December 30, 2010 10:00 pm

Sharper focus

In New York there are 58 dealers specialising in photographic prints, Paris has dozens, but in London there are just six. This is about to change. In February, Chris Beetles, the UK’s leading dealer in illustrations and cartoons, is to open Chris Beetles Fine Photographs, a gallery devoted to the medium, starting with the work of Eve Arnold.

The move is hardly a surprise. Beetles has been flirting with photography exhibitions since 2006. As a long-time friend of Terry O’Neill, Beetles attempted to revive the fashionable 1960s photographer’s stalled career by mounting a retrospective of O’Neill portraits, including images of Brigitte Bardot and Frank Sinatra. It proved a sell-out and Beetles repeated the experiment with Antony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon), another neglected face of the 1960s, who had never had a commercial show. Again, it tapped a nostalgic demand for images of a glamorous age. A new specialist gallery seemed the obvious next step.

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“It is very much a repeat of the situation when I started dealing in illustrations,” says Beetles. “Like photographic prints, they were often piled high and sold cheap. We are promoting photographers as artists, presenting their work in new catalogues, putting the images in well-crafted frames.”

Beetles persuades collectors to pay substantial sums for well-displayed, well-researched illustrations and cartoons, and has a client list of more than 20,000. “There is an obvious link between works on paper and photography and it should not be too difficult to interest someone spending £3,500 on a cartoon by Rowlandson in a John Swannell nude at around the same price.”

Clients are often new collectors keen to acquire a striking, often familiar, image to enliven the wall of a Docklands loft. The gallery will concentrate on established, recognisable names. But as Giles Huxley-Parlour, the specialist responsible for acquiring the stock, says: “We need to charge high prices to cover the high costs, so there is no room for new young photographers.”

The aim is to provide a bespoke service. If you want to spend £100,000 on a print by Irving Penn, who straddled advertising and art, Beetles can locate one; if you want a favourite O’Neill snap of the youthful Rolling Stones, the photographer can produce a new limited edition, at about £3,000 a print, although Beetles will limit the run to 50.

The new venue has an important link with Howard Greenberg, a New York gallery, which will enable Beetles to mount shows in 2011 by important US photographers such as Bruce Davidson, known for his urban scenes, and Arnold Newman, who specialised in still lifes.

Beetles is joining a small bandwagon. Contemporary art dealers such as James Hyman are recruiting photography specialists; Tate Modern now has a photographic curator; the Science Museum is extending its photography remit; and The Photographers’ Gallery is expanding its premises.

“And about time, too,” says leading dealer Michael Hoppen. “The UK has a great heritage in photography, and some of the finest collections are here. The British Library has 300,000 photographs on its shelves and only recently produced an exhibition of amazing images, many unknown to dealers.”

Hoppen’s Chelsea gallery represents the serious end of the business, with an archive stocked with rarities, including an abstract image by Man Ray priced at £100,000 and prints by groundbreaking artists such as Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Guy Bourdin.

“I have international clients who want to invest £200,000 in photographs – the attraction is that more than one person can own an original,” says Hoppen. In the case of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Rue Mouffetard”, the famous 1954 photograph of a young boy clutching bottles of wine, there are more than 600 owners of an original print, and Hoppen can secure one for about $15,000.

But for all the activity, it is probably too late to establish London as a rival to New York; the US has the collectors, the money, and produced the greatest photographers of the 20th century – Weston, Penn, Avedon, Arbus, Walker Evans. London has also been eclipsed by Paris, where the autumn fair, Photo Paris, attracted 40,000 visitors: the rival Photo London petered out in 2007.

The big auction houses are also scaling down their activities in London. Sotheby’s had only one auction there last year, and in 2011 Christie’s is planning to hold its autumn sale in Paris, following its success in November 2010. However, Bonhams has once again attempted to fill a gap as the big two auction houses concentrate on high-value lots. It has recruited Sotheby’s specialist Jocelyn Phillips and is holding spring and autumn auctions in London. “We offer an entry level for new collectors, with some images priced around £500,” she says.

Photography has a huge range in price and subject; values have risen steadily, especially at auction, and global demand enabled the sector to ride out the financial crisis better than contemporary art. It should also enable Chris Beetles’ gallery, and the London photography scene generally, to thrive, if still at an intensity well below that of New York and Paris.

www.chrisbeetlesfinephotographs.com

See AMR’s Photography Art Price Index at www.ft.com/arts-extra

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