PHOTOJOURNALISM – Collective memory and photography

[16 Jan 2006]


Edward STEICHEN, Cecil BEATON, Henri CARTIER-BRESSON, Robert CAPA, Raymond DEPARDON, Robert DOISNEAU, Walker EVANS, Dorothea LANGE, Marc RIBOUD are some of the biggest names in photojournalism, which for many years was considered a secondary form of art, much like scientific or ethnographic photography.
Photojournalists bear witness to their time, using the camera to capture the real. Their photos have an important impact culturally as they become part of our collective memory, mainly through dissemination by the media. Nonetheless, photos by reporters possess aesthetic qualities (ultra definition of pictures, importance of framing, etc.) which have propelled them into the world of art. For example, in 2004, a number of major events were organised: a Robert Capa retrospective at the French National Library, a photo exhibition of the war in Chechnya by Stanley Greene at the MOCA in Lyon, and the opening of War Photo Limited in Dubrovnik, the first museum dedicated solely to war photography.

The photojournalism market is extremely dynamic. Turnover in this segment has increased by over 500% in the last 10 years. Photojournalism has been particularly popular in the United States (51% of total turnover), in France and the United Kingdom.

In France, most of the works by Marc RIBOUD and Raymond DEPARDON fetch less than EUR 1,000; Robert DOISNEAU photos range from EUR 1,000 to EUR 2,000 (except for his legendary Kiss by the Hotel de Ville which regularly exceeds the estimated price); lots by Cartier-Bresson go under the hammer for between EUR 1,000 and EUR 5,000 and, like Doisneau’s work, are well-received in the United States (59% of transactions).In the United States, Walker EVANS and Dorothea LANGE, hired by the Farm Security Administration during the New Deal, brilliantly depicted the harsh realities of rural America in the 1930s. Prices for their works have been even higher than those of their French contemporaries (averaging between EUR 1,000 and 10,000) and are rising at an amazing pace (Lange’s price index rose 200% in just two years!). The American by adoption, Robert Capa, who founded Magnum Photos with Cartier-Bresson, was the only photographer to witness the landing of the Allied Forces in Normandy. It is rare for his photos to come up for auction, and his price index is closer to Cartier-Bresson’s than that of other American photographers.

The prices for Henri CARTIER-BRESSON‘s photographs started to rise quite significantly after his death in 2004. During auctions in 2005, collectors were scrambling to acquire his photos – bringing the bought-in rate for his work down by more than 60%!While the majority of transactions range between EUR 1,000 and EUR 5,000, his work has generated record sales at recent auctions. This year, Christie’s knocked down On the banks of the Marne for USD 110,000 USD (EUR 90,827). The photo depicts a picturesque picnic scene along the Marne River and shows the changes in French society in the 1930s. It dates back to 1938, just two years after the French started receiving annual holiday leave. The print itself is a later version (1955), and collectors – selective about the print date – tend to prefer vintage prints dating from the 1930s to 1950s.

The Luxembourg-born American emigrant Edward STEICHEN was director of aerial photography for the Allied Forces during World War I. However, he spent most of his career working on portraits of well-known figures (Garbo, Churchill, etc.) and genre scenes. His work is highly sought after by Americans. While most of his pieces change hands for between EUR 1,000 and 10,000, recent auction results have bolstered his price index. Last November, Christie’s Paris auctioned Claude Berri’s collection: the lots dating back to the 1920’s sold extremely well (between EUR 25,000 and 85,000), with an impressive EUR 130,000 paid for the superb photo Rodin’s Balzac. Bidding has been even higher in the United States. Last November, Sotheby’s New York sold a 1924 portrait of Gloria Swanson for USD 230,000. In 2004, another portrait of the same subject went under the hammer for USD 130,000 – four times more than its high estimate of USD 30,000! Today, Steichen’s photoengravings are less popular. Collectors can buy a “piece of history” for less than EUR 1,000.