Of All Art Forms, Photography Has Proven One Of The Most Profitable And Satisfying To Collect…
The art of collecting photography has followed the medium in an upward climb in popularity throughout its existence. But how did photography collecting begin? Who were the first collectors? What were the first photographs collected?
In The History of Photography, Beaumont Newhall presented various refinements of the history of daguerreotypes and some of the trends in their collecting demand. As far back as 1842, a Paris daguerreotypist’s studio was so popular that people often waited their turn for an hour or more to have their daguerreotype made. Furthermore, Newhall wrote:
Of all the countries, America adopted the daguerreotype with the most enthusiasm, and excelled in its practice. After the first attempts by Morse and Draper to take portraits, the Frenchman Francois Gouraud brought to America daguerreotypes taken by Daguerre and by himself which he exhibited in New York, Boston, and Prividence, RI, during the winter of 1839-1840. He gave demonstrations to packed audiences and sold apparatus; from him Americans learned Daguerre’s technique. Within a few years there were “Daguerreian Galleries” in leading American cities, and traveling daguerreotypists visited outlying communities.
Newhall described a number of improvements Americans made to the process and how having a portrait made and collecting portraits became popular:
By 1853 there were 86 portrait galleries in New York City. Each American city and most of the larger towns boasted of several daguerrean galleries apiece, many of which were magnificently fitted out. Daguerreotypists vied with one another for the priviledge of making portraits of the famous. One of the largest collections wqas formed by Matthew B. Brady, a leather-case maker who opened a daguerreotype gallery in New York in 1944, and began to collect a Gallery of Illustrious Americans. It must not be assumed that all of the portraits in the collection were actually made by Brady. For years he had three galleries – two in New York and one in Washington – and employed many “operators,” as cameramen were called. He also constantly acquired, by purchase or exchange, portraits made in other galleries.
The popularity of the daguerreotype would not last long. Processes more adaptable to duplication with less danger of damage replaced fragile daguerreotypes. The rival paper process soon was perfected enough to allow the public to buy one print for the price of a dozen daguerreotypes.
Photography appraiser Penelope Dixon wrote in her essay, A Short History of Photograph Collecting that “collecting of photographs was practically simultaneous with the invention of photography.” For example, she said, “P. and D. Colnaghi, a well-established art gallery in London, sold photographs as early as the 1850s.” People exchanged and collected images of themselves, their friends and particularly their favorite celebrities. Travel photography was also an early collectible according to Dixon:
The very wealthy would set off on long excursions, “the grand tour”, and instead of taking their own photographs [the cumbersome and complicated equipment precluded this] they would purchase photographs of each place they visited, later putting them into large albums. An English gentleman’s album of the 1860s might include photographs by William Notman of Canada, Charles Clifford of Spain, Carlo Ponti and Fratelli Alinari of Italy and Felix Bonfils or A. Beato the Middle East. Many photographs were published in albums in the 19th century, presumably to be sold to institutions or wealthy private collectors. Photographic auctions also had their beginnings in the mid 19th century. The first auction of photographs took place in London in 1854. The first auction in America was a century later, The Marshall Sale, held by Swann Galleries in 1952.
Even though the US was a century behind on hosting auctions and connoisseurs on both continents still debated “photography as art,” by the early 20th century photographs had become firmly established as a collectible. American galleries were not as far behind as the auction houses. Alfred Stieglitz displayed photography in his various galleries next to the work of modern artists in New York from 1905 until his death in 1946. Others besides Stieglitz such as Julian Levy, ran a gallery in New York from 1931 to 1949 and introduced many photographers and others to collecting. From a few galleries in New York, London, Paris and other cities, we now find hundreds of galleries worldwide with large collector followings.
Museums began to establish ever larger collections, soon growing much bigger than the collections of private collectors. The world’s first photography museum, George Eastman House in Rochester, New York opened to the public in 1949 as an independent non-profit museum. It originally combined the landmark Colonial Revival mansion and gardens that George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak Company, called home from 1905 to 1932. Now the museum is a National Historic Landmark and George Eastman is considered the father of modern photography and motion picture film. Having had the additions of entire archives, corporate collections and artist’s lifetime portfolios, the collection is now the largest in the world at over 400,000 photographs and negatives, as well as an extensive variety of rare motion pictures and ephemera. George Eastman House holds the largest collection of daguerreotypes or French plates outside France. The collection also includes original prints by William Henry Fox, inventor of the calotype process, other largest collections of rare calotype portrait pioneers such as D. O. Hill and Robert Adamson and other portrait studies by Julia Margaret Cameron, the French Masters including Gustave Le Gray and Henri Le Sacq, an extensive European topgraphical collection, and major photographic documents from the American Civil War, Alexander Garddner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War and George N. Barnard’s Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, as well as examples of Western expeditionary and landscape photographs by William Henry Jackson, Tomothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge and many others including modernist masters such as Ansel Adams and Philip Hyde.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City houses a photography department of over 25,000 treasures spanning the history of the medium from the 1830s to the present. The Metropolitan Museum of Art began collecting photographs in 1928, when Alfred Stieglitz, made the first of several significant gifts. In addition to his own photography, Stieglitz’ donations comprised the best collection of artists of the Photo Secession, the circle of Pictorialists originally shown at his gallery, including a rich set of master prints by Edward Steichen and other highlights including the work of F. Holland Day, Adolph de Meyer, Gertrude Kasebier, Paul Strand and Clarence White. The Met’s holdings include several other important collections including the Ford Motor collection with works by Berenice Abbott, Brassai, Walker Evans, Andre Kertesz, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Man Ray. The Rubel Collection acquired in 1997 features superb examples of British photography from the first three decades of the mediums history. The Gilman Paper Company Collection acquired in 2005 was the world’s finest collection of photographs in private hands. It consists of over 8,500 holdings in early French, British and American photography as well as masterpieces from the turn-of-the-century and modernist periods. Many other major names and collections have come to reside under the Met’s roof such as the personal archive of Walker Evans, acquired in 1994, and the personal mid-century collection of photographer Diane Arbus, promised in 2007.
Museums and galleries both exhibited photography along side paintings and other art forms, but few exhibited photography only in the early days. It was not until 1963 that Hal Gould co-founded the non-profit Colorado Photographic Art Center in Denver, Colorado. The Colorado Photographic Art Center was one of the first galleries to exhibit photography exclusively. Hal Gould wrote that he began exhibiting the photography of the masters of the medium such as Imogen Cunningham, August Sanders, Philippe Halsman, Yosuf Karsh and others. As the market for photographic prints grew and the Colorado Photographic Art Center board voted not to sell prints, Hal Gould started the Camera Obscura Gallery, which has remained in business for over 50 years selling the work of prominent photographers to collectors. Philip Hyde participated in one of Hal Gould’s early exhibitions and was honored by Hal Gould as one of his last solo shows at Camera Obscura in 2010 just before the gallery closed with Hal Gould at age 90. Read more about Camera Obscura in the blog post, “Hal Gould And Camera Obscura: 50 Years Of Photography Advocacy.”
In The Photograph Collector’s Guide, Lee D. Witkin described how when he first opened Witkin Gallery in New York City in 1969 experts in the art field warned him, “There was little hope of a gallery making it… Six months, one year at most, was as long as I could expect to last—because no one collected photographs.” Lee D. Witkin wrote:
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 prides 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.
For more in-depth advice on collecting from Lee D. Witkin and The Photograph Collector’s Guide see the blog post, “The Experts On Starting A Photography Collection 1.” In addition, 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.”