Published on Monday, October 15, 2018
Investing in Fine Art Photography
The Photography Show, 2018. Photo © Julienne Schaer
AIPAD members created a resource for those interested in acquiring fine art photographs: On Collecting Photography. Its purposes are to answer common questions and provide further insight, information and understanding on collecting photography. The following post contains information that appears in On Collecting Photography.
The art of photography is enjoying unprecedented appreciation today. Due to the increasing number of artists today using it as their primary medium, photography has become a collectible fine art equal to the more traditional arts, such as painting, sculpture and printmaking. With this rise in appreciation and artists, opportunities for starting a photography collection have never been greater.
Of course, while many photographs do prove to be fine investments, an increase in value is never guaranteed. To be sure, just as in any other market, values rise and fall according to the demands and fashions of the day. For that reason, it is best to focus on acquiring works you feel will give you enjoyment for a long time and not purely for investment purposes.
Determining the Value of a Photograph
Photographs, like any other work of art or collectible, are valued based on connoisseurship qualities, the supply and demand at a particular moment in time, and what the market will bear in terms of price. Factors such as the photographer’s reputation or the work’s subject, rarity, historical importance, medium, condition, provenance, edition size, print date and quality will help determine the market’s response. Recent comparable sales of the same or similar works both privately and at auction can help guide you in considering how much to pay.
Keep in mind that photographs are more akin to paintings than artists’ prints in that the variety of photographic prints produced from a single negative often varies widely. This is especially true of photographs created prior to the 1970s, which was the advent of the photography market as we know it today. Contemporary works executed in editions often have remarkable homogeneity and may be indistinguishable within the edition. A common practice among contemporary artists that affects the price of editions is to employ a graduated price increase so that earlier numbers in the edition are priced lower.
Below are topics you and your dealer may wish to discuss as you approach collecting fine art photography.
Is It a Fine Print?
The qualities that make a fine print vary from artist to artist. In black and white work, tonal range and luminosity, for example, depend on the artist and the point in his or her career when the work was produced. A reputable dealer, curator, fellow collector or photographer can often be of help in understanding the differences.
If the print is of a contemporary photograph, the surface should be unmarred. When looking at a framed print, ask that it be unframed for inspection. To make sure that the print is flawless, hold it in your hands so that light rakes over the surface. The print condition and quality of 19th and 20th century prints vary depending on the artist, medium and date. Look at as many prints from the period as possible, and at as many works by the photographer as are available, in order to determine the best print.
Is It Signed?
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, signing a photograph was the exception rather than the rule. Since the art of photography was in its infancy, more people were making photographs than purchasing them. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that the market for photography became a reality, and the practice of signing them became more common. As such, many unsigned pictures from the past are attributed to certain artists based on style, provenance or other established factors.
Today, artists sign their work, either print recto (front of print) or print verso (back of print) in pencil or archival ink.
Is It Authentic?
Authentication begins with notations such as stamps, signature, title or date combined with a photographer’s characteristic style, negative and print process, and typical method of presentation (e.g., whether mounted or unmounted). A careful examination of other photographs by the same artist will aid in spotting any uncharacteristic features of the work under consideration. If there is a dating question for a photographic print presumed to be from before the mid-1950s, the use of an ultra-violet light may be useful in testing for optical brightening agents (OBAs) introduced into photographic paper around that time (the presence of OBAs might indicate a later printing date). Finally, the absence of a signature is not necessarily significant, especially on prints made before 1900. If an unknown and unsigned photograph has a recognizable style or content, an attribution can be made.
Dealers who represent photographers or their estates are likely to have access to primary source material that will be useful in verifying a work. Or, if a dealer has had a long history of handling a photographer’s work, chances are that they have accumulated experience, as well as their own archive of information, which can be helpful for verification. There is a wealth of knowledge among AIPAD dealers, and if in doubt, members have the ability to tap expertise within the organization as well as in the wider academic world.
AIPAD dealers will provide a bill of sale that can be expected to contain all pertinent information and, if available, a provenance. This document acts as a guarantee.
An edition is a specific number of prints an artist agrees to sell of each negative. This number is often written on the print, usually near the artist signature, title and date.
In theory, an infinite number of prints can be made from a negative or a digital file. Practically speaking, most artists working today limit the number of prints they sell by specifying an edition.
In rare cases, when the edition has been completely printed, the photographer may destroy the negative or the scan. Usually, however, the negative or the scan is retired, either to the archives of an institution or to the photographer’s own files.
It is important to note that editioning became a norm in the late 20th century, when collectors began actively buying photographs and questioning whether, and how often, they could be reproduced. In response, photographers began limiting how many prints they made, creating a finite market for their work. Prior to this, especially in the 19th century, print production was limited only by demand.
Nonetheless, many late 20th century artists never made editions. This does not devalue their work whatsoever, as the value of a specific photographic image is not necessarily tied to the number of prints made from the negative or scan.
Learn More About Collecting Photography
For more detailed insights on this topic and more, including New Media Art and collector-dealer relationships, read On Collecting Photography on the AIPAD website. In addition to advice on collecting, On Collecting also includes a glossary with terms that are beneficial to know when working to build a strong fine art photography collection.