Published on Monday, July 9, 2018
Imogen Cunningham, The Unmade Bed, 1957
Vintage silver print, 7 3/8 x 9 3/8 in. © Imogen Cunningham Trust
Courtesy of Charles A. Hartman Fine Art
AIPAD Exposure sat down with AIPAD president Richard Moore for some insights on the state of vintage photography.
In your words, what defines a vintage photograph? What is the value of vintage?
“Vintage” refers to an individual print made soon after the image was created. Vintage prints are desirable because the print is thought to reflect the artist’s intention at the time of creating the image.
In many cases, there are very few truly vintage prints of certain images. Photographers would often make one or two prints they considered a master print and then move to on to new work. This is the case with Paul Strand’s iconic “Wall Street” image from 1916, for which there are only two known vintage platinum prints.
Before artists began to edition photographs on a regular basis, there was usually some slight variation in each print made, including tonality, cropping and paper surface. In some cases, an artist will alter or enhance a negative at some point after its creation, as is the case for Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph, which had an out-of-place thumb touched up to be less prominent. In another case, Ansel Adams chemically enhanced the negative of his famous “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” to make it easier to print. Prints made of both these images in their “first state” are considerably rare and highly valued.
The qualities of the print as a physical object itself often factor into its appeal and value. For instance, a vintage date-stamped print of Robert Capa’s famous D-Day beach landing image transmitted the day after the invasion as a press wire-photo might be more coveted than a fine print made later from the negative.
How would you describe the state of collecting 19th and 20th century photography in the current marketplace?
From my perspective, collecting interest in vintage 19th and 20th century photography is as strong as ever; newer and established collectors remain active in pursuing their interests. Museums and institutions are a big part of the current market for good vintage work, but many contemporary collectors also have a taste for 19th and 20th century work.
The rarity and importance of truly vintage prints of highly desirable images continues to add to rising prices and competition at auction. Only a select few collectors are able to compete in this arena.
More often now, collectors are looking for fine-quality lifetime prints made later by the artist or under their supervision rather than chasing a vintage print. Also, vintage prints of less famous images by top photographers can be revelations and slip under the radar.
Ernst Haas, Egyptian Boys, Egypt, 1954
Vintage, gelatin silver print, 8 x10 in. © Ernst Haas Estate/Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris
How difficult is it for a gallery specializing in only vintage 19th and 20th century photography to survive in today’s marketplace?
Most galleries currently selling 19th and 20th century photography also represent and exhibit contemporary photographers. Those who choose to focus solely on vintage work tend to be private dealers without public gallery spaces.
Many of AIPAD’s gallery owners entered the business because of their love and passion for photography and its rich history, so it’s natural that those dealers who started out dealing in vintage works would want to also promote and exhibit contemporary artists who they see as adding to the continuing story of photography. There have been wonderful examples of AIPAD member galleries curating gallery shows that combine contemporary work with 19th and 20th century work in a ways that reveal the connections of vision and processes over time.
How have AIPAD members contributed to the interest in the collecting and study of 19th-20th century photography?
Throughout its almost 40-year history, AIPAD has included numerous members who have contributed to the appreciation and understanding of many of the now recognized masters of photography. Through their research, writing and loans to important museum exhibitions, these dealers have had a lasting effect on the history of the medium. Many of the great institutional collections of photography formed during the past 40 years were assembled with the help of AIPAD members. The strong relationships developed between dealers and curators over the years has played a huge role in AIPAD’s success in supporting the understanding and appreciation of photography.
What are the advantages for collectors and museums to work with AIPAD members when considering 19th-20th century photography?
The concentration of knowledge, experience and connoisseurship within the AIPAD membership is staggering.
There are AIPAD members who have literally “written the book” on important and highly collected photographers.
This expertise combined with AIPAD’s high code of ethics offers collectors at all levels the best overall source for quality works available. The network among AIPAD members also helps to source hard-to-find material and photographs from all over the world.
What are some of the risks of “going it alone” as a newer collector of vintage photography?
With the proliferation of worldwide auctions selling photography, many of which come with no or dubious provenance, the risks can be enormous. Online resources for research, critical review, price comparison and direct retail buying are numerous; and there is a lot that can go wrong in these scenarios with little recourse for the buyer.
For a newer collector, nothing can replace working with an expert in the field whose connoisseurship and knowledge fit the collector’s areas of interest. Inspection of the actual print by an experienced eye is essential to determine authenticity, evaluate print quality and identify any condition problems. In some cases, a scientific test of the photograph may be in order. Blatant forgeries do appear on the market, such as the recent case of misattributed daguerreotypes with forged signatures and labels that came out of Eastern Europe.
More common problems are misattribution of print date, process and authenticity due to a lack of knowledge or poor research. While a direct provenance of the photograph’s history is ideal, an expert can often recognize things that establish the photograph as being vintage, such as materials used or the style of the artist’s signature.
There is a wonderful publication written and edited by AIPAD called On Collecting Photography available on the AIPAD websites as a PDF (link). This guide to collecting covers many of the issues we are discussing here.
Crystal ball moment. What does the future look like for vintage photography collectors as prices for important works rise and the supply of good prints becomes scarcer?
Opportunities exist in building collections with some of the excellent work made during the 19th and 20th centuries by photographers less known now, but highly regarded and accomplished during their time. There are a number of very smart, curious collectors who have quietly assembled superb collections of vintage photographs that mix well-known names with works by “forgotten” artists to great effect.
I would also keep an eye on many of the serious photographers working during the 1970-1990s. Many of these artists have archives of vintage prints, and there are some excellent works being shown now by AIPAD member galleries that have represented and shown many of these artists throughout their careers.
AIPAD president Richard Moore founded Richard Moore Photographs in 2000, and represents primarily vintage works by 19th and 20th century American photographers, with specialties in California photography, The Photo-Secession, Group f/64, Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, Social Documentary photography and Photo-journalism.