Photo Futures

In these days of shaky investments, collecting photography—whether blue-chip favorites or up-and-coming discoveries—more than holds its own.

A year or so ago, I attended the Fraenkel Gallery's gala opening for a show of Richard Avedon's early fashion photography from his Harper's Bazaar years. Hung on the bright-white walls were large prints of some of Avedon's famous images from the fifties and sixties—including an iconic picture of the model Dovima posing, blithely unruffled, in front of three rearing circus elephants—along with many smaller prints.

Most of the smaller images were vintage prints, which means that they were printed at the time the pictures were first taken, making them more valuable to the informed collector. They were the kind of B.D. (before digital) working prints that photographers made for one-time use and then tossed into a studio drawer (if, that is, they ever got them back from the magazines' art directors). Avedon had made these prints long before he—or anyone else—could have imagined that he would become one of the world's most sought-after artists, for whose black-and-white photographs people would pay $26,000, as they were doing (quite eagerly) at the Fraenkel show.

So it's no wonder that in these days of slim and shaky investment returns there's a pulse-pounding excitement and optimism in the increasingly populous world of photography collectors. Not only are photos—once the poor cousins of paintings, sculptures, and drawings—skyrocketing in value, but the level of interest and connoisseurship is keeping pace. The good news for new collectors is that, despite a heated market, works by important photographers are still relatively accessible. Prints by blue-chip names like Avedon and fashion photographer Irving Penn are no longer as affordable (in 1978 I bought a Penn—recently appraised at $10,000—for $750). Still, you can even now buy a print by one of photography's masters—such as one by the early-20th-century French documentarist Eugène Atget—for $5,000. Even better, if the photography market continues its current trajectory, the Atget will almost assuredly double in value well before that Microsoft stock gets back up to what you paid for it.

Not everything, of course, is accessible. In 1999, a dazzling 1855 seascape called Grand Vague, Sète by the 19th-century French master Gustave Le Gray sold for $838,074. And the most expensive photograph ever recorded, a daguerreotype by French artist Joseph Philibert Girault de Prangey, sold in May for $916,126. Moreover, it's not just the medium's old masters whose prices have leapt into the stratosphere over the past five years; there are contemporary photographers whose prices are just as eye-popping. Thomas Struth, a German in his late forties, is best known for his mural-size color pictures of museumgoers that at first glance appear to be Kodak snapshots on steroids. Last year a photograph from that series, of the Accademia Gallery in Venice, sold for $292,273. (Months later, another of his large-scale prints, Mailänder Dom [Fassade], 1998, sold for $317,500.) And in February 2002, Struth's countryman Andreas Gursky saw his Untitled V, a signature, wide-format color print, go at auction at Christie's for $611,229. That's a record for contemporary photography. In addition, works by other well-established contemporary artists—including Joel-Peter Witkin, Cindy Sherman, and Nan Goldin—have also fetched six figures. Even prices of less flashy names have shot upward: Peter MacGill of New York's Pace-MacGill gallery told me that, say, a year or so ago, you could get a serious collection off to a dramatic start by buying excellent vintage prints by two of the 20th century's most celebrated American photographers, Robert Frank and Harry Callahan, for $30,000. Today the same amount might—if you were lucky—buy only one of these pictures.

But although it's always fun—not to mention dizzying—to chart the market's swift flight upward, you shouldn't let it discourage you. Ski bums are forever telling you, "You should have been here yesterday." And while it's true that collecting the masters of photography—19th-century greats such as William Henry Jackson, Félix Nadar, Francis Frith, Eadweard Muybridge, and Julia Margaret Cameron; and 20th-century standouts like Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, and Robert Frank—is now nowhere near as easy as it once was, there's still an abundance of riches for even the most casual or inexperienced collector to buy, including, say, an image by the late Diane Arbus, whose work is currently the subject of a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "Vintage prints made by Arbus are extremely hard to find and very expensive," says Frish Brandt, a partner in the Fraenkel Gallery, which maintains a close relationship with the Arbus estate. "But the limited prints made after her death are very good and, at between $5,500 and $22,000, still relatively affordable."

Indeed, it's an excellent time to begin collecting photography. For one thing, there's more photography than ever. This is partly a result of the long-overdue recognition of photography as a fine art and the consequent acceptance of individual photographs as objets d'art. In addition, the proliferation of museum departments and university degree programs dedicated to photography has augmented both the number of artists taking photos and the curators and critics assaying their work. The greater the number of talented people making photography and the more valued their work by an ever-more-discerning public, the broader the definition of what is considered collectible.

But although photography's often-rapid appreciation makes a great spectator activity, collecting it as an investment can be a slippery slope. As Richard B. Woodward pointed out recently in The Atlantic Monthly, the photography market is only about 25 years old, younger than the market for urban air rights. Who knows what the next 25 will bring? Experts assume prices will only continue escalating, but the medium is so young that no one really knows.

In conversations with collectors, ranging from those with a couple dozen well-loved photographs to the gallery owners themselves (who might be expected to tout unequivocally the medium's investment possibilities), I never got the feeling that anyone had become or remained a collector in order to buy low and sell high. Money is a factor, of course, and the more you have the more good pictures you can pursue. But at the heart of each collector's treasure trove is, well . . . the heart.

Frish Brandt says it best: "It's a mistake to buy photographs simply as an investment. There's really only one kind of art appreciation, and that's the joy you get from looking at something." It's something all savvy collectors understand.

The impulse to collect photographs comes in many forms. Paul Sack, a prominent real estate investor who lives in San Francisco and who has amassed one of the most extensive private collections in the country, all but stumbled into photography collecting.

"I've been a collector as long as I can remember," he says. "I started with the usual things—stamps, then baseball cards, which I wish I'd kept." Sack began buying photographs to decorate the walls of his company's offices. His own particular organizing principle—which big collectors usually develop as a way to shape and manage their collection—was that anything he bought should depict, somewhere within the frame, "a building that could be leased or bought." The first picture he bought was Walker Evans photograph of a Depression-era storefront restaurant called "Paul's Restaurant." It was a highly personal choice. Over the next three years, Sack bought about 150 photographs with, he admits, more enthusiasm than connoisseurship. "Some of those pictures I bought in those first years I ended up being embarrassed to own," he says now. Though Sack, an ambitious collector, soon decided that he wanted vintage prints by "all the really important photographers from the nineteenth century up to the mid-seventies," his "filter" helped staunch what might have been an indiscriminate tsunami of images.

Sack sometimes bends his rule; on one wall in his elegant downtown office hangs a very rare vintage print of Edward Steichen's portrait of dancer Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon, which, if I recall correctly, is neither for sale nor rent. But whether he always follows his self-imposed rule or not, Sack's main criterion is simple: "I have to like a picture," he says. Among his treasures, he counts 32 prints by Eugène Atget. It is one of the most important private holdings of the legendary Frenchman's work. But he has many favorites to choose from—today, after 16 years of dedicated and serious collecting, Sack's personal collection tops some 2,000 photographs.

A commanding theme, however loosely defined, can help to inspire, if not guide a collection altogether. One avid collector I spoke with is a college professor in northern Florida. He began buying pictures in the mid-sixties with a special interest in the photography collective called f64. Active in the 1930s, the photographers of f64—among them Ansel Adams—became known for their precision and crisp images. ("f64" referred to the smallest aperture of their camera lenses.) From that starting-off point, the professor-collector became interested in modern photography in general. The more he bought, the wider his interests became. Today he owns 2,500 pictures, including about 70 by Ansel Adams and over 80 by the renowned photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. (Additionally, he has donated to a local museum 150 pieces by his friend and neighbor, the Surrealist Jerry Uelsmann.)

Then there's Douglas Mellor, a magazine and fine-art photographer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Mellor, who has amassed an impressive collection over the past 30 years—including many of Irving Penn's most coveted pictures—laments that he has been priced out of the current market. But in the next breath he reveals that just a few weeks ago he bought a picture by Ray Metzker, who has been making fascinating images since the '60s and whose work remains surprisingly affordable. That's yet another important thing to remember: New discoveries are made every day, and every year sees the anointment of a previously underestimated or obscure artist. Today's bumper crop of photo historians is energetically unearthing lesser-known and underappreciated photographers whose work is as affordable as it is desirable. For instance, a 2001 French documentary film titled Remembrance of Things to Come explored the career of Denise Bellon, a talented and prescient photojournalist and portraitist whose photographs, taken just before and during World War II, have recently been rediscovered.

A few years ago I wrote the introduction to a book of elegant nudes by the late Ferenc Berko, a compatriot and contemporary of the Hungarian photographer André Kertész. Berko's pictures, in both black-and-white and color, are eminently collectible and, as yet, accessible and available (Kertész's work, it should be noted, is far pricier, and scarcer as well). So don't forget: As much as a good name-brand photograph can anchor a burgeoning collection, it's never wise to overlook lesser-known names and images. After all, you never know what might happen.

But no matter how you start your collection, you need only remember this final, and most important, piece of advice: Buy what you love. If you do you'll find that your photos become that rarest of phenomena: a truly fail-safe investment.


Buying Young: Who, What, and Where

It sounds counterintuitive, but it's sometimes only after you buy your first piece by a well-known artist—in my case Robert Adams' crisp, lonely Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs—that you feel confident enough to start exploring lesser-known artists. And when you're ready, there are thousands of lesser-known photographers to choose from, whether young and straight out of art school or mid-career and underappreciated. Today's generation of photographers is collectively the most diverse and eclectic this young medium has seen; they share both an unwillingness to let their work be hemmed in by conventional boundaries—both technical and conceptual—and an aesthetic restlessness that has forced viewers to rethink their own definitions of beauty. Best of all—for collectors, anyway—many of these artists' works can be had for under $5,000.

Notable up-and-comers include Simen Johan (from $2,000; at Yossi Milo Gallery, 552 W. 24th Street, New York, NY; 212-414-0370; www.yossimilogallery.com), who digitally knits together different children's body parts with soiled, cluttered backgrounds for uniquely disturbing tableaux. Children are also an important subject for Alessandra Sanguinetti (from $2,000; also at Yossi Milo Gallery), whose dreamy, fitful, color-saturated portraits are both lovely and troubling.

Also taking portraits—albeit of a different kind—is Tomoko Sawada (from $900; at Zabriskie Gallery, 41 E. 57th Street, New York, NY; 212-752-1223; www.zabriskiegallery.com), a young Japanese artist whose zany, good-natured conceptual photographs (taken in portrait studios or photo booths) evoke both Cindy Sherman and Nikki S. Lee. Suitably bleaker are the gorgeously desolate streetscapes of Todd Hido (from $1,500; at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, 49 Geary Street, third floor, San Francisco, CA; 415-433-6879; www.wirtzgallery.com) and Tim Davis (from $900; at Brent Sikkema Gallery, 530 W. 22nd Street, New York NY; 212-929-2262, www.brentsikkema.com), both of whom take haunting photographs of run-down suburbs at night. The color photos of Lisa Kereszi, a fellow documentor of hidden lives (from $800; at Pierogi 2000, 117 North 9th Street, Brooklyn NY; 718-599-2144; www.pierogi2000.com), evoke both the squalor—and cheap splendor—of dim theaters and warehouses, and landscapes lit by pale blooms of fireworks, and Jeff Brouws' fond, scientific chronicling of American landscapes and iconography (gas stations, farms, trucks) calls to mind the work of both Bernd and Hilla Becher and Ed Ruscha (from $700; at Robert Mann, 210 11th Avenue, New York, NY; 212-989-7600; www.robertmann.com).

Then there's Abelardo Morell (from $2,300; at Bonni Benrubi Gallery, 52 E. 76th Street, New York, NY; 212-517-3766; www.bonnibenrubi.com), who almost singlehandedly revived camera obscura photography with his ghostly black-and-white images. Also working in black and white is Yuki Onodera (from $1,000; at Jayne H. Baum Gallery, 26 Grove Street, New York, NY; 212-255-9286; by appointment only), whose furry-edged, blurred images of people and houses appear both astonishingly tactile and slightly sinister. And finally, two landscape photographers—the wonderful Andrew Moore (from $3,000; at Yancey Richardson Gallery, 535 W. 22nd Street, New York, NY; 646-230-9610; www.yanceyrichardson.com) and the team of Virginia Beahan and Laura McPhee (from $1,500; at Rose Gallery, 2525 Michigan Avenue, building G5, Santa Monica, CA; 310-264-8440; www.rosegallery.net) make elegant large-format prints that encapsulate perfectly the vastness and richness of the far-flung places on which they train their lenses.

GALLERIES
Still don't know where to begin? In New York, Yossi Milo runs an eponymous gallery that shows many new artists; even better, he's kind and gracious and patient with new collectors. There's also Pierogi 2000, in Brooklyn, which has a large—and diverse—roster of artists, and Yancey Richardson Gallery, which shows new, established—and consistently worthwhile—photographers. Finally, visit www.photoeye.com, an online photographic bookstore that also curates its own excellent virtual galleries.


A Dozen Dos & Don'ts on Collecting

DO
1 Haunt galleries, and don't be embarrassed to ask questions like, "Why does that picture of an old storefront cost three thousand dollars?" If you can't get an answer, move on.

2 Go to auctions, especially the viewings the day or two before, and eavesdrop on what potential buyers are saying.

3 Try to look at other images by a photographer you're considering, just to make sure he or she isn't a one-shot wonder.

4 Try to live with a picture for a few days, if possible, or at least revisit it; love at first sight is thrilling but not always to be trusted.

5 Find a theme to help narrow your search. All nudes all the time. We be Weegee. Some category, however lax, that helps you say no, if only occasionally.

6 Buy from the heart, not the investor's mind.

DON'T
1 Use your kid's college fund; pictures can and often do rise in value, sometimes dramatically, but they're not as liquid as stocks and bonds.

2 Buy color, especially standard Type-C prints, without asking hard questions about fading—and if you do buy, shun the sun like a vampire. Color pictures last longer than they used to, but you shouldn't count on your grandchildren making money on today's beautiful hues.

3 Obsess about vintage prints, which are more valuable and hence more expensive. If you like a picture, don't deprive yourself because a print was made long after the negative—as long as it's a good print signed by the artist.

4 Buy at auctions until you've tamed your need to win at all costs. Auctions are thrilling, but like Las Vegas slot machines, not exactly intended to augment self-control.

5 Be a methodology snob. Vintage silver gelatin prints are the gold standard in collecting, but good gravure ink-on-paper prints out of old publications can be very satisfying. And the advent of digital ink-jet prints is bringing a beautiful new generation of collectible images to the market.

6 Drive past that estate sale. Great collections have been started with a few anonymous family snapshots—as long as it's someone else's family.


In Focus: the Best Galleries in America

A visit to a top photography gallery can be both educational and provocative; here are ten of the best.

PACE-MACGILL
Most cherished print: Bullet Through Plywood, a vintage 1950s Harold Edgerton, currently worth about $12,000. At 32 E. 57th Street, New York, NY; 212-759-7999.

EDWYNN HOUK GALLERY
Most cherished print: Mondrian's Studio, a vintage 1926 André Kertész print; would sell in the high six figures. At 745 Fifth Avenue, New York NY; 212-750-7070; www.houkgallery.com.

STALEY-WISE GALLERY
Most cherished print: a very rare 1920s portrait of Greta Garbo by Edward Steichen; would fetch a high-five-figure sum. At 560 Broadway, New York NY; 212-966-6223; www.staleywise.com.

FRAENKEL GALLERY
Most cherished print: A Family Standing by Their Car, an anonymous snapshot that depicts, says gallery partner Frish Brandt, "a perfect family wearing perfect shoes and flying saucer hats in front of their perfect car on a perfect Easter Sunday morning." Priceless. At 49 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA; 415-981-2661; www.fraenkelgallery.com.

ROSE GALLERY
Most cherished print: Manuel Alvarez Bravo's "poignant and elegant" black-and-white study of Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo's hands, says gallery owner Rose Shoshana; it's currently worth about $5,000. At Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Avenue, building G5, Santa Monica, CA; 310-264-8440; www.rosegallery.net.

ETHERTON GALLERY
Most cherished print: a five-panel panorama of the Grand Canyon, printed by Mark Klett in 1986; the current value is $15,000. At 135 S. 6th Avenue, Tucson AZ; 520-624-7370; www.ethertongallery.com.

KATHLEEN EWING GALLERY
Most cherished print: Gerd Sander's modern print of August Sander's Bricklayer, which is currently valued at around $2,500. (A vintage print, if available, would probably cost about $75,000.) At 1609 Connecticut Avenue, NW Washington, DC; 202-328-0955; www.kathleenewinggallery.com.

STEPHEN DAITER GALLERY
Most cherished print: Picture Hanging, Paris, 1928, a vintage Kertesz now worth about $50,000. At 311 W. Superior Street, Suite 404 and 408, Chicago, IL; 312-787-3350.

WESTON GALLERY
Most cherished print: Shell—1927, a vintage Weston still life that is currently worth about $450,000. At Dolores and Lincoln streets, Carmel, CA; 831-624-4453; www.westongallery.com.

ANDREW SMITH GALLERY
Most cherished print: An album of portraits of Indians and soldiers, taken by the Oklahoma photographer Will Soule in the 1860s; currently valued at around $250,000. At 203 W. San Francisco Street, Santa Fe, NM; 505-984-1234; www.andrewsmithgallery.com.

In addition, The Association of International Photography Art Dealers has prepared a very helpful pamphlet, On Collecting Photographs, available from AIPAD. At 1609 Connecticut Ave, NW, no. 200, Washington DC, 20009; 202-986-0105; www.photoshow.com.