How to Build a Photography Collection and Where to Start

Would you recommend building your collection around a theme, or should you just collect what you love?

When starting to collect, I always advise my clients to buy what they love and the rest will follow. You might be surprised by the amount of times I have visited a client’s collection, where they claim to have no set theme and yet all the photographs are of people, or buildings, or they are all set in South America! If you collect what you love, a theme often emerges, whether it be a colour palette, a subject matter, or location.

The theme of your collection will develop, as your collection grows. My own collection is called, ‘Without a Face,’ as I collect figurative photography, but there is never a face showing. It evolved by chance, as one day I looked around my living room and all the photographs were of people’s backs!

Once you have your theme it can help, but it can also restrict. If you fall in love with something which doesn’t fit, don’t walk away from it for that reason… collecting is a journey and within journey’s things often change.

Are there any young photographers to look out for at the moment?

I think Richard Mosse is spectacular; his photography captures the beauty and tragedy of war and destruction. Richard is a young artist from Ireland who has been working for many years, but his project ‘Infra’ took the art world by storm a few years ago. Infra is a series of landscapes and portraits taken in the African Congo, using infrared film once employed by the military. Since then he has had shows in London and New York, represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale 2013 and won the 2014 Deutsch Borse Prize. He is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York – a brilliant Contemporary Art Gallery in Chelsea.

The other young photojournalist who I think is fantastic is Moises Saman. Moises is a Magnum photographer and he works regularly for the New York Times and Time Magazine to name a few, but his work has the timeless spirit of art. His work is currently being included in The Theatre of War exhibition at the Magnum Print Room.

Fashion photography seems to be more and more collectable – who would you say are the names to watch?

Photography was born out of two genres; photojournalism and fashion. Before photography was considered an art form it was within these two industries that photographers made their living. This is why they are two of the most collectible genres today. Where a photojournalist documents, a fashion photographer creates. It is the latter which is such an incredible task for a photographer. The twentieth Century has seen the likes of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton become masters of their art, and their prices have followed suit. For this reason I have no doubt that the contemporary fashion photographers working today will see their prices rise as their editions sell out and they retire. I would see Nick Knight and Steven Meisel both as masters of this generation. Up and coming I also think that David Sims is showing real talent.

photography collections

Richard Mosse, Platon, 2012 © Richard Mosse, courtesy of Jack Shainman Galler

Can you explain the difference between vintage photography and contemporary photography?

The best analogy to understand the vintage photography market is actually with the book market. If you take a first edition signed copy of Pride and Prejudice, signed by Jane Austen, it is going to have a high value. However, you can also go and buy the same book in Waterstones for £4.99. Exactly the same book, but the former will always hold a higher market value. This is the same with the photography market. A vintage print of a photograph taken by a photographer in say 1940 and made by that photographer in their darkroom that same year, will always be worth more than a print of the same image which the photographer made in say 1980, 40 years later. The vintage print is the benchmark in collecting. This is seen as the most collectible and it will usually be the most expensive. This said, I would never advise a client not to buy a later signed print. These prints also have huge market value. My advice is usually buy the best of what you can afford, and what is available.

When collecting contemporary photography, should you look out for signed prints or editions?

The concept of editions was only created in the late 1970s when photography began to be recognised an art form and dealers started to ‘represent’ photographers as artists. The dealers needed a way of tracking their work so they invented editions. It is for this reason, why photographers who are of the older generation, don’t have editions because they were working before the concept was invented. Contemporary photographers today always work in editions, some even print just one. A smaller edition is seen to be best, but anything up to 10 is fine to buy into. Don’t underestimate the value it will give to your artwork to know that there are 9 others trading out there, it will build the market for the image therefore making yours more desirable.

When deciding how to frame a group of images, are there any key points to look out for?

Photographs by the same artist, particularly smaller format works suits being hung in a triptych or a grid format. When hanging photographs in rows, look at the images and think of it like a sentence, read the images from left to right – which one would make a good full stop? If you are hanging lots of different shapes and sized works but all of traditional sizing, I always recommend picture shelves. This gives you the ability to change them around, and I love to see images overlapping each other.

photography collections

Elliott Erwitt, California Kiss, 1955 © Magnum Photos/Elliott Erwitt

Where are the best galleries and auction houses to find contemporary photography?

New York has the best galleries for photography without a doubt. Their history with the medium is the longest in the globe. If you think MOMA first hired a photography curator in the 1930s! London hired the first curator for photography at TATE about 5 years ago! In New York I always go and see Howard Greenberg and Bonni Benrubi Gallery. I  love the eye of Christophe Guye in Zurich and also M+B Gallery in L.A. I also work a lot with the Magnum Print Room in Old Street. Magnum was formed in 1947 by 4 photojournalists, one of whom was Henri Cartier Bresson. Magnum now runs a programme called the Collectors Circle which invites Collectors to become part of Magnum and meet and collaborate with all their photographers it is an opportunity to learn more about photography and get to the know the artists which is crucial to a collecting journey and a lot of fun!

For Auction sales, again New York is the best. The big three are Sothebys, Christies and Phillips. The auction seasons in New York are held in April and October. It is an exciting time to visit, as approximately $30million worth of photographs are sold in just 4 days. This shows the strength of the market.

Are there any unmissable photography fairs?

Paris Photo is the best photo fair on the global calendar. Second to that I would say Art Basel in June, which has a whole section dedicated to vintage photography. I love to see Man Ray hanging next to galleries showing Klimt and Old Masters.

In your opinion, what are the success factors that drive the art market?

The essential factors driving the art market as a whole, are supply and demand. This is the essence of the art world and what you must first address when looking at an artwork for purchase. What is the supply of the work? How many are in the edition, and has the majority of the edition sold out? Or is it made by a more established artist who may stop producing in coming years? If the answer is yes to either of these questions, then your supply will cease and therefore your demand will grow.

The other factors which drive artist prices are museum presence, publications, commercial shows worldwide and secondary market presence. All these factors contribute to an artist becoming ‘hot’. Be careful when investing in new artists, unfortunately young artists can be ‘hot’ for five minutes but if their second project is not as strong, their market can weaken almost overnight. I would look at established contemporary artists and masters of photography. These artists have already made their name and will continue to grow.

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