The first photography auction was at Swann Galleries in 1952: “Photography: A panoramic history of the art of photography as applied to book illustration, from its inception up to date.” (It’s often referred to as “the Marshall Sale” because the items up for auction came from the collection of Albert E. Marshall.) The full title is a little long for my taste, but I like that it tells potential customers exactly what they can buy. Compare this to the Christie’s auction “First Open: New Media,” a new online-only exhibition that runs until 10am on October 4 and explores the ways artists have placed technology and digital media “at the forefront of artistic innovation.” The catalog goes on, “The photograph serves not only as the single most important catalyst in our age of New Media, but also one of its most dynamic components.”
Ok, so the auction’s title doesn’t tell us much about its focus on photography, but we can assume that the artists will be photographers whose work can carry the new-media mantle, right? That is, that these artists manipulate technologies to create new work (like Henry Fox Talbot, a noted photographer who invented the calotype process, or Man Ray, a painter best known for reinventing the process of solarization in photographs), as opposed to “digital artists” (like Thomas Ruff, who digitally manipulates landscape photographs), which just use technology as a tool.
But no! “First Open: New Media” includes works like a black-and-white photograph of a young woman by William Eggleston, an untitled Gregory Crewdson color coupler print picturing some kind of fruit, and an untitled Rodney Graham print of an upside-down tree. Art-fair staple Julian Opie actually looks out of place in this collection, as his figurative animations are presented on LCD screens. Basically, it’s a lot of digital art and photographs shoved under the heading of new media, presumably because it has a sexier name and connotes online activity. (That’s important because, with this online-only sale, the company’s looking to compete with web-based auction platforms like Paddle8.)
None of this sits well with me. The world of new media isn’t so confusing that people have started calling Nam June Paik a digital artist. (He’s known as a new-media artist known for his work manipulating televisions, radios and other circuits.) Christie’s’ mistakes are lazy. Plenty of new-media sales could succeed with some smart marketing copy and a strong sales team. That’s what expands a market. This effort muddles definitions and will only confuse collectors.