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Art Market's New Focus: Photography

IF there was any doubt that photography had finally entered the surreal price spheres usually only occupied by painters, in late 2005 an untitled cowboy photograph by Richard Prince was sold by Christie's in New York for $US1,248,000.

The price caused a major stir, not least because of serious doubts about its validity.

The image is actually a segment from part of a Marlboro billboard. ''Was this actually a photograph?,'' people asked.

It was the highest price paid among a lot of 70 works by names including Mark Rothko, Roy Lichtenstein, Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol.

It has only been since the mid- to late 90s that the market for photography really took off. The global market for photography was $US70 million in 2004, according to analysts Artprice.

Contemporary sales dominate activity but demand for primitive (19th century) works has increased sharply over the last 10 years. Between 1997 and 2002, Artprice calculated that valuations in this segment rose 639 per cent.

According to Sandra Byron, director of Byron McMahon Galleries in Sydney, the photography art market is notable because, generally, people are able to make a more immediate connection with a photograph than with other mediums: ''People feel comfortable with it and feel comfortable that they can make decisions about what constitutes a great photograph. Exposure to this medium makes them more comfortable than they would be buying an oil or a sculpture.''

Sydney-based commercial and fine art photographer Nuran Zorlu says: ''People either buy household names or something they have a connection with.''

A multiple AIPP (Australian Institute of Professional Photography) award winner, judge and former gallery curator Zorlu may not be far from becoming a household name himself in the future.

However, many of his sales to date have been for works of a particular cultural significance to the buyer. A Turkish-born Armenian, Zorlu is currently preparing an exhibition titled ''Ancient land, Armenian eyes and contemporary photographs'' which is a collection of rare and compelling landscapes, portraits and ancient architectural images from Eastern Turkey. He expects that people will certainly consider buying from this collection based on pure aesthetics, the bulk of interest will come from people with a cultural connection to Armenia.

Byron's most important advice to people poised to make their foray into the photography market is to establish a relationship with a gallery.

For instance, while one might assume that the internet has influenced the photography market, Byron stresses that very few transactions are conducted in this way: ''Online sales are more likely to be the result of direct relationships.''

People who are seeking high profile works or looking to create collections of particular artists should naturally keep an eye out for relevant exhibitions, be they at large and established or boutique galleries.

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