Collecting Fine Art Photographs Michelle Lamunière
If you’re a beginner collector or a seasoned one looking to explore a new art form, photographs are an excellent option. Because it is a reproductive medium like printmaking, photography offers an extraordinary variety of imagery, often at a more reasonable price point than paintings and sculpture. Whether you’re seeking to build a significant collection or simply to acquire some interesting works for your walls, you first need to figure out what kind of photographs you like. The best way to do this is to see as much work as possible. Spend time reviewing publications and online sources about photography. Some of my favorites include: Photograph magazine, which lists current gallery and museum exhibitions; The Photograph Collector, an overview of auction previews and results; www.collectordaily.com, which offers photography criticism from a collector’s perspective; and www. iphotocentral.com, which provides a wealth of information on topics ranging from connoisseurship to conservation. A great way to see a variety of work in one place is to attend a fair like those organized by the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) in New York, Classic Photographs Los Angeles and photo la, or Paris Photo. Just remember that art fair booths are curated affairs, often focusing on one artist or a specific theme, and reflect a narrow selection of a much larger inventory. Visit galleries and spend time talking to dealers, who are happy to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Join collector’s circles and friends of photography groups. In addition to meeting likeminded collectors and supporting the institutions’ activities, these groups provide access to artist talks and a wealth of curatorial knowledge that can expose you to a wide range of photographic practice. Auction houses also have specialists on hand during previews who can talk with you about the works on offer. Once you’ve identified an artist, movement or genre that intrigues you, do your research. Familiarize yourself with a photographer’s body of work in order to understand the breadth of their practice and their place within the history of the medium. Are you interested in a particular series or a single iconic image like Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage (fig.
1. Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946), The Steerage, 1907, printed 1915, photogravure. 1)? Similarly, if you’re looking at an artistic movement such as Pictorialism or an approach like photojournalism, what are the aesthetic and stylistic qualities that attract you? Is there material available in your area of interest? For emerging and contemporary photographs, seek out work that is conceptually sound as well as visually successful, such as Lalla Essaydi’s Converging Territories series (fig. 2). Above all, don’t be seduced by what’s hot in the art market since the longevity of the latest collecting frenzy or “it” artist is never guaranteed. As with other art or collectibles, learning how to evaluate the physical properties of a photographic object is also crucial to successful collecting. Factors to assess include print quality and condition, print date, process, edition size, dimensions and inscriptions. Look for photographs that exhibit tonal range, luminosity, and unmarred surfaces (even a subtle mark visible only in raking light matters). If prints aren’t properly washed or fixed, chemical inconsistencies over time can produce fading and changes in tone. For example, the normal color for albumen silver prints (produced between 1850 and c. 1900) is a rich purplish brown, but over time through light exposure and chemical reactions, they often become yellowish brown (fig. 3). Silver-based images tend to be more stable than dye-based color prints made between the 1950s and 1990s, which are particularly susceptible to fading and color deterioration. Environmental conditions like excess humidity and temperature changes can produce fading, mold, and foxing (visible in fig. 3). Additional considerations are acidic mounts and adhesives, and crimps, creases, scratches, and tears from handling. As with works in other media, glowing
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2. Lalla Essaydi (Moroccan, b. 1956), Converging Territories 3. William Henry Jackson (American, 1843-1942), The High Bridge in the Loop Near Georgetown, Colorado, c. 1885, #30, 2004, chromogenic print. albumen silver print.
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