How to Build a Photo Print Collection and Not File for Bankruptcy

Over the years I have accumulated a large number of photographic prints. I would not call it a collection, more of a muddle of images. There is little cohesion to the photographs within the muddle and little thought has been given to the images I choose to own. I just like them.

The majority of them were kindly given to me by photographers I have met or known, a few have come with photography books I have purchased, there are a few which I have swapped for my own work and there are some that I have bought. The purchases have either been made direct from the photographer or at boot sales, flea markets and photo fairs. Few actually make it into a frame and get displayed on the walls of my house, carefully positioned out of direct sunlight, but the few that have remain constant daily companions. An Edith Tudor Hart hangs in the same room as a Cecil Beaton, opposite a Lisa Law portrait of Bob Dylan, and a David Eustace. In another room a Jim Mortram hangs opposite a W.Eugene Smith, and another David Eustace. In the hallway a John Hedgecoe portrait of Francis Bacon hangs alongside a Colin Jones portrait of David Hockney, and a Gavin Evans portrait of a shushing David Bowie. It’s an eclectic mix.

In pan chests in another part of the house sit the rest of my collection. An even more eclectic mix of imagery created over the past one hundred years, and collected over the last thirty.

The photographer David Hurn has previously spoken about and exhibited his collection of prints gained through the process of ‘swapping’ with fellow photographers, and I am aware of other photographers who have compiled similarly impressive collections the same way. Martin Parr recently exhibited some of his collection as part of the Bristol Photo Festival, and the estate of recently departed photographer Richard Sadler auctioned his collection at the same auction house that he had purchased much of the work from.

The collection of photographic prints by photographers is as much of a stamp of seriousness about the medium as is the collection of photo books, but it is different. It is more personal.

For so many years the contemporary photographic print had little if any value. I remember the founder of The Photographers Gallery in London, Sue Davies telling me how in the early 1970s she couldn’t sell Andy Warhol Polaroids even at £25 each. Prints were cheap currency between photographers and dismissed by those who could not recognise their importance, dismissing them as easily reproducible artefacts. Of course that was the time to curate a collection of what would or could become valuable prints. Archive prints, printed by the photographer themselves, not reproduced in endless ‘limited editions’ or as digital prints as the value of the image began to be recognised by the contemporary art market.

Today, we hear little from the auction houses concerning their ongoing photography sales unless a particular image reaches a previously unreached price (That is supposedly Peter Lik’s, Phantom, that sold in December 2014 for $6.5 million, although claims of the sale have never been proven, and the buyer has not come forward, though a lawyer claiming to represent the buyer claims that the deal was real). Despite this photographic auctions are commonplace and are as varied in content as my personal muddle of images.

But you don’t have to enter the world of high-priced bidding and the aggressive money obsessed art market to put together an interesting collection.

Now that photographers are offering open editions of digitally printed images, the prices for some photographers work has become far more affordable. They are including them in book sales as an extra initiative and selling them form their websites. Accessibility to work has never been easier or more affordable. It has become a potential revenue stream for some photographers selling work from their websites and Instagram and an access points for those looking to build a collection of photographs.

Do not however dismiss the idea of buying at auction, I am not talking about Christies, Phillips or Sothebys, but local auction houses that may have acquired a ‘job lot’ of photographs either from local photographers, house clearances or collectors. There can often be gems amongst those battered boxes.

Auction house that recognise the work they have submitted for sale such as Dominic Winter should also be considered as providing potential for interesting finds at reasonable prices on photo books and prints from photographers who may have heard of but not have realised that you could afford. A photography collection does not and should not cost you all of your savings, the fun is in finding work at a price you can afford, and slowly building your collection from various sources.

There are diamonds in the rough, the thrill is in the search and the enjoyment of an image, not in the passing over of a credit card.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021

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