his most important works. Why ask the question about a photograph? Is this auction record noteworthy because someone was willing to spend more than a million dollars on a photograph or because it’s a type of color photograph predicted by experts to fade within three decades? What is fascinating and mystifying to me is the relationship of art and money. What constitutes value? What motivates the buyer? Is this an investment or lavish consumption?

OLIVER KAMM – art dealer (NADA) / 5BE Gallery, New York – Is it a photo? Yes and no – it’s really just part of an artist’s output. I think of him as a painter and a photographer and an appropriationist – so is it really just a photograph? No – he’s not just a photographer. I think he is hugely talented and I think these prices are off the charts. It doesn’t make sense. It’ll bite everyone in the ass. I’m just glad I’m not Barbara Gladstone having to deal with all this secondary work coming back on the market.

THEA WESTREICH – art advisor / Thea Westreich Art Advisory Service, New York – First, the Richard Prince photograph was not the first photographic work to break the million dollar mark. A Man Ray vintage photograph surpassed that mark some four years ago. The more important thing about the market in photography, both contemporary and vintage is that it is taking its place alongside other, more traditional mediums and is being accepted, as it should be, for its importance in overall art making practices. Having said this, it is equally important to accept the fact that standards of scholarship and connoisseurship lag far behind in the rapidly growing photography market. There are fewer catalogue raissonnes, less consensus on the standards to be applied to the evaluation of any given work of art, and generally not enough agreed upon information on issues of vintage, color stability, numbers of prints, etc.

With regard to the Richard Prince Cowboy, I have always felt that he chose the images made by advertising directors because they reflected his views on image making, which simply put, are more about how the viewer sees the image than the image itself. The truth and fiction issue lies in the creation of an image that is rich and fecund enough to defy a single read. Thus the cowboy is an icon to wide segments of the consuming public… he is sexy to both men and women, he represents freedom, he is both the iconic American and an outsider at the same time, and, he is on the road… another subject of interest to the artist which early in his work is reflected in the drawings he made out of car windows over car hoods… one need not say more. Richard’s work is highly considered and of whole cloth, richly woven with themes not always easily explicable, but always there for the curious and available eye.