What’s in a picture?

Photography is a technical medium that has provoked controversy since it was invented in the 1800s. Is it art?
Ho Fan, Afternoon Chat, Hong Kong 1959
Ho Fan, Afternoon Chat, Hong Kong 1959

Photography is a technical medium that has provoked controversy since it was invented in the 1800s. Is it art?

Celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker and photographer Ho Fan took top honours at the inaugural Bonhams Hong Kong photography auction last month. His vintage gelatin silver print (1954) “Approaching Shadow” sold for HK$375.000 ($48,000), a new auction record for the artist.

Blue Lotus Gallery and Consultancy Director Sarah Greene represents Ho Fan in Hong Kong, with limited editions of his historical and artistic perspectives on the territory over more than 50 years.

Greene managed the AO Vertical Gallery, owned by the photography book publisher Asia One, in the city’s eastern district of Chai Wan. She recently opened a small gallery also in Chai Wan that focuses mostly on vintage and contemporary photographs.

“New collectors need to educate themselves about photography as it is a complex field but a young medium,” she told FinanceAsia. “The technology is always changing.”

“The subjects – landscapes, cities, fashion, documentary, portraits, history, war, darkroom-manipulated works and conceptual images – all represent different rooms in the house of photography,” Greene said.

A photo book providing a sample of an artist’s works is a good entry point for new collectors to judge a print against a whole body of work and is often available online. Auctions and galleries are also good research resources.

“Photos are accessible to entry-level collectors who can purchase quite a few important pieces for HK$1,000. Plus, they make great gifts,” she said

The artist’s conceptual eye is key, according to Virgile Bertrand, a French commercial and art photographer working in Hong Kong. “No matter what the technology, [whether] film or digital, it is the extension of the artist’s brain that makes the image valuable,” he said.

With the older film cameras, the artist’s work in the darkroom is part of the process and produces unique prints. So most artists in the past presented limited, numbered editions, meaning their value now remains high.

Now, however, with digital printing, each images is exactly the same, so the value is in the subject matter, conceptualisation, and judicial editing.

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