Art History Briefing: The Fascination with Collecting Photography

Photograph collecting began with the invention of photography itself. Why take photographs if they were not meant for later appreciation and compilation? What may have begun as a practice to commemorate events and likenesses for personal use became a source of appreciation and entertainment which lasts today. Over the years, photography has moved from being regarded as a resource for private and news usage to a source of enjoyment and artistic expression.

Introduction to Photography

During the mid- to late-1800’s, as photography was used more often in place of portraits to remember family members, they began to be exchanged and collected in family photo albums. With the growth of movies, sports, and music appreciation, celebrities also used their photographic likenesses for promotion, further expanding the desire to obtain and keep photographic images.

Early Photography Collecting

Wealthy families who traveled extensively, collected photographs (taken by professionals) of their travels, displaying them both in albums and in their homes and businesses. The photographs exhibited their status and prosperity, helping to expand the desire by both private citizens and institutions to display photographs along with artwork. Photography commemorated political and social events, modern inventions and construction, and allowed societies to recall weather and religious events, from private families to entire communities.  Photographers began to gain notoriety for their skills, and were hired to record notable achievements, moving away from handwritten pictures in newspapers and books.

Growth in Artistic Photography

By the early 20th century, photography collection was well established, but not always considered a form of art. One pioneer was Alfred Stieglitz, who displayed photographs alongside works of art in his New York galleries beginning in 1905 under the organization Photo-Secession, and for a while became a place where artists could share their creative works and discussions. Although short-lived, his efforts are credited to leading the rise of modern photography.

Photography as a Collectible

As photographers began to realize the value of their work as a source of income AND as an investment for art enthusiasts, editions and limitations have been placed on their works.  Further, art galleries expanded their displays of photographs in the 1970’s and 1980’s, helping to drive the interest and cost of photographs. The Photographers’ Gallery in London was the first photograph-only public art gallery to open in 1971 and is considered one of the premier galleries dedicated to this medium.

The Photography Market

Institutions have played a significant role in the growth of collecting photography and the photography market and continue today.  Tate Modern was one of the most influential institutions, as part of a commitment to modern art, began showcasing hundreds (and now thousands) of photographs, and now organizes photography exhibitions at its multiple galleries. Its upcoming exhibition Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art will illustrate the history of photography as well as its place in the development of abstract art. One cannot deny the influence museums like Tate Modern have had on public awareness of photography as a genre of art, and the exposure art lovers have had to the wide variations of photographic styles and mediums due to the efforts of institutions.

With the explosion of digital photography comes growth in the collection of all photography, both digital and traditional. Scarcity has a significant effect on art collecting; shortage increases value. Therefore, photographers (or their heirs/estates) are careful to protect the artists’ works and original prints by disallowing reproductions. What could be considered an “entry-level” form of art investing has risen to a billion-dollar market, with some photographs selling within the last ten years for upwards of $4 million.

Today’s Photography Collectors

One reason photography is especially attractive to new collectors: it speaks for itself. Those without formal art training find it relevant to their lives, and they don’t feel forced to explain their attraction to a photograph due to abstract ideas or images difficult to explain. Further, in general, photographs bring lower prices, allowing investors to build collections at a lower starting level than they would with paintings. There is a demand for black and white photographs, and with the wide availability of photography tools, collectors can gather both vintage and current photographs taken in this scheme.

The New Age of Photography and Photography Collection

Although, like any market for collectibles, there is ebb and flow in the photography market; one does not see the volatility which exists in other art markets, the wild auctions where competition is cutthroat. It could be a perfect opportunity to establish a collection while the market is still quiet and new techniques are being introduced, challenging what we traditionally consider “photography.” Emerging photographers are exposed to formal training, new theories on artistic expression, and options for subjects not even considered in years past. At the same time, there is a continued interest in preserving the past in photographs; maintaining the sentimental value of black and white images and the times they represent. It is never too early (or too late) to begin collecting photography.

Sybaris’ Commitment to Photography

When searching for the perfect photograph to start, or add to your collection, let the experts at Sybaris Collection help. We have a catalogue of original pieces available for your selection and travel the world to search for art from established and emerging artists like Paola Ismene, an award-winning artist from Mexico City. In addition, ARTclub membership affords the discriminating collector special privileges to view exclusive pieces, along with access to a host of art professionals to assist with selection and display, as well as advice for collector needs such as insurance, estate planning, and appraisals.