For those asking why collect photography, why not collect? Whilst still considered a young art form, photography has become much more important in the art world and has transitioned from documenting reality to an art form in its own right. For example mid 1900s fashion and journalistic work has appreciated over time and there are many prints from these and other genres that are now regarded as classic masterpieces and iconic images. Major museums are now regularly scheduling photographic exhibitions, even the catalogue for the Tate Modern’s 2003 exhibition Cruel+Tender is now collectable itself and due to the amount and variety of photographic genres photography is affordable and accessible. So for those who want art, who desire something of value and don’t want to go to IKEA or have a poster on the wall, photography is a good starting point.
To start with; what is the edition system? To answer the fact that photography is relatively easy to reproduce, compared to other forms of art, the edition system is basically a promise by a photographer (or estate or gallery) to limit the amount of prints of a certain image. Generally speaking, the less prints in an edition, the higher the value, i.e. if a photographer completes a run of 25 prints and then a different run of 100 prints, the initial run will be worth more (some galleries deliberately print large editions so as to make the prints affordable). However, even within an edition there may be multiples sizes with the larger sizes valued higher than the smaller ones. Editions are more common for photographers from the 1970s onwards, so don’t be surprised if the vintage print you like that isn’t part of an edition. Some photographers have numbered editions and open ended print runs whilst others don’t follow the edition system at all. Numbered editions and non-edition prints aren’t necessarily worth less than their limited counterparts. Photographers understand their market and won’t over print their images, as to do so will lead to falling prices and value of their work risking the wrath of previous and potential future clients. Due to this, if a non-edition print is of concern to a potential client, the studio that produced or the gallery that is offering a print should be able to track down the actual numbers of that print that exist. The studio or gallery are also the best contacts should you have purchased a print and would like an up to date valuation.
In regards to photographic reproduction; certainly a digital image may be considered ‘free’ to reproduce (use is a different matter), but there is obviously a cost to printing which will be reflected in the price of a print. Anyone entering the market needs to accept the fact multiples are a nature of the industry; only in the rarest of cases is a photo 100 per cent unique. However, bear in mind the difference between digital prints and handmade prints. Contemporary digital prints tend to fall into either the c-type or giclée camp. A c-type is exposed digitally using lasers or LED lights while a giclée print (from the French verb gicler to squirt or spray) is made by spraying microscopic dots of pigment based ink onto high quality paper or canvas. Both types of printing have strengths with, generally photographers preferring C-type and illustrators and graphic artists favouring Giclée prints. So whilst there is virtually no difference between prints in digital printing there will be variants in prints that have been hand made.
Platinum printing, whose desirable benefits include a larger and more delicate tonal range and diffuse reflective quality is currently enjoying a renaissance. However, given the estimate that a platinum print may last thousands of years as the platinum group of metals are very stable against chemical reaction, don’t be surprised by the high price tag (if you’d like to print your own 10”x8” print expect prices to start at over £100).
Editions often contain an ‘Artist Proof’ alongside the editioned prints. During the printing process, artists will make many test prints until they achieve the correct balance of tone and colour. When this print meets the artist’s approval, then the print run for the edition is ‘good to go’. This approved individual print is called the Artist’s Proof. Previous ‘unapproved’ test prints will be destroyed. Sometimes there will be more than one Artist Proof. Generally speaking, the artist’s proof is the closest a print is to their ‘vision’. Some photographers print complete editions at once, and some don’t. If they don’t print them together, there’s the risk that the photographer could die before the edition is completed which brings into question the integrity of posthumous prints (should there be an estate to oversee the photographer’s work).
In regards to paper, sometimes over the course of a print run a particular paper variant can cease to be manufactured, though equally some later prints may be better than vintage prints due to advances in paper and printing techniques. This obviously benefits numbered editions, non-edition and late edition prints. And of course, bear in mind the condition of the print – especially those of a vintage variety. Prints should come signed and numbered and often come with a certificate authenticating this information with the number of the print and the total print run usually marked in pencil on the print e.g. 66/100.
A key part of purchasing is personal knowledge; go and learn how to appreciate and see art; go to galleries, exhibitions, museums, private views and decide and learn about what you like. Ignore price. Instead evaluate what you see and why you like what you do; are you interested in abstract, form, colour or composition to name a few? Are you attracted to a particular genre of photography; does photo- journalism grab your attention or is portraiture, wildlife, landscape, fashion or war photography that you’re particularly drawn to? Read, learn, go to lectures related to your interests to expand your knowledge base and know the great photographers in the photographic genre you find yourself in love with. Make friends at a gallery or auction house and try and find someone who can advise honestly.
So what are the pitfalls and what should you buy? Decide what your intentions are when you purchase a print, however if you’re looking to buy as an investment be careful! A lot of expert opinion suggests there are no generalisations and little predictions when it comes to photography as an investment and don’t expect to double your money if you’re looking to flip a print. If you are looking to buy as an investment, have a look at sales records and the legacy of prints and photographers at resale. Most advice would indicate against buying prints from a new name in preference to buying something classic. Above all, buy and collect photography (as with any art) because you love it and it gives you happiness.