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Photography Has Proven One Of The Most Profitable And Satisfying Art Forms To Collect.
How Do The Experts Recommend Starting A Collection?
The maturing of photography as an art form has been accompanied by an explosion of interest both in the enjoyment and creation of photographs. With the advent of digital cameras and camera phones, nearly everyone is now making images. Interest in collecting photography has also grown dramatically, not to mention the value of some photographs.
In a November 2006 Fortune Magazine Article titled, “Investors Zoom In On Photography,” Stephen Milioti wrote that in the decade from 1996 to 2006, a photographic print by Helmut Newton “enjoyed better price appreciation than a comparable investment in an S&P 500 index fund, General Electric Stock, or ten-year treasury bonds. And Newton isn’t the only photographer whose prices are on the rise.” Prices and demand fell off in 2008 and 2009 but are rebounding well in 2010. See the blog post, “Photography And Art Dealers Rebound In 2010.” Photography collecting is generally much easier to get into than collecting any other art form. For example: collectible photographs are still much more reasonably priced than collectible paintings and within reach of most Americans. Caution is still advised though. Bizmove.com’s Small Business Knowledge Base, Guide to Good Fine Art Investment said, “Buying art solely as an investment is riskier, in many cases, than the stock market. Most art decreases in value. Over 95 percent of the first one-person shows in New York (or any major city) in any given season are from artists never heard from again.”
Lorraine Anne Davis, a columnist for Black and White Magazine, appraiser and respected consultant to museums and photography art dealers spent five years reviewing and updating the contents of a classic book on the subject called The Photograph Collector’s Guide by Lee D. Witkin and Barbara London. The Photograph Collector’s Guide first published in 1979 is still considered by many to be an essential reference book and will be republished in a new edition this Fall. Lee D. Witkin founded the Witkin Gallery in New York City in 1969 that worked to educate collectors and showed the historically important work of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Edward S. Curtis, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Brassai, Robert Doisneau and others. Lee D. Witkin until his passing in 1984, also was an internationally known appraiser and advisor to major museums, private collectors and the LIFE photographic archive.
In The Photograph Collector’s Guide, Lee D. Witkin described how when he first opened Witkin Gallery experts in the art field that he asked for advice were all negative. He was told that “there was little hope of a gallery making it.” Lee D. Witkin wrote:
I was warned that six months, one year at most, was as long as I could expect to last—because no one collected photographs. The explosion of interest in photography during the 1970s is a truly remarkable phenomenon in light of the century and a quarter of neglect the medium and those practicing it suffered. In years past the idea of the photograph as a collectible art object was certainly suspect, if not inconceivable…. What I did have, however, along with the instincts of a professional, were the passions of a collector. Collecting (and every collector knows the symptoms) means seeking, desiring, wanting, yearning for, coveting, having to have…and–as soon as possible—acquiring, possessing, hugging to the bosom, and savoring with all the joys and pride of ownership. It is impossible to explain to someone who is not consumed by such passions why the purchase of a special painting, book or photograph takes priority over a trip to Europe, a new pair of shoes, or a gold inlay. We all know collecting art is not a pursuit basic for survival. However, it is an exquisite involvement with aesthetic achievements—a kind of mingling with the gods…. Photography is still relatively untapped. Many masterworks and gentler minor works have yet to be discovered and appreciated. A solid base for collecting and for future interest has been established not only by the serious activity of major museums and individuals, but also by educational programs. Many beginning collectors ask, “What should I collect?” My advice always has been and always will be: Collect what you like and trust your instincts. The good fortune of a young woman who years ago bought on instinct what is now a highly valued Imogen Cunningham print illustrates what I mean. She tells me whenever we meet, “I love my Cunningham—every day.”
Lee D. Witkin quoted one of his gallery’s first customers, Dan Berley, who became a prominent collector. He said:
I have always used two criteria in my collecting: first, the image must produce a strong emotional feeling in me; and, second, there must be a high quality to the photographic print itself. Because I never collect ‘names,’ per se, I buy the work of unknown or forgotten photographers as well as famous ones.
Lee D. Witkin emphasized the importance of “doing your homework,” to include learning about various photographic processes and their dates, understanding terminology, reading about the most up-to-date techniques for care and preservation, reading exhibition catalogs, and attending gallery and museum shows. “Examine photographs closely and discover that original prints have unique qualities of tone, luminosity, and “presence” that no book or magazine reproduction can duplicate. From the first day I opened the doors of my gallery, I have repeatedly heard the remark: ‘I’d only seen the image in books—I had no idea it was so beautiful!’”
The same goes today: browsing websites and looking at photographs on the internet is a good way to start and to narrow your searches, but there is no substitute for seeing a “live” exhibition and being able to meet the artist or a knowledgeable dealer. Bizmove.com’s Small Business Knowledge Base, Guide to Good Fine Art Investment also had these points to offer the new collector as guides:
- Don’t buy a painting (or photograph) because it matches the sofa.
- Don’t buy a work of art because your neighbors are collecting “names” like Picasso or Man Ray.
- Don’t blindly follow the critics. Time is the only test of art. A critic’s tastes may veer in different directions at different periods. Just because experts endorse an artist now doesn’t mean they’ll favor him in 10 or 20 years.
- Don’t be afraid to sail against the wind. Some of the biggest fortunes in art or antiques have been made by people who weren’t afraid to buck the trend. Tastes change.
- Look for periods and artists that please your own eye, but are not popular at present. Reputations change with time.
- Stick to reputable galleries that are members of dealer’s associations (such as AIPAD, The Association of International Photography Art Dealers.)
- Learn to identify that elusive characteristic called quality.
- Take courses on art (and photography).
- Find the smartest people (artists, museum curators, top dealers and critics) in the field and pick their brains on a continuing basis.
- Expect works of art and your collection to fare poorly for a few years then appreciate.
The number one reason collectors fail is lack of education. Many experts suggest reading, studying and frequenting galleries, museums and exhibitions for at least a year before buying anything. This is just the beginning of what there is to know. Many collectors spend many years and are still learning.
The blog post to come, “The Experts On Starting A Photography Collection 2” and others will examine pricing, rarity, types of editions, more collecting pointers, other methods for getting started and a list of resources and books for the collector.
See also the blog post, “Photography And Art Dealers Rebound In 2010.”