Ted: This is a two-part question. First, what are some of the emerging trends in photography collecting today, and second, where is the smart money being spent? In other words, where are the knowledgeable or adventurous collectors investing their money?
Deborah: With reference to the first question, about emerging trends in the photography collecting market, one answer I have is pretty simple. We see more and more digital prints – pigment prints and newer processes - coming onto the market and collectors are becoming more accepting of those. Obviously this is the case on the primary market, but we’re also seeing this on the resale market.
Another trend, and perhaps this will sound anti-climactic, is that I am seeing more collecting across the board. It’s not just contemporary photography that collectors are buying. They’re also looking at the old masters, reviewing the history of photography.
Within that, we see people with renewed interest, or new interest in the masters of street photography such as Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. I’m using the term street photography loosely, but maybe it would be more accurate to say mid-century American, urban landscape photography.
There is also much interest in the New Topographics, and, tangentially, Robert Adams. These are photographers whose resale market didn’t really exist several years ago, but it is now growing rapidly.
Ted: What is ‘New Topographics’?
Deborah: This is an unofficial “school” of photographers from California that gained prominence and momentum in the late 1960s. Lewis Baltz and Ed Ruscha are probably the best-known photographers of the New Topographics. They photographed the changing landscape of Los Angeles and California in general, evolving from a rural or undeveloped environment to an industrial environment. The imagery is very spare and minimal, and really very beautiful.
Ted: Now, about what I called the ‘smart money’…where do you see smart collectors investing?
Deborah: Again, I see collectors looking at the masters of 20th century photography and buying works by photographers such as Irving Penn, Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, and William Eggleston of course. 25 years ago, there were just a handful of devotees collecting Eggleston’s work, and now he’s really become not only very prominent in the photography market, but his work has also entered the broader art market as well. I think in the last few years, his rise has been possibly the most dramatic and far reaching.
Ted: Some of these photographers that you mentioned, Irving Penn, Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, could be considered ‘blue chip’ photographers in terms of investment. However, are you seeing any collectors active in areas today that maybe don’t seem quite so obviously ripe now, but will open doors into new areas of collecting and appreciation over the next five years?
Deborah: I see more and more interest in conceptual photography, particularly from the 1970’s, and particularly in how artists used photography in conceptual art. For example, conceptual artists like Vito Acconci come to mind. He started as a poet, but began to use photography in very interesting and important ways in his work, which included performance pieces, videos, and self-portraits. Figures like Acconci will become more interesting and prominent in the collecting world.
Artists and photographers like Acconchi also influenced the likes of Cindy Sherman. Sometimes you go back a little bit and uncover influences on figures like Cindy Sherman and discover really interesting artists and photographers who haven’t necessarily been in the spotlight. This is another path some collectors are taking, excavating these influences.
Ted: Are there differences in collecting taste between New York and other photography centers like Paris, Berlin, and London?
Deborah: I don’t think so. I’ve watched buyers in those different parts of the world and I think there isn’t necessarily any difference. However, there are more collectors concentrated in New York.
However, on another level, I’ve observed that people in different parts of the world tend to be interested in contemporary photography from their part of the world. For example, I was in Sao Paulo, Brazil at a fair in September, and I noticed that among contemporary photographers being shown, it was mostly Brazilian photographers, because people are interested in what’s happening in their own area. But I do think that with the masters of photography, or the blue chip as you put it, appeal pretty much everywhere.
Ted: This next question is relevant to a lot of collectors who don’t have huge budgets but still want to acquire quality works. What interesting photographs can one acquire for under $5000?
Deborah: That’s a tough question for us right now because we have fewer and fewer photographs in that price range. However, in this particular upcoming April 5th auction at Christie’s, we happen to have quite a few great photographs in that range because we are selling 71 lots that are being de-accessioned by The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. They’re the first 71 lots in our catalogue, and there are some terrific pictures. I’ll just go into a few.
Lot 4 is a work by Paul Caponigro (Woods Series, Redding, Connecticut, 1968) estimated at $2,000-3,000. Lot 5 a very famous William Clift photograph (Shadow, Mont St. Michel, France, 1977) which I think is his most famous photograph, and it is estimated at $1,000-1,500. And I’ll give more examples, but what I want to say here is that I think these are solid examples from the history of photography and very influential for their time period. They were chosen very carefully by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and by us.
Ted: So there are really quite a few photographs by historically significant photographers that are available at relatively accessible prices.
Deborah: That’s correct. There’s a Garry Winogrand, Lot 22 (Apollo 11 Moon Shot, Cape Kennedy, Florida, 1969), which is really a famous picture. It is estimated at $2,000-3,000. So, I think there are lots of examples in this sale. Even the Dust Storm, Lot 38, by Arthur Rothstein, is estimated at $2,500-3,500.
Ted: What an incredible photo. Actually, looking at this photograph, I want to ask you a question about photographs that have been printed later. For example, this is a Depression era photograph that was printed at a later time. Can you tell me, from a collecting point of view, what this means and how collectors should view this?
Deborah: I think one has to take every photographer on a case-by-case basis. And you really can’t generalize about ‘printed later’ prints because it depends on how the photographer worked. In some cases, with certain photographers, the most important thing is to try to find the best print possible. There are some ‘printed later’ prints that look generic and lab-like, and there are others that will have their own particular quality. You really just have to look and use your own judgment.
On the other hand, there might be a condition issue. Some collectors may feel better about having a later print, because earlier prints may have creases and cracks. So, I really think it comes down to individual connoisseurship. And that comes from looking and studying photographers and photographs a lot.
Ted: What are some things that a collector should know about a photograph, that validate its value and importance, before purchasing it?
Deborah: Well, I think first of all, the collector must learn as much about their photographer of interest as possible. Study their printing, publication, and exhibition history. Look at a lot of their works, learn about the breadth of the photographers’ work and get to know it better than just by means of a single image. In order to train your eye and your mind, you need to be willing to look at a lot of the photographers work.
Among other things, this will allow you as a collector to make a judgment about the importance of the work and the print quality.
As a collector, you should also know your own taste. If you love a photograph, that is really enough to start with. You should buy with your eyes and not your ears.
Auctions can play an important role in this process of studying photographs and developing one’s taste and connoisseurship. Come to the previews and look at the photographs, speak with the attendants at the auction, as they are knowledgeable. See the photographs in person. Images on a screen are just images. You have to see how the photograph lives in its space, see what kind of energy it has. These are things that can only be determined in the presence of the actual photograph.
Ted: What are some of the highlights in the upcoming Christie’s Photography auction?
Deborah: It may sound obvious, but the cover lot is a really special item, a Schadagraph, or photogram by Christian Schad. Associated early on with the Zurich Dada movement, Schad went on to become very well known for his hyper-real portrait paintings, some of which were exhibited a few years ago at the Neue Galerie here in New York. But this item is not only relevant to the history of photography. It crosses over into the history of 20th century art because it is also a Dada object. I’m really happy we have this because it’s the type of work that just doesn’t come on the market anymore because there are so few remaining in private hands.
Another highlight I’d like to point out, obvious again because it’s our back-cover lot, is the Man Ray photograph, Lot 127 (Untitled, 1930). I think it has everything in it as far as I’m concerned. It’s amusing, delightful, pretty, it’s a Man Ray, and it has his handwork on it. Plus it’s from the great inter-war period that was characterized by so much innovation.
We also have a terrific Cartier-Bresson, an early image, Lot 208 (Seville, 1933). This one was printed in 1957 but it’s a very unusual print for Cartier-Bresson because it is an early example of a limited-edition work by him.
We also have an amazing item, Lot 107 (Documents pour l’histoire du vieux Paris), an Atget album. It’s very special because the album is an intact version of the way Atget prepared his photographs to be sold businesses, individuals, and institutions. He created albums scored little slits in the pages where the photos could be secured. It is extremely rare to find an album like this, complete with all the photos, because over time they tended to be removed or would become otherwise lost. Our copy also happens to be annotated throughout by Atget.