When it comes to fine art photography, sometimes what you pay for may not be what you get.
Using a camera obscura (a latin term meaning literally ‘dark room’), Nicéphore Niépce produced the first permanent photoetching in 1822, but it was only four years later that the French inventor made the View from the Window at Le Gras, the world’s oldest surviving camera photograph.
Not long after Niépce’s death in 1833, Louis Daguerre developed the Daguerreotype, the first commercially successful photographic process which reduced the development time from hours to seconds. An international sensation, the popularisation of this technique gave rise to speculations about the “end of painting”.
In that same period, American pioneer of photography Robert Cornelius produced the earliest surviving selfie (1839) and painter and inventor Hércules Florence had started working out a silver-salt-based paper process in Brazil, later naming it photographie.
Meanwhile, British inventor William Fox Talbot developed a different process called Calotype (from the Greek kalos, meaning ‘beautiful’ and tupos meaning ‘impression’). Using paper sheets covered with silver chloride to create a negative exposure, it was then placed in contact with another paper so as to print multiple positive copies. This technique is actually very similar to the photographic process in use today.
Making a long story short, almost fifty years later, American inventor George Eastman patented the first photographic roll film and perfected his camera to take advantage of his invention. By 1892, Eastman founded Kodak, and soon after launched the Brownie camera with a price of US$1, bringing, therefore, photography to the mass market (‘You press the button, we do the rest!’).
Since then, the photography market has experienced a growing technological evolution with the establishment of colour film as a standard, auto-focus, and automatic exposure. These innovations undoubtedly made it easier to capture an image, improve the quality of reproductions and accelerate the processing speed.
From the end of the 20th-century, digital photography minimised costs, sped up processes and facilitated the production, manipulation, storage and distribution of images. However, these technological advances also facilitated the production and circulation of forgeries.
With so many artists using photography but so few of them printing their own work, forgeries by underpaid darkroom technicians are a common, especially in the vulnerable contemporary market. How problematic the fine art photography forgery has become can be illustrated by recent scandals involving counterfeit prints by Man Ray, Lewis Hine and Crespy Le Prince.
As the number of copies is virtually limitless with today’s printing capabilities, defining an ‘original photograph’ is of great importance.
Here are some ways to determine the originality of a photographic work:
• Original photographs will have provenance information, including its copyright, typically documented on a Certificate of Authenticity.
• If the artwork is has a Smart Tag, check its tag number on the Tagsmart online platform. Each Smart Tag has its own unique reference number, linked to the work’s secure Certificate of Authenticity and its digital counterpart. Designed to assure the genuineness of artworks, warrant the accuracy of ownership status, and protect buyers and sellers against fakes and forgeries, Tagsmart offers the art market a better, simpler way of doing what it already does, while also solving the problems of trust and credibility.
• If the photograph is labelled as a reproduction, it probably means that the photographer had little (or nothing) to do with the printing, distribution, and selling of that work.
• Finally, accept that if the photograph is priced very cheaply, it is most likely a reproduction.