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Placing value on original artwork is complicated enough, but valuing the photographic print presents even greater challenges. From the exact same negative, a photographer can create a print within about two years (“vintage”), print it much later than the image was made (“printed later”), supervise a third party to make prints (“printed later” or “contemporary”, depending on timing), or even make part or all of the printing process digital (“contemporary”). How in the world do museums, galleries and collectors determine the value of a print under such a variety of circumstances? As a professional photographer who used to make my own gelatin silver prints and as a fairly new collector of photography, I want some help in sorting this out. In this series of four articles, I have invited some experts to address the tricky question of assigning importance and value to “vintage”, “printed later” and “contemporary” photographic prints.
First of all, how important is it that a photographer makes his or her own prints? Even in the pre-digital age, many acknowledged “greats” haven’t printed their own images. The iconic “decisive moment” street photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, explained, “As the sort of photography I am pursuing does not depend on elaborate printing, I entrust it to three or four printers with whom I have had a long-time intimacy and understanding. I am very indebted to them for this collaboration which gives me more opportunities to look around.”
“It depends entirely on the artist”, asserts Phillip Prodger, Curator and head of the Photography Department at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. “For some artists, the handmade quality of the print is integral to its meaning and enjoyment; for others, less so. To me, it’s much more about the artist’s intent; it’s not one size fits all.” Indeed, many artists place as much emphasis on their print-making as they do on the image. “Alternative Processes” such as Platinum Printing, Photogravure or Photo-Collage render each photograph entirely distinctive. Even traditional gelatin-silver printers like me would argue that each print bears a unique imprimatur.
On the other hand, there are many like Cartier-Bresson for whom printing has no allure. The most extreme and celebrated case has to be that of the prolific street photographer, Garry Winogrand. Notoriously unwilling to print or edit his work, upon his death in 1984, about 6,500 rolls of film were discovered that he never even bothered to print or develop.
These days, museums and galleries alike are placing less emphasis on photographer-made prints. Digital photography has been a game-changer and is at least partly responsible for the trend away from artist-made photographs. Paula Tognarelli, Executive Director and Curator of the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA states, “I have no issue with prints being printed by another party. It is my opinion that craft is important…the end result is what matters to me. I believe the photographer should be part of the print process, advising and directing the printer to achieve the intended vision.” John Scanlan, partner at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe, NM concurs, “I am not concerned that the print was actually printed by a person other than the artist so long as it was done under his or her direct supervision.” Jason Landry, owner of Panopticon Gallery in Boston, affirms that many of the artists he represents choose to have their work professionally printed: “The expression of the artist is most vital to the print, regardless of who prints it.” Do collectors share this sentiment? Jim Fitts, photography connoisseur and lifelong collector confirms, “In my case, the level of print execution is paramount.”
Next in this series, experts examine our mania for the vintage print.