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Photo Specialist Deborah Bell Talks About Move to Auction Biz

After more than two decades as a photography dealer, with eight years running her own gallery in Chelsea, Deborah Bell recently closed the operation and assumed the role of vice president and head of Christie’s photographs department.

NEW YORK—After more than two decades as a photography dealer, with ten years running her own gallery in Chelsea, Deborah Bell recently closed the operation and assumed the role of vice president and head of Christie’s photographs department. In an interview with ARTnewsletter, Bell talked about what prompted her move to the auction business and what changes she has observed in the photography market in recent years.

According to Bell, the photography market is expanding in terms of the number of buyers, and prices are holding steady. “You see a lot of crossover” from the traditional buyers of paintings, graphic prints and sculptures, “and fewer people who only identify themselves as photography collectors or painting collectors.”

Bell says another aspect of photograph collecting that has changed somewhat in recent years is the strict emphasis on “vintage,” a term which traditionally applied to black-and-white images and referred to prints made within a year or two of when the photograph was taken. “You still have some dedicated photography collectors who care about whether or not a print is ‘vintage,’ people who are hell-bent on finding the earliest prints,” but a growing number of the lots in photography auctions list two very widely divergent years—when the photograph was taken and when the print was produced—and the differences in prices between vintage and “modern” prints has narrowed.

For instance, photographer “Lee Friedlander says his printing gets better and better,” she noted. Similarly, “Stephen Shore has gone back to print new images from older negatives, which he thinks are better than those he made in the past. So, if you like Stephen Shore’s work, are you going to demand and pay more for a vintage print or one that the artist thinks is superior?”

One of the newer areas of photography—digital, as opposed to film—has been more prevalent in the galleries, but she expects to see more digital prints showing up at auction houses, “priced at the same level as the chemical or chromogen print because they take the same amount of time and energy to produce” as those on traditional film.

Bell, 56, began her career as a freelance photographer in New York City, having received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1972 from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and a Master’s in art history from Hunter College, before joining the gallery world in 1983. She was a dealer of vintage Czech and German prints at the Sander Gallery and then moved to the Marlborough Gallery where she represented Irving Penn and Bill Brandt.

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