by Geoff Williams
J. Kritz didn’t set out to collect photographs. He just wanted a cool picture for his dorm room.
But unlike most college freshman, instead of buying a few posters, E.J. plunked down $150 at an art gallery and purchased an original Rob Arra, who is well known for his photos of sporting crowds in stadiums. And while stadium crowds may not sound like collectibles, with an imaginative eye and careful lighting, Arra manages to make a night game at Fenway Park a work of art. Ten years later, E.J. is now an Arra disciple. “If I could fast forward 60 years and learn that I had never once purchased a painting, I wouldn’t be shocked,” says E.J. “But if someone told me I had spent thousands and thousands of dollars on photography, I wouldn’t be shocked either.”
Collecting photography as a pastime is relatively new and the medium itself didn’t begin to be embraced as an art form until the 1970s. That said, there are probably more collectors out there than you would think.
Who and What to Collect
Sid Monroe, owner of the Monroe Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe (with his wife, Michelle), could be speaking for every museum curator and every experienced collector when he says: “You need to develop your own subjective way that you look at photography. Ultimately, what you live and surround yourself with says something about you, that you derive some satisfaction and pleasure in viewing those images. So go to museums, go to galleries, read books of photo collections and get a sense of what is attractive to you, and from there, you start to seek out what’s appealing.”
Beyond your personal preferences, as with any form of collecting, price is an additional key consideration. On the whole, photography is less expensive to collect than other art forms. While a Jackson Pollock painting sold for $140 million in 2006, the most expensive photograph ever sold was 99 Cent II Diptych by Andreas Gursky, which went for $3.3 million in 2007. To get started, here are some of the major categories that you might consider collecting.
FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY
Generally, it’s agreed that this term refers to a photo that helps complete a photographer’s artistic vision. To begin exploring these works, you might start with a place like the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago or the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City. His roster includes fine art photographers such as Eikoh Hosoe, who came to prominence after World War II for his dark, sometimes erotic topics, and William Klein, a painter and documentary filmmaker who is also known for producing landmark still photos of New York City streets in the 1950s.
Edelman’s gallery highlights many fine art photographers, including Ron van Dongen and Tom Baril, both of whom use flowers as subjects. “What’s special about van Dongen’s work is that he actually grows the flowers that he’s photographing,”observes Edelman. “Van Dongen nurtures the flowers, clips them and brings them into his house, and shoots them very simply and is very respectful of the flower.”
Baril, on the other hand, specializes in flowers that are past their prime. “He purposefully buys flowers that are decaying, and then he finds their inner beauty,” says Edelman. “He intentionally forces you to look at the parts of the flower that you normally don’t. He’s unique and produces really beautiful pieces.”
You can’t discuss landscape photography without discussing Ansel Adams, probably the most famous of photographers, thanks in part to the numerous books, calendars and T-shirts depicting his images. So masterful is his work that Adams’ mass appeal hasn’t hurt his standing among collectors at all—a print of Adams’ famed Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico sold in 2006 for $609,600.
assistant, is another highly admired landscape photographer. “He is one of the best out there,” says Eric Keller, owner of Soulcatcher Studio in Santa Fe. “He just draws you in, and I think that’s what successful about any photographer’s work. Their images keep your attention for a certain amount of time, make an impression and stick in your mind.”
Josef Hoflehner—whose main representation is the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York—is an Australian photographer with a varied portfolio from around the world. He often shoots in black and white with an approach that can make his subjects appear mythical, not quite real, almost like visual poetry.
And Robert Adams—no relation to Ansel—is known as one of the most talented photographers to ever pick up a camera. “I think Robert Adams and a number of people in his generation re-approached how they used the landscape as their subject,” says Joshua Chuang, who oversees Adams’ archives at the Yale University Art Gallery. “Ansel Adams’ photographs present a very dramatic view of what are mostly pristine, natural phenomena, and his pictures by and large heightened the drama. Robert Adams took a very different approach—you look at his photos at first, and they seem dry. There’s no apparent drama to the pictures, but when you look at the pictures, they’re still beautiful, but in a different way.”
“Alfred Eisenstaedt was a pioneer in his field, one of the earliest practitioners of photojournalism, before there was even a name for photojournalism,” says Monroe. You may know Eisenstaedt’s work even if you don’t know his name: a longtime photographer for LIFE magazine, Eisenstaedt took the iconic photograph of a Navy sailor kissing a nurse on V-J Day.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photojournalist right around the same time and considered a master of candid photography. Ted Croner, while not as significant a figure as Eisenstaedt or Cartier-Bresson, is intriguing for a series of photographs that he took in the late 1940s, says Monroe.
“Ted Croner took a very different approach to photography. He wanted his images to be as realistic as possible, but he also had this modern view—his pictures were almost like jazz, showing a lot of motion, music and excitement. They were very reflective of the time of the late 1940s.” One of his best known works, says Monroe, was Taxi, New York. “It’s a blur of an old taxi going through the city at night, and it’s just a very exciting photograph—a really pure example of just reflecting that moment. That’s clearly his best-known image, but there are several others, and I don’t think any casual viewer can come across those images and not really stop and look.”
Margaret Bourke-White is yet another important photojournalist turned fine art photographer. “She was truly a groundbreaker in every sense of the word, not the least being a woman doing what she did,” points out Monroe. She worked steadily for Fortune and LIFE magazines, capturing images of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and, shortly before his assassination, Mahatma Gandhi.
Monroe sums up her work in one word: “Astounding.”
More Fashion Mileage per Dress, Barbara Vaughn, New York,1956, by Lillian Bassman
If you’re more into portraits of people—especially celebrities—this style may be worth exploring. Some Hollywood photographers and fashion photographers have also made their way into the realm of fine art. George Hurrell, says Keller, “was the best known of the Hollywood era portrait makers. He came right up through the studio system, starting at MGM Studios and really became sort of a star maker in his own right with the beautiful images he was able to make.” Some of Harrell’s most famous shots include Jane Russell lying on a haystack and Jean Harlow on a bear skin rug, each of them intensely lit to suggest their respective star power. What Keller finds interesting about Hurrell’s work is that he hadn’t set out to create art, he was just promoting stars. However, the superb aesthetic quality of his shots is unmistakable and has attracted a large number of collectors over the years.
The same thing happened to Georges Dambier. Taking photos of celebrities like Rita Hayworth after World War II and shooting for the fashion magazine ELLE may not sound like a path to fine art, but these days Dambier’s work is highly sought-after. Horst P. Horst, often just known as Horst, is a fashion photographer whose work appeals to contemporary collectors. He was a photographer for Vogue and is recognized as “a magician with light and shadows,” explains Etheleen Staley of the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York City. “He’s considered one of the old masters,” she says.
Staley cites Patrick Demarchelier and Lillian Bassman as examples of major magazine photographers whose work is particularly collectible. Bassman is 92 and a good portion of her work was taken from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. By the 1970s, not thinking her work all that special, she got rid of many photographs. However, in the 1990s she came across a bag of her old negatives. Always interested in manipulating images, Bassman, says Staley, “went into the dark room, worked on the negatives, bleached and smudged and really transformed her existing photographs into something special.”
Photo Fine Points
To begin collecting photography, there are several key questions to ask that should help you get a sense of a particular work’s value and whether it’s worth acquiring.
Is it a vintage print? This is a term that came about in the 1970s, when collecting photographs became mainstream. A photo is considered vintage if it’s a print made by or under supervision of the photographer within about a year of the negative’s creation. If this becomes important to you, then as Staley says, you are “hardcore.”
Is this an original? Some photographers will make copies of a photo years after the fact, and so while it may not be considered vintage, it is still an original. One way to look at it—an original photograph has been printed and held by the photographer during his or her lifetime.
Is it a limited edition? It’s important to determine if there is a specific, certain and finite number of prints that a photographer agreed to make, since this clearly increases the rarity of the photograph and its worth.
Is the photo signed? That little difference, depending on the photographer and photo, of course, can make a picture’s worth go thousands of dollars up in value.
The photographer? Um, dead or alive? It’s morbid, yes, but just as with paintings, a photographer’s work is worth even more once they’re gone, since their life’s work is now finite.
Following Your Passion
While the diagnostic queries are key to making a good photo purchase, whether you like the photo could well be the most important question to ask yourself. Because while it’s certainly possible to buy photography as an investment, it’s risky if making money is all you care about. As such, why not like what you’re buying? After all, this is what makes so many photographs worth something special—that mysterious, hard-to-describe quality that attracts people to the picture in the first place.
“The great thing about photography is that there are photographs related to everything on earth that people collect,” says Pablo Solomon, a prominent artist and sculptor in Austin, Texas, who also has a passion for collecting photography. “Photographs give people a way to remember good times and document bad times. Photographs capture moments shared by an entire generation or a special moment between two lovers.” That’s certainly part of why E.J. Kritz became a collector. “I think it’s in the details for me,” says E.J. “There’s something crisp and pure and real about photography. The camera can capture things that the brush can’t, and that’s not to sleight an artist. When I’m looking at a photo, I know that what I’m looking at was really what it was like on that day at that moment for that person.”
The Photograph Collector’s Guide by Lee D. Witkin and Barbara London, published in 1979, is still an essential
reference book. Lorraine Anne Davis has spent five years reviewing and updating the contents. More than 400 artists biographies include signatur and stamping variations, negative sizes, portfolio print titles, printers, and important collections for each. Also included are essays on fakes and forgeries, portfolios, photography books, and digital photography, as well as a comprehensive glossary of digital and analog terms.
The single most helpful guide to fine art photography for dealers and collectors has been completely updated and will be
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