A Short History of Photograph Collecting



by Penelope Dixon

Article published in the Center for Photography at Woodstock’s: October Auction Quarterly

The collecting of photographs was practically simultaneous with the invention of photography. P and D Colnaghi, a well-established art gallery in London, sold photographs as early as the 1850s, representing both the work of Roger Fenton and Julia Margaret Cameron. People became obsessed with capturing their own likenesses. A popular past-time in the mid 19th century was the exchange of carte-de-visites. People collected cartes of their friends and family and put them into albums, much like children exchanging school pictures today. Much like our present fascination with Hollywood personalities, they were also avid collectors of celebrity images. A recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, The Beautiful and the Damned. The Creation of Identity in Nineteenth Century Photography, [accompanied by a fine catalogue] explores the effects of early photography on society.

Travel photographs were another early collectible. The very wealthy would set off on long excursions, “the grand tour”, and instead of taking their own photographs [the cumbersome and complicated equipment precluded this] they would purchase photographs of each place they visited, later putting them into large albums. An English gentleman’s album of the 1860s might include photographs by William Notman of Canada, Charles Clifford of Spain, Carlo Ponti and Fratelli Alinari of Italy and Felix Bonfils or A. Beato the Middle East.

Many photographs were published in albums in the 19th century, presumably to be sold to institutions or wealthy private collectors. Examples include Peter Henry Emerson’s Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads or John Thomson’s Street Life in London. These early albums were precursors to the photographic portfolios produced today by contemporary photographers. Other parallels between 19th and 20th century collecting can be seen in government or corporation sponsored photography. The Glasgow City Improvement Trust hired Thomas Annan to record the Glasgow slums and this work was published in 1874 as Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow. Edouard Baldus was hired by the Monuments Historiques in France to document the architecture of the country on his 1851 mission heliographique. Many similar projects have been done in this century, beginning with Lewis Hine’s work for the National Child Labor Committee.

Photographic auctions also had their beginnings in the mid 19th century. The first auction of photographs took place in London in 1854. The first auction in America was a century later, The Marshall Sale, held by Swann Galleries in 1952. The prices from that sale would make you cry.

Although “photography as art” was still being debated, by the early 20th century photographs had become firmly established as a collectible. Alfred Stieglitz had various galleries in New York from 1905 until his death in 1946. Like many contemporary galleries today, he exhibited photographs alongside the work of modern artists. Along with Stieglitz, Julian Levy’s gallery in New York, open between 1931 and 1949, introduced many photographers to the collecting publish, including Weston, Sheeler, Strand and Atget. Famous in the 1950s was Helen Gee’s “Limelight” and after a dry period in the 1960s, the early 1970s saw the beginning of the photography market, as we know it today. From a few galleries in New York, London and other major cities, we can now find hundreds worldwide.

A Short History of the Market

Most people know the story of the rise and fall and rise again of the Ansel Adams’ market. In some ways it is a good example of the market as a whole. Photographs by Adams which were selling in 1975 for $400 were selling for between $4,000 and $16,000 by 1979, thanks to the astute marketing of Harry Lunn. By the early 1980s Adams prices had dropped to between about $2,000 and $10,000. Today, they are back up again, but this time coming close to the $100,000 mark for particularly fine vintage prints of his signature 1941 image, Moonrise Over Hernandez. What happened? First, the limitation in 1975 of his prints and subsequent creation of rarity, which coincided with a widespread demand for photographs and investors into the market. Then came a bad economy and supply began to exceed the demand.

A related change in the market happened in the early 1990s. Prior to this time, there had been less interest in vintage prints, that is, those prints which were made close to the time the photographer made his/her original negative. Hence, there were extensive reprintings by Ansel Adams, Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson as these photographers, and many others, jumped on the bandwagon.

Other effects on the market have been certain “blockbuster” museum shows which have contributed to a larger public awareness of the medium as well as providing new levels of understanding and an increase in value for a certain photographer, or period of photography. Also, blockbuster auctions, such as the multi-media Man Ray sale at Sotheby’s in London in the mid 1990s where only 1of the items offered failed to sell, contribute an energy and stability to the market.

Auction houses have changed the structure of the contemporary art market and will continue to do so. More public attends auctions than ever before, the houses now serve as middlemen between buyers and sellers.

Now, Why Should You Collect Photographs?

Investment potential is an obvious answer but aesthetic considerations are far more important to my mind. You might have to live with a particular photograph for some time before you can sell it, so you had better like it. I used to collect photographs because I loved the images, because of the accessibility of so many pictures on the market and the relatively reasonable prices. I stopped collecting and have sold most of my collection, not because any of those reasons changed but because I couldn’t take good enough care of the prints [I live in two humid locations] and any works on paper do need a lot of love and attention. Also, going back to the investment potential, many of my photographs had gone up in value so it was a good time to sell.
How to Collect: (1) What to Look For

My first memory of photographs was Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition and book. I spent hours as a child pouring over the images. Some 20 years later the first photograph I bought was an image by Bill Brandt of the girl on Lambeth Walk, parading in her mother’s high-heeled shoes. I think I paid about $150 for it and recently sold it for over $2,000, not a bad investment, although I certainly didn’t buy it with this in mind. So, what should you look for when collecting photographs? There are a number of criteria to follow, which are same ones I use in establishing value in my photographic appraisals.


The artist

The particular image