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In this series of articles, I have asked museum curators, gallery owners and photography collectors to help clarify the relative significance and value of different types of photographic prints. They have weighed in on the importance of artist-made prints, the differences between vintage and non-vintage prints and on hand-made versus machine prints. On the cusp of the holiday gift-giving season, they offer their advice to photography collectors: the bottom line.
What should today’s photography collector keep in mind when buying a print?
Aside from agreeing that “vintage” prints are, indeed, more valuable than “printed later” or “contemporary” prints (in that order), the museum curators, gallery owners and collectors I spoke with all felt that, at least when purchasing a modern print, a photograph should possess a superior level of craftsmanship. Of course, nothing is quite that clear-cut and when I suggested that “quality first” should be the rule of thumb, Phillip Prodger, Curator of Photography at the Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA), offered this caveat: “I don’t agree at all that it’s quality, quality, quality when it comes to the print. Not the way most people define quality, anyway. Some of the best photographs I’ve ever seen were crappy by any objective standard. Like works from Eastern Europe in the 1960s and 70s that were retouched with a ballpoint pen, because the artist couldn’t afford spot tone. But they crackle with energy just the same. Or prints that are worn or abraded from being carried around in someone’s pocket, infused with emotion. Or a particularly magical print I know by John Herschel, one of photography’s inventors, that you can hardly see at all, except in a dark room, and only then when your eyes adjust to its faintness. For me quality is not about the richness of the image or the technical perfection of the printing—it’s about what the print tells me, how it makes me feel, what it says about being alive.”
John Scanlan concurs with Prodger but, as Director of Verve Gallery in Santa Fe, also suggests asking the following questions: “Does the image have those lasting qualities I’ll appreciate over time, given that my tastes will likely change?” and “How will this photograph fit into and enhance my collection?” Additionally, Scanlon advises, “I want to know the print’s provenance, the ownership chain from the artist to the person that sells me the print. I keep this in writing for my records and for future sale.” But, similar to Prodger, the most important question for him is, “Am I emotionally, artistically, aesthetically and intellectually moved by the image?”
Photography connoisseur and lifelong collector, Bostonian Jim Fitts, contributes some practical advice: “Be honest with yourself. Really understand the motivation behind why you are buying the image and do your homework.”
Paula Tognarelli, Executive Director and Curator of the Griffin Museum of Photography (Winchester, MA), advances a balanced and reassuring approach, “I would advise a collector to ask questions, but make decisions with the heart. I surround myself with art I love. After all, I have to live with it every day.”
Finally, I have my own piece of advice for photography collectors who, like me, may be fairly new to the game. Get a mentor. Or two! Jason Landry, owner of Panopticon Gallery in Boston, has been a perceptive and knowledgeable guide for my husband and me when purchasing photographic prints. We have benefitted from discussing overall collecting strategies, as well as individual purchases. And while we don’t always share the same artistic preferences, my husband and I do agree on our favorite piece of advice from Jason, “Buy what you love!