Photography can be seen at any contemporary art fair these days. And it’s unlikely you’ll visit a well-regarded contemporary gallery that doesn’t include at least one photographer among their roster. Photography is also increasingly present at auctions as an important investment. Yet collecting photography remains daunting for many.
So we asked photography expert, Stephen Bulger about his tips for new collectors on navigating the market for photography.
Is collecting photography a good entry point to collecting art in general?
Many people find photography an easy entry point for a number of reasons, but for me in particular, two seem to stand out. Many of us have often failed in making good photographs, so it can be easier to recognize greatness in someone else’s photograph; most people are not as familiar with painting or sculpture. Also, photographs are usually created in more than one copy, so the work of an acclaimed photographer is often at a more affordable level than, say, a painter whose production is limited by the rarity of their medium.
What advice do you have for someone who is just starting to collect photography?
Know your budget. Before you begin, determine a maximum amount of money that you are willing to spend on a single photograph so when you see something you instinctively would like to own, and it falls in your budget, you can act fast. Too often people are worried about making a mistake, and they prolong their first purchase to the point that they grow sick of the exercise. People should remember their first purchase fondly and should understand that their first purchase is a major step forward.
What are the common misconceptions about collecting photography?
People are often confused about editions. Different artists incorporate different definitions of an edition, so it is good to ask what the edition actually means. Usually a photographer will not print the entire set of prints within an edition at the beginning, so quite often the prints realized are much lower in number than the edition indicates. Research has indicated that in the vast majority of cases, there are fewer than 5 prints extant of image, whether part of a closed edition or an open edition.
What role does photography play in the current art market?
It plays a vital role, especially because there are a number of popular photographs that were produced in multiples, so we are able to track prices attained for those images. Having the ability to compare “apples to apples” makes it easier to analyze market trends.
What are your five go-to tips for collecting photography?
Understand your goal: one photograph for a specific place; or building a collection over the next 5-10 years. This distinction between shopping and collecting should inform you about how much time and money to invest.
Choose a dealer who has a good amount of inventory of work you like within your budget.
Do your homework. Buy a book on the general history of photography. Ask a dealer you feel comfortable with to recommend some good books.
Look at as much original work as you can and compare. Buy with your eyes vs. your ears (i.e. don’t buy because of hype, trust your own taste).
If you begin to build a collection, realize that they are not fixed and will evolve as you evolve, so keep it intuitive.