by Alex Novak
This article is devoted to a very important subject: connoisseurship and the print. This should be a topic of primary concern for any collector, institution or dealer. What goes into evaluating and determining the collectability of any photograph is not easy to discuss, because so much is subjective and determined by the experience of the viewer. And price–on at least rare items–can be equally subjective and determined even by environment, as much as the image itself. More on this later.
First, we might ask ourselves what exactly is a connoisseur? Is this an overpaid, pretentious, often monocled, dilettante? Not exactly. According to my dictionary definitions, a connoisseur is simply a "skilled judge" or a "person with refined knowledge." The key words here are "skilled" and "knowledge."
In order to be a connoisseur, you need only to achieve specific knowledge relative to the subject that you profess to love or find yourself obsessed about: hopefully in this case photography.
How you achieve this knowledge is not really important. You can certainly take courses or even go for a degree in photo history. You can go to the many seminar programs made available at universities, colleges, auction houses, galleries, etc. You can visit museums, auctions, dealers, fellow collectors, exhibit shows and historical societies to see and, if possible, actually hold–albeit carefully, actual photographs. You can read and review images in the hundreds of thousands of texts relating to photography. You can learn from good, competent dealers who will take the time to educate you about the images and artists in their stock.
Unfortunately, we live in a world of instant gratification and instant concepts of collecting and investing. I’ve seen too many collectors, dealers and even institutions attempt to jump immediately past go and try to collect their $100. But unlike Monopoly, this short-term thinking has consequences.
Recently I received a phone call of a type all too common lately. The caller wanted me to tell him all that I knew about one certain photographer and an eBay dealer–in 50 words or less. He had become concerned the photographs were not all they should be, but he wanted to buy them any way. I suggested to him that he was starting at the tail part of this animal known as photography. He should begin with a simple education before he wasted his very well earned funds. I offered to teach him the differences in type and quality of print if he’d like to come down and visit. He could see the work of many photographers and compare. He would not have to worry about buying anything, I assured him. I also suggested a couple of key books for him to read. For a list of basic books for photography collectors:Click Here.
It was all a bit too much for him to deal with. He just wanted to spend about $10,000, and spend it now. Education was something he just did not have time for or inclination. Perhaps I should have been more mercantile and gone for the jugular, but I believe very strongly in education and in developing long-term clientele. I have written this piece to further that aim of education. It is not a replacement, however, for real experience or longer-term education. But it should be regarded as a beginning tool in that education process. So let us get to it.
What then are some of the factors that contribute to a print’s evaluation and how do we weight these factors?
Before we start, I would like to say it is rare for a great photograph to stand out in only one area. You usually have to consider a number of things. Moreover, it is the "weighting" of these factors that is crucial in valuing a print—whether that print is $1 million or $1. I also realize that my audience here is very diverse in its experience and the depth of its pockets; and, that connoisseurship has nothing directly to do with pricing, but such pricing is still a necessary component in the real world. Pricing is certainly influenced, if not set, by the same image qualities. You can certainly learn to appreciate and evaluate a photograph without having to buy it, but if you are going to spend money, you should learn to spend it wisely, no matter what the actual amount. Actually this approach is contrary to most speculative "investors. " Speculators who think they can buy photographs by simply picking the latest "hot" trend may find themselves out a lot of money. Each image is unique and requires a viewer (and potential buyer) to not only learn a lot about the image, but also to actually have the image appeal to them. Without this "appeal" factor (it is usually called "presence"), most photographs will eventually fail in the marketplace.
I may use examples that are well out of the range of most collectors as illustrations, but most of the same factors apply to lower end material as well.
This little "primer" is also not a replacement for directly experiencing a broad variety of prints and all of the other ways to educate yourself enumerated about above.
It is often easy to overlook the obvious. The image itself is certainly one of the key determining factors in the value of a photograph, but it may be the most difficult to evaluate. How strong an image is it? Does it engage you? Is it subtle or does it hit you over the head with a hammer? Oddly the latter may not necessarily be a detriment to a photograph.
Is the image of historical importance? Does it appeal to you emotionally or intellectually, or both? Is it beautiful, dramatic, modern, ugly or quaint?
Is the subject one that is in demand in the market? Collector Michael Sacks recently asked me why I did not go after a Le Secq of a Church roof at an auction he and I attended. I responded that, although I find some images of a religious nature to be compelling, they are often difficult to sell. Likewise there are many subjects that are difficult for some collectors or institutions: death, blatant nudes, violence, etc. But you may find appealing what others are put off by.
Does the image belong to one of the many different schools of art and photography: Post-impressionism, Naturalism, Expressionism, Art Nouveau, Vorticism, Symbolism, Constructivist, Cubism, Bauhaus, Surrealism, Dada, Futurism, Modernism, New Realism, F64, Pictorialism, Abstraction, Post-Modernism, Photojournalism, etc.? Is the school in or out of favor at the moment? Does this matter to you? Often price reflects current favor of a particular school of work, but this can often change as institutions and critics reevaluate a school. I find that many images transcend schools.
Of course, much of today's focus is on the artist. I think a lot of this is misplaced and should be refocused on the image itself. Too often collectors–particularly new collectors–seek names rather than the object itself, which is the real reason for any artwork's true appeal.
At its worse, this becomes snobbery: "look at the importance of whom I collect," instead of "see the importance of this work." Unfortunately contemporary photography collecting sometimes falls into this trap, but traditional photography also has people looking at the wrong things.
The reason most artists are valued, at least in the long term, by a connoisseur or the market is because they produce fine and powerful work–not because they are "stars". In photography, even anonymous works can command attention (and money)–but only if the images are great. That is one reason I prize anonymous work: you are forced to focus on the image itself. Sometimes I think all collectors should start here, before they spend their life savings on mediocrity.
Virtually all artists have produced work that might be considered mediocre or even downright awful. If you collect by name, you will often find yourself overpaying for this type of work. Yes, the great names produced great work, usually more consistently than other artists. But that does not mean that all scraps of paper from an artist have value.
Occasionally an artist gets "hot", but, like stocks, this is probably the worse time to buy an artist’s work–unless one part of the artist’s work is still out of favor, as were Ansel Adams’ vintage images just a short time ago.
The market is currently valuing–I would say overvaluing–artists who use photography in their work, as opposed to photographers who are artists. Now doesn’t that statement itself sound bizarre to you? How exactly does one distinguish an "artist who uses photography" from "a photographer who is an artist?" This sophistry by contemporary art dealers and curators (and even some photography dealers with pretensions to becoming art dealers) appalls me, but it is the latest trend that effects photography pricing. You should definitely be aware of it. It is creating a two-tier marketplace and great tension between the two. There has been little overlap to date, although lots of talk of bringing together the two (the contemporary art and the traditional photography fields).
Because a photograph is first an object, we can not just focus on the image itself and/or the artist. We need to discuss that actual object itself: the print. Often art dealers try to avoid this topic like the plague, largely because they do not want the client to know about the problems related to long-term conservation. They would rather focus on the "concept" involved and dismiss discussions about the print itself.
The average print quality is just that: average. It is a rare print that literally stops you in your tracks and has you holding your breath just by the sheer quality of its surface. At Christie’s South Kensington’s spring photographic auction a few years ago there was one such print: a Werner Mantz. Now Werner Mantz is not exactly a master photographer, in my opinion, and there were several other images by Mantz at the sale. This image appeared interesting but not compelling in the catalogue, but as you came into the room at Christie’s, your eyes were immediately drawn to this single print, which–to use a cliché that fits–fairly glowed. It was magnetic. The print surface was perfect and there was a warm patina to the image. It was, to be fair, also slightly larger than many Mantz prints and an interesting, if not dramatic image. However, it was the print condition AND quality that set it apart.
Now most Mantz prints would be hard pressed to bring $2,000-$3,000 in the market. And, in fact, one of the other prints sold for about $3,000 and the other was bought in.
Therefore, what would you imagine this print of high quality would fetch? Two or three times that $3,000? The auction house knew it had a good one and put on an estimate of 7,500-10,000 pounds sterling or about $12,000-$16,000, but would it reach this world record price for Mantz?
No problem for a print with this riveting beauty–a beauty only to be experienced with the actual print and not a reproduction. The price was far more costly: well over $42,000, in fact. Several dealers and collectors, including me, were left in the dust, although in retrospect I do not feel the price was out of line for the stunning quality of the print.
Likewise, at Sotheby’s London’s Jammes sale there was a very fine group of Robert MacPhersons that brought record prices for the artist. MacPherson is not a particularly rare photographer and his prints are often priced in the hundreds rather than tens of thousands of dollars. However, many of his available prints are rather dull with decent but not exceptional contrast, or worse. The prints at the Jammes sale were in a totally different category, not because of their size or image, but because of the intense purple colors of these near-perfect albumen prints. There was a feeling that the images were all there on the surface, like many of the better Desire Charnay prints from Madagascar: almost too good to be real, but they are. Likewise, I have bought and sold Charles Clifford prints of this quality that also sold well into five figures, rather than lower four figures as most good but average prints do.
Condition of an image is usually obvious, particularly when actually viewing the item itself rather than a reproduction or computer scan. A print is either faded or not, torn or not, foxed (those black spots from mold, iron in the paper, etc. on older prints) or not, marked or discolored or not, highlights or emulsion gone or not, etc. Alternately, in the case of hard images (daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes), scratched or not, wiped or not, corrosion or rust or not, dinged, dented or bent or not, etc.
Here’s where experience counts. You should make a comparison to similar work when reviewing condition.
What do I mean by this point? If you are looking at a strong dark image with excellent contrast without foxing that is usually found flat and modestly faded, you can expect a bigger differential in its price tag than might normally be the case. The reverse is also true.
A good example of this type of impact (although admittedly pretty extreme) can be found with the record-breaking Great Wave by Gustave Le Gray from the Jammes collection that sold for over $800,000. This photo is not particularly rare, as important 19th century prints go, but this particular print was a fine example in excellent condition. It was the print condition and quality that set it apart from the many other decent but not great prints of this image on the market for $25,000-$150,000. It had excellent contrast, highlights, with no foxing or noticeable problems. Moreover, in this condition it was a rarity.
On the other hand, if there were many high quality prints of this image on the market, it would not have commanded any such premium. That’s why it’s important to see as many prints as you can, in order to get a "feel" for the average print for a given image.
Some work that might otherwise be considered damaged might actually be viewed as an object and the "damage" might add to its presence. News photos can fall into this category with their retouch work adding an artistic flavor to the work.
You also need to be able to evaluate whether conservation can or should improve the situation. In many cases, minor damage can be easily repaired and has little to no effect on value.
Sometimes work may be bought at a discount to the market, because it has minor "problems" that a good conservator can help. A non-chemical surface cleaning/flattening can sometimes do wonders for a print that has some light surface dirt and /or wrinkling. However, other images will always have problems, no matter how much dubious repair. Tonality is not repairable by current ethical standards, although some dealers used intensification on salt and albumen prints in the past. AIPAD banned the practice for its members, although such prints do come up from time to time. Most are considered to be of little value when detected.
Conservation in the photography world is still not quite as acceptable as in the other arts. I suspect that will change as techniques continue to improve in this area.
One basic problem with condition is there is no good universally accepted grading system, and condition takes in too many variables to pin it down to a number. Even when someone says the item is in excellent condition or a number 10 out 10, you (and probably a lot of reasonable people) might not always agree. The only satisfactory method is to examine the actual image. That is why I recommend physically previewing all auctions or asking for reasonable return privileges in the case of Internet sales. Reasonable return policies mean a three to five working-day review after receiving the item/s, paying the shipping back and forth, and paying for all applicable auction fees in the case of online auctions such as eBay. Reasonable use of such a policy should only make returns when the item has serious problems not noted in the listings. It still doesn’t mean you should return things just because you don’t "like" an image—unless that is what the seller has agreed to prior to the sale.
One other caveat: Is the print unique or rare and important historically? If it is, condition is less of a factor in its evaluation. For example, despite being a washed-out faded printing, Andrew Russell’s "Meeting of the Rails, the Golden Spike" in stereo brought a record price of $21,850 at a Swann Auction in April, 1998. History can be another factor in the price equation.
Likewise a print that is over 50 years old may have a few small crimps or dings, but a print made in the last 30 years should be in virtually flawless condition.
Print quality is based on what was done to make the print, as opposed to what happened to it later, as with condition above.
What distinguishes the print quality (as opposed to condition) from one photograph to another?
You might think, for instance, that there would be little difference between 20th- (or now 21st) century images, particularly "contemporary" ones. You would often be very wrong.
Different printers (and today, photographers often employ printers other than themselves) with different papers can often get very different results. Even the same printer with the same papers can get wildly varying results, especially on smaller difficult negatives. A 35 mm (or even larger) negative often requires burning and dodging that cannot be duplicated exactly from print to print.
What makes a "superior" print and how do you tell if a print is top-notch or not?
A high-quality print will usually (and there are exceptions to every rule here) exhibit a sense of drama about it. The contrast values will be "just right" for the particular image.
Some images need higher contrast to work and others need lower contrast. It is the fit that counts here. Does the interpretation by the printer make a strong impact on you?
There are a number of exceptions to this "rule." Contemporary work often challenges our perception of "quality." You must fit the work to the print in order to see if it is a good one.
Let’s look at some 20th-century examples of printing differences and what that can mean in evaluating a print’s quality.
Eugene Smith made copy negatives of some of his most important images and made his later prints from these copy negatives. The results are a slight loss of printing scale (more contrast and less gradations) and detail, but if you didn’t have the prints side by side you would have a very difficult time telling one from the other.
Why did Smith do it? Apparently with "Walk to Paradise" he had simply lost the negative. When CBS Sunday Morning worked on a Smith special, they asked if they could borrow the negative to make some prints. Smith had to break the news that he did not have it. CBS asked if they could borrow his vintage print to make a copy negative. When Smith saw the results, he asked CBS for the negative, with which he then produced virtually all the prints of Walk to Paradise currently in the market. Obviously, the vintage (and we will discuss that factor later) print exhibits qualities that the later prints do not and is much more highly valued.
Smith went on to make his own copy negatives, which he used on particularly troublesome prints, like his famous Minamata image. Prints made from the original negative are about 40-50% higher than prints made from the copy negative.
Moonrise by Ansel Adams is another well-known and similar story. Adams intensified his negative later in his career. The earlier, non-intensified prints are worth considerably more than the ones from the chemically enhanced negative, despite the later prints being somewhat more dramatic. Here rarity beats out drama.
Adams’ prints are also notoriously different from print to print. These differences can usually only be told by viewing the actual prints themselves. It is the subtle differences that often result in wildly divergent auction results or gallery prices.
In a few cases, photographers were not known for high quality prints, and you must take this into consideration when evaluating prints by them. In the 19th century, the early Italian master Caneva was known to print very flatly. In the 20th century, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Manuel Bravo were generally mediocre printers; and Eugene Smith was often very slipshod in his printing and mounting. Many journalistic photographers made prints the way they usually did for publication (fast and down-and-dirty) instead of for collectors and exhibition. Subtlety was often lost in the process. Of course, when the photographers happened to print that rare good one, the print is even more valuable because of their hit-and-miss record, but you probably should not be disappointed if you see a print that is less than wonderful in a vintage print. More on "vintage" later.
Some photographers do not print their own work, and often switch printers for editions. For example, Jock Sturges’ earlier and larger edition was printed on different paper with a lot more silver than some of the later prints and by a different printer than his other editions. This particular printer was very talented. Other editions have not seemed to measure up.
The same is true for hundreds of other photographers.
Platinum prints often sell better in the market place than silver prints. For example, Edward Weston platinum images usually command a steep premium over the same image in silver. Even contemporary artists have found this to be true. Sometimes alternative processes, such as gum printing, have more appeal (and a higher price) in the marketplace than silver (or even sometimes platinum), particularly in Photo-Secessionist prints. Scarcity is certainly one factor, but presence makes even more of a difference here.
Calling an image a "vintage print" is difficult these days, especially since so many people have abused the term—witness the Lewis Hine and Man Ray prints made and sold after the artists died by greedy, unscrupulous people, who misrepresented these prints as "vintage".
Today AIPAD suggests that its members use two dates—one for the image creation date and one for the print date—instead of using the word "vintage." But that method also still depends on the honesty and knowledge of the dealer. Obviously vintage refers to a print that was made close to the time that the image was created. The only question that remains is: How close? I would suggest that something less than five years difference for a print made before 1960 might be considered to be vintage, and more than five years probably should be qualified as "printed later or an "early print." That is when AIPAD’s dating system makes good sense, but only if the dating is accurate. I have already seen some dealers providing what I feel is misinformation, and so far I have not seen AIPAD enforce their own rule consistently—let alone try to police the misinformation.
Caution is the key word. Find a dealer or conservator that you trust and that has not been involved in past scandals to give you advice if you feel you need it. Always demand a guarantee of authenticity from the gallery or dealer. If they won’t give you one, run–don’t walk–away from them. By the way, the auction house will definitely NOT give you such a guarantee, which is another reason for a novice collector to buy from photography dealers or galleries instead of at auction.
You have to ask what collecting vintage prints does for a collector. Good reasons why vintage prints are usually sought after include:
If these reasons exist, then buying a vintage print or even an early print makes sense, and a few years difference between image creation and print will have little to no impact on the value of that print. Some top collectors feel that the market will even eventually prize (by granting a higher price) prints that were made later but still early enough to distinguish from very late printed images. I am not sure I totally agree, especially when the print date crosses over the magical 1953 date and it becomes difficult to tell whether or not the print is a vintage print without very expensive testing. I have seen too many "late 50s" prints look disturbingly like prints from the 1970s or later. Many later fail the black light test. And, if a vintage print looks exactly like a late print, then why would you prefer one to the other—besides reasons 2 and 4 above? For an article on "Determining the Vintage of a Print": Click Here.
Something to generally avoid are photographs that were issued after a photographer died. Most such portfolios are not considered to be collectible by the vast majority of today’s serious collectors and have little if any secondary market (in other words, auction resale) value. The reasons are several:
According to Artprice.com, size is a factor in price, but not a straight algorithm. It is even not always a factor in a photograph's sense of presence either. Some images can only command your attention through size. Witness the current mania in the contemporary field where the larger the better. I think that if you are going to collect many Gursky’s or Struth’s, you will need a very large house or even museum. Certainly the power of Gursky is derived at least in part by the sheer size of the work.
Rarity is also a factor when discussing size. Often editions are much smaller on larger prints. For instance, Ansel Adams’ Moonrise in a 20 x 24 inch print will bring about four to five times the price for a 16 x 20 inch print due as much to rarity as to size. Likewise late-printed Andre Kertesz prints in the larger 16 x 20 inch size are extremely rare (often 10 or less were made), especially when compared to the smaller sizes, which were printed in the many hundreds.
But in many instances, I think smaller can be better. Some images work better in a smaller, more intimate format. Like jewels, they need a petite setting to really sparkle. I once had to choose between two prints by Max Yavno. Oddly enough, both the dealer and I agreed that the smaller size was the more powerful, the one more likely to engage your eye. Another image by even the same photographer would have worked better in the larger size, but not this particular print. As I have said before, photography is a subjective experience. Each print is unique in its own way.
One other consideration is whether or not the image is actually signed, initialled, stamped or has none of the above. For some artists, how the piece is signed is very important. On an Edward Weston piece, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars or euros are in the balance. On other photographers, especially a lot of the between-the-wars Europeans, there may be little impact. You need to do your homework to find out how much of a difference it makes for the particular artist that you are pricing.
If you would like to read more about the photo market, go to the News & Archives page and look up Issue 28, 4/1/2001: Click Here, for a surprisingly still very relevant discussion about the issues and trends.
Novak has over 42 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Historical Photographic Society. He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.
Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.