Understanding the Value of a Photographic Artwork
Most people don’t know how or why a work of art is priced as it is—and this includes artists themselves. Prices can be especially confusing in the case of fine art photography.
In this article you’ll learn the fundamental basis for the market value of a photographic print (or other work) being offered for sale as fine art.
There are a variety of factors that influence and inform the price of any work of art, including photography. These factors include:
- Artist reputation
- Scarcity of the work
- Subject matter
- Materials and processes involved (and archival properties)
- Framing, finishing and presentation
- Selling location
The more well-known and respected an artist is, the more value their work carries. Many artists may not be household names or widely known by the general public, but if they are highly respected by their industry peers, that can certainly increase the value of their work. Of course, there exists a wide spectrum of notoriety—based on geography and the nature of various communities—but, without question, art made by famous people carries far more market value than the work of unknown artists.
When you combine these first two factors, in a rare work by a famous artist, the value of an artwork skyrockets. This holds true for photography, as well.
Scarcity of the work
Like most things in life, the more rare something is, the higher perceived value it has. In art, a one-of-a-kind original will always have much more value than a reproduction of that original. This is one area where photography differs from most other art forms, because from its inception a photograph is inherently engineered to be reproduced.
Even so, you will encounter a range of conditions and processes under which an original photograph is made. In the case of traditional processes such as photograms and glass plates etc., the original image captured by the recording medium is itself a physical object, and can be viewed and appreciated on its own. Sometimes reproductions are never made, and so the photograph exists as a one-of-a kind. Indeed, for many traditional processes, making a reproduction would involve an additional process altogether, such as scanning or direct printing from the original.
In the case of film capture, it’s very rare for the film negative (or positive) to be displayed as the original, partly because these recording mediums are usually quite small; also, a piece of film isn’t easy for an audience to view. So film captures are intended to be enlarged and reproduced as prints.
In the case of digital, of course, there is no physical object at all. The captured image exists only as computer code unless it is printed. Until the emergence of NFTs, these digital images had no inherent value (and the topic of NFTs is well outside the scope of this discussion). So (aside from NFTs) a digital image itself may have little inherent value unless it is sold with reproduction rights, as with stock photography.
The preceding overview helps to explain why, for many people, a photograph may seem to have less intrinsic value than other forms of art. After all, it can’t be seen and appreciated unless it’s printed, and the very act of printing can seem to diminish the value, due to each being a reproduction.
Limited edition photographs
The main way that photographic artists counter this is to impose strict limits on the number of prints that will be made of a given image. This is called a Limited Edition, in which the artist determines a set number of reproductions allowed.
Note that an Edition, by strict definition, should refer to a set of identical prints. In other words, if a photograph is first printed at a certain size on a specific substrate, and then later reproduced using different specifications, these different prints would technically be outside the previous edition. Nonetheless, many fine art photographers work to strictly limited editions and will only make a certain number of reproductions to given specifications.
Doing this provides scarcity, which is a crucial concept in all commercial situations, especially with art and photography: the more a thing is available, the less value it is perceived to have. So, all other things being equal, a single print from an edition of 5 would have a much higher perceived value than a print from an edition of 500.
Particularly in representational work, where the subject is readily identifiable, the subject itself can contribute to the value of a work of art. This is especially true in photography, and ties into the perceived scarcity of an image. A photograph of an important event or person can carry significance in and of itself.
Many of the most valuable photographs on the market are valuable in due, at least in part, to who or what they depict. This factor probably carries less of a price influence in traditional mediums like painting, where a picture is mainly derived from the mind and hand of the artist. But in the case of a photograph, a rare occurrence or fleeting moment captured and preserved for all time will certainly fetch higher prices than something more mundane.
Materials and processes
In all art forms, photography included, the way the object was produced can factor into the price. In photography, there are many ways to print an image, ranging from purely analog processes that use chemistry to digital methods and combinations in-between. The relative quality and cost of the materials used to produce the print weigh into the price of a photographic print.
Chief among the characteristics of a photographic reproduction is whether or not it is produced to an archival or “conservation” standard. Unfortunately, many photographic processes result in prints that will not withstand the ravages of time, fading, changing colours and otherwise degrading in a relatively short period of time. Conversely, archival processes involve materials and methods specifically intended to extend the life of the print.
As an example, an inexpensive print made from a neighbourhood photo lab may noticeably fade within a few years, if not sooner. But a fine art photographic print made by an artisan printer using archival materials can be expected to survive for many generations. In the case of platinum and carbon prints, the expectation is that the print will survive many centuries without visible change.
Thus the archival properties of a photographic print can have a major influence on its value.
Framing and finishing
In fine art photography, you can purchase a print loose and unframed, or mounted and framed in an unlimited range of options. As with the materials and process for making the print itself, the quality and cost of the materials used in mounting and framing will also inform the price.
A couple of examples: the mouldings used for constructing picture frames present a huge variety of materials and finishes, ranging from cheap plastic to fine wood, hand-gilded with real gold leaf. Glass (aka glazing) also offers a range of optical properties, including UV protection and anti-reflective coatings. A museum-quality piece of glass can cost more than the print it’s protecting!
The place where the work is being offered for sale can also have a big impact on the price.
For example, in the UK, art sold in London commands significantly higher prices than in the rest of the country. Major art markets around the world feature, on average, higher prices for art and photography. These include places like New York, Paris, London and Berlin.
However, note that all the other factors described above will influence an artwork’s price more than just its physical location. With the rise of internet sales across the art world, you can expect that works of art and photography—especially by a known artists—will carry consistent prices around the globe, regardless of where the buyer happens to encounter the work.
Weighing it all up
As you can see, there are many factors that influence any work of art, especially fine art photography. Most of the time, the artist is responsible for deciding the selling price of a photograph or work of art. But moving up the food chain, as the standing of an artist increases, gallerists, auctioneers, appraisers and dealers assume larger roles in establishing prices. When an experienced art professional is evaluating the value of a photograph or other artwork, they will also compare the prices of comparable works sold by artists of similar standing.
Ultimately, a photograph or artwork’s true market value is really only what a buyer is willing to pay.
If you’re a photographer or artist working to establish pricing for your own work, start with a comprehensive understanding of what other artists of a similar standing are charging. Always bear in mind that guide prices are only useful if the artist is actually successful selling at those prices.
If you’re a collector or art buyer, you can do a similar thing. Do what you can to compare like-for-like, in terms of both the work itself (based on the guidelines above) as well as the professional reputation of the artist. Doing a little homework will help you avoid paying too much and also spotting bargains.