By Michael Axel
Sotheby’s auction house recently concluded a phenomenal auction of photographs. A colleague, after reviewing the sales prices of various images, said he didn’t see any reason why some pieces sell for more than others. He is not alone. Many of us don’t understand where the value is or how to recognize it. As always, you should buy what you like, but here are some other tips to ensure your collectible photographs grow in value:
Look for a photographer with unique style.
Great photographers have a unique style. You can see it throughout a series of images, if not the entire portfolio of the artist’s work. Consider Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Joseph Karsh, Pete Turner, or many other contemporaries. Their styles are unique. Adams and Weston focused on the range of gray tones, but one focused on nature, while the other on still life and nude images. Karsh’s striking portraits are like no other, and intensely contrasty color and strong subjects are synonymous with Pete Turner’s work. Buying a strong style will help to ensure your image and its artist is remembered down the road.
What is the best printing method for collecting?
All art mediums have permanence and condition issues, photography is no different. Photography is closely related to science and technology and new processes bring new issues for properly caring for images.
Many collectors buy only Silver Gelatin prints (the photographic method used throughout the latter part of the 20th century). It is considered, by many, to be the most proven medium of the art, dating back over 100 years.
With digital photography on the rise, traditional silver-based film and prints are often pushed aside for easier and faster techniques. The good news is that Giclee technology (the method of creating a print by spraying ink on paper) is becoming better every year. Current methods from Hewlett Packard are rated with a life of over 300 years. There are really two issues with Giclee prints: the longevity of the ink and the longevity of the paper it is created with.
My take on it is this: Silver Prints are the most collectible, but don’t hesitate buying a Giclee print, so long as it was made within the last several years.
Is the photographer-committed to archival matting, mounting, and framing techniques.
Don’t assume the photographer knows how to create an archival print that will last—I can tell you from my conversations that many have no concept of how to maximize the life of their prints. But here are some things you should find out, before buying your print:
- Matting: If you buy a print, make sure it is matted on a thick, mostly solid, board material, such as mat board or foam core. You should also have a mat on top of the image to both hold it in place, but also prevent the photograph from coming in direct contact with the glass. If the image is in contact with the glass, you will get foxing, mold, mildew and fungus where moisture is trapped by the print. Both the mat board and mat material must be archival, or else your print may deteriorate by being exposed to material that is either too acidic or too alkaline.
- Mounting: Most museums now mat their photographs (as well as drawings, prints, and other paper based arts) using a hinged mount. Many photographers and frame shops are still dry-mounting the images to the back board using a dry mount press that can expose the image to upwards of 200 degrees of heat. In my opinion, you should never dry-mount an image. Instead, archivists use a linen tape that holds the print to the matting (usually the front mat, not the back board). This tape is archival in itself, and only touches the edge of the print, preventing it from being exposed to an adhesive.
- Framing: Lastly, your frame should be archival. While wooden frames may be marked as archival, most archivists prefer a metal frame because wood is still a treated organic material. You should also use glass between the frame and the matting, making sure it does not touch the photograph. You can also buy UV glass that limits the amount of harmful light the print is exposed to. It is expensive, but worth it to best preserve your image.
Buy prints in limited editions.
Buying prints in limited editions ensures some value to the work. You should see a number like “3/50”, indicating the image is the third in a limited edition of 50. That can mean an edition of 50 prints of the image, or 50 prints of that size image. Either is generally acceptable from a collector’s standpoint.
Look for the artist’s signature.
If you’ve purchased a high quality print, it should be signed by the artist. Generally the image is signed in pencil rather than pen because ink is generally not archival. A photograph signed in ink (especially on the image itself) is a dead giveaway that the photographer is not knowledgeable about archival methods.
Does the photographer oversee the entire process?
If you can meet the photographer, that’s great. Not only do artists love to talk about their work, but you can inquire about his or her processes in making their images archival. Hopefully the photographer has not only exposed the image, but has overseen the process of creating the final image from print to matting and/or framing. While you are at it, find out what you can about the photographer. Are they an artist or a lucky amateur? Are they an expert on a particular technique, or are they having their prints made at the local big-box film stop?
Buy directly from a reputable source.
If you can buy directly from the photographer, great. If not, make sure the gallery, collector, or designer knows the artist, and understands their work, and their importance in the field. If you get the feeling the photographer’s representatives don’t know the artist well, it may be a sign they don’t care, or that the photographer is not noteworthy. You may want to keep looking.
Look beyond landscapes.
For value’s sake, buy art from photographers who shoot more than landscapes. Many landscape photographers are great. Most are not. If you want to collect photography consider subjects other than landscape – street photography, still life, erotic and other forms – mimic the diversity of paintings, drawings, sculpture and other art forms. Consider all the types of images you might add to your collection.
By now you are keenly aware of those aspects of a photograph that differentiate great collectible artists and pieces, from those that are not. Great photographs continue to tell a story, long after you own them. And prices for collectible photographs are still low, compared to other medium. Collecting photographs is not only affordable, but could be the next great art investment.
About Michael Axel: Axel is a photographer, artist, author, and technologist living in Central Oregon. His work has appeared at several museums, including the Portland Art Museum. He has worked for the distributor of Hasselblad cameras, infamous for being the quintessential space camera, and works extensively with film. He is seldom without a camera in tow, whether his Leicas or Zeiss Ikon Contessa. He shoots mostly with Hasselblad cameras and various 4×5” medium format cameras. Few have mastered the technique of stand development so completely, and Axel’s book, “Iridescent Light, The Art of Stand Development” (available at Blurb.com) is the bible of this unique film development methodology. His website is at LeicaGlow.com.