Issue #228  12/15/2016
Part 1: Paris Photo Week Observations and Dealing with Change

By Alex Novak

Opening day at Paris Photo
Opening day at Paris Photo

I recently exhibited at Paris Photo for the first time in a dozen years, although I've attended the show most of the years it has existed. The lapse allowed me a rather unique perspective on changes in the show and the market it serves. A few of these observations were posted on my Facebook page already, but here's a much more in-depth look at the changes that I see coming for photography collecting and its markets, and I will have more to say about this in the next issue in a week or so.

Some of these changes are economic. If you are collecting lower end images and you don't care what happens to their value over time, congratulations. But even if you have a modest budget but have hopes that your collection will gain value over time or want to donate it eventually, you might want to read on.

Last month Paris seemed to be the beach where every market wave crashed into the shore nearly at once, inundating the participants and issuing in the beginning of confusing, often conflicting changes that have been brewing—some for quite a while. Some of my impressions were honestly already being formed well before this show and before some of the historical events that have overlaid their impact on photography collecting.

The American collectors and curators who came to Paris Photo in slightly less numbers this year were so distraught over the election results that were reported mere hours before Paris Photo opened that most missed perhaps one of the better photo buying opportunities of their life times. The already mighty dollar rose by another 5% against the euro during that week alone, and there were some great buys around and outside the fair. But most Americans didn't even look at the photographs in Paris in my experience. Many would argue that the election put things into perspective for them. I would argue that that negative "perspective", or rather shock, would largely be temporary, and that other effects from the election would have a greater impact mid term and long term.

The Brits, while less shocked than the U.S. contingent, since they had a little more time since the Brexit vote, were still recovering emotionally and financially with the drop in the pound sterling's value.

Neither group bought much at all at Paris Photo, nor frankly seemed capable of really looking at the work. Most huddled in shock at the results, and for them the fair was a social-sharing event, much like group therapy--not a photography one. In the past, I reported that perhaps as much as 60% of sales here were from American and British clients, especially to American dealers. I doubt that even 10% of sales came from these sources this year in Paris. I saw 0% as an exhibitor myself, despite tailoring my booth selections to that market.

But while the show was not the economic boon that it clearly had the potential to be (the crowds were up to new record levels), it wasn't actually a disaster for dealers. Given the lack of sales from the Brits and Americans, the "break-even" or "slightly better" reports from myself and my colleagues were a testament to a continuing strong photo market that was depressed temporarily by the emotional roller coaster of the U.S. election and the Brexit vote.

I didn't hear from one dealer who lost money, although few dealers reported "killing it" at the fair. But that is pretty amazing in itself, given that the biggest part of the market was on hiatus that week. I suspect that both of these restraints will be temporary, as Americans in particular begin to recognize that the economic fundamentals point to an increase in inflation, particularly for the vintage photography market, where too few quality pieces still exist on the market, and market prices have been largely flat for a few years now. Almost certain infrastructure building and lower taxes also point in this direction. And with the dollar's recent strength, important American collectors need to wake up to the realities past political concerns, as has the stock and bond markets already. The Fed's recent rate hike (and predictions for three more next year) and pronunciations detailing a 3%+ near term inflation rate will certainly reignite or solidify interest in some areas of photography for those concerned with long-term values.

Clearly the European side of the equation has become more valuable, and this year at Paris Photo it was a saving grace, along with South American buyers—this despite their real cost going up along with the market-setting dollar. The Europeans still tend to buy one photo at a time, while it is American buyers who provide the more robust purchases, often buying in multiple numbers. But the increase in serious European attendance and buying here signals even more competition for the best pieces in the future.

A further aside, Paris Photo was at its best this year, as many observers already have noted. New management seems to have a better perspective on diversity and excellence. Some extraordinary work was on display, and the show looked great. With AIPAD expanding and moving to Pier 94 this March (30-31) and April(1-2), photography now has two great shows to build a strong market going forward.

Next newsletter I will go into more depth about these and other issues impacting photo collectors and dealers going forward.