The 20th century market has fluctuated more than other areas of photography in the past, particularly, as we noted above, on items that are readily available in quantity, such as many late-printed images. This is the likely area to watch for price slippage and lack of liquidity if we are to get any down the road. Again, some of the activity on lower level items in this area on eBay and Sotheby's on-line auctions are more in synch with the stock market because of the connection to computer systems and daily stock checking.
In the past it was often the contemporary market that would feel the brunt of a photo market's decline. The reasons included edition sizes too large to maintain a semblance of market discipline and a very thin (and fickle) audience of buyers.
Perhaps this time things may be different for this section of the market. Contemporary work at the auctions has held up surprisingly well this time around--or I should say, the "big" and very limited edition conceptual pieces have continued to be strong (some might say outrageous, given that some of the pieces have sold for multiples well over the gallery prices on same or similar items). Christie's NY may have had trouble finding buyers for some of its big vintage images last fall, but it did very well with its contemporary photography.
Tiny edition sizes and a longer list of ready buyers, especially new institutional buyers, are helping to boost this area. The editions sell out quickly putting pressure on secondary market prices. The base has been widened from the "designer" buyers of the past, but how far, still remains to be seen.
It is hard for me to find someone who is undervalued in this group, but Dieter Appelt and John Coplans come to mind as important. Also "old timer" Robert Adams is seeing a revival of sorts (two shows at Matthew Marks gallery in the last year alone).
There are a lot of others whom we may look back on and wonder what we ever saw in such blatantly obvious work. Will some museums eventually hide this stuff away with their 1970s color? Or continue to trot this material out every once in a while as "art"? But still other contemporary artists will find their way to a firmer place in the pantheon of photo history. Sometimes in the contemporary market it is just a little difficult to differentiate between these groups of winners and losers. Will Struth, Gursky and Sherman all warrant their sometimes six-figure price tags in the future? Will Mapplethorpe and Robert Adams enjoy a rebirth and see their prints rise in price? Stay tuned.