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What makes a photograph collectable?
Photographers are dying for their work become collector's items
By Jon P. Fishback
What causes people to collect things? As a child of 10 or 12 I was interested in collecting match-books. I picked them up everywhere we went. I remember finding exotic covers and being very excited about them. It never occurred to me that thousands had probably been printed and distributed. It did, however, occur to me that if I saved one in mint condition, the remainder of the uneducated public would throw theirs away, or use the matches and I would be the only one who had one. This sole ownership took on significant meaning to me even at this early age. No one had ever discussed the collecting phenomenon with me, nor had anyone told me what makes something collectable. The look of the cover was quite important and the more exotic, the more desirable. I remember passing over common looking covers, even though I did not have them in my collection. In the 1940's and 1950's match-books were an important means of advertising. Much like photographs, there were more common covers than exotic.
Later I became interested in stamps. Now, the look was not as important as the condition and year. The older the better. Again, I knew there were thousand of each issue, but this never curbed the feeling of obtaining one that I did not have. Collecting stamps also contains the element of a puzzle. One always tries to complete a year, an issue, or a country. This is an important element is stamp collecting that is missing in many other types of collections, especially match-book covers or photographs.
Antiques became my passion during the years we were furnishing our house. We collected very serviceable, yet well made, old furniture. Eye appeal was the most important criteria in our selection. The piece had to fit into our home and lifestyle. I never considered how rare the piece was or how many of them had been made. We have a small writing desk that came from a mail order catalog at the turn of the century. We love it and there must be thousands like it nationwide.
This brings me to art. There are certain truisms about art collecting. People collect for their own reasons, but these truisms remain. The first truism is the fact that art always becomes more collectable after the artist's death. The popular theory here is that scarcity makes it more collectable. Those that collect art for speculative purposes will sometimes stockpile works of aging artists with the hope of cashing in after the artist's death. This would indicate that the collecting public somehow values that which is unique or can not be duplicated. The second truism is that the work of well known or celebrity artists is usually more collectable. This is not to say the artist need to have become a celebrity or well known through art. In fact the artist's celebrity may be a simple matter of being notorious, such as a mass murderer, a popular singer or actor. The third truism is that art need not be recognizable to be collectable. In fact as we will discuss later it sometimes helps if it is not.
If we take what has been said above and dissect it, I believe we may shed some light on what makes a photograph collectable. First and foremost if your work is to be collectable, it helps if you are dead, or at least have one foot in the grave. Heaven forbid that you should be healthy and vibrant and be able to enter the darkroom without a wheel chair to again produce thousands of images and flood the market thus reducing the value of all previous collectable images. Second, your name should be a household word in photographic circles. This is a real catch-22. Your name must be famous, yet you have not been able to get your work in front of the public, because you are too young and not in danger of dying. If you are a celebrity in another manner it would mean that you have spent your life probably acting or singing, which limits the amount of your work available. This is also a plus, but does not guarantee that you have a style or technique worthy of collecting. It also eliminates the majority of photographers now practicing.
As you see it can be very difficult for a living photographer to make a collectable gelatin silver image, from a negative exposed in a camera. To make matters worse, photographs always have the stigma of being reproducible in any quantity. The fact that the image has the potential of being one of many, makes it undesirable for many would-be collectors. No matter how I have tried over the years, to squelch that feeling in the viewing public, it always comes back to haunt me. Vintage photographs, or work that was printed at the time of the negative was made, are always more collectable than later prints from the same negative. Again this points to the fact that the collector is somehow drawn to that which is unique. Theoretically the vintage print exists in a limited edition even if that was not the point at the time. Most photographers make a few prints shortly after exposing the negative and then wait for interest before printing again. In most cases there is limited interest as he or she is not dead nor well known. When and if the latter becomes a reality the vintage print will be collectable for all the reasons above.
There is another source that one might go to in an attempt to discover what is collectable. There are the auction houses that sell photography. It might be difficult to survey the successful bidders at a particular auction, but one can use the auction itself. The major houses of Sotheby's and Christie's try not consign photographs that will not sell. They are in the business to be successful. Given this, it can loosely be seen that the auction houses try very hard to consign collectable photographs.
I recently spent some time analyzing an auction catalog. There were 228 photographers represented in this auction. Of these, there were only 56 that were still living. For those of you that are not into math, that is 75% deceased. Of the 56 living photographers, fewer than 25 were younger than 60. I then looked at these 25 to see if there was a common thread that might be tied to collectability. Of the work presented by these photographers almost all were printed in very limited editions of as few as five (5). There were many Cibachrome prints and quite a few manipulated to make the image unique. Many were hand colored; some were collages. The work of these 25 was, more times than not, abstract or not recognizable at all. Some were out of focus while others looked like snap-shots made by a ten year old with a brownie. Of the 25, fewer than 5 presented photographs that seemed to me, straight representation of something.
What does all this mean in analyzing what might be considered collectable? I will attempt two recommendations. If you are an aspiring photographer who wishes to create something collectable and sell it, you better be dead, or close to it. If this is not an option, you should consider creating something that is unique and in as limited an edition as possible. Preferably an edition of one (1). When the purchaser holds the print, it should express the feeling that there has never been, nor will ever be another like it. Lastly the image should probably be abstract in some manner. This may mean that you must pursue work that is meaningless without explanation. You will need to be able to explain the work in esoteric terms to people who will purchase it for the meaning alone, and probably not understand it anyway.
The second recommendation I will make is much easier, however, may not be as fulfilling to some. Photograph what has meaning for you and is the most fun. Make beautiful prints in limited edition, as close to the actual exposure as you can. Record everything in pencil on the back of the prints and sign and number each. Store them archivally in a safe place along with the negative. Put the details in your will as to what should be done with the photographs and wait to die.
The latter method, as I have stated, does not give monetary gratification to the photographer. It is, however, much less frustrating and allows you to make the images that please you. It also gives you the constant joy thinking about how your heirs will fulfill your wishes under the will, regarding 750 pounds of photographs.