Bitten by the shutterbug

Photography is finally being taken seriously as an art form in the UK, says Edward Barber, but at the same time digital technology is giving everyone – no matter what their experience – the opportunity to make a mark in the industry

Hamiltons Gallery in London’s Mayfair is the venue for a Helmut Newton exhibition. It is full of men in suits – expensive suits. They go with the territory – a bullish market. Confidence is high and it will soon be time for end-of-year bonuses. These are the dealers who are looking to invest and this is the place where art and commerce collide. For this rare collection of extremely limited edition prints (this picture is an edition of three), prices start at $275 000 (£130 000).

It’s taken a decade for the UK market to catch up with photographic print prices in the US and mainland Europe. Culturally, we can be slow adopters here – despite all the trumpeting of new BritArt and Cool Britannia. The notion that photographs should be treated as art, and prints/editions priced accordingly, has met with resistance.

In part this may be due to some of our premier art institutions and their attitude to photography – for instance, it took the Tate until 2003 to stage its first ever show devoted entirely to photography, Cruel & Tender. Until then it had concentrated on showing photographs by people who were already acknowledged ‘artists’. Somehow, it would appear that photographers were not worthy.

Now, at last, photography is being taken seriously as an art form. Ironic really, given how in the same decade we have seen a huge tidal wave of change sweep over commercial and amateur photography – thanks to the impact of digital technology.

The much talked about ‘democratisation’ of image-making has led to an increase in the number of images being generated, more choice for editors and, consequently, a drop in prices in the day-to-day image marketplace. Microsites supplied by amateur image-makers have undercut the professional market. Remember those covert digital pictures of scenes in Abu Ghraib, or the phone-camera pictures taken by 7/7 survivors in London? These are impossible to imagine in a pre-digital environment.

In cyberspace the possibilities seem endless. For image users, downloading could not be easier. Sites such as Flickr.com provide an amazing resource, freely shared, that undoubtedly inspires creatives everywhere in their endless search for new ideas.

On-line archives have never been so accessible. Amazing pieces of history are available at the touch of a button rather than endless searching through fusty and dusty filing cabinets.

News desks too have been transformed by digital imagery – transmission times have fallen, deadlines have tightened and expectations of new and ever-changing content have never been higher.

So where does this leave photographers trying to launch a career, get commissions, or sell their work? The overcrowded marketplace means that day rates are still low. Entry level rates are even lower. It’s a buyers’ market. Photographers have to work that much harder to attract attention – and all for the same old day rates. Photobooks and self-published magazines are now the promotional vehicles of choice for the ambitious image-maker.

Photo festivals are also flourishing. Ask anyone who went to this year’s PhotoLondon – plenty of galleries and agencies from across Europe were peddling their photographers’ wares with great confidence. Were they putting a brave face on it, or is this buoyancy based on research and real market intelligence?

As for the future, who knows? Traditional photographic materials, processing and printing will become even more expensive and obscure. Whether conventional or digitally generated, the power of photography seems unlikely to be diminished. That includes its use in newspapers to show us current affairs and contemporary culture; in documentary form to record and reveal crucial issues of our time; in the corporate arena to reassure shareholders and investors that all is well; in fashion and advertising to promote brands and sell products; and in galleries, collections and museums to command high prices. Are they good value or a sound investment? Only time will tell.

Edward Barber is a photographer and course director of BA (Hons) Fashion Photography at the London College of Fashion

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