Collecting Photos

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

If you take pictures and store the photos (in albums, boxes or digital files), you are automatically collecting photos. In that sense, what you have is as valuable as a photo you purchased in a gallery, and maybe more so, since your own work constitutes physical proof of an event or a person which was meaningful to you.

The fashion for collecting other people’s photographs is relatively recent (pretty much since the 1970s) and has become as complicated as collecting certain kinds of paintings or sculptures. I don’t say that because the prices have gone up, but rather, because of changes in the attitudes of the galleries which sell the work.

But before that happened, photos were collected because of the images they contained. As with paintings, some photographers became better known than others and their work more appreciated, so samples are more frequently preserved in museums. A case in point is Edward Curtis, whose careful, almost anthropological photographs of Hopi Indians in New Mexico are collected by many people (if they can afford them) and displayed in many museums. But at the same time, some American artists living in the Taos, New Mexico, area and forming part of the highly-regarded Taos Artists’ Society, photographed the same Hopi people. However, a photo taken by E. I. Couse or Walter Ulf would be valuable only to collectors familiar with these painters and the T.A.S.

People began to collect photographs when photography became available on the market that served the middle and upper classes. The themes were portraits, landscapes or something historical or dramatic. The photos were framed and displayed in homes. Their longevity depended on many factors, not the least of which were the processes which produced the photos. With the advent of the negative (first paper, then the nitrate and now the more or less “plastic” base), preservation of the image was easier. One negative produces many images (one image repeated “x” number of times). Then it was discovered that the support on which the image was made could help determine its lifespan. To be honest, a photo printed onto a double-weight fiber-based paper (i.e., paper made of 50-to-100% cotton rag, covered on one side with a light sensitive emulsion), properly processed (i.e., quickly through the chemicals followed by immersion in flowing water for an hour or more, then run it through a neutralizing agent (“toner”) followed by another hour or so in running water) will produce a photo that should last well over 100 years, as long as it is not exposed to direct sunlight. Also, black and white fades less and fades more slowly than color, and color has a problem because the cyan dye fades easily and quickly, even when not exposed to light.
And that’s the nitty-gritty on saving your pictures. I have some photos taken in July 1965 with Kodacolor print film which were stored in an album from about August 1965 until the spring of 2008, when I insisted that my brother send them to me. They are in beautiful condition. They were printed on Kodak fiber-based paper because that’s what Kodak used for all its printing back then. My family has even older color photos also printed on Kodak fiber-based paper and stored in albums or Kodak-provided envelopes (along with the negatives). They’re also in beautiful condition. This did not require a lot of money. It just required some care and thoughtfulness on the part of my father, grandfather, grandmother, aunt and even great-grandparents. We all read Kodak’s instructions and followed them.
My father went so far as to install two rows of molding in a hall in his house. The area was indirectly lit (lights above molding directed at the white ceiling), and my father would display his own photos of a recent trip or some personal photo project in this hallway. Each photo was matted and mounted but not framed, and set on the molding. This system allowed him to change the display at will, of course, as well as show off his work. It’s something I want to do in my apartment and something a lot of people can do in their own homes. It’s fun, it’s relatively easy and inexpensive to install and it teaches children that a photo is more than immediate gratification.

People collect photos for the same reasons they collect anything else–they enjoy the object(s) collected, it means something to them. Elton John has an extensive collection of photos because each image means something to him. Other collectors concentrate on specific photographers or photographic styles or historical periods, in the same way other people collect paintings or sculpture. In that sense, collecting anything becomes much more like eating popcorn or potato chips–one piece is just not satisfying; you end up trying to eat the whole bag. For that reason (and here’s where gallery owners can start to scream to high heaven), you should only collect what you really really like. That means you do not buy a photo because the gallery owner says it’s a good idea. You buy the photo because you want to live with it and look at it. It says something to you, there is an unspoken dialogue between you and the photo. That is what counts. NOT the economic value. NOT the historical value. NOT the critical value. The only thing that counts is the little tingly “something” you get when you look at that photo. This in turn will remind you to take care of the photo once it’s in your home. And that’s what really matters when you are collecting.

If you find that the photo you collected requires museum level care, then donate it to a museum. As a fine art photographer, I want collectors to enjoy living with my work. How could they do that if I create something so complex that it causes distress and worry? Consequently, I make the best prints I can, mat them and mount them attractively and let the collector frame them (unless I’m asked to frame the photo, which raises the price). Collecting should be a pleasure, not something that produces anxiety.

For anyone interested in collecting photos, I would suggest that the first step is to learn to take pictures–composition, films, papers, darkroom, digital. (A digital print on a high quality paper requires as much time and thought to produce as a darkroom print. I’m speaking from experience.) This will give you a good foundation because you learn to judge your own work critically, setting aside the images you like from the ones that don’t quite meet your standards. After a while, you apply what you learned from your own work to what you see in magazines and books and galleries and exhibitions.

Finally, collecting photos is capturing one little moment in time, preserving it and then being able to pass it on to the next generation, so that they understand that life is a continuum. Very few things are more important than that.

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

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