Closeup/Art

The new masters

How the photographer’s art finally came of

Tom Hopkins July 10 1978
Closeup/Art

The new masters

How the photographer’s art finally came of

Tom Hopkins July 10 1978

The new masters

Closeup/Art

How the photographer’s art finally came of

Tom Hopkins

Dr. Arthur Rubinoff is straightening the frames of photographs lined like soldiers along a track-lit hallway in his suburban Toronto home. “The trouble with the new guys,” he is saying, casting his eye back and forth along the misaligned edge of a $3,000 Edward Frith photograph of the pyramids, “is that they don’t sign and number their prints. So buying a photo by one of them is like buying a poster; if you like it, fine, but don’t expect a return on your investment.” He shuts a bedroom door against the chugging theme from Saturday Night Fever played by one of his five children and points to some of the subtleties of his 30photograph collection. “Take this Ansel Adams for example,” he says, passing a hand in front of a stark, minutely detailed photo of a Mexican village at dusk.

crowned by a brilliant rising moon. “He’s a good investment right now because he’s limited by his age and the fact that he has decided to stop printing. I paid $350 for that print 2Vi years ago and 1 could sell it tomorrow for $1,800. Now what other investment gives you that kind of return?” What other indeed. Rubinoff, 37, and a handful of other young Canadian art collectors are privy to the happy secret that the art market, sluggish in the area of painting and sculpture, is frantically bullish on vintage photographs. In the last five years, the medium has experienced an unprecedented boom in popularity and as a

result, a spectacular rise in prices. “Vintage photos are doing much better than gold as an investment,” says Gary Michael Dault, Toronto radio producer, art journalist and one of the few Canadian critics to write seriously about art photography. “I’m amazed at the prices. I’ve seen them quadruple. And it’s not dealers that are pushing up the prices—it’s market pressures. Collectors want vintage photographs.”

To meet the demand, the last four years have seen the opening of three galleries specializing in photography in Toronto, two in Montreal and another three in Vancouver, Victoria and Saskatoon. Along with the mounting prices, galleries report surges in attendance at openings and a dramatic increase in the number and sales of art photography books. “Photography is an ever-expanding section,” says Edward Borins, manager of Toronto’s David Mirvish Books on Art. “We’ve had to move the children’s books and the furniture books upstairs.” Besides picture books, scholars are playing catch-up on the estheticsof the medium (one tome dealing with its philosophy, On Photography, by Susan Sontag, recently made The New York Times bestseller list) and chairs of photographic history are being established, most recently at Princeton. Names such as Atget, Steiglitz, Kertesz and Cameron, virtually unknown a few years ago, now stir the same sort of hunger in the eyes of knowledgeable collectors and bargain hunters as Quebec pine armoires did in the early ’60s. Just as with those country-auction-prowling pioneers, photography collectors’ conversation today is spotted with stories of photos picked up in flea markets for a few dollars, pounds or francs, sold for hundreds and resold for thousands in the space of five years. “Name me another art form,” enthuses Rubinoff, “where a guy like me can own a piece of museum-quality art.”

The concept that a photographic print can be considered museum quality is perhaps the most fundamental effect of the current boom. Just four years ago Geoffrey James, head of visual arts for the Canada Council, writing in a special photography section of artscanada magazine, observed: “Like the medieval memorial brasses that line the floors of English cathedrals, photography has for most of its life been walked upon by people whose gaze is firmly fixed on higher things.” The medium enjoyed surges of interest when it was first developed in the 1830s and 1840s in Europe (Canadian photography can be dated from 1839 with an advertisement in Quebec City noting “the most curious apparatus” had arrived in the city, capable of producing miniatures in only four minutes—on sunny days only). More flurries occurred in 1888 with the invention of the Kodak box camera and early in the 20th century with the spare pre-urban photographs of Steiglitz and the harsh back-alley, social landscape photography of Robert Frank, Lee Freidlander and Garry Winogrand in the ’50s and ’60s. But generally photographs were ignored by the art community. Most observers agree the current boom has to do with accessibility. Painting and sculpture, they say, have shot beyond the financial limits of young collectors who are turning to photography for relief. Others point to the increasingly airy intellectualization of modern painting and sculpture that has forced confused collectors to flee to photography, a medium which Geoffrey James calls “a deeply conservative art, the last refuge of the nude, the portrait and the landscape.” A more obvious reason for the boom is simply that everyone is doing it. Jackie Onassis and Margaret Trudeau dabble; sunny afternoons in the nation’s parks are punctuated by clicks of camera shutters; youngsters at rock concerts dangle thousands of dollars worth of Nikon from their necks. James Borcoman, curator of photographs at Ottawa’s National Gallery, is succinct: “Photography collecting is merely another example of the desperate search for rarity. It probably began as an accident in 1968 at an

auction in New York when a handful of influential collectors and investors started buying up vintage photography and bidding up the prices. If they had started collecting buttons, there would probably be a button boom now.”

One of the collectors who started early

and played to win is Arnold H. Crane, a gnome-like Chicago lawyer with a shaved head and jutting ears. On a recent spring evening he was perched on a chair at one end of the gymnasium-like expanse of the main gallery at Toronto’s David Mirvish Gallery. He was in town to promote a show of his portraits of famous photographers and the gallery had prevailed upon him to speak in his much more successful capacity as one of the most important vintage photo collectors in North America. A wheeler and a dealer (he boasts of being $150,000 in debt at one stage of his collection), he has amassed a veritable Smithsonian of photographic history, stored in a bank vault in his Chicago mansion.

“Most of our clients are young professionals,” says Loretta Yarlow, 29, of Toronto’s four-year-old Yarlow/Salzman Gallery. “They used to collect prints and now they collect photographs.” Her gallery, just north of the fashionable Yorkville district, is typically small and painted icy white, with a line of black and white Atget prints at eye level on both walls. “Our prices for the best work by the best photographers have escalated anywhere from 300 to 1,000 per cent.”

Like most galleries, hers uses auction prices obtained for photos at Sotheby’s in New York and Christie’s in London as a price guide.

Jane Corkin, 28, director of photography at Toronto’s David Mirvish Gallery for the past four years, is about to launch a

new photography gallery in Toronto. The Mirvish gallery now services some 150 Canadian photography clients, most of whom buy two or three prints a year. “The clearest evidence of some sort of boom is the type of question the clients ask,” Corkin says, “especially about reproducibility. They’re not as paranoid about fraud.” The confidence is due largely to the near impossibility of reproducing vintage photographic paper.

Outside the bustling trade of Toronto, collecting is still developing. At Montreal’s four-year-old Yajima Gallery, Michiko Yajima, 41, an energetic Japanese woman whose gallery is in a converted Sherbrooke St. row house, mounts some 10 shows a year. She recalls her first three years as Montreal’s only private photography gallery as very slim with only the past year showing any expansion in her base of 20 to 30 collectors. “The centre is still in To-

ronto,” she says. The picture is much the same in the West which has galleries such as Victoria’s Secession, Saskatoon’s Photographer’s Gallery and Vancouver’s Nova. Says Nova Gallery co-owner Claudia Beck: “Our mainstay is the 20thcentury masters but there still isn’t a real tradition here of understanding photography as an art form.”

Although Canadian institutional collecting slouches along behind the increasingly active pace of the United States, there are signs of change. Both the Edmonton Art Gallery and Montreal’s Musée d’Art Contemporain are beginning acquisitions which will now join James Borcoman’s 11-year-old collection of vintage photography at the National Gallery’s Museum of Photography and the contemporary Canadian collection of the National Film Board Still Division (currently lobbying the secretary of state for a rumored multimillion-dollar photography gallery/showcase in Toronto).

But from the point of view of museums, the reason for caution is the Wild West atmosphere that is currently driving up prices. Because there are few ground rules or accepted standards of excellence, museums until now have forsaken photography due, in Geoffrey James’ opinion, “to a knowledge of their own ignorance.” “Too much passes for good photography,” frets Loretta Yarlow. “There’s lots of confusion,” agrees Michiko Yajima. “The problem is there’s no cross-information between galleries and photographers, so it’s difficult to create a context for an artist’s work.” Says Borcoman: “Hundreds of topographical prints by Francis Bedford are still around. They should be going for $25. Instead they’re being sold for $150.”

Nor has the smash and grab atmosphere helped young contemporary photographers. “The idea that the boom in photo collecting is affecting the living photographer is an illusion,” says Geoffrey James. Vincent Sharp, 41, who shows at both the Yarlow/Salzman and Yajima Gallery and works as a writer for a chemical magazine, agrees. “You can’t make a living selling art photos in Canada.”

But none of this bothers Arthur Rubinoff as he sits cross-legged under a large abstract of swirling oranges and yellows and with the affecting enthusiasm of the convert thumbs through endless large format photography books, lingering over the duplicates of his prints like a proud father whose children have made a mark in the world.

“Buying photos is one of the easiest investments around,” he says, slipping into a down-filled sofa. “All you have to do is look at a show, go to a library, pick up a photo book and see if the image is there. If it is and it’s vintage, then you buy it and you can’t go wrong.” He takes another sip of white wine. “But always buy what you like, because then, if the manure hits the fan and you can’t unload it, you can always just look at it.”0