For daguerreotypes and other so-called “hard” images [ambrotypes, tintypes] the problems I’m addressing might not seem to apply, as, with few exceptions, there is only one. The object that was in the camera, subject to some important manipulations, is the thing we are looking at. It is unique.
But even here there are things to consider. I have been looking at some portraits of Lola Montez on “Google.” Some show up that are images of daguerreotypes, such as the great portrait by Southworth & Hawes. When I look at this, on my screen, what am I seeing? If I am trying to see what kind of nose or eyebrows she had, I feel assured that some aspects are truly “as they were,”– as they were on that fascinating face, and as they were on that actual daguerreotype. I seem to be seeing her as if I’m looking directly at her, and I seem to be seeing these aspects of her as if I’m looking at the daguerreotype itself.
There are some aspects of the picture that have to do with the particularities of the computer image. But unless I am comparing different screens or resolutions, I ignore them. I don’t think of the physical screen in front of me as a photograph. But if I look at the daguerreotype itself I pay a great deal of attention to its surface, the play of light and color as I turn it this way and that. The daguerreotype is a physical object, to be appreciated in its physicality. For some people, especially with a portrait, the daguerreotype also has a special character because it was in the physical presence of the subject. They seem to see the subject as though the subject is in front of a mirror, and they are looking through the mirror (forgetting that this is usually a reversed mirror image, more like what the subject would see looking at their own reflection in a mirror.)
So you would think a negative would have this same quality from having actually been in the camera in the presence of the subject. Yet somehow (other than paper calotype negatives) there is (as yet) little interest in the negative as an object in itself (other than for reproduction.) Yet the negative is as close as possible to what the photographer saw in the camera’s viewfinder. Ah yes, you might say, but this is not what the photographer saw, because the photographer saw a positive image, not a negative one. But we NEVER can see what the photographer saw through the camera; even the photographer can’t see it once the shutter is closed. The photographer saw an image in color; the “photograph” might be in black and white. Or sepia, or blue. Or of a slightly different color than what the photographer saw. Or on a different scale. Or without grain. If the photographer is looking through the viewfinder with one eye, what is seen is not 3-dimensional. But the 2-dimensional image seen through the viewfinder is quite different from the flatness of the photographic print. So the shift in the character of the image from “reality” to the negative is only a slightly more radical dislocation than the many other shifts that occur between reality and a photograph.
Photographers differ in what they think they are seeing. For some, they are seeing the reality in front of them—they are just framing it. If they remove their eye from the camera and look at what is before them, they are seeing the same thing, they are “shooting” it, “capturing” it. . For others, what they see in the viewfinder is already a radical transformation of this reality, prefiguring the further more radical transformation that will occur in developing and printing.
The situation is changing before our very eyes. For many people in the world now a “photograph” is something that appears on their cell phone. For them, when they send the image to someone else’s cell phone, or download it to their computer and then place it on a site such as Flickr or “MySpace”, it remains the “same” photograph, and those who view it feel they are seeing the actual photograph itself, not a copy or translation of it. There is no “original” that has priority. A version that is printed from the computer has, if anything, less authority than the primary digital version on the computer screen. Recently the Library of Congress has placed a number of their photographs (for example wonderful color FSA photographs) on Flickr. Feedback on their site shows that people are incorporating these images in their virtual albums along with their own family photographs. This reminds me of how people in the CDV era would place CDV portraits of Lincoln and other admired figures in their albums of family photographs. To the computer/cell phone generation, our contemporaries, the digital Library of Congress photographs have the same status, as photographs, as their own cell-phone generated images.
From the CDV era into the 1990’s, people who had albums, [of CDV’s or snapshots] were used to looking at “photographs” and so there was continuity between the familiar family photographs and works of historical and artistic import. Now more frequently the photograph on paper, printed from a negative, is something outside people’s personal everyday experience. It’s interesting that just at this time the snapshot has become on object of intense collecting.
The kind of photograph collecting that I am addressing in these Newsletters is something already against the grain of the times, appealing to a smaller and smaller group of collectors. We are like opera lovers in the age of iTunes. New younger collectors who love photography, especially well-heeled ones, are now often drawn to recent large colorful digital prints that are very seductive (I find many of these seductive as well, and they are require great skill and sensitivity to produce.)
The “traditional” collected photograph is one that was printed by the photographer, or under the photographer’s supervision, right after or close to the time the negative was made. In the case of a major print, it would be signed by the photographer to show that it met the photographer’s
approval. Just in this time when paper photographs from emulsion negatives have become increasingly strange objects of an outmoded technology, these ‘vintage’ prints of major works by major photographers are commanding huge prices, way beyond the means of most of the collectors who receive these Newsletters.
Even though I have been addressing issues that are outside the area of collecting photographs as investments, I am always thinking of what mere mortal collectors can do to create collections that will increase in value beyond the pleasure the collecting provides to the collector.