In Delhi, 1998, American curator Peter Negy of Nature Morte — at that time, a man without a gallery — rented two ante-rooms in the Qutub Colonnade. Negy was showcasing Dayanita Singh’s Family Portraits. It got press, but sold nothing. Two decades later, it seems photography is finally getting its due.
Experts say that art photography as idea, trend and collectible, got a push in India thanks to the derring-do of photographers who continued their personal projects and gallerists for opening their doors at a time when the world went into recession in the middle of last decade.
The boost to photography beyond photojournalism, says veteran photographer Prashant Panjiar, depended on another happy coincidence. “Paintings were overpriced and good art photography, one that went beyond mere representation, was available,” he says. In 2005-7, Raghu Rai and Dayanita Singh started to sell.
For gallery owners, however, it was the best of times and the worst of times. “With artworks becoming more expensive, younger collectors turned their attention to more affordable works like photo prints…but the buying began in 2006,” says Devika Daulet-Singh, director, Photoink. But space was still a crunch. Daulet-Singh, said she did want to “wait in cue for a 5-day exhibition at venues like the IIC when photographers had worked on a project for 4-5 years”. Photoink opened its gallery in 2008. Her photographers now get solo exhibitions for 7-8 weeks.
The gallery’s roster of photographers include artists like Richard Bartholomew (Rs 70,000-2,00,000), Anay Mann (Rs 60-80,000) and Vivan Sundaram who sell between Rs 3.5 -5 lakh (the Trash series). Its website provides backend support and retail information for potential buyers.
Shalini Gupta, partner, Tasveer Arts, still works out of rented spaces. So if you want a Raghu Rai, Prashant Panjiar or a Prabuddha Dasgupta print, contact Gupta’s Man Friday, Khushboo, through their website. A gallery is, after all, not a shop. Says Vidya Shivadas, a curator with the Vadehra Art Gallery, “Collectors know that the gallery has a relationship with the artist, so even if his/her works are not hanging on the wall, it can be got. The collector has to engage with what we have and we have to engage with what they want.”
An acknowledgment of photography as bonafide art practice has also meant that gallerists like Shalini Gupta have been able to host her exhibitions at other art-only spaces like Vadehra, Nature Morte, Art Motif, Stainless. “They all now show photography either as solo or group shows,” says Gupta.
Nature Morte, for instance, represents three photographers (Gauri Gill, Dayanita Singh and Bharat Sikka) though many of its artists such as Samit Das, Sheba Chhachhi, Reena Saini Kallat, Anita Dube do use photography as a tool and experiment with combining it with other media. Another sign of vitality in the photo market, has been an average increase in prices. “The increase has been between 50-125% in the last 5 years,” adds Shalini Gupta.
Gurgaon-based gallery, Quill and Canvas, that keeps Prabuddha (as does Tasveer), and new-gen photographers like Vivek Mehra (Rs 3,000), Malavika Andrew (Rs 18-45,000) and Saba Hasan (Rs 35-55,000 max) focus on “new talent,” says proprietor Shobha Sengupta.
Ajay Rajgarhia who owns the gallery Wonderwall, says this is the time to invest. “You can still get a Dinesh Khanna for Rs 80,000...”
Photographers, however, have a few grouses. Says Gauri Gill: “The market has stepped in. But it’s a bit like the Wild West right now with everyone jumping in... ultimately we need the education so that people are visually literate, there is serious publishing and we can develop our own history, look at it, teach it…there are no public grants or state support either.”
After long years of self-funding on one project, even the top 10 photographers may sell one photograph for Rs 80,000 to a lakh in a single show, of which, galleries keep between 30 and 50% of the print price. Art photography, so far, in India, doesn’t pay the bills.