It is possible to buy prints presumably made from original Henri Cartier Bresson negatives (or from one of a limited number of authorised copies) - for prices ranging between $14,000 and $18,000. For that money, they come in a 16x20 format and (presumably) are produced on the finest quality paper with a certificate of authenticity. I also hope that the prints include the Cartier Bresson negative edge to verify that the image has not been cropped - a trademark of Cartier Bresson's original prints ... but let's assume that will also be the case and move on.
It must be acknowledged that, were one to find a photographic print made by Cartier Bresson's own hand (and there can't be very many - he hated darkrooms), one would pay a pretty impressive figure indeed. About ten years ago, or so, an early print, from one of the well known Pictorialists sold at Sothebys for $2.8 million. There IS an established market for photograhic prints and original negatives - of this there can be little doubt. If you can get your hands on an original negative or a print made by a famous photographer, it seems that you may have something of great value. If there were never many prints produced, the price goes up. If the print was made by someone else after the master died, the price goes down etc
The encouraging thing in all of this is that the market seems to have decided that fine photographs can INDEED be considered art .... but has it? Are people buying art or are they buying rare antiques? Whether photography is an artform or not, great iconic photographs have made their mark. They can be famous and historically significant. Certainly they constitute evidence that famous people and places ever existed and that famous incidents actually took place.
Certainly, prints and negatives can easily be copied and the number of prints in circulation of a famous image can rarely be satisfactorily established. For these reasons (among others) a photograph can never aspire to the value of a picture produced by a highly regarded painter. Once the authenticity of a painting is established, it has to be conceded that it is a one-off and can never be legitimately copied. If you own the Laughing Cavalier you OWN it. No-one else can do so unless you SELL it.
If you own an original print by Berenice Abbott you DO own it .... yes ... but so might many other people - as do a whole lot of people who hold identical prints made from the negative (or a copy) by other people - or indeed many people holding NEAR identical prints made by digital means whose origins will NEVER be known. However difficult it may be to satisfactorily establish the provenance of a painting, with photographs it becomes a nightmare.
In the case of digital photography the nightmare becomes simply impossible. Within hours of it being captured, a given digital image file could well have been backed-up or copied hundreds of times and distributed widely on disk, by email transmission or by download from websites. What is more, the extent of an image's actual distribution can never be verified. The original photographer can have no way of knowing him/herself.
However artistically meritorious a painting may be, its ultimate value derives from its documented authenticity and its inherent rarity. However artistically meritorious a photographic image may be, it seems that it will never reach the values of more traditional artforms because it will always be impossible to establish exclusivity of ownership. To make matters worse, the documentary veracity (and value) of photographs produced by digital means can ALSO be questioned, given the ease with which images can be edited.
Over recent years I have sometimes been surprised to see fine arts photographers (and other types of photographers as well) still using large format "old fashioned" photographic film and view cameras. Then it struck me. If you have an original negative (most especially a large format negative) you have some means of CONTROLLING an image's distribution and directing its provenance. You have some means by which your work can accrue and maintain value.
The future of digital photography - so far as its claims to art are concerned - seems doubtful. The universal measure of artistic value (how many dollars does it cost to buy?) seems denied to it.
It cannot be denied, however that we live in the age of change. With so many potential dollars riding on the issue, it would not surprise me in the least to find that someone rescues the potential value of digital imagery by some hitherto unknown technical means. Stay tuned.