29. The Early Bird

Some collectors go to great lengths to acquire very early material in their field.  They seek out early or earliest versions of important material. There is the pleasure of the hunt. But there are reasons that have to do with the subject area of the collection itself. Early editions illuminate the history or even pre-history of the subject being collected.

Think for example of postal history, or first editions of books. You can think of many more. But this is about photography.

I’ll devote a future Newsletter to issues related to the different published versions of small format photographs on mounts, such as CDV’s, stereo views and Cabinet Cards, where virtually the same or very similar prints will appear on different mounts. Many collectors will prize the earliest edition of such a photograph, even if it is only indicated by the mount and not the photograph itself. Here I want to make some comments on the larger photographic print.

For most film-based photography, the earliest  “version” is the negative. Oddly, there is relatively little collecting interest in negatives in general. In just a few cases the negative has an independent status as an art object. This is particularly the case of paper and waxed paper negatives of calotypes, but not yet of glass or film negatives.

Some negatives have importance in revealing the evolution of the photograph from the instant the camera shutter is opened to the final print. There is recent welcome interest in the contact sheet, that reveals the “behind the scenes” context of a particular image.  Sarah Greenough’s work with Robert Frank’s contact sheets and the organization of the pictures in “The Americans” is a great recent example.

Film-based photography followed changes in cameras, enlargers, negative material, processes and printing paper. Of particular interest in the case of paper prints are the changes in paper and printing processes, as these, along with the skill and vision of the printer, determine the sensuous character of the final print.

“Vintage” is a loosely used term.  An experienced collector will often be able to tell, even at a distance, if a certain gelatin silver print looks like it might be from the 1920’s, ‘30’, 40’s, or 50’s. Many “printed later” prints will just look wrong to one accustomed to seeing earlier prints.

Starting with the 1970’s, it will be much more difficult to tell on superficial examination whether a print is from the ‘70’s or the ‘80’s. One has become accustomed to black lighting certain prints to get a clue if a print might have been made before, say, 1945, or definitely later.

At the great 2010 exhibition at MOMA of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, I was awed by the beauty of the early prints— their tones, the way they lay on the paper. Once I got into the later prints I found a similarity to most of them. They were matted so one could not see the margins nor was there any information about what was on the verso. This presentation was in accordance with C-B’s own aesthetic that placed the greatest importance on the picture as a record of an instant in time, and not so much on the character of the print.

In the last Be-hold auction, a print was offered of Cartier-Bresson’s popular image “Bords de la Marne” [“On the Banks of the Marne”] I noted (and included a scan of) the stamps and notations on the verso. This was a later print of the 1930’s picture. I described the heavy Agfa paper and its “pearl” surface that reminded me of the true vintage prints. There were some slight bends from handling but no damage to the surface. [This type of condition is easily dealt with by standard conservation.]  It had a starting bid [reserve] of  $2000, but didn’t get any bids.

In the great Sotheby’s sale of 11 December 2014, “175 Masterworks To Celebrate 175 Years Of Photography,” there was a print of the same picture from the 1950’s. That had important provenance, and was enhanced by being part of this historic auction. It sold for $53,125. Neither print was signed.

I am still puzzled by the huge disparity between the fate of the two Cartier-Bresson prints auctioned within a month of each other

The Sotheby’s result, however, was partly significant in that it showed that the character of the print (along with the provenance) could generate far more collecting excitement than just a signature. Indeed looking up the auction records for this picture, one finds numerous later prints, signed, and with various stamps and notations, some in the range of $10,000 to almost $15000. Many of these “printed later” prints had the generic “modern” gelatin silver look.

A signed photograph by itself denotes a “lifetime” print, distinct from later prints made from a negative or copy negative after the death of the photographer. However there are some prints made by some photographers that are “early” or even “vintage” that are not signed, that have the special character of a vintage print that should be appreciated and valued.

Many photographers will sign wholesale a great number of prints that were in fact printed by someone else. This could be a very skilled printer who was entrusted by the photographer to make the print. When the photographer is honest, and indicates who actually made the print, those prints are valued less. In some cases it was only early in the photographer’s career that the photographer himself or herself would give great personal care to making the print.

In the last few years I have paid a lot of attention to the printing history of press prints. In the last auction I had a beautiful print of the Rosenthal photograph of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima that seemed to have been printed from the negative or a close copy negative with interesting tones and texture. I much prefer that print to later signed large exhibition prints of the same picture. I have also presented very early prints of other iconic press photographs, for example Robert Capa’s D-Day landing images. It seems that some collectors and institutions are recognizing the importance of these very first prints of iconic images.

Many photographers originally made or had made press prints of their work. They are often credited, but the prints are rarely signed.  These early press prints often don’t have the character of beautiful exhibition prints on quality paper. Some are even wire photos. They are usually glossy—“ferrotyped” to make better copies– with signs of wear from use, and with interesting stamps on the back. Early ones are toned, and have a special beauty that one can come to appreciate along with the wealth of information on the verso.

It seems these prints are coming to be appreciated for the historical importance as objects. Even though they might have been originally printed in relatively large numbers, the very early editions, even wire photographs that might have been the very first, are now scarce and provide an exciting area to collect. The early works of many of the major photographers were often press prints.

Vintage “Classic” 19th and 20th century photographs by significant photographers are becoming ever more scarce. True vintage signed prints with good provenance are so expensive they are out of reach of most collectors, even those with the means to collect at high but not the highest level. Signed “printed later” prints have become mainstays of auctions. Examples of some appear in almost every general auction. I don’t mean to underestimate their appeal to collectors.

But for those who can develop the sensitivity to the character of the print, unsigned early prints that are clearly the work of the photographer, often with the photographer’s credit stamp, represent in my view an exciting collecting area.


These occasional Newsletters are intended to be about the heart of collecting photographs, not with photographs as “investment.” The current economy, the state of the photography market, and my increased involvement with 20th-century photographs (especially for my September 30 auction,) have made me think a lot recently about the huge disproportion between the sales (and thus collecting) of some kinds of material over others.

I’m not at all questioning the keen competition for certain photographs that leads to very high prices. I am wondering why there is so much less interest in many other photographs that can provide sound collecting joy. There is an economic factor at play that makes photographs at much less than record prices still unobtainable for most collectors. But there are many opportunities for the discerning. I think there is a misunderstanding about the relative value of some photographs, and that is what I want to address here.


The collector can have a role that supplements that of the photo historian, the institution, and the major dealer. The collector who assembles a sensitively selected body of work by a photographer who is not yet in the received pantheon can have the pleasure of acquiring a body of work that is much less expensive than the work of the “masters,” but still significant. Such a collection can help adjust and correct the understanding of photography of a certain period.

Part of the pleasure and importance of collecting works by young or emerging photographers is to “discover” the work of those whose photographs will become part of the continuing history of photographic image making. This pleasure can also apply to collecting works by earlier photographers whose work is already known but not part of the “canon,” or even by photographers who are relatively obscure.

In doing appraisals, or helping to determine the “reserve” for something in my auctions, I look up the auction record for the work of a certain photographer, and am surprised to discover that, at least at auction, that person’s work does not seem to be seriously collected. This situation remains fairly static until at least a small group of adventurous collectors start to collect that work more actively.

You might come upon a photograph by someone you have heard of, but whose work is not familiar, or by someone whose name is new to you. The photograph may “speak” to you in a special way. Some time later you come upon another work by this photographer that also strongly appeals to you. This might be the start of doing research on this photographer and acquiring a body of work. Each addition brings you a new appreciation of this person’s artistry. For many people this can be much more personally satisfying than acquire a few photographs by an already well acknowledged master.

The prices for the work of iconic photographers are understandably higher than for the less well known artists, but the difference in price is often way out of proportion to the actual interest of the work.


There are photographs by canonic photographers that have become recognized as “key” works and are frequently sold at higher and higher prices. The goal of some collectors is to assemble a body of outstanding prints of these works. Such a collection can be a trophy collection. Visitors to the collection will immediately recognize the photographs. As the collection becomes more “advanced” the collector may want to sell off the less popular images, in order to acquire more of the icons.

Each of us who bothers to think about such matters can come up with our own sense of what we see as the true great images as opposed to those that have somehow become familiar and often sold and reproduced but do not seem to us to deserve their position. Even as they become more valuable and are the pride of many collections, they become less interesting to us the more we see them.

While it may be “safe” to purchase the iconic images, it can be more adventurous to acquire other photographs by that photographer that may provide more pleasure over time. A collector should try to reach a level of connoisseurship that will allow for a judgment that may be oblique to popular or received opinion. It is natural that there will be a demand for iconic images, but their price in contrast to other photographs by that artist can often be way out of proportion.


A photograph printed and signed by the photographer will have a more personal connection to that photographer than otherwise, and should be valued accordingly. But there are some cases where that relative value can be way out of proportion.

It is assumed that by signing a photograph the artist is giving it personal approval. But this is not always the case. In the “modern” era when collecting started to become the big business it has become, the act of signing needs to be understood on a case by case basis. Just as there are widespread book signings at bookstores during publicity tours, there are instances of “wholesale” signing of prints, sometimes long after the print was made.  (There are of course many more copies of books than of photographs.)

On the other hand, until the 1980’s, photographers did not always routinely sign their prints. An unsigned print may not be a lesser print. Similarly photographers might have stamped their own prints for identification when they sent them out for various reasons, and did not think of signing them. The distinction between an “exhibition” print and a print used for another purpose is not the same in every case.

It becomes a subject of specialized study to determine when a print was printed, when it was stamped or signed, who printed it. Some photographers frequently had their prints made by others, sometimes under their supervision, but also sometimes the photographer was able to trust the printer to live up to the required standards without constant supervision. Even such a famously fastidious printer as Ansel Adams had assistants who printed his photographs. In the case of some pictures there may be few or no prints actually made by the photographer. If something can be proven to be made by the photographer and signed when the print was made, this should definitely be a collector’s prize. But my point here is that a closely similar print should have a value that is in reasonable proportion, though less.

The well known scandal of the Lewis Hine photographs that were “signed” but not actually by Hine is a constructive example.  Walter Rosenbloom, Hine’s printer, felt the need to present these as original signed prints by Hine because he knew that the marketplace would only “validate” the price if it were presented that way. Many (but nor every one) of the major dealers and collectors of Hine’s photographs thought the photographs looked “right.” It was only a physical aspect of the paper, seen under a black light, which finally proved that Hine could not have made the prints. But if they had been honestly presented as printed by Rosenbloom, shouldn’t they have had a value that would have been in proportion to their subject and print quality? Their value should still have been significant.

The test should be the print itself. It is often possible to compare a print without a confirmed signature and printing date to one that has those features. If the prints are virtually identical the unsigned print should still be appreciated at a value in proportion to the value of the signed one. If the price is much less, this can be a boon for the discerning collector of limited means.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. There are many instances where only the real vintage print reveals the whole beauty and point of the picture, that is lacking in some later prints. For example, this in my view is even the case of the Berenice Abbott prints of Atget’s pictures.


To continue—In many cases the early vintage prints have a character that, once you have seen it, will be sorely missed in later prints. Or it may happen the other way. You may have seen and become accustomed to the “look” of a certain picture, and then, in a museum or at an auction, you have a chance to see a well made vintage print, and now you understand the picture more deeply. So I am definitely not dismissing the often crucial difference between vintage prints and later ones. Sometime this is a matter of the paper, the chemicals, and the subtle control that the photographer originally exercised, which are not available even to the same photographer at a later time. However if a later print is true to the heart of the picture, and is reasonably priced, this can be a boon to some collectors.

An early print has a different status than, for example, a first edition book. The first edition book has a special character just because it is the first, and it will be valued by collectors higher than later printings that may actually be better produced. With photographs it is not just a matter of “first” but of how it looks.

I always favor careful looking above some external factor that is easy to notice. With daguerreotypes, for example, I don’t make a fetish about “original seals.” One should be able to immediately see the quality of a plate by looking at it even from a little distance. You don’t need to turn it over and inspect the seals in order to see if the surface is rich and glowing or dull or thin.

On the other hand there is some value in early in itself. I am surprised that in cases where the photographer was a photo journalist (as so many of the great ones were) there is not enough appreciation of the very first press photographs of an image that is later printed as an art photograph, prettied up and signed. The later photograph often has a value that is very much out of proportion to the original use. It is sometimes a commercial product far from the photographer’s original intent. Early original press prints and even wire photos have a charm and immediacy that is not present in later art prints. And they are not as easy to come by as one might think. This is an interesting area for collecting now, before the prices will start to climb.

I have sometimes had to do appraisals of collections that include negatives. The hard fact is that negatives are generally perceived as having almost no value in themselves. Their only value is in the prints that can be made from them. This was recently borne out in the ridiculous affair of the group of negatives that were claimed to have been lost negatives by Ansel Adams. The huge value that was placed on them (by those who thought to profit from them) was in the projected sales of prints made from these negatives..

But the negative is the actual record of the artist’s original vision. If Adams thought of the negative as the “score” for the print, his choice of composition and exposure would already have been guided by his sense of its printing possibilities. It was not thought of as something to exhibit, but it should have the value of a prior version of a final masterpiece, like the draft of a poem, the sketch of a painting. It should have a value in proportion to its true significance. And especially glass negatives, relics of a bygone era, are fascinating objects.


The Be-hold auctions consist of material that I select from what comes before me in the space of a few months.  I’ll be sending you soon an announcement with the auction details (separate from these Newsletters.)  The material is already up on the be-hold.com website. I think it’s the strongest selection that I’ve presented. In this Newsletter I’ve gone off in various directions that don’t necessarily apply to the auction, but I hope this might stimulate some thinking about the relative value and collecting importance of photographs. As the major auctions more and more rely on sales of the special material that sells for the top values, Be-hold has become an important source of material that may not reach those values, but that can be exciting for collectors. It is to all our benefit to continually reassess the values that may pertain to great collecting.