One theme of these Newsletters is to put photograph collecting into a wider context than the supposed “intrinsic” value of the object. The photograph is sometimes seen, in part, as an investment, one that hopefully will rise (even soar) in value. The auction market is to some extent sustained by those who continue to invest in “blue chip” images, in the anticipation that the value will hold and rise. This kind of “investment” collecting does helpfully sustain the marketplace for photography, but it has little to do with the kind of collecting I have been discussing.
In the second of these Newsletters I mentioned some life activities that may be costly, but have no residual value as “objects” other than the life-enhancing experience itself. I later realized there are even “collections” which have no material objects at all, of which Bird Watching is a great example. The “collection” consists of a list of birds actually seen by the watcher, noted with certain facts about date, place and other factors related to the sighting of that bird. The thing about these lists is that each bird named on the list has, in the memory of the collector, a story behind the sighting of that bird. A bird named on one list will have a very different associated meaning than that same bird on someone else’s list.
Some collectors will take careful note of birds seen outside their window—and this will be very different for collectors in Chicago than for those in Hawaii. There may be a great thrill for those who see, outside their window, a bird that is not usually seen in that area. On the other hand some people will make elaborate and dangerous journeys to encounter birds only found in a distant and almost inaccessible region. These personal pleasures and thrills are the meaning of such collecting, and not the list of names. While not such a collector myself, some of the great artists whose work I admire have been collectors of natural phenomena—such as John Cage of mushrooms, Vladimir Nabokov of butterflies (although these collect “specimens,” while the bird watcher has only names. As a lover of the ephemeral, that appeals to me even more.)
The personal meaning of a collection cannot easily be communicated. Unless the collection has some qualities that can be shared beyond just the experience the collector had in acquiring it, spending time with that collector will be as little rewarding as the proverbial boring slide show of somebody’s trip. Probably the worst of all collection sharing is with someone who regales you with stories of the great bargains her/his collection contains. Collectors obsessed with the bargain cost of their collection simply de-value their collection as well as themselves.
Some collections without any overall radiance might still contain a few choice items, acquired by chance. That is why dealers love to “cherry pick” some collections. These items will have more value outside the collection than within it.
However many collections will have an overall radiance that is easily communicated to those sensitive to it. This includes those at the highest levels, such as the collections of great institutions. Such collections will demand that material, when it becomes available, that supplements or complements their existing holdings, be pursued with enthusiasm that may far exceed what others would have thought the value of that material. This same impulse will be found in collections of material lovingly assembled by private collectors.
Personal collections begin from a seed. This may be a random attraction to a certain item, or a deliberate effort to acquire something because of a prior attraction from reading, seeing something in a gallery or museum or another person’s collection. It can begin from something connected with a person’s family, or a certain geographical area that has significance; or a fascination with a particular time period, or type of photograph. Sometimes a few seeds are gathered, suggesting different possible routes of development, and then a chance encounter will show a connection between two or more of these, and a theme will start to appear. Over time other threads and connections and new attractions will develop. There are collections with a great overarching theme, and others with a number of different areas of focus, reflecting the breadth of the person’s interests as well as the curious history of what happens to attract the person’s attention. A “stop motion” study of the development of a collection will resemble some biological processes looked at under the microscope.
Once a collection has a certain number of elements, relationships among the elements will start to appear. The collection will start to DESIRE and ATTRACT more elements. Sometimes these elements are known in advance—a collector will seek certain key or missing photographs which will have a deep impact on the ones already in the collection. Sometimes that image will just appear as a shocking surprise—in a gallery, at auction, in a catalog, on a dealer’s table. Most collectors will know the thrill of coming upon or acquiring an object that will throw unexpected radiance onto photographs already in the collection. Should such a photograph appear at auction, the collector will likely bid on it to a level that will amaze others, who can’t grasp the importance to that collection. Even powerful institutions will commit great resources to acquire an image that has special relevance to their mission and holdings.
I’ve many more than once had the experience of offering an image I loved, that long languished and found no response among my customers. Finally someone took the bold step and purchased it. Years later it gets exhibited in some museum show, and everyone ooh’s and ah’s over it. Because now, in its new context, it can shine for a wider audience. Sometimes the “theme” of a collection is just the subjective “eye” of the collector. Seen in the context of that person’s collections, an object will show its quality to those who were blind to it when it stood alone.
There is a fallacy that once something is offered, and not sold, it is “burned” and degraded in value. But this is belied by the great collectors and curators, who have enough confidence in the force of their collection that they can see beyond these ideas of the moment. Once the photograph is in their collection, it radiates with the glow of their vision.
Here’s a “real life” story of Tim Lindholm’s collecting adventure, that shows how the “value” of an image can be a function of a unique collecting path, and can not be determined in absolute terms.
A couple of years ago, he picked up two strange and beautiful 3/4 plate daguerreotypes, presented as being “English,” at a trade fair, based on their aesthetic appeal alone. Beneath the daguerreotypes he found a later typed label giving an Isle of Wight street
address, a date, and some fragments of names. He embarked on a venture to learn what he could about the sitters. With painstaking effort, he discovered that the sitters were of a very interesting and influential English family in India. A little girl pictured in one of the daguerreotypes lived at the Isle of Wight address in 1905-1917. After assembling a family history (using information he gleaned from the Internet, the India Office of the British Library, and living descendents he located) he concluded that the daguerreotypes were almost certainly taken in Calcutta. The extraordinary quality of the plates made him realize the quality of daguerreian work there at that period was higher than he had suspected.
The man pictured was Charles Robert Prinsep, the Advocate General of Bengal; James, one of his six brothers in India, was a seminal figure in the recovery of the ancient history of India. Other brothers were engineers and artists, world travelers and pioneers. He was able to determine that the family, at the time of the daguerreotypes, was about to go through a series of tragedies — the mother was pregnant with the child whose birth would kill her, the father about to be sent on a politically-motivated fiasco in Singapore (a Commission of Enquiry into alleged massacres by Sir James Brooke, White Rajah of Sarawak) during which he was reported to be mentally unstable. Upon his return to Calcutta, after the death of his wife he was paralyzed by a stroke, and the wrecked remnants of the family returned to England. After his death, his orphaned children, in Victorian middle class fashion, were adopted by his extended family. They lived at Sara Prinsep’s Little Holland House, an artistic salon in Kensington, and with Julia Margaret Cameron on the Isle of Wight. One of the daughters (not in the original two daguerreotypes) was one of JMC’s most photographed models (May Prinsep), and became the second Lady Tennyson. They were part of the social and family circles of the Tennysons, the Thackarays, the Ritchies and the Jacksons (e.g. Dr. John Jackson, Virginia Woolf’s grandfather, was Louisa Prinsep’s doctor when she died in Calcutta).
Tim’s research even led him to other Prinsep images: out of the blue a family member in Australia sent him a scan of an annotated paper copy of an old image of five of the six Prinsep children, including May, taken about five years after his daguerreotypes. But this image looked familiar. He realized, by an amazing coincidence, that the ambrotype from which it had been copied, many years ago, was currently up for sale in an Internet auction! He was then able to recognize another ambrotype, also for sale in an Internet auction, that showed two of the children from the original daguerreotypes.
Realizing that there were multiple related images currently being dispersed by US vintage photo dealers, he backtracked along the provenance of the images he already had. He was actually able to locate a wonderful daguerreotype of Annie as a child (the one who lived as an old maid at that address on the Isle of Wight) with her Ayah (Indian nanny.) Naturally, he paid what he had to obtain these images.
How can anybody suggest what “value” to place on those images, external to the collecting life of this collector?
If you have some stories of collecting that pertain to these themes, please send to me. From time to time I’ll present selected stories in these Newsletters. I’d be glad to hear from Curators as well as private collectors, and “mundane” but interesting examples as well those from collectors at the highest levels.