Wednesday, February 07, 2007

From Art and Antiques Magazine: "Developing an Eye: How to Collect Fine Art Photography"

Developing an Eye
How to collect fine art photography.
Photography is the newest category of fine art to send auction prices through the roof. Last year, a portfolio of 10 Diane Arbus photographs, printed in the early 1970s and taken over the previous decade, hammered down at Phillips, de Pury & Company in New York for $405,500. Yes, there is nothing like the wild bidding of an auction to spark the curiosity of potential collectors, but a budding fine-art photography collection should be founded on solid decisions as well as emotion. The best way to get started, advises Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is to look at as many prints as possible and read as much as you can about photography, from its beginnings in the 1840s to the works of today’s contemporary photographers.

Collecting Methods

Set parameters. Gerry Badger, a curator, critic and author of Collecting Photography, recommends that beginners first determine their collection’s focus. “It gives the collection a purpose,” he says. “True collectors are distinguished from those who simply accumulate photographs by the fact that their collections have limits or themes. The primary rule about collecting — whether as an investment or for enjoyment—is to always go for quality and buy the best you can afford.”

Collect by subject. Badger suggests that new collectors start by subject—nudes, celebrities, flowers, hands, landscapes, images of India, etc.

Collect aesthetic movements or historical schools, such as pictorialism, modernism or surrealism.

Collect by photographer.

Collect by genre. “A photographic genre is a category encompassing both subject matter and a particular approach to the medium, and is usually a function rather than an aesthetic approach,” Badger says. Genres include sports, photojournalism, topography, fashion, archaeology, travel, erotica, science and vernacular (or snapshot) photography.

Financial Considerations

Determine your budget. “Your budget will determine your starting point,” says Maggi Weston, owner of the Weston Gallery in Carmel, California, who opened her gallery at the suggestion of Ansel Adams and today represents his estate. “Then find a gallerist you feel comfortable with, one who will teach you and bring you along.”

Buying for investment. Wisely chosen prints yield the best returns. “I always told my clients to go the distance,” says former gallerist Jane Jackson, who now curates the collection of Sir Elton John. “If you see an image you really love, but it’s a bit more than you wanted to spend, think about five years down the line when it will have increased in value.” For an investment collection, Jackson’s golden rule is to buy fewer pieces and stretch your dollars to get the best possible prints.

Buying Opportunities

Photography fairs bring together as many as 60 to 80 national and international dealers who display museum-quality prints from all eras by both renowned and emerging photographers. Besides black-and-white prints, some galleries, like Yancey Richardson of New York, also show large-scale color works. “There’s a lot of exciting new color work available,” she says. “Today’s technology allows for large-scale color prints. Many of our new collectors have added color photography to contemporary paintings, drawings and sculpture collections. It fits in beautifully.”

Auctions. This month, New York will be the site of three photography auctions: at Sotheby’s, Swann Galleries and Christie’s.

A Word on Prints

“Once you find an image you love, your work has just begun,” says Stephen Cohen, a Los Angeles gallerist and creator of the Photo New York, Photo Los Angeles and Photo San Francisco fairs. “The print you buy should be in pristine condition and the provenance in order. The dollar difference in prints of the same image can be as much as 40 percent, depending on condition. Determining factors include whether it’s signed or unsigned and if it’s an earlier or later print.”

“A print is a handmade object,” adds Robert Tat of Robert Tat Fine Photographs in San Francisco. “Each is unique. You must realize you’re buying an object of a certain condition and not an image.”

Caring for Your Collection

“When you’re not displaying your photographs, keep them protected in a flat file,” says Spencer Throckmorton of Throckmorton Fine Art in New York City. He recommends purchasing a flat file (about $700 to $1,000) from an art supply store and using standard black frames fitted with UV Plexiglas in 11-by-14-inch, 16-by-20-inch and 20-by-24-inch sizes. Enclose each photograph in a custom-cut, acid-free mat before framing. “By standardizing your mats and frames, you can easily rotate your collection in gallery-like groupings,” says Throckmorton, who also advises displaying photographs in rooms with diffused light and never in direct sunlight.


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