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    Return to Article Listing. COLLECTINGPHOTOGRAPHY

By Alex Novak


Collectingphotography (yes, it is spelled without the space; don't ask us why) is one of the newest of the general photo collecting books to hit the market. Written by UK curator and critic Gerry Badger. The list price in hardbound is 25 in the UK; $39.95 in the US; and $60 in Canada. This 200-page full color book is available through most bookstores and online, and is published by Mitchell Beazley, a division of Octopus Publishing Group, Ltd.


The printing on the book is excellent and the overall design works very well. I feel it is a real bargain.

The collection of images used to illustrate the book is quite different than the normal run-of-the mill that you usually see in these types of books. While there are the occasional old chestnuts, Badger has dipped into a number of UK collections and other resources in order to compile a very nice selection of images, many of which I doubt you have seen before. Badger has also drawn many fine examples from the contemporary side of the market. While I do wish his text provided more elucidation for the specific images chosen, or used these photographs more often to make a point in his writing, this lack of context for images presented is common to these types of books.

As with the other many books attempting to cover as broad a market as photography, Collectingphotography will not answer all of your questions relating to this subject, but it is certainly worthy of being added to your library. For one thing, it is the latest such book to tackle this subject and is the first to substantively deal with important new developments, such as the Internet's effect on the market. If you are into contemporary photography, it is also the first book on photography collecting that I have seen that devotes substantial space to this area.

To avoid a potential conflict of interest, I should note that I was interviewed and quoted for this book, and that some of the source material, especially for the chapters on the photographic print, and buying and selling, was drawn from my articles on these topics on the iphotocentral website (although unfortunately uncredited in the book).

Badger used large quotes from top photography people as sidebars. I genuinely liked this feature (lengthy quotes on various aspects of photography collecting) of the book, which is somewhat unique and held my interest while reading through the book. Part of the reason is certainly the people that the author chose. It is an eclectic, but informed group. Some of the reason must also be the particular quotes chosen by the author and his publisher.

Badger does point out many of the key issues for collectors. He is right on target when he argues against buying just a name: "A mediocre Stieglitz or Weston--and there are plenty of mediocre Stieglitzes and Westons--is as mediocre as an indifferent John Doe; and this is not necessarily reflected in the price. You can pay a lot of money for a signature as opposed to an image; but you can find wonderful pictures by disregarded photographers for very little money." He also gives good advice when he notes that "...The best, to you, is what you yourself fall in love with. As a collector, you have to discover this. Then, you have to learn how to add slightly more objective criteria to your intuition..."

Gerry Badger writes well and the overall content is helpful, but a few of the chapters read a little like a general critique of photography as art than a helpful how-to on photography collecting, although I suppose that is a necessary discussion for beginning collectors. There is a section on what form a collection should take that seems a bit basic, but might again be helpful for the beginner.

The back-of-the-book sections also have some pros and cons. The Chronology is pretty basic and you may wonder why it was left in, but the glossary and bibliography are decent, and the list of galleries and dealers is also helpful, although it only includes fairly large dealers. The auction house list misses most European houses and smaller UK houses. The list of photographers is perhaps the weakest link (see comments below).

Some quibbles: There are a few outright mistakes in the book, such as saying that "the reserve (in an auction) is usually somewhere around the middle of the low and high ends of the estimate, and should never exceed the high estimate." Actually, by law, in most locales the reserve is always at or below the LOW estimate. Even in France, this has been the law for the last two years. AIPAD's photography fair is not in the spring, but in mid-February. And Badger's description of how daguerreotypes might be faked would probably crack up any modern daguerreotypist. Although dags might indeed be faked, there certainly wouldn't be any bleaching process involved.

The back-of-the-book section listing "key" photographers has a number of drawbacks; not least of all is the selection of the names themselves. I know, I know. Everyone will come up with a different set of names. And, yes, the author has a lot of rationalization for the list, but most of this rationalization just doesn't stand up in my opinion.

Sometimes this list is astonishingly obscure and astoundingly narrow. Let me give you a few examples. Unless you were "really" into the contemporary market, would you know most of the following photographers: Gabriele Basilico, Susan Derges, Patrick Faigenbaum, Bernard Faucon, Paul Graham, Craigie Horsfield, Axel Hutte, Michael Light, Karin Apollonia Muller, Michael Schmidt, Beat Steuli, Sam Taylor-Wood, Mario Testino, Wolfgang Tillmans, or Terri Weifenbach? Yes, some I know, but do they really deserve to be in the top 250 photographers of all time, or even the top 250 market movers?

Now before I get a lot of hate email for saying this (especially from the dealers representing these people), please note that I am NOT making a value judgment about these artists' work or about the contemporary photo market as a whole, just the relative value to the overall photography market. This is especially true considering that nearly a third of all the artists named in this photographers list are cutting edge contemporary people--most of whom I did not mention above--and are also pretty obscure except to this market. If the book's list were a thousand names long, then maybe you might add these names; but when it is so limited, I think you have to challenge the choices made and how they were made.

There were plenty of contemporary photographers who did not make the cut for this book, but, in my opinion, are better known (and more consistently valued) by the market, for example, Dieter Appelt, Ed Burtynsky, Tom Baril, James Fee, Ray Metzker, Roger Mertin, John Dugdale, Lynn Geesaman, Lauren Greenfield, Robert ParkeHarrison, and Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, just to name a few.

And how can you really take seriously a list that leaves off 19th-century photographers and pioneers: Louis Jacques Daguerre (promoter and refiner of the photographic process), Joseph Nicephore Niepce (creator of the photographic process), Charles Clifford, Robert MacPherson, the Langenheim Brothers, Charles Aubry, Reverends George Bridges and Calvert Jones, Etienne Carjat, Auguste Belloc, Adolphe Bertsch, Platt Babbitt, the Alinari Brothers, Andre Disderi, Louis Fizeau, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (current world auction record holder for a photograph), John D. Llewelyn and the rest of his family, Francis Bedford, Antoine Claudet, Thomas Eakins, Philip H. Delamotte, Frank J. Haynes, Charles Hugo, John K. Hillers, Louis Robert, Carlo Ponti, Carlo Naya, Giorgio Sommer, Henri Victor Regnault, Oscar Rejlander, Camille Silvy, and A.J. Russell, just to mention a few.

And what about these 20th-century master photographers (many from Camera Work and the Photo-Secession) that were missing in action from the book's list? Laura Gilpin, George Seeley, El Lissitzky, Arthur Rothstein, Constant Puyo, Paul Citroen, Ralph Gibson, Tim Gidal, Frank Eugene, Gertrude Kasebier, Raul Ubac, Leslie Krims, Willy Kessels, Izis, William Mortensen, Fritz Henle, Heinz Hajek-Halke, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Nathan Lyons, George Hurrell, Arthur Siegel, Leonard Missone, Werner Bischof, Karl Struss, Wright Morris, Russell Lee, Edmund Kesting, Yevgeny Khalip, Jack Delano, Jacob Riis, Sabine Weiss, Marion Post Wolcott, Ralph Steiner, Edmund Teske, James Van Der Zee, Roman Vishniac, Clara Sipprell, Max Yavno and most of the top Spanish, French, Italian and Eastern Europeans of this period.

By my count, out of the tiny list of only 250 "key photographers", a full 78 were contemporary image-makers with some of the most important contemporary players not actually on the list. This looks like a few contemporary galleries that Badger talked to got their wish list of represented artists into the section. There are more Germans listed here than you might expect. Frankly, I, for one, do not feel that Germany has a monopoly on important young photographers. In fact, I even feel that a few of these young Germans are just copycat artists with little original ideas of their own, trading off the reputations of the top image-makers. Yes, Andreas Gursky and a number of other German photographers are quite talented, but much of what they spawned that I now see at shows and galleries are either rip offs of these market leaders or simplistic (but usually very large and colorful) works with little redeeming features except that they came from German artists.

If the author's rationale was that the list was the "market", someone will have to tell me how being in a few (sometimes very few) auctions make some of these photographers market leaders. When they were sold at auction (infrequently at that), the prices sometimes varied so much from the ones listed in the book as to be downright misleading. For example (and I really don't mean to pick on these few artists' records, but I am using them as "examples"): Basilico's work was listed at $3,000 and up, but sold at auction once and for about $550; Faucon's work was listed at $5,000 and up, but sold for about $1,200-$1,500 at auction; Hutte's work, listed as starting at $4,000, actually sold at auction for as little as $296, although huge unique pieces often went into five figures; and Michael Light had one piece bought-in at auction at $400, yet the book sets his prices at $1,500-$3,000 for his NASA images and $2,000 and up for the rest. Certainly the higher prices are probably gallery prices, but when you give a range you should include genuine lows as well as inflated highs.

Others that got in the ballpark had only one or two auction listings. Let me point out that while it is illegal for a consignor to bid an item up, it is also not unknown for a gallery or photographer to get third parties to do so, in order to "establish a market price". Frankly I do not believe meager auction listings represent true values. And, while I am not saying that any of the photographers on the list above or in this book, had this auction treatment, it still looks to me like the book's author (like some collectors out there) got taken in a bit by gallery hype and glitz when coming up with his price estimates and list of names. But, as Badger notes himself, "if you find prints under the prices indicated, as you most certainly will, they are not necessarily a bargain." Make sure you read Badger's introduction to this section before you take the prices and the list as gospel.

I also wish Badger had run his price ranges by a few of us with knowledge in this area. Of course, it depends on what the prices represent, which is not spelled out in the book. Are they auction, normal retail or jacked-up-to-the-sky retail prices? Many seem to me to fall into the latter category. Surprisingly, I found the pricing estimates to be the least helpful (in fact generally misleading all around) portion of the book.

Despite these misgivings, I can still recommend the book as "must reading" for every photography collector. Just take that photographers list with a large grain of salt.

Alex Novak has over 36 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member of the Daguerreian Society and the American Historical Photographic Society, as well as a member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He is a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works Ltd., a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Photo LA, Paris Photo, etc.