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Time to focus

The Indian photography market is being hailed as the next big thing. But is it really? Yes, things are looking quite good, but there’s a long way to go, writes Colleen Braganza.

india Updated: Mar 23, 2009 16:23 IST
Colleen Braganza

In 1998, when master photographer Dayanita Singh held an exhibition at Gallery Nature Morte in Delhi, people were shocked to see black and white photographs in an art space. None of her photographs sold. In December 2008, a Dayanita photograph sold for a little over Rs 7 lakh at an online auction in India, exceeding its estimate price of Rs 4-6 lakh.

Now before we get into the controversy regarding the auction of that photograph let’s first ask some questions.
What changed in 10 years? Did Dayanita become a better photographer? Though it goes without saying that Dayanita, who pushes the boundaries of her art with each exhibition – she has travelled from taking family portraits in black and white to photographing interior spaces to industrial landscapes and has published eight books – has evolved as a photographer all these years, she was well-established and respected even in 1998. Not only that, the photograph titled ‘Gandhi’s Room, Anand Bhavan, Allahabad’, that sold for Rs 7 lakh, was taken in the year 2000. So the question should be: has our attitude towards photography changed? The answer is a yes. But as we probed further we found it is not as simple as that. There is still a long way to go.

Photography and India
First, a little history. Unlike the West, where photography is well recognised as an art form, the Indian art market was fixated on painting and sculpture till a few years ago.

In 2006-07 a boom in the art world put painting and sculpture out of the reach of many collectors who looked for more affordable art. Photography filled that space rather well.

“In the last two years, because of the art boom as paintings became much more expensive and difficult to get many people who wanted to collect and buy art had to start looking at photography,” says Peter Nagy, director of gallery Nature Morte.
That much has changed is evident from the spurt in galleries showing interest in photography. So besides art galleries showing photography many galleries devoted exclusively to photography were established – Photoink in 2008, Gallery Art and Design in 2007 and Tasveer in 2006.

So, from over 10 years ago, when photography meant only two things to us – photos in magazines and newspapers that made photojournalists like Kishore Parekh and Raghu Rai household names, and photos taken by wedding photographers who had the knack of catching us just as we stuffed our faces – things have changed for sure.
“In the last 10 years people’s perception of photography as art has changed. There is an understanding that photography is no longer a handmaid to the arts,” says Devika Daulet Singh, who established Photoink, a photo agency and a publication design studio in 2001 (the gallery opened in 2008) to bridge the gap between contemporary photography and the public in India.

Referring to Dayanita Singh, who was recently conferred the Prince Claus award by the government of Netherlands ‘for introducing a new aesthetic into Indian photography’, Devika says Dayanita must have been regarded as a pesky photographer when she was younger. “Today people will give an arm and leg to have her come and make a family portrait. Why would they do it? Because of a certain visibility her work has got in India and abroad. People are aware of her history and engage with her work. So what does that suggest? That things have turned.”

Ignorance is not bliss
So does this change in attitude signal that the photography market is India is maturing and maturing well?
It will be simplistic to assume so.

Industry experts agree that ignorance about photography is rampant not only among buyers but among gallerists too.
Fraud in photography is possible at a much larger scale than any other art form because of its easy reproducibility in film or digital format.

But though most photographers now follow a system where they release signed limited edition prints (see box) of their work that is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity, the onus to ensure quality and authenticity rests on photographers and their primary gallerists. Even unlimited editions must be signed to ensure prints that can cost as little as Rs 5,000 and as much as Rs 8 lakh are not copies or prints rejected by the photographer. But there is no one to maintain checks “That system (editions) has to be institutionalized in India for collectors to be comfortable with it,” says Peter Nagy.
Here’s an example of the ignorance that prevails in the market.

When the Dayanita photograph sold for over Rs 7 lakh at the Saffronart auction last year, the media hailed the event as the coming of age of Indian photography. That during a time of such grimness, when the world economy was in the grip of a slowdown, Indian photography still sold, and sold well, made for much optimism.

But what no one mentioned was that the print was unsigned and did not possess an authentication certificate either.
“I had sold a very special print to an art gallery for their own gallery collection. It was unsigned as it was mounted on aluminum. I had planned to make the authentication certificate when I was at the gallery at a later time. Never imagining they would sell it,” says Dayanita, whose most recent exhibition, Blue Book, a study of industrial landscapes, was the first show of her colour photographs in India.

This print exchanged hands four times. The gallerist, sold it to an art fund, who sold it to auction house, who sold it to the collector.

“Not one of them asked whether it was signed or had an authentication certificate. On realising this I called the auction house and said I would make a certificate for the new owners but they could not tell me who the new owners were,” says Dayanita.

That’s how ignorant the art market is about photography in India. Though Dinesh Vazirani, CEO Saffronart, defended the auction saying the photograph “came from a reputed gallery, probably the biggest gallery in India so there was no issue of it not being a Dayanita print,” the fact remains that a buyer paid Rs 7 lakh for a photograph that is neither signed nor has an authentication certificate.
This is not all.

Even the understanding of what constitutes a good photograph is limited. This is evident from the fact that when the photography market jumped on the art bandwagon during the economic boom, anyone with a camera held an exhibition and passed on a lot of bad photography at ridiculous prices. “Photographers holding their first shows priced their photographs at Rs 80,000 to Rs 1 lakh. And they sold. There were a lot of people who did lots of strange things because they weren’t asking the right questions,” says Devika (see box, Determining Value.)

It didn’t help that a few established painters who experimented with the camera sold their largely mediocre photographic works at high prices based on their reputations as painters.

“The scene in India is such that a hotch-potch of everything – good or bad – gets sold. It’s good for some,” laughs master of the art, Raghu Rai, who has photographed almost every aspect of Indian life since he started out as a photojournalist 40 years ago. “But photography needs to be directed the right way and that is not happening. Very few buyers understand the value of photography as an art form. For them, they are just pretty pictures,” he says.

What makes it art?
This brings us to that million-dollar question. What makes a photograph a work of art? How do you differentiate a photograph that your 10-year-old daughter may take from a work of art?

It is easier to walk to the moon and back than to draft a universally accepted definition. But award-winning photographer Swapan Parekh, son of legendary photojournalist Kishore Parekh, perhaps captures it best. According to him, for photography to have its place in the world of art, it must show the hand of a competent artist.

“He must also be a technically competent photographer who uses his technique… to deliberately make it a part of his narrative… One snapshot may not qualify as art, but a collection of ‘snapshots’ that are deliberately shot that way to reveal a point of view, would qualify.”

Ashish Chawla, who had his first exhibition in Italy last year, agrees. “There must be a consistency in an artist’s body of work.”

“I do art for personal expression. That is why it becomes fine art photography,” says photographer Dinesh Khanna, who couldn’t believe people were willing to pay good money to acquire his photographs when he started exhibiting in 1995 and has held shows in Delhi, Mumbai, London, San Francisco and New York since.

Others believe photography must move away from what it was originally intended for – a means of documentation – to be classified as art. “It has to be conceptual, it has to be relevant, it has to be rooted in our own milieu,” says advertising and fashion photographer Rohit Chawla whose most recent exhibition paid tribute to celebrated painter Raja Ravi Verma.

But (and there is always one) there is a contrary view to that too. Photoink’s Devika argues that the passage of time privileges several photographs because we learn a lot from them decades after they were taken. That makes them something people want to collect and hang on their walls.

She illustrates her point referring to Raghu Rai’s archive of Indira Gandhi. “That is a phenomenonal record. It’s probably the only visual biography of any political personality in this country. That era is over. His visual biographies are valuable records which is why people are interested in them.”

Creating a dialogue
Whatever it is, it’s going to be a while before we even get to start understanding photography as an art form because there simply isn’t enough exposure, literature or documentation in India. Education is essential.

“At most photography openings, people know more about the wine being served than anything else. Unlike an art form like painting, photography is also a consumer medium. Everyone takes pictures. So at some point I think the craft also has to be highlighted and there should be people – photographers, gallerists, critics and an audience – who can be educated enough to see this difference and consistency in the caliber of images. Whatever the genre,” says Swapan, whose solo show ‘Between Me & I’ was on view in Mumbai last December.

The need of the hour, says award-winning photographer and photojournalist Pablo Bartholomew, is “education, serious education in terms of the visual grammar and context, both in the Indian and the Western contexts... There is too much ignorance and all sorts of stuff gets passed up as ‘hot shit’.”

Raghu Rai agrees. “To set standards you need curators and critics who understand photography in a global context. India has almost none of that. Those who are there have a very limited understanding.”

For the photography market to energise, there needs to be more galleries working with photography. “You cannot build a market in isolation. You need a collective energy to build a market because one gallery can only work with so many people,” says Devika.

Galleries also need to cultivate collectors who are likely to stay with photography in the long term unlike investors who pack up and run at the hint of the slightest fall in prices.

Indian photography also needs photographers who create their own vocabulary. “The bulk of photography here is happy, snappy nice, pretty or a second-rate copy of the West. Many well-known photographers are heavily influenced by the Western style. They inflict these styles in India and we think they are doing different work,” says Raghu Rai, who just released his latest book on Delhi.

“It is no longer enough to replicate what Bruce Weber or Herb Ritts did in the early 90s,” says Rohit Chawla, referring to groundbreaking American fashion photographers.

The Road ahead
For all that is wanting, few disagree that photography in India is headed to an interesting place. “We are seeing a lot more international interest, a lot more museum exhibitions on the anvil. I think the fact that Indian photography is being shown at major museums and institutions around the world says a lot for how universal it is and about people’s interest in what is happening in this area in India.” says Devika.

Saffronart’s Vazirani feels change, if any, will take time. “In India, we don’t have culture of looking at photography as an art form. Galleries are doing a lot by focusing on photography a lot more. But how many photography publications do we have? How much awareness is there about photographers? It definitely has a future because Indian photographers are some of the best in the world but it will take time.”

Raghu Rai feels that time could be more than a few years. “If there is more photography happening there is more interaction more exhibitions and maybe in 10-15 years time people will understand photography,” he laughs.

What you need to know:

Limited editions
Unlike paintings, photographs are easily reproduced. But for photography to be part of the art world, collectors wanted the work to be quantified in some way. So, an artificial system, the edition system, was created to sell photography.

Photographers who follow the edition system limit production of their prints to a pre-determined number of editions (copies), say 3, 5, 7 or even 25.

Once a photographer establishes his edition, he cannot sell more than the number that has been established. It doesn’t matter how important the collection is or how much the photographer might want to. It just cannot be done.

Limited edition prints must be signed or carry a certificate of authenticity to guarantee the print hasn’t been made from a scanned limited edition print, a poster that has been framed or an artist proof (two prints a photographer working in editions keeps for his personal use) or work print that found its way into the market.

Once all the prints of an edition are sold, that edition is said to be ‘closed’. There are hardly any closed editions in India.

The price of a print from a closed edition can really go up if it is auctioned because it is no longer available. But what often happens is that prints from open editions (prints from the edition are still available) find their way to auctions. And since auctions sell to the highest bidder, prices can really go up.

So if a photograph you are interested in comes up for auction, the smart thing to do is to check whether that print belongs to an open edition. If it does, find out the gallery the photographer works with and acquire one of the remaining editions. This will ensure you pay the gallery price rather than a premium from the auction.

Determining value
If you are seriously looking at collecting photography, you should know that ‘price’ rarely denotes quality.

Instead of assuming highly priced photographs are worth collecting, do some homework on the photographers instead. “The photographers’ history, how much they have been exhibited, how many solo shows they’ve had (not including café shows), how many museum shows they’ve been part of and the collections they have been part of all determine value,” says Devika Daulet Singh, director of Photoink, a photo agency, photo gallery and publication design studio.

Archival printing & framing
If you pay a couple of thousands or even lakhs for a photograph, you expect it to last your lifetime at the least. But that will only happen if the print you buy is printed on archival paper with archival inks, a practice that is now catching on in India. These photos will last for a 100 years or more. Photographs printed on any other paper last a maximum of 30 years.

But archival printing is not enough either. Photographer Dayanita Singh, who is extremely particular about her printing and framing, says there is no point having archival prints if you don’t frame them archivally.

“Turn the back of most prints in India and you will see MDF board and packing tape.” The board and tape deteriorate over the years and discolour the ‘archivally’ printed photograph inside. But remember, even archivally printed and framed prints can fade if put in direct sunlight.

Auction houses: Good or evil?
Almost all photographers and gallerists argue that auctions of the kind Saffronart held in December do photography a disservice because they artificially hike up prices in a very young photography market, opening it to the risk of a crash similar to the art crash.

“The Saffronart auction, I think, has created a false market for photography, one that with (barely any closed editions), will hamper the more natural growth of photography in India,” says photographer Dayanita Singh.

Addressing the issue of auctioning photographs from open editions, Dinesh Vazirani, CEO of online auction house Saffronart, says an auction is a public platform and is therefore the best option for anyone who wants to acquire a photograph but doesn’t know where to buy it from.

He argues that auctions help build awareness about photography and this helps the market grow because as people get
access to catalogues online and offline, they get more aware.

“Like anything that’s a collectible, you may want to sell your photograph at some point. If there is no platform to sell it, you are not confident of collecting it. We give collectors an open public platform. There will be enough confidence to start collecting it,” he says.