High prices at auctions, strong sales at fairs, and a proliferation of international festivals all prove the multi-faceted strength of photography.

The photography market is inching towards its booming levels of 2007. In early November, a record was set for Cindy Sherman, when “Untitled #153” (1985), showing the chameleon artist languishing with a dirt-streaked face on a pile of moss, fetched $2.8m (estimate: $2-3m) at Phillips de Pury in New York. The next day, Andreas Gursky’s “Frankfurt” (2007), of the Frankfurt stock exchange’s trading floor, sold for $2.1m at Sotheby’s in New York. Just three weeks before, Gursky’s “Pyongyang IV” (2007), of the mass gymnastic display of the Arirang Festival in North Korea, went for £1.3m, or $2m, at Sotheby’s in London. These works were all auctioned at contemporary art sales, which is the preferred sales category for high-end images.

Indeed, it was Gursky who became the world’s most expensive photographer in February 2007 when his diptych “99 Cent II” (2001) of a brimming convenience store sold at Sotheby’s in London for £1.7m, which was then equivalent to around $3.3m. The record was narrowly broken in November that same year by Richard Prince, whose “Untitled (Cowboy)” (2001-2002), an appropriated Marlboro advertisement, sold for $3.4m at Sotheby’s in New York.

This boost to the market does not solely apply to contemporary images. As we reported two weeks ago, the sale of 13 of Richard Avedon’s photographs at Christie’s in Paris last month was also a huge success, led by “Dovima with Elephants” (1955) going under the hammer for €841,000. This iconic image of a model in a Dior outfit posing between two elephants was bought by the house of Dior. It’s an indication of how fashion houses have woken up to the historic importance of works by leading fashion photographers. Meanwhile, over at Sotheby’s in Paris, records were broken for the Czech photographer Josef Sudek, whose untitled still-life study from 1952 achieved €300,750, and for the Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, whose “Portrait of the Eternal” (1935), of a long-haired woman holding a mirror and staring at the reflection of her face, fetched €228,750. Both lots soared past their estimates.

Strong sales have also been happening in the mid and low range, as was evidenced at the fifteenth edition of the annual fair Paris Photo (18-21 November 2010), where the invited guest this time was Central Europe. “This was our best-ever year and we sold more than 100 photographs from all our artists,” said Christine Ollier, the artistic director of Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire in Paris. The gallery’s sales included works from Paul Graham’s “End of a Portrait” series (1996-1998), priced at €24,000. “Two of our artists, Thibaut Cuisset and Ellen Kooi, had exhibitions during the Mois de la Photo and several buyers came to the fair to buy their works,” Ollier added. Created in 1980 by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, a photography museum in Paris, the Mois de la Photo is a biannual photography event that involves over two dozen photography exhibitions happening in Paris in November. The dates of Paris Photo cleverly coincide, maximising the amount of photography that collectors can discover.

Even with a budget under €10,000, bargains could be found at Paris Photo, where works on offer ranged from vintage to contemporary. Sage Paris sold 20 images from the black-and-white “Maquettes/Light” (1999) series of urban city lights by the Japanese photographer Naoya Hatakeyama, priced at €6,000 each. “They’re magnificent, rare works and I sold some to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and to the Museum of Fine Arts de Houston, and a big American collection bought four of them,” said François Sage, the gallery’s owner and director.

Another success was the work of Liu Xiaofang, a 30-year-old artist represented by 798 Gallery in Beijing The gallery sold over 20 prints of three images from the nostalgic, dreamy series “I remember” (2010) showing a young, lonesome girl in digitally created landscapes, priced upwards from €1,000. The Photographers’ Gallery sold its four of its five unique works by the highly sought-after Italian artist Maurizio Anzeri on the first day. Three were found, vintage photographs that he embroidered over, priced at £3,800, and the fourth was a black and white nude portrait of his partner that he had taken himself and then embroidered, priced at £7,700.

Sponsors of photography prizes are keen to team up with Paris Photo. The winner of this year’s Prix BMW, worth €12,000 and launched in collaboration with the fair in 2004, was Hungary’s Gábor Ösz, for his work “Permanent Daylight” (2004) Indeed, the theme of this year’s prize was “Electric Visions”, and Ösz’s image had been realised through transforming a caravan, situated near a series of green houses in the Netherlands, into a camera obscura. The photosensitive paper was exposed during four consecutive nights to the light emissions from the green houses. The Prix BMW gave a distinction to New Zealand’s Carlo Van de Roer for his portrait of the filmmaker Miranda July, which was taken with a Polaroid aura camera that was developed in the 1970s by an American scientist in an attempt to record what a psychic might see. The camera captured July’s introspective aura and translated that into violet and deep blue.

SFR, the French telecommunications group, presented a Young Talents award during Paris Photo, while the shortlisted candidates for the Prix Pictet, a photography prize about sustainability that was launched two years ago by the Geneva-based private bank Pictet & Cie, were previewed at Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire. Carmignac Gestion, the French asset management group, has also jumped on the bandwagon and created a photojournalism prize. The first edition, which invited photographers to submit work about Gaza, was awarded to Kai Wiedenhöfer from Germany for his images of maimed victims and devastated buildings that were taken one year after the 2009 Gaza war. They were shown last month at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, thanks to how Carmignac Gestion is the sponsor of the Basquiat exhibition, and have been published in a monograph, “The Book of Destruction”, by Steidl These prizes lend cultural kudos to the companies, which benefit from tax breaks through these initiatives, and enable the winning photographers to fund forthcoming projects: Prix Pictet is worth CHF100,000 (around €76,600), while the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Prize is worth €50,000.

Another development is the proliferation of photography festivals, which specialised dealers visit in order to meet photographers that they may subsequently decide to represent. Since Les Rencontres d’Arles – meaning the Encounters of Arles – was founded in the south of France over four decades ago, numerous photography events have been launched. Count in Photo España in Madrid, the Brighton Photo Biennial, which was curated this year by Martin Parr, Le Mois de la Photo in Montreal, and the Rencontres de Bamako in Mali Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé both hail from Mali, and Bamako has become an important destination for professionals interested in African photography.

Photo festivals have also sprung up in Moscow, Prague, Luang Prabang in Laos, Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Lianzhou in the Guangdong province of China. The third edition of Photo Phnom Penh (28 November-12 December 2010), whose artistic director is Christian Caujolle – the founder of Agence VU’, brings together 23 exhibitions by Asian and European photographers. Its dates coincide with the sixth edition of Lianzhou Fhoto 2010 (4-30 December 2010), which has been curated by Fei Dawei, the former artistic director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing The latter includes 70 exhibitions by Chinese photographers and is based on the theme “Is the World Real?”, referring to how the medium was formerly used in China for propaganda purposes.

As Jean-Luc Monterosso, the director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, says, “This proliferation of festivals proves the vitality of photography but it is inscribed in a more general phenomenon, which is the multiplication in all domains – be it music, cinema or literature – of festivals, fairs and trade shows.”