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In this series of articles, I have asked museum curators, gallery owners and photography collectors to offer their opinions on the relative importance and value of different types of photographic prints. In my last article, it seemed abundantly clear that, as Jason Landry of Panopticon Gallery in Boston put it, “The expression of the artist is most vital to the print, regardless of who prints it.” In light of that sentiment, here we explore the art world’s seemingly dichotomous and persistent obsession with the hallowed “vintage” print.
In 1941, Ansel Adams took what would become one of the most iconic fine art photographs in the world, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” A difficult exposure with three separate components, Adams’ earliest prints showed a dim moon just becoming visible in a gray and open sky, while the sun was just sinking below the horizon. Dissatisfied with his prints, in 1948, Adams bathed part of the negative in a chemical intensifier in order to create more contrast in the foreground and to make the moon brighter, resulting in a much more dramatic print. As his aesthetic style continued to evolve, he tinkered, tweaked and produced various print sizes, creating an estimated 1,300 unique prints over the course of 40 years. Today, one of his “vintage” or “printed later” photographs can fetch well over half a million dollars at auction. By most standards, a vintage print is made by the artist within about two years after the creation of the negative but, since Adams altered his negative in 1948, Christopher Mahoney, senior vice-president in Sotheby’s photographs department says, “we think of the modern era of the printing of Moonrise beginning then.”
Alan Ross began working side-by-side with Adams as his photo assistant in 1974 and has been the exclusive printer of his “Yosemite Special Edition Series” since 1975. Photographs printed by Ross and signed by Ansel Adams start at around $2,000 while unsigned photographs printed by Ross start at $295. Why yes, that is more than three orders of magnitude less than a ”vintage” print, for those doing the math with me.
This astounding difference in pricing obtains with other photographers as well, though not as extremely. In a winter 2013 retrospective of Bruce Davidson’s work, the Robert Klein Gallery in Boston was selling vintage prints (sized at about 7”x9” to about 10”x10”) from his “East 100th Street, 1966-1968” series for up to $20,000, while 11”x14” artist-signed, gelatin silver photographs “printed later” by the artist or under his direct supervision were selling for $4,000, a five-fold difference in cost. Why do vintage prints have such vastly greater value than all others?
“Are they of higher quality than later versions of the prints? Sometimes. Their inherent value is that they represent most closely what the artist had when he or she shot the photograph”, explains Boston veteran photography collector Jim Fitts. He expounds, “I will purchase a contemporary print of a vintage image, but it has to be a high quality print and certainly at a much, much lower price.” Paula Tognarelli, Executive Director and Curator of the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA confirms, “I do believe that a vintage print has more value over one printed later.” Verve Gallery partner John Scanlan corroborates “vintage work is priced higher than non-vintage work. The gallery’s letter of provenance that accompanies a sale of vintage work always identifies the print as such.” There seems to be no argument about this: museum curators, gallery owners and collectors all acknowledge the higher monetary value of a “vintage” print over a “non-vintage” photograph. But why?
Phillip Prodger, Curator and head of the Photography Department at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, recounts an illuminating experience: “Years ago I was working with Frederick Sommer at a time when he was selling a group of photographs to the Getty. Back then the Getty had a vintage-only policy, but Fred wasn’t having it and he refused to identify which prints in his inventory were modern. He always maintained that as he got older, he actually became a better printer and so the modern prints were superior. Anyway, he sent a group of undifferentiated pictures to the Getty and the Getty wrote back to say it really wasn’t a problem in the end since they could easily identify the vintage pictures and would be sending back the modern ones. When Fred got the package of rejects, he told me they were nearly all vintage prints—the Getty had chosen the more recent ones.”
“I always remember that story because I think it speaks volumes about our mania for the vintage print. Yes, the old gelatin-silver papers, especially before the Second World War, had a particular beauty. And equally true, many artists do their own printing when they’re young and broke, and outsource to assistants or labs when they’re older. But you can’t really generalize. Knowing which print is best is a matter of connoisseurship and varies from artist to artist, age to age.”
I find it a little ironic that photographers are most likely to print their own work at the beginning of their careers, when they have less technical experience and skill. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve heard of instances when an aged photographer lacks the steady hand or sharp eye to create a print equal to his or her former level of craft. So this fixation is not really based on technical proficiency, is it? Jason Landry, owner of Panopticon Gallery in Boston concludes, “It’s largely a matter of the cache of a vintage print versus an often technically better, not to mention more archival, contemporary photograph.”
Perhaps our partiality to vintage prints may be irrational, based on technical criteria, but they are the closest thing we have in photography to going back in time with a photographer and honoring his or her original vision and intent. There is special allure to the truth of a print without any revision – it allows us to bear witness to a part of history.
Next time, find out what the experts say about contemporary hand-printed versus machine-printed photographs.
Feature Image: “Self-portrait, September 1955” by Vivian Maier (courtesy of the John Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC)