Photography’s evolution from skill to artistry is part of its allure as a collectible art. Over the course of less than 200 years, the tide shifted from the perception of a photograph as an imitation of other art forms, such as painting and sculpture, to its transition into an independent medium. The current impact of other technologies and the influence of globalization and social media culture continue to shape the market for photography, making it an attractive collectable category.
Today, collecting trends in photography are focused on “rare, early photographs by the big names: Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Man Ray, as well as works by contemporary photographers like Abelardo Morell, Massimo Vitali, Vera Lutter, and Adam Fuss,” says Lisa Thomas, Director of the Fine Arts Department at Stair Galleries. “Thematic photography collections are also popular with designers.”
Photography: A Brief History
The camera obscura, which consists of a dark chamber that allows a small amount of light to pass through and project an image, is the predecessor to the modern camera. This technology and its capabilities were known for centuries, but before 1800 there wasn’t a method to fix the image permanently for reproduction.
In 1822, Joseph Niépce successfully created a heliograph by fixing an image permanently on light-sensitized material. This was the first step in the long journey toward practical photography techniques and technologies. It was not until 1839 that Louis Daguerre’s technical advances with a camera resulted in unique images on silver-plated metals, called daguerreotypes. The final step was the development of a paper negative by William Henry Fox Talbot, which largely replaced glass plates and allowed photographic images to be reproduced easily and inexpensively.
By 1854, Eugene Disderi had developed a sophisticated reproduction method to create the cart de visite, or card-sized individual portraits. This breakthrough increased the demand for photographic portraiture, especially among the new and growing middle class, and met a popular culture demand for collectable images of celebrities. Technological advances made both camera and materials portable, allowing images to be captured and distributed to a wide audience.
Photography as Art
For artists, photography was originally a way to capture reference material, or to record a “sketch” for transformation by painting or sculpture; however, starting in the 1850s artists began experimenting with creative uses for photographs. Gustave Le Gray created landscapes by combining negatives to create an idealized image and touched up negatives to alter tone and create effect. Julia Margaret Cameron experimented with the technology itself, using soft focus to obtain albumen prints in a painterly, dramatic style.
By the turn of the century, photographers had a new attitude toward their art form. The Photo-Secession movement began in 1893 and advocated for manipulation of technology and printing processes to create effects similar to Impressionist paintings.
Only in the last 100 years were photographs truly appreciated by collectors as an art form. The Metropolitan Museum of Art did not begin to collect in this category until 1928, when Alfred Stieglitz, the founder of the Photo-Secession, gifted the institution with his own work and that of his contemporaries. Still, there was not an established department of photography at the institution until 1992.
Photography closely followed and successfully interpreted every major artistic movement, from surrealism to realism to impressionism. Traditional formal qualities endeared by painters and sculptors such as line, color, composition, space, and form are expressed and expanded through this medium. Whether used at its most artistic, manipulated, or exploited for gritty documentation, the trends in photographic practice have significantly impacted the market and collectors.
In the early to mid-20th century, street photographers took advantage of the raw ability of the camera to record and document, and instead relied upon composition and cropping to create a powerful narrative. In doing so, they shed light on grim social conditions.
In the 1980s, photography’s artistic use became less about mastery of technique and more about revealing the attitude of the viewer. Many artists were unfamiliar with the darkroom and did not do their own printing but used the medium for conceptual purposes.
Today, as photography becomes more accessible to those without formal education and as technology improves, art critics raise questions about the relationship between art and technology. At the same time, appreciation has increased for prints created through pioneering photographic techniques that have disappeared with advances like the inkjet print. For example, the laborious silver gelatin process requires a significant investment in materials that are expensive and no longer widely available.
The technology for printing digital images has greatly improved in the last decade, and artists are producing quality prints through these methods. In recent years, digital technology and social media platforms have enabled a collaborative aspect to photography. The accepted definition of a photograph, a print developed from a negative, has also evolved and continues to be challenged by technology. But contemporary collectors are not only interested in contemporary photographers working with these techniques, they also seek out the gems created by mid-20th century photographers that mastered the tools and the technique to create brilliant images.
Types of Photographs
- Daguerreotype: the earliest method of developing prints, daguerreotypes are made from a silver-coated copper plate, sensitized with iodine.
- Albumen print: a process using egg white to fix an image onto a paper negative sensitized with silver nitrate. Popular just before the turn of the 19th century, this technique often produces a sepia-toned, soft effect.
- Gelatin Silver print: the most common method for producing crisp black and white images uses gelatin to bind the image and silver to develop the print. Developed in the late 19th century, photographers still value this method for the rich images it produces, despite the expense of the materials involved.
- Chromogenic or Digital C-Print: this method is used for the majority of modern color prints. Part of the material that forms colored dyes upon development is included in the emulsion during manufacture. During development, the silver image is bleached out, leaving only the dye image.
Building Your Collection
The most successful collections are built on personal interests and aesthetic values. Visiting galleries and art fairs, as well as searching the internet for interesting artists, will help you determine to which photographs you are drawn.
Researching the history of the medium is also important, especially in contemporary photography. Flesh out your interests, whether artist or subject matter, and record them prior to making a financial investment so you can build a more focused collection. Though building a collection is highly personal, it may be helpful to begin curating in a general category or categories:
- Theme: curating a collection thematically is a beginner-friendly approach to collecting photographs (or any medium). Possible themes include landscapes or nudes, broad categories that include a number of price points.
- History: organizing a collection historically can be immensely satisfying, especially if you enjoy researching a particular event or time period. A wide array of price points may be available for this type of collecting, as the photographers do not have to be well known.
- Biography: this type of collection focuses on acquiring the work of a single artist throughout his or her career. This could be a flexible approach for your budget depending on the artist’s notoriety and rarity of photos. Choosing to follow a contemporary photographer’s career from the onset may be more affordable than collecting works by a well-known 20th century photographer, but the latter may have a higher investment value.
“Photography is a great entry market for new collectors. There are beautiful photographs available at all price points, and we always recommend that photography buyers make sure they understand the type of print they are buying,” says Thomas. “Is it vintage, modern, or some kind of later reprint? As always, doing your homework is key.”
As you refine and prioritize your interests, identifying a budget is important. Building a collection is possible on almost any budget, as long as you enter the market from the right place. Here are a few tips to stay within your price range:
- Visit auction houses or galleries, which usually represent a wide variety of price points and often hold demonstrations of various techniques or presentations by experts in the field.
- Look into younger artists. Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) candidates hold open studios at universities prior to graduation each spring. Often their works are of high quality and available for purchase.
- Online marketplaces like Invaluable are an exciting way to acquire new works, and buyers can feel confident in the provenance and research invested by the house prior to public auction.
Establishing & Maintaining Value
The collection value of a photograph is linked to many factors, which is why research prior to purchase is very important if you are hoping to buy artwork as an investment. These factors include the paper used, the sharpness of the image, or the depth of the tones the photographer is able to achieve. Generally, the quality of a particular print is dependent upon the skill and intention of the photographer.
The popularity of a particular subject matter amongst collectors may also significantly impact pricing and competition of an artist’s work. Many artists produce a considerable number of negatives during their lifetime and, in some cases, these are only developed posthumously. Whether or not the printing received the artist’s approval may impact the value of the work.
To better understand a photograph’s collection value, familiarize yourself with the following terms and definitions:
- Vintage: the first prints off a negative produced by the artist or their representative immediately are “vintage” prints. These are often considered to be of higher value to collectors because they are rarer and/or more difficult to acquire than later printings.
- Period: prints are produced during the artist’s lifetime close to the date the negative was produced. This period of time is typically five to ten years.
- Modern: these prints are developed from an original negative significantly later than when it was produced. Though this can often negatively influence desirability, the artist’s intention must be considered. For example, artists like William Eggleston have purposefully chosen to print from negatives many years after production.
- Estate: prints posthumously commissioned by the representatives of an artist. Edition size is often tightly controlled and made in accordance with the artist’s wishes so as to ensure relative value.
No factor impacts the value of a print more than its physical condition. Like all works on paper, prints are fragile and easily affected by environmental factors and improper handling. Assessing condition carefully prior to purchase is important because conservation efforts can be expensive and many types of damage are not reversible. Some condition issues to be avoided are:
- Foxing: brown spots on the edges that happen as a result of environmental exposure. Foxing is difficult to remove and often continues to worsen without treatment.
- Fading or yellowing: discoloration that appears when prints are not protected from exposure to light.
- Paper curling: curling that occurs when prints are exposed to damp conditions.
Before framing and displaying your prints, consider these tips:
- Ensure proper framing and glazing by working with a reputable professional framer, using archival materials.
- If you are not ready to professionally frame and display your prints, store them in acid- and lignin-free protective enclosures in a cool, stable environment away from direct light. Attics, basements, or anywhere with the potential for uncontrolled exposure to heat, light or damp conditions should not be used as storage spaces.
- Whether glass or acrylic, glazing should protect your print from UV rays and pollutants, and the use of glue for support should be avoided.
Tips for Buying Online
You can now easily buy photographs online from an online auction or gallery. Buyer take warning, however, as sales are often final and you will likely not have an opportunity to inspect the item in person. As such, follow these guidelines to ensure a quality purchase:
1. Request a Condition Report & Other Identifying Documents
- What does the documentation prove? Are the sources credible?
- If applicable, who authenticated this artist’s work? Who paid for the authentication? What warranty is extended to you in the case that the authentication is later revealed to be false?
- What is the history of the item, and who has owned it?
- Has it been altered, or is it fully intact?
- What damages or restorations exist?
“Understand what you are bidding on – are there different editions of the same provenance?” says Thomas. “Always ask for a photo of the back of the work – most photographs have signature and edition information on the reverse, as well as studio stamps, copyright stamps, and other interesting markings. Condition reports should always be done out of the frame in order to access these markings to help establish authenticity.”
2. Register to bid several days in advance.
Each auction house has its own registration requirements. For example, on Invaluable, you must register to bid and be approved by the specific auction house you are interested in bidding with. The entire process is straightforward, but is better done a day or two in advance of the sale.
3. Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of online auctions or galleries.
- How does the auction house handle taxes?
- Will a buyer’s premium be added to the hammer or retail price?
- How will the item be shipped?
- How long do you have to pay for the item?
- How do you contact the auction house, dealer, or gallery with questions?
4. Ask Follow-Up Questions
If you have a question, ask it, and if the answer is not satisfactory to you, do not bid or buy.
5. Research Past Prices
Make sure your bid is competitive, but not so high that you’d be significantly overpaying.
6. Don’t Bid or Buy Unless You’re Sure
All sales are final. Once you have successfully bid and won or bought your object, the auction house or gallery can provide you with a list of good art handling or shipping companies to ship your item.
Fried, Michael. Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Print.
Noble, Laura. The Art of Collecting Photography. Lausanne: AVA Publishing, 2006. Print.
Palmer, Daniel. “A Collaborative Turn in Contemporary Photography?” Photographies, 2013. Vol. 6, No. 1, 117 -125. Print.
Squiers, Carol. What is a Photograph? New York: International Center of Photography, 2013. Print.
Stallabrass, Julian. Contemporary Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Wagner, Ethan, and Thea Westreich Wagner. Collecting Art for Love, Money and More. London: Phaidon Press Inc., 2013.