I love the artist medium I work in, photography. Contemporary photography is one of the more accessible mediums to collect. Aficionados looking to find and champion emerging photographers can often purchase several prints on a limited budget of a few thousand dollars, and even works by some of the most famous people to ever wield a camera can be snapped up for affordable sums, at least relative to their prestige and talent.
Here are some thoughts on collecting fine art photography from museums and collectors alike.
The Wow Factor
At the outset, guidance for collecting photography isn’t much different from what experts say about purchasing any work of art: Start with images you like, and that you think you’ll like for a long time. “Does it grab you?” Some collectors begin from a price point, others a time period, others a particular artist.
There is a difference between an image—say, the photographer’s JPEG file—and the print. Individual images are issued in an edition, which is the artist’s binding statement as to how many prints of that image will be made.
With photographs, there are many “originals”. Anything printed from the negative or original file is an original photograph.”
Not all original photographs will cost the same amount, however. Different editions can have different numbers of prints. An edition of 50 and an edition of three are both “limited” but they’re not equal in terms of value. Generally, the smaller the number of prints in an edition, the more expensive they will be. (You’re paying for exclusivity.) The same image can have multiple editions in different sizes, and you should ask about the total number of copies across sizes that will be offered and sold. When comparing two images to purchase, one with a total number of 50 will be more valuable than one with 500.
Today, editions of even 50 prints are seen as relatively large while editions of around three to five are seen as small. It’s not always known how many prints of an image there are. Some photographers—particularly those working prior to World War II—didn’t edition their works. A photographer can also decide to sell her artist proof, generally defined as the first perfect print of a negative, once the print run of an edition sells out.
A print’s order within an edition can alter its price. Edition pricing may be staggered and can change as the prints sell and become more limited, or as an artist’s work becomes more valuable over time. Print prices will be set by the artist or gallery, and asking if an edition is staggered when you check availability is important. That doesn’t mean all prints from the same edition will cost the same when they surface on the secondary market: As with all fine art, provenance plays a role in the price of photography. If a print is signed, that can also increase its value.
In photography, there is what Himes calls “the myth of infinite reproducibility.” But while there aren’t any laws preventing a photographer from simply printing more photos above the number in the limited edition, if they did, that artist has ruined their career overnight. No museum or gallery would touch them. Further rarifying photography, some artists are even going so far as offer editions of just one single print, giving their work the same unique quality of paintings. And some artists use photographic formats, such as cyanotype and daguerreotypes, that inherently create unique objects that are not reproducible.
A Vintage Print
One word you might hear used to describe a print is “vintage.” This doesn’t necessarily mean the print is old, and not all old prints are “vintage” (hear me out). Rather, “vintage” refers to prints created around the time the original negative was made. “Think of vintage as like wine, rather than something old,” said Noble. For example, if the negative is from 1920 and the print was made around the same time, then that’s a vintage print.
There isn’t a universally agreed upon definition of what qualifies a print to be vintage. A print created within five years of the negative is generally considered vintage, but others might say the printing should be even closer to the creation of the negative. It’s also noted you might hear the term “early” instead of “vintage.” The key is to not let the terminology bog you down—check the print date and never trust that something is “vintage” just because you’re told that it is.
Prints can be created shortly after the negative (vintage), or after that but still during the life of the artist (modern prints), or even after the artist’s death (posthumous). Indeed, the proximity between a print and the negative is a significant determination of value—vintage prints are generally the most expensive. But this doesn’t make them the “best” in an artistic sense, nor does it mean that it’s not worth collecting. Many museums keep posthumous estate prints in their collections.
The Physical Art
As with any artwork, check the condition of the prints themselves carefully. Damage to a photograph can include scratching, handling marks (those half-moon-shaped creases in the surface), permanent finger prints, and even color shifts. Collectors who are drawn to older or “vintage” prints might have more tolerance for wear and tear, but if you’re collecting works by contemporary photographers, whose prints are often created only after they’re ordered, blemishes should be nonexistent.
If you want the photographs you buy to avoid damage, be sure to properly frame them. Sloppy framing can result in damage to a print over time, which may only become noticeable once you’re having the piece inspected before a sale. Certain glass glazes can also filter out the UV light that changes the color of the photograph. Framing may not seem like the most exciting part of buying a photograph, but it is among the most important. Have your work professionally framed. Many artists will ship sealed prints directly to a printer to reduce damage potential.
In conclusion, the fine art photography collecting market can be an exciting one. And… at the very least introduce you to some exciting new people and concepts.