L.A. Lucas, Exodus (detail shot), Gelatin Silver Print, 15.75 x 19.75 inches. Courtesy of Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
“Wherever there is light, one can photograph.” - Alfred Stieglitz
Photography has long been an artistic medium prone to controversy. Reproducible by nature, photography has had to overcome critical challenges in order to be accepted into the “fine art” historical canon. Still, photography has proven itself to be an important medium—and tool—for countless artists, many of whom have experimented with the photographic format, unconventional printing techniques, and digital innovations.
“Photography is a very democratic medium,” explains Samantha Johnston, Executive Director and Curator at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, which runs workshops for aspiring photography collectors. “With camera technology changing and most people owning smartphones, there is more access for individuals to take pictures and create memories and stories; especially with social media, we are consuming images at such a rapid rate.”
One could even argue that, due to the ubiquity of the smartphone camera, we are currently experiencing a photography renaissance—making it an excellent time to collect this constantly evolving artform.
A Brief History of Photography
The core concept of photography can be traced back to the 4th century BC, when Aristotle first described the camera obscura. This technique for capturing an ethereal image is still used today by contemporary artists such as Vera Lutter, known for her large-scale monochromatic and somewhat ghostly images of urban landscapes.
Due to the camera obscura process, which renders an inverted image directly onto light sensitive paper through a tiny hole in an enclosed structure (the original “dark room,” if you will), these photographs are typically one-of-a-kind.
Illustration of the camera obscura principle. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Source.
It wasn’t until the 1840s that photography “went mainstream” with the invention of the daguerreotype, used mainly for society and family portraits. In 1889, Kodak founder George Eastman introduced the film roll, which allowed photographers to shoot many images in a row, leading to the advent of the snapshot. That same year, Thomas Edison invented the 35mm film roll, but it took another three decades for the 35mm small-format camera to be invented and made available on the commercial market.
Fast forward to now and over 80% of the world’s population owns a smartphone with a built-in digital camera. That’s more than 6 billion people who have instant access to creating—and viewing—high resolution digital photographs at any time, wherever they go.
In keeping with its democratic premise, photography is also a terrific entry point into the world of art collecting. Since many photographs are printed in limited editions, rather than as unique works (camera obscura images being one notable exception), price points for collecting photographs generally start in lower ranges than for unique paintings or sculptures.
However, that’s not to say that photographs are not a “good art investment.” On the contrary, some photographs have fetched million dollar sums on the secondary market.
As with almost all art investments, the artist’s biography, the scarcity of the image (ie the edition size), the condition of the print and a spectrum of other considerations all impact a photograph’s value in art market terms. Photographs also have certain conservation requirements as they tend to be more fragile and prone to light damage than other types of fine art.
Here’s a short guide to what you need to know when beginning to collect photography.
Peter Menzel, 1970 Washington St., Boston, Gelatin Silver Print, 5.25 x 8.25 inches. Courtesy of Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
Photographic Genres and Sources
“Photography strengthens our community through storytelling,” says Johnston. “While photographs don't always tell the truth, they provide perspective and points of view from various people.” Just as it encompasses many different perspectives, the field of photography also comprises many different genres, such as portrait photography, landscapes and wildlife photography, still lifes, candids, and fashion photography— just to name a few of the most popular.
Before purchasing any type of art, it’s important to understand your own aesthetic, what inspires you and, perhaps most importantly, what type of images you want to live with— and see—every single day.
Johnston concurs, “If you are just starting to collect photography one approach is to buy works that you love and that reflect your aesthetic style and personality.”
The best way to determine your own style is to go in search of what you like. Museum exhibitions, galleries, art fairs and even auctions dedicated to photography—of which there are many—are all excellent venues to educate yourself before deciding on an acquisition.
Some notable commercial galleries that specialize in photography include:
Etherton Gallery (Arizona)
Camera Work (Berlin)
Catherine Couturier Gallery (Houston)
Danziger Gallery (NYC & Los Angeles)
Edwynn Houk Gallery (NYC)
Fraenkel Gallery (San Francisco)
Higher Pictures (NYC)
Howard Greenberg Gallery (NYC)
Stanley Wise Gallery (NYC)
Yancey Richardson (NYC)
Yossi Milo Gallery (NYC)
Art fairs that cater to the photographic medium include The Photography Show by APAD in New York, Paris Photo, and Photo London. Auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Philips and Bonhams have sales with a focus on photography throughout the year.
There are also new museums dedicated to the medium, such as Fotografiska, which has locations in New York, Stockholm, Tallinn (Estonia), Miami, Shanghai, and Berlin. (The chairman of Fotografiska, Yoram Roth, is also an avid collector who uses Artwork Archive to manage his own collection, read more about him here in this collector spotlight!)
Every year the Rencontres d'Arles takes place in Arles, France—an international festival of Photography that mounts up to 40 exhibitions across town and is critically acclaimed for its curation of emerging and established photographers alike. But, to discover new talent, you might be able to stay close to home, since many cities have their own “Month of Photography” events.
That being said, the internet is also the world’s largest art gallery—so it’s recommended to browse online art showcases, such as Artwork Archive’s Discovery platform, that allow you to quickly filter hundreds of artworks by medium, size, price and other factors relevant to your personal wants and needs.
No matter what, photography—same as any artform—should invoke an emotional or intellectual response in the viewer.
“Maybe you just can’t stop thinking about the image,” says Johnston. “Whether it’s a story encapsulated by the subject matter, the story behind how and why the image was made or the story of the photographer's life—every photo has something to say. You can look at a photograph again and again and still discover something new.”
Kevin Hoth, Desert Portal, Archival Inkjet Print, 11 x 17 inches. Courtesy of Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
Types of photographs
Here’s a short overview of the most popular and historically significant types of photographs. This list is by no means exhaustive, but many photographs available to collect will fall under one of these medium types.
Archival Pigment Print
This type of printing is often used for digital photos and is a more recent innovation in the field, having first been introduced in the 1990s. The process is generally the same as with a giclee print and the material being printed on can range from heavy paper to canvas and a variety of other surfaces.
These prints are “archival” because of the ink used in the digital printing process. Still, like all artwork, archival pigment prints should be kept out of direct sunlight as they can fade over time and are not impervious to the elements.
C-Print (Chromogenic Color Print)
According to MoMA, C-prints are “the dominant photographic color process of the 20th century [and] is made up of three gelatin layers containing cyan, magenta, and yellow organic dyes. Together, these dyes produce a full-color image.”
C-prints are made from either a color negative or slide, but their colors can fade over time. The Tate writes that, “Because the chemicals are so complex, the image continues to react even after the process is completed. The chemicals are also extremely sensitive to water, light, and heat, making it difficult to protect C-prints from deterioration.”
A more modern update on the C-Print is the Digital C-type Print, which is created using digital printing technology and by exposing the paper to light using lasers or LEDs rather than a bulb in a darkroom.
Kristen Hatgi Sink, Bonnie Smoke, C-Print, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy of Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
This photographic process results in strikingly beautiful blue and white-toned prints, also called photograms, that are created without using a camera. Paper coated in certain chemicals produce these tones when exposed to UV light.
The process itself dates back to 1842 and was originally developed by a scientist and astronomer to reproduce mathematical drawings and other diagrams. Today, contemporary artists use this method in a variety of ways, but the results are always rendered in a spectrum of radiant blues.
Left: Sara Frances, Mountain Milkweed, Cyanotype on Cloth, 14 x 8 inches. Right: Julie Larse, Ceremony, Handmade paper, digital cyanotype, leather and beads, 11.5 x 8.5 inches. Images courtesy of Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
The original photograph, daguerreotypes were invented in 1839 by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (hence the name). “Each daguerreotype is a unique image on a silvered copper plate,” that originally required up to 20 minutes of exposure time. By the 1940s, that time had been reduced to about 20 seconds, which made portrait sitting much easier and accessible for the general public.
Because of their typical age, fragility and scarcity, many daguerreotypes are now being digitized as a means of cultural preservation. These prints, if well-preserved and in terrific condition, can fetch thousands of dollars at auction.
Gelatin Silver Print
According to the National Gallery of Art, “Most 20th century black-and-white photographs are gelatin silver prints, in which the image consists of silver metal particles suspended in a gelatin layer.”
These images are known for their lush contrast in tones and gradients, despite the monochromatic nature of the print—such as Ansel Adams’s magnificent landscapes or African artist Seydou Keïta’s arresting portraits.
Hamilton C. Cosby, Stream of Light, Gelatin Silver Print, 10.75 x 11 inches. Courtesy of Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
Perhaps the most iconic of all photographic types, the Polaroid is both an important part of visual and cultural history, as well as an endangered species. The Polaroid camera was first introduced to the mass market in 1948. The instant gratification of seeing a photo immediately was a smash success and hugely popular. Many renowned artists have used polaroids in their work and life, such as Andy Warhol and Nan Goldin.
Alas, with the rise of digital photography, Polaroid went bankrupt in 2008 and Fuji attempted to corner the instant photo market. Today, a group of true believers and former Polaroid employees run the “Impossible Project” out of the last remaining Polaroid factory, based in the Netherlands. Thanks to their passion and diligence, in 2018 they successfully re-released the film, “under its one and only birth name: Polaroid Originals.”
Polaroids are extremely fragile and will degrade when exposed to light over time. Artsy recently published an excellent article on collecting Polaroids that quoted expert Kyle Depew, a former member of the Impossible Project, who explained that Instant film should be archived in total darkness and, as a best practice, only reproductions of the Polaroid should be displayed and/or exhibited.
Limited Editions and Signatures
Photographs are generally created in limited editions and varying sizes, all of which is at the discretion of the photographer. Certain photographers will only release small edition sizes, such as an edition of 3, in order to keep pricing at a certain level. Other photographers might create “open editions”—meaning the edition count is unlimited—which will make their prints more affordable, but less “valuable” in terms of secondary market resale value.
The edition size should always be noted in writing, either on the photograph itself, or on a signature label or accompanying COA (certificate of authenticity). Because pen ink can run, many photographers sign their works with pencil “on verso” (on the reverse). Others will sign in the margins of the paper on the face of the photograph.
Signatures should include the artist’s name, the year the photograph was printed, and its edition number within the set. Some photographers will issue signature labels, which are essentially stickers with all artwork details listed and a hand-written signature that can be affixed to the back of a frame.
Buying a certain edition number will not usually affect the value of the photograph, meaning that edition 1/10 and edition 5/10 hold the same resale value on the secondary market. However, on the primary market, prices for editions might rise as the edition sells out, so a buyer might pay more for edition 5/10 than 1/10 because—after selling the first 5 editions— there are now less prints of that photograph available on the primary market, increasing the work’s scarcity.
There are also many types of “proofs” that might be offered for sale, such as an Artist’s Proof (AP), Printer’s Proof (PP), Test Print/Proof (TP), etc. These proofs should not be considered less or more valuable than an editioned print, and they may even be more valuable due to slight variations that would make them more “unique” than the rest of the edition set.
Vintage vs Digital
When acquiring photographs, the date of the print matters—a lot. Some photographs might be printed posthumously (following the death of the photographer), which can affect the resale value.
Vintage photographs will likely have some condition issues and that’s to be expected. Depending on your ability to properly care for these artworks (the lighting in your home, your climate-control settings, your framing budget, etc.), you might want to consider more recent works.
All photographs will require conservation at some point, but digital inks and prints are designed to keep their vibrancy for at least a century. Still, how you install a photograph will have an impact on its preservation, regardless of its age.
Bree Lamb, Quench, Archival Inkjet Print, 11 x 11 inches. Courtesy of Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
Framing, Installation & Conservation of Photographs
Framing is a hidden cost of photography collecting and can be surprisingly expensive, but it’s usually worth it. As Johnston says, “If you've made an investment in the artwork you don't want to have the work framed badly.” Museum-quality UV glass or plexi is always recommended.
Photographs are generally matted or mounted during the framing process. Mounting is more permanent than matting and could affect the resale value later on, however, so it’s best to consult with an expert.
Large-scale prints will usually be mounted, often directly onto materials such as aluminum and di-bond and then finished with a UV plexi face-mount, which is typically a decision made by the artist and results in a highly-contemporary aesthetic. Such prints don’t actually need a frame, per se, and will generally have hanging apparatuses such as cleats affixed directly to the back of the work.
Photographs should be shipped framed, which provides the most protection. If that is not possible, depending on the size they can be shipped flat or, for larger photographs, rolled in tubes. The corners of all photographs need to be protected with extra reinforcements such as cardboard, as they are arguably the most fragile parts of the print.
When handling unframed photographs, always, always always (!) wear white gloves—the oils on your hands and fingerprints can irreparably damage a photograph. And, once more for good measure: the safest way to ship a photograph is after it has been framed.
As with all art, install your photographs away from direct sunlight, heat, and moisture: the darker the room, the better. If you notice colors fading or other issues with your photograph, consult an appraiser and/or conservator.
Emma Powell Kirsten Hoving, House of the Reindeer Magician, Pigment over Palladium, 17 x 20.75 inches. Courtesy of Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
After acquiring your first photograph(s), digitally catalog your art collection with Artwork Archive. Collectors who use Artwork Archive can record all their artworks’ details, images, and accompanying documents (such as bills of sale, proforma invoices and other shipping documents, COAs and scans of signature labels) in a centralized, secure repository that’s accessible through any wifi-connected device.
Recording details such as from whom you acquired a photograph, when, and for what price are essential to establishing the provenance of your collection. Provenance is an important part of determining a secondary market value for the piece, should you ever decide to sell it. It is also important for appraisers when evaluating the “FMV” (fair market value) of an artwork, which is required for estate planning, charitable donations, and insurance. To learn more about provenance, read this article.
Since photographs are usually editioned pieces, it’s recommended to add a google alert to the name of any photographer whose work you have acquired. That way, you will be notified should an edition of the work you purchased be put up for sale at auction, for example. That auction result could affect the FMV of your edition, so it’s wise to stay on top of how photographers whose work you own are performing in the art market.
If you’re fortunate enough to own a work that substantially increases in value, you can track that change in Artwork Archive, which includes an Insights section that shows you the evolution of your collection’s value over time.
Many thanks to Samantha Johnston, Executive Director and Curator at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC)— an esteemed client of Artwork Archive. Browse more of CPAC's photography collection on their public profile.