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Tim Parchikov. Times New Roman, 2012

The Photo-Market in Russia: after the avant-garde and perestroika 0

Ekaterina Drobinina

“Why would I pay 1000 dollars for something that was made upon the press of a button?” – is a concern that Maria Burasovskaya heard very often when she opened her gallery Glaz (eye, in English) in 2003. At that time the Russian art market was booming, and Russian art sales at the major auction houses were welcoming new clients from the former Soviet countries. However, it was not photography that raised the prices so high. 

Out of Time © Tatiana Gorilovsky.

“Art in limited editions was beyond the comprehension of most collectors, no matter how rich they were”, recounts Maria Burasovskaya. But, although the market has evolved and collectors have become more educated and interested in the artistic value of the work, as compared to the situation in its early stages some 15-20 years ago, photographs are still not very popular among Russian collectors. “Most of them do not understand why they need to pay thousands of dollars for something they can make themselves”, agrees another expert from Moscow. “Our gallery sells vintage photographs. But sometimes I receive calls from people who want to buy a photograph for their new flat, but they request to have it printed in a different size format! I explain to them that it is a vintage print that was made long ago, and we can't simply re-make it. So they hang up, upset!”, - says Konstantin Benediktov, who works with private collectors at the Classic Photography Gallery in Moscow.

Untitled (Bar) © David Armstrong.

The same type of collectors sometimes also appear on the doorstep of Glaz gallery, which offers Russian, European and Asian artists, says Maria Burasovskaya: “Sometimes they want to chose a work that will match the color of their couch. It's really hard for a gallery curator to do that! All the works we sell are conceptual, and you need to feel it and love it. But even when I show them a work that would match their furniture, they eventually start paying attention to the story seen the picture, and then they often refuse, saying that they don't like the scenario of the photograph”.

Photographs have rarely set a price record at auction, and the list of the most expensive masters' names has largely remained unchanged: Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Alfred Stieglitz, Jeff Wall, Edward Steichen, etc. The most expensive photographs sold at auction have never passed the mark of US$4.5 million (heading the list of the most expensive photographs is Andreas Gursky's “Rein II”, which fetched $4.3 million at Christie's in 2011. However, in December 2014 it was reported that “Phantom”, by the Australian photographer Peter Lik, was sold to a collector for $6.5 million, thus becoming the most expensive photograph ever sold. The deal was treated with much skepticism by most media- and art-experts, who based their judgment on previous sales records of Lik's works, as well as the fact that the sale was not made at auction, but sold privately).

Works by Russian and Soviet photo-artists have never come close to such records (though a picture of the Tobolsk Kremlin, taken by the Russian president of the time, Dmitry Medvedev, is listed among the ten most expensive Russian photographs ever sold, as it went for $1.8 million at a charity auction). Nevertheless, works by the most outstanding avant-garde artists have been sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 1992, for example, “The Girl with Leica” by Alexander Rodchenko, sold for 126,000 GBP (or around US$230,000, based on the exchange rate of that year) at Christie's. 20 years later, in 2012, the photomontage “The Constructor”, by El Lissitzky, reached a price of over half a million at a Sotheby's sale.

Ivan Mikhailov. Playground, 2010

Most of the time, however, going-prices for Russian works are rather less breathtaking. According to the Russian website, works by Rodchenko have appeared in 450 auctions, a popularity wholly atypical for a Russian artist. Although some of his works have fetched tens of thousands of dollars (like in 2011, when Phillips sold his “Film maker” for almost $90,000, or in 2008, when the portrait of Mayakovsky reached almost $124,000 at a sale done at the same auction house), it is possible to lay your hands upon a less dear photo.

However, it is not prices that stops Russian collectors from entering this market. 

Most art experts agree that Russia lacks the tradition of collecting works of art. Konstantin Benediktov, from the Classic Photography Gallery in Moscow, says that even after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the collecting of photographs did not stop. “In the late 1930s, one could buy a portfolio with classic prints in a bookstore”, he says. Later, collecting art became an attribute of the bourgeois mode de vivre – something that was considered totally outrageous in  Soviet society.

Apart from Alexander Rodchenko (who was not only a photographer, but also documented life in the country with his camera) and El Lissitzky, most Soviet photos now coming on the market were often made by journalists, not artists: Boris Ignatovich was the first photo-correspondent to take aerial pictures, and photo-journalist Yevgeniy Khaldei was the author of the famous shot of Red Army soldiers placing a red flag on the Reichstag in May of 1945. Nevertheless, documentary shots are not popular among Russian collectors, says Konstantin Benediktov.

Tim Parchikov. Burning News, 2011

Back in the first years of the 1990s, Russian photographers concentrated on gloomy images of perestroika and its devastating consequences; these were very popular among foreign collectors. Impressive sales numbers for works by Boris Mikhailov – whose pictures show the life of people who lived on the edge of the society after the collapse of the USSR – have proved that the theme remains interesting to many.

But as these images fall out of fashion, new artists offer less politicized topics – like Tim Parchikov, who has made a series of photographs showing the outskirts of Moscow covered with snow, and which are more melancholic than depressing; or Ivan Mikhailov, who has focused on children's playgrounds (all of them in the form of spaceships) in the Russian town of Cheboksary.

For those who are not yet ready to spare thousands of dollars on a work by a contemporary photographer, the art market is offering a soft-start.

Audrey Triptych © Cecil Beaton.

“For some people who come to the Lumas gallery, this is their first experience in buying art. They live in a flat with white walls, and in the gallery they understand that they can start with buying something affordable, but of good quality. For example, they can buy a print of a limited edition by a well-known artist”, says Maria Burasovskaya as we speak in the Lumas gallery (which Maria has been running since summer 2014), in the center of Moscow. I keep on turning to look at a wall with a black and white picture of a lion laying in the grass. I somehow feel both captured and intimidated by it.

Lumas operates in 29 cities all over the world, offering limited editions of works made by famous contemporary artists such as Mark Quinn and Damien Hirst, and fashion photographers such as Patrick Demarchelier. A famous female nude by Man Ray costs no more than 150 dollars. So does a small print of a famous portrait of Gloria Swanson, by Edward Steichen. Both are offered in open editions, which makes the prices low enough to be affordable for even occasional gallery visitors.