Posted by: 6x6pix | November 29, 2009

Where Does Value Come From?

As someone who loves found photos and who scours flea markets and yard sales for the cast-off photo albums of strangers, I went a little weak in the knees reading about the free vintage photo “happening” at last week’s Paris Photo 2009.

A surprise act of art market anarchy took place just outside the entrance to the exclusive gala VIP opening night at Paris Photo 2009 last week. While the crowd of well-dressed international art collectors began to enter the giant hall at the Louvre, dozens of pranksters quickly dumped thousands and thousands of anonymous vintage photos into a giant heap, and tossed handfuls of photographs in the air. “Free, free, free!”

It was like a feeding frenzy. And it was quite evident that some people were torn between spending all evening crawling on the floor in search of some personal treasures — or going inside to sip champagne and look at some of the best work available in today’s official international art market.

I know where I’d be: on the floor. As compelling as some contemporary art photography is, almost nothing’s as interesting (to me) as constructing narratives around the people and places in found photos. Unlike the value assigned or created by the art market, the value of found photos is completely personal; more personal, even, than the sentimental value that attaches to photos of family and friends, because everything we “know” (make up) about the subjects of found photos comes from within our own minds. The value of the photos dumped on the floor at Paris Photo came entirely from what individuals saw in them.

This ‘happening’ reminds me in a small way of photographer Timothy Prus’ Photo Swap, a 2006 gallery show in which visitors could take a photo off the walls (and home with them) if they brought one or more of their own photos to hang in its place. In his statement on the show, Prus said:

Photo Swap attempts a disruption of hierarchies, creating new value systems and potentialities through the continual realignment of these interchanging images. … Above all, I want to share my heirlooms with people who I know will care.”

I suggested doing a Photo Swap-style show with BPC when I first heard about Prus’ show in 2006, and I’ve been trying ever since to get a group together to do it. So far, no one I’ve spoken to about it is interested; they don’t want to give their work away for free. I can’t say I’m really surprised by that, but it does disappoint me. Most of these people charge $30-$300 for prints, and honestly I think the value of doing a Photo Swap type show would be much greater than that (albeit, not as fungible ;-)

I’m still trying — so if anyone reading is interested, let me know!

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