Brandei Estes - Head of Photographs Sotheby's London

Appreciation of photography has changed considerably over time – there are far more galleries specialising in it now than there were just a decade ago. Where art buyers used to be a bit skeptical about investing in photography – who could guarantee that artists wouldn’t just churn out extra prints? – nowadays it’s truly become a booming market.

Brandei Estes has seen the market evolving up close. Over the last almost eight years, she’s been heading the photography department at Sotheby’s, the first international auction house to offer regular sales of photographs. Prior to her tenure, she worked at a number of art galleries across London and Paris, after having graduated from University London College in History of Art and Italian.

Brandei’s job is like an art aficionado’s dream: she travels all over the world to meet with private collectors, where she looks at the photographs they want to sell, then puts together an auction together with her team at Sotheby’s, after which she sells the works. Sotheby’s is known for selling the biggest names from Irving Penn, Man Ray, William Eggleston to Helmut Newton – it’s predominantly the established artists that make it to the auction house. Here, Brandei gives a little insight in her daily workings, and offers advice for aspiring collectors.

What has contributed to last decade’s photography boom in your opinion?
Photography is a very accessible medium – nowadays everyone has a camera, even on their smartphone – which makes it very relatable. Not everybody can sculpt or paint, but everybody can technically take a photograph. Add to that the price points are so vastly different: for £10,000 you could already buy work from a pretty established artist. That doesn’t mean, however, that fine art photography is ‘easy’ to make. People tend to overlook the artistic intricacies that go into making a print. Take Samantha’s work, for example, which is so vivid in colour and which she has printed herself. It takes years to perfect a craft like that. It is something that I wish to instil in customers. 

It seems quite challenging to navigate the photography market and figure out who is worth what.
That is why Homecoming is such a good initiative: to have industry insiders share their thoughts and suggestions freely, with no commercial motivation. I always give advice when it comes to emerging artists that you really should buy work that you love. Don’t think about the resale value, or think of it as a future financial investment. Simply enjoy the work. Hopefully it will increase and not decrease in value, but that shouldn’t be the reason why you buy it. 

What is it that excites you about emerging photographers? 
I look at those artists that really push the medium. There’s been this great trend in the past few years of contemporary photographers going back to traditional processes and techniques. To see hand made work making a comeback in our high-paced, digital world is incredibly exciting. 

“There is a highly seductive tension that permeates through all of Samantha Johnson’s works, which I find utterly appealing. She hits a perfect balance of suspense and mystery in her works, and clearly takes inspiration and iconography of classic film noir. Sam is completely absorbed in the entire creative process: arranging her mise-en-scene works, shooting and then trying to print the works as soon as possible, as all these elements are salient players in the finished and presented works.”  

How does your personal taste affect the choices you make in your professional life?
As I personally collect works by mostly (but not exclusively) women artists, I am conscious to source works by female photographers for auction whenever I can. Recently we sold a vintage work of the Cuban-American sculptor and artist Ana Mendieta, which I had catalogued myself prior to the auction. To physically hold this work in my hands, even for just thirty minutes was an absolute honour. She was such an exceptional artist with huge potential, so I am very proud to have had my share in selling it at Sotheby’s. For a short while you’re a work’s custodian, you look after it. That is an incredible privilege.

Auction sales do still seem to be largely dominated by male artists.
It is a question I get asked a lot at talks and panels that I attend: how come women artists are so underrepresented? While it is a fair question, at the same time I think we should question why the majority of art collectors are men and not women. Some emancipation needs to happen on all fronts.

So what are some of the trends you’ve come across in your work at Sotheby’s?
We have seen a steady rise of contemporary fashion photography being sold – and not just the established names like Helmut Newton. Take Tim Walker for example, or Miles Aldridge or Erik Madigan Heck. What I really love about these photographers is how they reinvent conventional thought on what fashion photography should look like, elevating it into the sphere of recognised fine art photography.

What are your future ambitions within this field? 
I would like to continue selling, lecturing, curating auctions and exhibitions, and generally doing as much as possible to get people excited about buying and collecting photography. It’s a relatively small but growing category of the art market, so it’s easy to meet and mingle with photographers, gallerists, curators and other experts and leverage that accessibility into key knowledge that can inform smart collecting choices!

txt: Rolien Zonneveld
imgs: Gabby Laurent

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