4. THE HAND AND THE WALL, or “Photographica” vs. “Photography, ” or the handwriting on the wall, JUNE 2003

When I started the Be-hold catalog auctions, originally called “Photographic Brochure,” I was, in part (only in part), thinking of those forms of 19th-Century photography which required the involvement of the hand as well as the eye: daguerreotypes in cases that needed to be opened and turned to the light this way and that; stereo views that were mostly viewed in hand-held viewers; material that was presented in albums whose pages were turned by hand. The emergence of these forms in the early period of photography responded to the intimate connection between the hand and the eye that was involved in drawing, and also in sculpture and painting. The realization of the photographer’s vision and mind through an apparatus, rather than just a hand, elicited, in reaction, the need for a creative involvement of the hand as well as the eye of the “viewer.”

I was also hesitant to enter the arena of larger prints that would, typically, be matted, framed, and put on the wall. These seemed to be the province of the growing world of photographic art galleries. They would find their way into major institutions where, even if they all couldn’t be displayed at once, they were destined to be displayed on the museum wall at some time.

I also appreciated that the smaller objects were somewhat outside the radar of the major art historical machinery. The makers were often anonymous, or obscure. One could thus come into a direct relationship with the object from a fresh perspective, rather than through the filter of classifications and rankings that had already been established, often established and supported by commercial interests.

One could find these materials at flea markets and antique stores and country auctions, personally, or through “pickers,” whose livelihood derived from filtering the material that could be found in these sources, and directly from houses and estates, and offering them to specialist dealers. There were also large shows that offered cameras (in the US in the 1970’s and ‘80’s often to major buyers from Japan) as well as images.

There was, for a time, a natural ecology within this system. People who inherited photographs in their homes, and wanted to sell them, would bring them to camera stores (sometimes book stores), antique stores, local auctions. These would find their way to the flea markets, and eventually to the “photographica” shows, or remain for sale in the antique stores. Collectors of these forms of photography would scour the flea markets and antique stores and attend the auctions as well as the “photo shows” which presented this material along with cameras and other equipment. These photographs were generally considered part of the “technical” history of photography, rather than the history of the ART of photography, and thus the term “photographica” was applied.

This idea of “photographica” was enforced by the received opinion about daguerreotypes in the history of photography. Daguerreotypes were considered part of the technical “pre-history” of photographic art. Forms such as stereo views, cartes de visite, cabinet cards, were considered part of the history of the photographic industry, rather than of photographic art. Relegating these forms of photography into a context that also included cameras, cases, viewers, kept them within the “technical” rather than the “artistic” sphere.

A small number of enterprising and sophisticated dealers and collectors would descend on these flea markets, antique stores, auctions, and photographica shows, in the hope that there would be important prints that would not be recognized and understood by the vendors, which could be scooped up at bargain prices and then sold at a huge markup in the photographic art market. Careers were established in this endeavor. Now that such material is less available, and people who have it have a chance to better understand its value, and have more places to sell it, the “photographica” shows have lost some of their excitement.

Many of the dealers of images chafed at being in the same context with purveyors of equipment, so some “image only” shows arose. A kind of hierarchy developed. Some image-only shows were developed as outlets for galleries offering “art” photography in luxurious surroundings with appropriate wall space, while other shows offered “photographica” spread out on table- tops.

Racing through these flea markets, antique shows, photographica shows, were collectors of specific subjects. Some of these subjects were of wide interest, such as Civil War photographs, or images of the history of major sports. Others were quite narrow and particular, such as photographs of a certain town or region.

Collectors of “art” photography felt themselves in an entirely different collecting realm than those collectors of specific subjects or types of photographs labeled “photographica.” Collectors of “photographica” were seen as hobbyists, while “art photography” collectors would often think of themselves as art lovers. Photographs on the walls of their homes or offices would be signs of good taste. The galleries and art photography shows would often try to create an atmosphere of elegant luxury, that was parallel to that in some of the major auction houses that were holding specialty photograph auctions.

In recent years there has been a decline in attendance by dealers and visitors to the table-top shows, and a world-wide expansion of the wall-dominated shows that present photographs in an atmosphere of luxury. An exploration of this phenomenon is a subject of its own. It is too simplistic to lay all these changes entirely on eBay and other internet sites. They involve much more complex economic, social and cultural factors as they dance with marketing and advertising strategies.

What constitutes “photographica” as a concept is also constantly changing. This is most clear in the case of daguerreotypes. In 25 years they have moved from the realm of a technical sidelight in the dawn of photography to become among the highest-priced objects in the photographic art market. Museums have finally learned how to display these objects, and now it is not uncommon to find major exhibitions that highlight and even feature this form of photography. They are often presented in aesthetic and social-historical terms not unlike the way paintings are presented. Some museums have successfully included stereo views and other smaller photographs as aesthetic objects.

There have always been a number of discerning collectors who have appreciated the “photographica” objects in a very serious aesthetic, art-historical and social-historical way, far removed from what could be thought of as “hobbyist.” They have established norms of connoisseurship that include factors of condition, date of issue, etc. These may seem remote to those accustomed only to looking at large prints [I should say here that such connoisseurship of prints, including 20th-century prints, is still rare among most collectors of that material. Much print collecting belongs in the realm of interior decoration, rather than art appreciation.]


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