Here in the movie capital of the world, life often seems to clip along at 24 frames per second. But while we've been watching the big screen, an older form of camera magic has joined painting and sculpture at the museum. Photography's fine-art potential was no news, of course, to modernist groundbreakers such as Alfred Stieglitz, but shutterbugs nonetheless spent much of the 20th century on the low side of the high-art dividing line. No longer. In the post-postmodernist, post-conceptual, post-digital era, photography is looking downright classical. Single prints are fetching tens of thousands of dollars.
"There are so many major conceptual artists now using photography as art, such as Andreas Gursky, whose works can go for $300,000 or $400,000," Stephen Cohen says. "It's no longer a matter of whether photography is art, it's a matter of whether the photos are good art just as we would judge sculpture or painting." Cohen should know. A photo dealer since 1977, he has been showing works by photographers such as Lauren Greenfield and Ken Ohara at his eponymous Beverly Boulevard gallery since 1992. He is also the founder of Photo L.A., an annual gathering of international photo artists, galleries, publishers and collectors that marks its 12th year Jan. 16-19 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
This year's show includes more than 80 exhibitors from the U.S., Russia, the Czech Republic, Japan, France, Germany, Denmark and Italy, and includes works by such notable photographers as Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus. "We've gone from attendance of 1,500 our first year to 6,000 last year," says Cohen. Visitors can encounter anything from vernacular "found" photographs for $50 to rare 19th century prints by artists such as Gustave LeGray for $200,000. Experts including Manfred Heiting and collector Michael G. Wilson (writer and producer of many James Bond films) will lead seminars on collecting.
If this sounds like a milieu worthy of the Old Masters, how surprised should we really be? After all, art history sleuths such as painter David Hockney have theorized that the Renaissance masters themselves used early camera technology to perfect their renderings. For this art form, perhaps the 21st century is merely the latest renaissance.
Photo L.A., Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. For more information, contact the Stephen Cohen Gallery, (323) 937-5525.