Photography. It’s all about the art, darling

A few years ago I had dinner with famous artist Lucien Freud. You know, the celebrated painter whose granddad Sigmund Freud pretty much invented modern psychiatry and whose brother Clement was a mainstay of 1970s TV satire. The same painter, now unfortunately deceased, who sold a particularly pleasant oil-on-canvas work for $33.6 million – the most expensive work ever sold by a living artist. I’d like to say our conversation was sparkling and brimming with the amusing Freudian slips you’d saved up all your life in case you every met anyone from that absurdly talented bloodline.

But I’d best be honest with you. I fluked an invite to a meal in a posh restaurant, The Wolseley, in the heart of London’s art gallery district and Freud was actually entertaining on the next table. I obviously never spoke to him. After more than a few glugs of amber nectar, the temptation was there to storm in and pay homage. Perhaps somehow touch upon the rumour that he’s fathered 40 illegitimate kids. And then hit him with the real purpose of the mission and attempt to get him to scrawl me a little pencil drawing on a napkin. If signed, it would probably be worth more than my house – or so my alcohol-stimulated brain reasoned. And I’d sell it immedately.

And right there, it highlights my complete misunderstanding of the world of fine art and how, like every dedicated viewer of The Antiques Road Show, I have to equate it with what a piece of art may be worth. Crude, boorish, call me what you will. Many already have.

So it was with some trepidation I recently took the nervous steps inside a few photographic art galleries. Not in the UK, where a scant few galleries risk showing that new-fangled photography medium as a canvas for true art. But in the USA, where our more enlightened American cousins see photography as their own invention. Well, certainly when it comes to a genuine history in photography as real works of art. Art that you’d put on your own walls for your visual pleasure or, crucially, to hang on to as a genuinely escalating investment that far outpaces the few meager percent any savings gets nowadays. That’s if your bank is still there the next day, of course.

The Joyce Tenneson photo I loved and paid a lot of money for, yet it brings me joy every day
The Joyce Tenneson photo I loved and paid a lot of money for, yet it brings me joy every day

Non-commercial galleries the world over fill their walls with contemporary deadpan pics of glum-looking subjects so art critics can argue over the picture’s context, meaning, internal dynamic, iconicity or other such waffle. The sort of photos that incense photographers who know they’d get a whole tranche of rejection slips from magazine editors if they proffered such nonsense. Compared to that, the U.S. galleries were very different.

Sandwiched among high-dollar antique shops and luxury trinket houses in the art community that is Carmel in California, shops like The Weston Gallery have to turn a healthy profit to pay the rent and so stock pictures that actually sell rather than ones that seem to exist to fuel intellectual debate.

Still run by descendants of great mono master Edward Weston, the gallery is crammed full of beautiful gems of original or very limited-edition photographic prints. Real prints that is, none of your giclee stuff here.

Nestling alongside some of Weston’s own work were magnificent pieces from the most legendary photographers in a whole variety of genres. Stunning mono landscapes from Ansel Adams – with a $250,000 price tag to match – alongside 19th century Parisian street scenes from Eugene Atget. Irving Penn, Edward Steichen, Man Ray, Bill Brandt, Robert Doisneau – all were there. And my personal favourite, the man-jumping-over-puddle shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson that is the epitome of the “decisive moment.”

All very expensive, all very exquisite and all very covetable. Are they as creative as some of the more contemporary stuff, aided by digital manipulation, a trillion megapixels and all the modern gadgets? Or a match for old master paintings? Of course they are. Just not as expensive. Yet.

Did I buy from the Weston Gallery? Of course not, although I would dearly love an old photo master on the wall from one of the greats. But I did manage to scrape the credit limit together to buy a print I loved from Joyce Tennyson from a nearby gallery. Soft, lovely, nothing like I take. I see it every day and love it. Money well spent.