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Collecting Photographs

Collecting Photographs

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Published by Solomon
The only good reason to buy a photograph is because you love it. Everything else, especially the questionof investment, must be secondary. Of course, no one wants to purchase a work of art and lose money. Thekey is to know as much as you possibly can about the medium and about that artist, then follow your instincts.
The only good reason to buy a photograph is because you love it. Everything else, especially the questionof investment, must be secondary. Of course, no one wants to purchase a work of art and lose money. Thekey is to know as much as you possibly can about the medium and about that artist, then follow your instincts.

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Published by: Solomon on Nov 13, 2011
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03/17/2014

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Collecting Photographs
A Short Guide On A Long Subject
Mary Street Alinder was Ansel Adams's chief of staff for five years until his death in 1984. She wrote thedefinitive Ansel Adams, A Biography and lectures on Adams at museums and universities around theworld. James Alinder was a university professor of photography and Executive Director of The Friends of  Photography in Carmel and San Francisco for eleven years. He is the author or editor of more than thirty photography books.
The only good reason to buy a photograph is because you love it. Everything else, especially the questionof investment, must be secondary. Of course, no one wants to purchase a work of art and lose money. Thekey is to know as much as you possibly can about the medium and about that artist, then follow your instincts.Photography is especially great to collect because the prices, even for the work of acknowledged masters,are very reasonable when compared to many other art forms. Excellent images by younger photographerscan be bought for as little as $250 apiece. Works by the great masters are often only a few thousand dollars.But, because photography is such a new art, there are fewer established guides and the vocabulary is still being defined. Take "vintage," a word flung casually about by both dealers and collectors, and most oftenwrongly applied to any older print by an artist. More correctly, a vintage photograph is a print made veryclose in time to the making of the negative itself. Generally, it means that the print was made within a fewyears of the negative.Let's use an image by the photographer, Ansel Adams, as an example. On November 1, 1941 at 4:49:20Mountain Standard Time, Adams created perhaps his most famous negative, Moonrise, Hernandez, NewMexico. He made the first two prints from that negative some time between December and February,1942.These closely reflected his original visualization of the scene before his lens on that November day. Adamsmade only a few prints of Moonrise, but to fill outstanding orders for it and to provide gifts for his dearestfriends, in December of 1948 he went into his darkroom and made about twelve.This proved to be just the beginning. Adams was an artist who printed to order and Moonrise provoked aclamor like none other of his photographs. Decades later, Adams announced that he would stop taking printorders as of December 31, 1975, perhaps spurred on more than anything else because he did not want tohave make one more Moonrise, which, as luck would have it was the most difficult to print of all 40,000 of his negatives.Photography began coming into its own as a collectible art in the 1970s as thousands of college studentsgraduated and began earning enough to luxuriate in "disposable income." Many of these former studentshad studied photography or been exposed to it in museums and through the burgeoning market of  photographic books. Photography, also, was refreshingly low-priced. In 1948, Adams charged $50 for a16x20-inch print of Moonrise. In 1975, his price had risen to $1,200. Today, consider yourself lucky to finda Moonrise (in superb condition, of course) for $25,000. Most of Ansel's Moonrise prints were made andsold in the 1970s to accommodate this new collector interest in photography. The last were printed in 1980and 1981 for a project he termed the Museum Set. These rarely find their way to market. Moonrise's made before 1948 can certainly be termed vintage.Generally a strict, but good rule is to say that a print made within three years of the negative is vintage.Moonrise's made between 1948 and the 1960s are "older." A Moonrise from the 1970s is often called a
 
modern or later print. Vintage does not mean better; it is the artist's initial interpretation of the negative.There are collectors who believe that the artist's first understanding is the most important. Vintage printsusually sell at a substantial premium over later prints. But Adams, for one, would be the first to campaignfor his latest print, believing that everything he had learned through the many years of printing the negativeadded up to a stronger finished print than his first attempts.Generally speaking, most contemporary photographers issue their photographs in limited editions, but thishas not always been the case. Traditionally, the number of photographs has been limited by the death of the photographer, who can no longer sign prints. In some cases prints are made from the negative after theartist's death by their family or Trust; Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham are two examples. These prints will never have the value of artist made/signed photographs.In 1932, a band of friends formed a photography club of sorts that they called Group f/64. Led by EdwardWeston, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke, they issued a manifesto demandingthat photographers maximize the medium's potential. The prevalent style for many years had been pictorialism, where the photographic print was manipulated to look more like an etching, charcoal or  painting -- already recognized arts. Photography still held the title of Cinderella but longed to dance withthe prince at the ball (translation: demanded to be acknowledged as an art form itself).Group f/64 proclaimed the only way for photography to assume its rightful position in the arts was tocelebrate its own strengths: the sharpness of imagery that a lens can provide; a broad range of tonalitiesfrom black to white and all "zones" of gray in-between; depth of field, total focus from near objects to thefar distant; and multiplicity. This last trait has long been seen as a primary strength in photography.Theoretically, an infinite number of prints can be made from a negative. This does not mean that most great photographs are "mass-produced." When he pulled his Moonrise negative from the vault and placed it inhis enlarger, it often took Ansel Adams days to achieve one print that would be satisfactory to him.Trained as a classical pianist, he often used musical analogies to explain photography. He described anegative as a musical score and each print would be his new performance of that score. In photography,each print is as unique as a fingerprint. No matter how much two prints might look the same, they are never identical. But as photography entered the world of museums and galleries and collecting, the rules of other media began to bear. Collectors became concerned that there could be so many prints out of an image. And,indeed, since Moonrise was Adams most sought after work, he made the most prints of it, approximately1,300 in all sizes, but mainly 16x20-inches. But this must be placed in context where Picasso would signhis name to editions of 10,000 or more lithographs. The numbers of Moonrise are most definitely finite aswith every year, fewer are available as more and more come to reside in permanent museum and corporatecollections. There are way more people in this world -- from China to Switzerland, from South Africa toAmerica -- who yearn for an original print of Moonrise, made by the master, himself, than there are printsof Moonrise.When Adams died in 1984, that was it. No more Moonrise's, or Monolith's, or Mt. Williamson's. All of hisnegatives were picked up in a highly insured and air conditioned "art" delivery truck and transported to hisarchive at the Center of Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson. There, if enough permissions are granted, a student can study his negatives under highly supervised conditions. TheUniversity is not allowed by contract to allow the making of any prints for sale. The one exception is that ahandful of Yosemite negatives are still printed by an assistant to be sold in Yosemite as good qualitysouvenirs. These prints are approximately 8x10-inches and are clearly stamped on the verso of the mount as"Special Edition Prints."In 1974, when Adams issued Portfolio VI, ten fine, signed gelatin-silver prints in an edition of 110, over drinks a young photographer convinced him that he must start limiting all of his photographs. That night,Adams ran a Wells Fargo check canceller through all ten negatives. He awoke the next morning and ruedhis actions. He knew that he had betrayed one of his cardinal beliefs, and a tenet of Group f/64: the strengthof the multiple. For so many years, people could afford to buy his prints just because he had not limited

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