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Art Collector's Guide: How To Start Collecting Photography

What, when, where, and how much? Everything you need to know before you start collecting photography!

Yushi Li
Yushi Li, The Feast (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Hi-Noon.

Photography, as we know it today, began in the mid-1800s in France. Since then, photography has evolved and become an essential artistic medium, empowering artists to find new forms to express themselves creatively while allowing an audience to see a different perspective of the world, a poetic way of uniting humanity. Compared to painting and sculpture, photography is still considered a relatively new medium, and due to that, it can offer a more accessible price point to collectors. If you are interested in learning more about this medium's art market and how to start collecting, continue reading.

Here is my guide to help you on your art collecting journey.

Prince Gyasi
Prince Gyasi, The Arrival (2022). Courtesy of artist and Nil Gallery.

The price of a photograph depends on several factors:

Photography is still a relatively emerging and affordable medium in the art market. As mentioned in the introduction, this medium offers collectors more accessible prices when compared to painting or sculpture. But how do photography prices differ from other mediums? Like painting and sculpture, it has a lot to do with the stage of the artist's career - emerging artists in photography tend to sell for under $10,000, and established artists can fetch much higher; we are talking prices that can fetch millions. For example, artists such as Yushi Li (see the first image), an incredibly talented emerging artist, sell artwork for a couple of thousands, which is a great reason to discover artists early in their career. The most expensive photographs ever sold at auction include Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres (1924) at $12.4 million, Andreas Gursky's Rhein II (1999) at $4.3 million, and Cindy Sherman's Untitled #96 (1981) at $3.9 million.

Other factors contributing to the price of photography are the quality & condition- particularly concerning older photographs; rarity- is it a one-of-kind from a famous dead artist? Or is it from a limited edition from an emerging artist?; Provenance- was the photograph owned by a renowned individual? Can you trace the number of hands it changed through to confirm its authenticity if it is an older photograph? All these factors play a role in the value of a picture, and every collector should always have these in mind to ensure they are paying a fair market price.

Man Ray, Le Violon d'Ingres (1924). Courtesy of the artist's estate and Christie's.

Train Your Eye:

See as much photography as possible to train your eye and develop a personal taste among the many forms of photographic expression. Generally speaking, one's view is exercised through observation and study. As knowledge expands, the focus narrows and becomes more evident. To train your eye, visit many gallery exhibitions, museums such as Fotografiska, and art fairs specifically for photography. Attend fairs such as Paris Photo and Photo London and festivals such as Les Rencontres d'Arles, Unseen, and Format. Explore graduate shows or smaller fairs such as the Affordable Art Fair.

Juno Calypso
Juno Calypso, Stretch (2017). Courtesy of the artist and TJ Boulting.

Understanding Editions & Unique Works:

With photography, there are one-of-a-kind, limited editions and open editions. The smaller the edition quantity with limited editions, the more valuable work could be. If you are not interested in limited editions, you can always buy a one-of-one piece by an artist. A one-of-a-kind means that that price will be higher than a photograph that can be replicated in a limited amount or be part of an open edition, meaning there is no limit to how many prints get sold.

Andy Warhol, Jon Gould in Montauk
Andy Warhol, Jon Gould in Montauk (1981). Courtesy of the artist and Hedges Projects.

Vintage & Modern Prints:

Many photographs come in three varieties: true vintage prints, prints made later by the artist, and modern prints produced by or under the supervision of the heirs or estates of the photographer. Depending on which type of print it is will reflect on the price.

Natasha Wilson, Crossover Dreams II. Courtesy of artist and Artstar.

Quality & Condition:

The quality and condition of a photograph are essential, and you should always buy the finest example of an image you can find. Most recent pictures should be pristine; Vintage photographs can have more imperfections due to age, and is expected. However, if you find a vintage print in perfect condition, you should check for its authenticity because photography, like everything else, is not safe from counterfeits.

Emily Metzguer
Emily Metzguer, Potash Pools I. Courtesy of the artist and Artstar.

Where to Buy:

You can buy photography through a gallery, art fair, and online. However, I advise you to see work in the flesh first, if you can: online buying should only come later, with more experience.

Here are a few online sites to start exploring photography: Magnum Photos, Artstar, Affordable Art Fair, The Other Art Fair, and Artsy.

Terry O'Neill
Terry O'Neill, Faye Dunaway at the Pool (1977). Courtesy of Fotografiska.

Structuring your collection:

Before you start buying a lot of random photography, you might want to consider creating some guidelines to follow to create a collection with structure. You can structure it by theme (example: female-only photographers), style (example: landscape, black & white, etc.), period, or technique (for example, ambrotypes or daguerreotypes). The most worthwhile option is probably to focus a collection by specializing in the work of one particular photographer- this can make you an expert and your collection more financially valuable.

Thanks for reading!


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