Photography: Mr. T in DC
On March 26 and 27, Profiles in History, a California dealership, will auction a collection of photographs and memorabilia that is said to include “every iconic image of ‘30s and ‘40s glamour photography by every major photographer.” Among the images to be sold are a negative and custom print of Jean Harlow lying on a bearskin rug, shot by George Hurrell in 1934, which is expected to reach $30,000, as well as photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray and Helmut Newton. The auction is expected to raise between $3 million and $5 million, a large portion of which will be donated to the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center and to the Trevor Project, a non-profit.
For photographers, sales like these generate two kinds of envy. On the one hand, most lovers of beautiful photography would like nothing more than to own a collection of fantastic, artistic photographs, the kind of works they can admire and enjoy for years.
On the other hand though, as artists themselves, photographers would also like to see their own images in collections like these, being auctioned for giant sums of money and fought over by keen collectors.
Neither has to be impossible.
The Value of a Photograph
According to Janet Borden, owner of Janet Borden Inc., a New York photography gallery, photographs do make good investments. Although less liquid than stocks, the value of photographic art has risen faster than the stock market, she says.
While the price of a stock is linked to the company’s profitability however, the value of a picture depends on a number of different factors. Writing in the Huffington Post, art expert Daniel Grant explains that for old images, value is largely determined by the closeness of the photographer to the image. “Original” images — those whose negatives and prints were made by the photographer — are generally the most valuable. “Vintage” prints, those printed up to five years after the creation of the negative, also fetch higher prices. Images created later, in large numbers or by people other than the photographer him- or herself can be relatively cheap. Those photos won’t rise much in value, but they can be good places to start a collection of art from great photographers without spending giant sums of cash. Even some Ansel Adams prints, for example, can be affordable because he printed so many of them.
Darkroom skills and the way the print is made then do influence the price of an old photograph.
For contemporary photographers, of course, the ability to mix chemicals in the dark is no longer important, leaving just the quality of the work itself — and who it’s associated with.
“The art is always of primary importance, but the amount is dependent on other factors,” explains Janet Borden. “The name of the photographer is very important, as is the reputation of the seller, whether it be a dealer, a gallery, an auction house, or a private person.”
To begin building a collection then, Janet advises buying photographs that don’t cost more than a year’s rent and that are being sold by a reputable seller. Artists whose works have been collected and exhibited in museums tend to have potential as good investments, Janet says.
Those images though are also the type most likely to cost more than a year’s rent but a cheaper approach for photographers is to trade photographs with friends. Even if those images aren’t worth a great deal now, if your friend is as talented as you hope he or she is, you might find that that friendship is also a good financial investment. So it pays to make friends with good photographers, and not only for the advice and inspiration they can supply.
Being knowledgeable about photography helps too, and that includes understanding the range of photographic art available.
“I think when someone sees a photograph that they fall in love with, they should buy it. Then they should just look and look and look at photographs, in books, in museums, in galleries,” says Janet Borden. “We always tell people that buying photographs is what makes you a collector.”
Become a Collectible Photographer
Becoming a collector and creating a photographic collection that can grow in value then is simple enough — at least in theory. If you’ve got lots of money, you can buy old images printed by the photographer and wait for them to rise in value. If you want to buy contemporary photographic art, then buy from galleries or auction houses, or pick up works that have been exhibited in places with impressive names as they’re the type most likely to prove the best investments. And if you’re cash-poor but rich in friends, then try swapping your photos among yourselves and hope that at least one of you will go on to great things, making you all a little wealthier.
Becoming that great photographer though is clearly a little harder. Asked what a photographer can do to increase the value of their own work, Janet Borden recommended working with reputable people, whether that is a dealer or a gallery, or friends or schools. That’s sound advice, but it might mean that only marketing your images yourself could restrict their potential as investments. And galleries, such as Janet Borden’s, are notoriously choosy, looking to recruit their photographers through photography schools or by choosing people who already have impressive photographic resumés.
When Michael H. Epstein, whose collection will be autographed this month by Profile in History, began buying images as a teenager he wasn’t thinking about selling them. He just wanted to own some beautiful pictures produced by great photographers. Perhaps that’s the best way to create a valuable photographic collection then: buy the images you want to own and assume that other people will want to own them too. And if you can then use those images to inspire your own pictures — and put them in galleries — you might just find that they form parts of other people’s collections too.