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.


There were many fascinating responses to the last Newsletter, “What is it?

This led me to post it on the be-hold.com website, along with a number of earlier Newsletters. I also instituted a Forum, by which readers can post comments on any of those Newsletters. I hope this will lead to interesting discussions. I have summarized some of the responses to the last Newsletter in my own posting.

The discussion in the Newsletter was directed at two issues. The first was a reading of the actual content of the scene depicted, the “picture.” The other was a consideration of what the “picture” actually was, in terms of the margin and whatever else was on the photographic sheet.

Interestingly, all of the comments were directed at a “reading” of the image. Nobody wrote about the other issue, but that is what I want to continue to pursue in this and probably the next Newsletter.

One might want to think that the actual picture is what the photographer saw in the camera’s view. As a film-maker working in 16mm, one took for granted that the framing the camera gave was unalterable With the development of 16mm optical printers a few filmmakers began to work with altering the camera’s framing, but most accepted the camera’s framing. The situation is different in the digital era, where the camera produces only a template for what the “photograph” could be.

With photographs it was different right from the start. The daguerreotypist or tintype maker could envision the mat that would eventually surround the image, and compose the image with that in mind. Early daguerreotypes with square or octagonal mats seem to have been composed expressly for the shape of the chosen mat. Southworth and Hawes often favored very thin straight mats. But mostly later daguerreotypes were less rigorously composed around the edge.

The fancy mats with curves and points along the sides blurred the straight “edge” of the image. If the mat could be opened, additional details would often be revealed that the mat obscured. Were these part of the picture or outside it?  If the case and mat appear “original” then the image that appears within the mat is usually accepted as the “picture”, and the other details are “behind the scenes.” A not uncommon instance of this is a daguerreotype of a child, with the mother holding the child, hidden behind the mat.

19th-century paper photographs fall into two general sizes. The smaller formats were presented on mounts, often decorated and bearing printed information. While the photograph mounted on the card could be seen as distinct from the mount, the mount and the card are today mostly considered to be one object, married forever. Collectors savor even minute variations of the mount as different objects.

Few would think of removing an albumen print from a carte-de-visite and giving it a different presentation. The “photographic object” is the entire mount, including the edges and the verso, as well as what is on it. Yet oddly, in the CDV era, most CDV’s were inserted into albums that obscured the edges and the verso. Indeed the compartments for the CDV’s in albums were so tight that many CDV’s had their edges and corners trimmed to allow for easier insertion into the album. It is only in recent years that it has been more common to place CDV’s’ in relatively safe sleeves, and collectors make a fetish out of the original edges.

In the current exhibit of Civil War photography at the Metropolitan Museum, CDV’s are presented on simple stands that allow the full object, front and back, to be seen. For some this seems a brilliant solution, only right. For others, used to looking at albums, it seems strange.

At the other end of the size scale, albumen and salt prints were often mounted by the photographer or publisher on very large mounts. These often had letterpress titles, photographer identification, blindstamps and other markings. If these were in turn placed in portfolios or large albums, the entire mount was meant to be seen. The photograph and its mount were a single “photographic object.”

Here is an example of that:





Indeed this presentation also dictated an order in which the images would be seen. The “Hand and the Wall” issue discussed in some of the earlier Newsletters [See Newsletter 4, available on the be-hold.com home page.] was directed at the issue of small-scale photographs, held in the hand, vs. larger ones meant to be hung on the wall. I wasn’t thinking then about these large-scale photographs that were also originally meant to be turned by hand in larger albums or portfolios.

As photograph collecting expanded by both institutions and private collectors, several factors contributed to the dominance of the wall. The original albums and portfolios were scarce and increasingly expensive, so few could manage to acquire complete ones. Those  fortunate enough to own them would have a problem to display them. This was especially true for institutions, that  had a mission to bring in visitors, and to make their holdings available to the public.

Portfolios and albums were broken up and individual “photographic objects” would be purchased or displayed individually on the wall..

Sometimes curators and collectors who make a fetish out of preserving intact albums that were assembled by patrons rather than photographers (such as travel albums that were assembled from the traveler’s choice of prints available in a shop during a world tour) don’t hesitate to display a single page or sheet from an original album or portfolio.

There is certainly a question about presenting a single page separated from its original context. But beyond this is the question about how to present it, if it is to be matted and framed to put on a wall (where it will be seen vertical to the viewer, rather than down on a table.) Following a trend used in  presenting 20th-century photographs, these objects are often matted so that only the photographically printed image is seen in the window of the mat (I’m assuming the mat is not obscuring part of the image, though this is often not the case..) So the picture is floating in a flat sea of mat board, unmoored from any title, number, name or even signature that was part of the original object. In some cases holes are cut into the mat to show some element that is deemed worth showing—little islands far from the shores of the image itself.

Sometimes the scale of the mat has nothing at all to do with the scale of the original object, as the case of small images and even CDV’s mounted in windows cut into huge oversized mounts.

These issues don’t only apply to 19th century photographs on mounts that are part of the photographic object prepared by the photographer. 20th- Century photographers had many choices in how to print their images on the photographic paper they selected. They could, for example, print their image edge-to-edge on the existing paper. Or they could print the image on the full sheet of paper, and then crop it to the edge of the image. Or, as is often the case, they could print the image onto the paper leaving a margin of even or uneven width. Many photographs are found with many deep margins at the bottom or one or both sides.

For instance:


Photographers could also mount their image directly on mounts, and here they had similar choices. They could mount it with symmetrical or unsymmetrical borders. The photographer could decide whether and where to place a signature, title, date and other information, whether the borders or margins were regular or irregular. If some of the information was “far” from the image, this suggests the photographer wanted the entire mat or margin area to be part of the presentation.

Dealers, collectors, gallerists and curators should be mindful of the choices they are making when matting and framing. These very often go against what appears to have been the intention of the photographer as to what constitutes the “photographic object.”

Far from exhausting this subject, I keep thinking about more related issues that I want to explore in the next Newsletter. Meanwhile I invite you to leave comments on this and previous Newsletters by visiting our website, here.


I’m working on several bodies of material for the Fall Be-hold auction. Let me know if you have exciting material to propose for consignment.