Over the last few years, the Indian market for photography has grown, riding the back of the art boom. Some investors are turning their eyes to photography because they can’t afford the high prices of paintings, sculptures and installations. Other collectors see this as an opportunity to support an art that is, by nature, more realistic and more accessible.

Photography connoisseurs say the medium is increasingly looking inward and attempting to chronicle the contradictions and changes of modern India.

“Art prices in India and the world over has reached its peak, but not photography," says Samir Modi, MD of Modi Enterprises, an avid New Delhi-based collector who has bought Raghu Rai and Fawzan Husain photographs. Modi says prices of photographs are still very reasonable. “Even for a photograph by a master such as Raghu Rai, you don’t need to spend too much," he adds.

Still, the community of photographers, curators and buyers remains tiny—just one network of galleries across the country is exclusively devoted to photo exhibitions. While that makes investing in photographs tricky, it could also be good news for photo enthusiasts who do their homework.

“There are a lot of good bargains," says Peter Nagy, who runs Nature Morte, a New Delhi art gallery. He sells most of his prints abroad and says the Indian market is undervalued.

Photography has seen hype before. In the 1970s, art became exorbitantly priced in the US and buyers looked to photography to be able to acquire prints at lower prices.

Today, photography is being elevated and coveted in India in the same way, according to Devika Daulet-Singh, director of photography for PhotoInk, a New Delhi-based editorial and production agency.

No formula

The newness of the market poses a challenge to buyers in India because no formula exists on how prices should be determined. Prints sell for anywhere between Rs20,000 and Rs3.5 lakh, depending on the reputation of the photographer. While prints by iconic photographers such as Raghu Rai and Dayanita Singh can start as high Rs1 lakh, works by upcoming artists can earn up to Rs80,000.

Saibal Das: Marksman with Family

“Prices are set when you have several galleries. Right now, we don’t have enough," says Daulet-Singh. While some art galleries are also selling prints, an established community of galleries selling photography as art does not exist.

Tasveer—a network of four galleries promoting contemporary Indian photography in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore—is trying to change that. Shalini Gupta, co-founder of Tasveer, founded in 2006, observes that each city has its own style. For instance, she says, Raghu Rai’s works are well received in New Delhi, while viewers connect with Fawzan Husain’s photographs on Bollywood in Bombay. Ten of Rai’s popular pieces, Migrating Seagulls in Jamuna River, were sold for Rs5 lakh each.

Even so, Rai says photographs remain much cheaper than paintings or sculptures. “People are now realizing the importance of capturing time and space. A painting can be done from anyone’s imagination, they could mix up several experiences. Photography is a true representation of reality."

Pablo Bartholomew, another famous photographer, acknowledges that Indians are now becoming aware of photographs as a collectable art form. Says he: “I would like my work to be on walls of homes and corporate spaces. But what I wouldn’t want is blind investment. I want genuine buyers."

Gupta says prices commanded by top photographers have doubled in the last two to three years. The gallery sold a 2004 Husain print from his study of Bollywood titled Kisna 2 for Rs20,000, while Shahid Datawala’s Glowing Stairs, from his series on old cinema spaces in New Delhi, garnered Rs25,000. Also, the prints are sold in editions: It means that a photographer can create multiple prints of one photograph. The inherent reproducibility factor impacts pricing when compared to a painting or a sculpture. The more the number of editions of a photograph, the lower the value.

Raghu Rai: My Father and My Son

Though there is no formula or rule, Daulet-Singh says that photographers should ideally work with a consistent number of editions.

For instance, one photographer may work with as little as three editions while another could work with 40. The number of editions will also impact prices, with later editions selling at higher prices.

The goal, however, is not necessarily to sell all or even most of the editions. Anay Mann, one of India’s new generation of photographers, says he prefers to sell no more than three of his editions in India. Mann works on 15 editions and says that by letting limited editions into the market, he adds value to the work. “Exclusivity lies in reduced number of editions," adds Gupta.

Daulet-Singh says that production houses should be careful about the number of editions that enter the market—not all images from a photographer need to be on sale.

Developing a market

This is important for further developing the primary market—representing the initial sale of a print—and in eventually establishing a healthy secondary market, such as auctions, where prices and values are sustained and where they could possibly escalate. Galleries establish prices in the primary market while market forces such as bidders and investors set prices later.

Shahid Datawala: Amitabh’s Pants

Mann says he focuses more on the process. For instance, many photographers, he says, would still prefer to sell a print to a museum than to sell it to an investor at a higher price. “I don’t want it treated like a commodity," he says.

Daulet-Singh ticks off a list of factors that add value to a print, with reputation and visibility ranking at the top. Has the photographer been exhibited abroad? If so, location is key. Was it a solo show or part of a group exhibition? How many exhibitions? Has the work been published? These are the questions investors are advised to ask before art shows and gallery receptions.

Observers believe the market will soon see some artificial inflation of prices. They say the real test for the Indian market for fine art photography will come with time.

Can the prices be sustained? This year’s Rencontres d’Arles 2007, the world’s largest annual festival of editors, curators and publishers, in many ways served as India’s debut. Twelve of 50 exhibitions were dedicated to Indian photographers—among them were Pablo Bartholomew, Sunil Gupta, Raghu Rai and Dayanita Singh.

Future tense

“Importantly, there is a shift in the gaze of the photographer," Daulet-Singh says. Beginning in the mid-1990s, this shift inward strayed from the exotic and eternal, towards the more personal, intimate and artistic, she says. Photography is inherently more realistic than art, which leans on the abstract and interpretative. “Photography may be constructed or staged, rooted in recreating reality, but people gravitate to a more realistic image because it is easy to decode," Daulet-Singh says.

“Prices are so cheap," says Mann. “Investors will just buy, buy, buy." Mann does not collect photographs, although he would like to in the future. His walls, his says, are dedicated to family pictures for now.

Observers agree that India lacks a commitment to the arts at the institutional level. There has been no legacy of corporate patronage to establish art museums, schools or institutes. There is no institution that offers photography as a full-time independent degree, says Daulet-Singh. Knowledge of photography has traditionally been transferred by apprenticeship and overseas study.

Mann says he’d like to fund a photography scholarship, to help newcomers embark on a career such as his own.

Aliyah Shahid also contributed to this story.

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com