Focus on Photography
By Maxine Carter-Lome
People, places, events, moments in time, all captured through the eyes of a photographer and their equipment. It is their unique perspective on what they see and how they choose to capture that image that make photographs equally at home in family albums, historic archives, museum holdings and fine art collections.
When it comes to photography, technology has come a long way since 1839, a date generally accepted as the birth year of practical photography. Today, the ability to easily and instantly take and process a picture has turned anyone with a camera-phone and a computer into an amateur photographer, flooding the digital marketplace with images that continually redefine the art and collectability of photography.
If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” a collection is a library of images that tell stories, mark time, and document history. They reveal the artist behind the photographer, capture the essence of the subject, and immortalize images for posterity. That is what fascinates us about the Art of Photography, and why collectors find the category so interesting and diverse.
I think about family portraits, popular among the general public by the second half of the 1800s, despite the expense. Immigrants, in particular, would save up a week’s worth of wages and dress in their Sunday best to send pictures to their families in the old country to show that they were doing well, even if they weren’t. Families who could only afford a couple of pictures would put them into an album, to which other family members would add theirs. This would then be circulated among the family as an early adaptation of the Facebook principle.
Today, sites such as ancestry.com provide a repository for these historic family images to be preserved, contextualized, and shared with future generations, as current generations recognize their role in documenting and handing down their family story.
Today, the formal portrait has given way to “selfies,” just as “tweeting” has surpassed the fine art of letter writing as the preferred way to communicate. In this Snapchat-Instagram culture, images and words are fleeting, and seemingly less meaningful. What’s worth preserving? It is no longer a single, defining image, but rather a digital documentation of everyday narcissistic moments. So is the selfie a new photographic art form worthy of preservation and recognition? Honton and Tair Mamedov, co-founders of The Museum of Selfies opening in Los Angeles in January 2018, believe the answer is yes, banking on the premise that the modern museum-goer doesn’t just want to look at art – they want to take pictures of themselves with art. The attraction, which comes with a hefty $25 entrance fee, will exhibit selfie-inspired art but also provide plenty of areas and special attractions designed for visitors to take their own selfies.
On the other end of the spectrum, fine art museums are some of the biggest collectors and curators of contemporary photography and photographic history, thanks to foundation gifts by the likes of Alfred Stieglitz and his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, who worked passionately to establish photography as a fine art. Stieglitz’ roles as a photographer, discoverer and promoter of photographers, collector, publisher, and patron made him one of the most important figures in the history of visual arts in America. Donations made by him, and by O’Keeffe after his death, of his own work and works by other photographers from his extensive collection, seeded the photography collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Met, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others.
While it may be hard to place a value on a cherished family portrait or photo, there is growing value at auction in photographs of historic figures and events. Just last year, a photo album of over 500 images taken during a couple’s 1912 ocean voyage on the RMS Carpathia, including photos that document the rescue of Titanic survivors, sold for $45,353. A rare and unusual photo of President John Quincy Adams (Adams was the earliest president to have been photographed) taken in 1846 by John Plumbe, one of the most prominent photographers of the day, sold for $31,250 at Heritage’s December Americana and Political Auction.
On a more contemporary level, a photo of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as the Blues Brothers, taken by Annie Leibovitz, realized $22,500 at Christie’s October auction, and a photo of “Orphaned Cheetah Cubs” taken by American Artist and Photographer Peter Beard in 1968 sold for over $672,000 at Christie’s October 10, 2017 auction, making it by far one of the most expensive photographs to sell this year. Photography as a collectible category is all this and more!
In this issue, Erica Lome looks through the lens of the First 100 Years of Photography, Donald-Brian Johnson brings the collectability of Hollywood glamour advertisements into focus, we look behind the camera at six historic and contemporary collectible photographers, and fast-forward to planned photography exhibitions in 2018, all in an attempt to shed light on the topic of and market for Photography.
Focus on Photography