A Guide to Understanding and Collecting Photographs Today

Written by Patrick Morgan

When it comes to collecting photographs, the field is vast and there is an endless amount of subject matter to choose from. Setting some parameters is one of the first steps one needs to take in building a good collection.


Image by Roman Kraft

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Get familiar with the market

See what’s out there, look at various types of photos and see what you are drawn too. Perhaps contemporary photos from emerging artists and the potential for big monetary returns are what you are after. Or maybe, French Carte Postales, the first mass produced photographic prints, popularized at the end of the 19th century as a means of rapid postal communication and featured everything from remote African villages to nudes. Maybe it’s contemporary artistic or vintage sports photography that draws you into to the image, where the shadows or movement seem just right and you can see the absolute beauty of a great photograph.

Roger Fenton, Reclining Odalisque, 1858, salted paper print from glass negative. The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Anonymous, Joyce and Robert Menschel, Jennifer and Joseph Duke, and Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gifts, 1997. Public domain image

With photographs, there is a subject that eventually captures the interest of everyone and, as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

A visit to your local flea market or buying a few low end, random lots on eBay is a good start. Or, if you’re more inclined to the higher end investments, follow the photographic sales of Sothebys and Christie’s as well as visiting contemporary art fairs in New York, Miami or Los Angeles. Reputable galleries are also a good source to learn from as most dealers like to educate new collectors in the hopes of establishing a new client.

Baron Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gros, The Salon of Baron Gros, 1850–57, Daguerreotype. Purchase, Fletcher Fund, Joyce F. Menschel Gift, Louis V. Bell Fund, Alfred Stieglitz Society and W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg Gifts, 2010. Public domain image

The Different Types of Photographs

So if you’re just starting out on your collecting journey it’s a good idea to get familiar with a few different types of photography, understand the various papers used for photographic prints, how sunlight can effect the quality and value of a print (never hang a photo where the sun will shine directly upon it or it will begin to fade), along with numerous other details one learns by handling and looking at photographs first hand.

Image by Johanna Konsinska

If “found photos” are your particular passion, photographs and slide negative groups usually sell in lots of dozens and sometimes 100’s of individual prints or slides, anything from a family trip across the USA in the 1960’s to a collection of aviation photos taken last year.

These found photo lots are selling on several auction platforms with $1 starting bids and can also be purchased at your local flea markets, a box of old family photos from a random estate sale, selling for just a few dollars, might just make your day, so it’s nice to know you don’t need much money to get started…

When examining old found photos, always check the backside for a printed date, paper type, or other vintage markings to help validate its age or information concerning who, when and where the photo was taken.

Julien Vallou de Villeneuve, Reclining Female Nude, ca. 1853, salted paper print from paper negative. Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1993. Public domain image

Do you have art or old photographs and wonder what are they worth? Submit them for appraisal at ValueMyStuff here!

Carte Postales are genuine photographs, printed on a medium weight bromide paper, between the years 1890 and 1930. They are very affordable considering they are over 100 years old and typically sell for prices between $3 USD to $75 USD on both eBay and Etsy, the subject matter for carte postales is highly varied; anything from architectural monuments, animals, trains, airplanes, indigenous peoples to churches and Art Nouveau nudes.

Paris - Flooding of the Seine - Rue de la Pépinière - View towards the Cour de Rome, Electrophot publisher. Photo Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet

When buying carte postales, it is important to inspect the backside of the photo for authenticity, looking for used stamps, an antique printed border, (usually a bit faded), country of manufacture or studio hallmarks, quill penmanship, and a slightly varied patina of age to the paper including minor flaws, should be present as well. There are quite a few reproductions in the marketplace, especially the Art Nouveau nudes, luckily they are easy to spot; typically using a bright white or uniform colour paper on the backside with modern printers mark and an absence of old stamps, writing or any other signs of age. The paper is of a thicker stock too, so when buying carte postales, be sure to examine the photo unframed to be sure it is an authentic antique print. If it’s in the frame it’s very easy to make a mistake…

Edmond Bacot, Saint-Maclou, Rouen, 1852–54, salted paper print from glass negative, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1995. Public domain image

See also: Learn About Photography

The selection of categories in the field of photography is huge, just google “types of photography” and you’ll come up with the following list; abstract, event, street, boudoir, documentary, landscape, portrait, fashion, sports, architectural, aerial, astrophotography, black light, photojournalism, wildlife, blue hour, macro and pet photography.

And when it comes to the various types photographic prints on glass, metal or paper everything from the albumen process created in 1848 by Abel Niepce de St-Victor, to Daguerreotypes, tin types, silver gelatin prints, vintage prints, digital prints, digital reprints and todays gold standard for contemporary photographers; the C-print, a three layer gelatin process print which produces the most vibrant colours and detail.

John Adams Whipple, Cornelius Conway Felton with His Hat and Coat, early 1850s, daguerreotype, The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg, and Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gifts, 1997. Public domain image

Again, there is a lot to choose from, so a bit of research and understanding will help set some parameters for your collecting and as always; follow what you “like and are drawn to”, it’s really the best advice one can receive when beginning any sort of art collection.

Established Names or Emerging Talents?

If you are a serious collector and are looking to build a group of investment worthy photographs, deciding between established names and emerging talent is a very important step.

With established names, one has historical references to rely upon in determining value, including an artist’s reputation, exhibition histories, auction sale prices and popularity in the marketplace.

With emerging talent, one is looking at photographs done by relative amateurs; students, hobbyists and basically people from all walks of life, because, let’s face it, who hasn’t taken a few photos in their lifetime ?

Nadar, Pierrot Laughing, 1855, Gelatin-coated salted paper print (vernis-cuir), Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1998. Public domain image

To track the value of a photographer on the auction market, check out the Barnebys Realised Price Database.

The art market has begun to take photography very seriously with several world record prices set within the last few years. The highest price achieved to date is the photograph pictured above, by Man Ray, printed in 1924 “Le Violon d’Ingres”. It is an iconic photograph of the model Kiki de Montparnasse, nude from the waist, with two f-holes on either side of of her back, giving her the surreal form of a violin. The image pays homage to Man Rays good friend Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres who played the violin on occasion. The hammer price of the photograph, sold by Christie’s New York, on May 14, 2022, was an astounding $12,400,000 USD.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Zoe, Maid of Athens, 1866, albumen silver print from glass negative, The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, and Muriel Kallis Newman Gifts, 1997. Public domain image

All Budgets Welcome

So, the good news is, if your budget is not in the millions there is still plenty of great photography to choose from and sometimes at extremely affordable prices, especially from the ever growing pool of emerging artists.

Just get out there and look around; local art fairs, College student exhibitions, gallery shows as well as more established international art fairs can be great resources in building both knowledge and experience on your collecting journey.

Adolphe Braun, Flower Study, Rose of Sharon, ca. 1854, albumen silver print from glass negative, Gift of Gilman Paper Company, in memory of Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., 1987. Public domain image

Ultimately collecting photography amounts to buying what speaks to us, whether it be a three dollar carte postale of a risque art nouveau nude, an original, small format, signed print by Man Ray selling anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, and includes a great provenance, or a $1500 framed, signed colour photograph from an emerging African or South American artist of a banana wearing sunglasses.

Whatever captivates, provokes emotion, speaks of beauty and brings happiness with each acquisition, is what we all should be focused on collecting.

Here at VMS, we are always available for you, whether it be to advise on the value of a potential acquisition or for a collection either inherited or recently acquired in the marketplace.

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