21. COLLECTING PHOTOGRAPHS IN OZ, JANUARY 2010

As I was thinking of the border we have passed through,  “We’re not in Kansas any more” came to mind. Kansas was full of everyday frightening figures and tornados. Oz was in brilliant color, fascinating, but also dangerous and full of deception as much as it revealed truth. Afterwards Kansas seemed warm and comfortable, familiar, changed.

Everybody’s thinking about the economy, but I was thinking about different issues. First the Internet, then the digital border. There’s almost no more film photography. What does that mean for collectors?

Some things become collectible just as they are no longer being produced. An example is the snapshot. Now that everyone is snapping images of everything with their cell phones and posting them on line, the snapshot is frozen in time. It is an object. There is no comparable object in Oz. Yes, you can print the digital image out, but that printed image is not the designated “real” version of the picture. The digital image “belongs” on the computer screen. But the paper snapshot in the album IS what the snap was destined for. So snapshot collecting has been thriving.

There is no “negative” any more. Although you can produce a negative in Photoshop, this is not commonly done. The negative image is no longer something that photographers and some collectors experience in their normal practice. The absence of negatives also means that except for size, paper quality and such, all versions of a photograph have equal value. Once the printing parameters are established, it’s just a mechanical process to make more prints. (I’m not talking about unauthorized digital copies, but copies made by the photographer or those close to the photographer.)

In Kansas printing was important in a different way than it is in Oz. Although more photographers than is generally acknowledged had assistants who printed their works for them, there was a sense (only sometimes based on reality) of the special value of a print made or supervised by the photographer. Is there such a thing in OZ? If digital reproduction improves. as it will, so future prints will have even greater resolution than what is possible now, will the early printings of some digital photographs be much more prized? Will there be a concept of “vintage” digital photography? If so, will it be just a manipulated commercial concept created for the marketplace as the ubiquitous creation of “editions” frequently was in the modern era?

Interestingly, as we enter this new zone, there does seem to be an increasingly higher value placed on some variations of prints from the past. Some early printed versions of Ansel Adams’  “Moonrise” have sold for very much higher prices than fine examples of the somewhat later printings. This is Kansas connoisseurship.

There is virtually no black and white in OZ. Books are still printed in black and white, but text on the Internet comes in all sorts of colors. We got used to the transformation of “reality” that came with black and white photography (it only became close to” real” black and white instead of “tones” in the 1950’s!). It was in harmony with black and white films and early TV. What does black and white seem to young people now? Even years ago, all but the sensitive ones of my film students saw black and white films as unexciting and “old,” as the acting in silent films seemed impossibly stilted to them.

Just as images on photographic paper from photographic negatives are becoming relics of a lost time, books and newspapers on paper are being phased out. People read from their computer screens or from Kindel and its inevitable progeny. People will be less and less used to looking at paper; they will be looking at pixels. They are already looking at pixels all the livelong day.

This might seem to be bad news for collectors, on top of the economic bad news that stunts the growth of collections for all but the lucky few who have managed to extend or maintain their resources in this dark time.

I want to think about the positive side of all this. There is indeed a positive field for collectors who can embrace the new photographic possibilities in OZ. I’m afraid I’m not the person to guide you there. But I can suggest that a re-consideration of photography from Kansas is in order, and it can open up exciting collecting fields, even for those who can’t afford the rare and majestic truly vintage masterpieces.

There is always a double history [actually more than double, but I’ll leave that for another time] in the essential nature of a photograph The photograph is usually a record of some lost time—a face from the past, an event from the past. But it is also a historical artifact in its own physical and conceptual nature. It itself is a historical artifact, not just a picture of history.

So from our present perspective in OZ, the entire corpus of Kansas photography has taken on a further historical significance. It is one big degree more distant, stranger, and thus more interesting and valuable to the collectors I’m addressing.

Each collector can evaluate what has become more interesting from this new perspective. Will negatives themselves become more interesting as objects, and not just as primitive carriers of information? Will there be other areas of photography that are still ignored or devalued, which can be seen in a new light?

Sometimes it takes a long time for a genre of photography to be seen anew. Even in the 1970’s daguerreotypes were seen by many collectors and historians to be relics of the technical pre-history of photography. Earlier, in 1934, the Holman Book Shop in Boston put out a catalog of some of the whole plate daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes. A year later they issued a second catalog, in which they lamented that so few had sold from the previous offering. Wouldn’t you have liked to be a collector 40 or 70 or 100 years ago? Are there photographs available today that collectors will regret, 30 years from now, that they had not “discovered” years before. You can discover them now.

There are new modes of display. Museums have discovered how to display daguerreotypes and small-form photographs and albums, all of which were often ignored because they didn’t seem to lend themselves to exhibition. How ungainly were the early attempts to put them in modern mats as though they were larger prints.

I’ve been collecting cyanotypes for many years. Many of them are anonymous, or made as documents, not art. By careful selection I’ve accumulated many with great aesthetic value. Some major photographers made cyanoype prints from their negatives, often with great care, but they were not the ultimate mode of printing. However, many of them have aesthetic qualities that are as valid as the later platinum or gelatin silver prints from the same negatives. Aside from the great beauty of these images, that I savor, there is the extra thrill of discovery, of finding these gems amid the huge crowd of photographs that ceaselessly rush past.

I’ve recently become more and more interested in press prints. Now that journalistic images are transferred digitally over the internet (to the newspapers in decline) there is no longer any need for traditional press agencies to send out actual prints, for reproduction. Some of the early modes of transition by radio and wire anticipated the contemporary transmission, but they still resulted in prints on photographic paper. Vintage press prints have an exciting character—they bring us close to the moment when the subject was “news.” The array of information on the back conveys some of the immediacy of the newsboy crying “Extra Extra.” The history of this dissemination of visual imagery is as interesting and exciting as the events themselves that are pictured.

 

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