THE idea a work of art could set a record, then send a clone of itself to snatch that record away, sounds too reflexively barmy to be true.
This week, however, it could happen. In 2004 Something More, a nine-part series by Tracey Moffatt, became the most valuable Australian photographs sold at auction when bought for $227,050.
Though not yet as famous as Max Dupain's Sunbaker, its red-hot Cibachrome colours and tale of innocence destroyed pack a powerful cultural punch.
On Wednesday another set will go under the hammer in Melbourne. (Moffatt made about 30, but only five or six remain entire.) With a top estimate of $230,000, the Something More encore is cautiously anticipated as a test of the strength of photography in the local art market.
''Tracey Moffatt is our most internationally exposed contemporary photographer and this is her major achievement to date,'' says Chris Deutscher of auction house Deutscher-Menzies, which will offer Something More amid 392 lots.
But he warns that all the buzz about new Australian photography has not saved the medium from struggling at auction.
In the priamry market, however, the thrill of the chase keeps thing lively. New photography prizes pop up, such as the inaugural $10,000 Bowness Prize, now on show at the Monash Gallery of Art. New work is winkled out as younger collectors scout for snappers in obscure places.
As Isobel Crombie knows, it's the quick or the grumpy. Visiting the Tasmanian School of Art, the NGV's senior curator of photography met student Sarah Ryan, bought her work on the spot, and is glad.
''I normally wouldn't buy an artist's work until they'd been out of art school for at least a couple of years, but these were disappearing,'' Crombie says, pointing to Ryan's almost holographic pictures of an uneasy young couple.
NGV benefactor Loti Smorgon has bankrolled the gallery's new show, Light Sensitive, a survey of Australian photography from the past 10 years. Artists, aged from their late 20s to early 60s, include Selina Ou, Brook Andrew, Hardy and Strong and better-known names such as Patricia Piccinini and Deborah Paauwe.
Crombie laughs about doomsayers who predicted photography, as an art, would die.
''They said that because digital imaging was supposed to sever the last connection between photography and the real world,'' she says.
''But what has happened is quite different. People did use digital imaging, but they also returned to (camera-less) processes such as using light-sensitive paper. Some of the very first photographs, in the 1830s, were photograms.''
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