Head Thrown Back

head-thrown-back_003_smallTitle: Head Thrown Back

Year: 1983
Dimensions: 39.5 × 32 in / 100.3 × 81.3 cm
Availability: For Sale

In these works from the 1980s, Coleman takes Polacolor originals self-portraits and subjects them to detailed hand work — scratching, drawing and painting, adding material to the surface. In Coleman’s practice, she has rephotographed the originals to make large gelatin silver prints.

31. Grannie’s Trove

I’m interrupting the thread of recent newsletters to comment on news I just received on my inbox. As these Be-hold newsletters deal with issues of collecting photographs, I just had to write about this.
The heading was ”A grandmother’s trove of Civil War photos goes to Library of Congress.” The email just preceding this announced the acquisition of the great Lincoln and Civil War collection of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation by Yale University.

Both of these are national treasures. I’m just struck by the different ways they are presented in the articles that are linked to the emails.

I will omit commenting on the sexist and related age-ist differences, because I’m confident they will be obvious.  [Is Kunhardt a grandpa?]

The issue here is that Kunhardt has made use of his collection in many ways through publications and other means. While much of the collection was inherited, Kunhardt added to it and organized it, and so has earned serious scholarly credentials.

Robin Stanford, on the other hand, had no such credentials [although she generously lent her images to some publications.] As the articles make clear, she discovered stereo views early in her life, and began collecting them, focussing her collecting on the Civil War. Fortunately she had the means and time to devote to her collecting in a major way. Many stereo view dealers and collectors knew her and she was and is universally respected for the passion and intelligence of her collecting.

An implied theme of the articles about her collection is that a “mere civilian” who collected these photographs out of love could have amassed a collection of such significance. “Grandma” gives the story a wry “human interest” [what a term!] aspect that takes it away from the cultural significance.

There is a vague and ultimately meaningless distinction between a “professional” photographer and a photographic artist. “Professional” photographers are often thought of as somewhat low-level practitioners of, say, wedding photography. But many of the photographers in the canon made their living with fashion or news or portrait assignments, and somehow the quality of their work became recognized and accepted into the sacred realm of art.

Similarly there is a blurred line separating what we think of as “master” [is there an issue of wealth and power here?] collectors and amateur (“loving”) collectors.

I’m wondering what the difference is between a collection put together by someone out of love, fascination, compulsive acquisition, and one acquired with the conscious aim of contributing to cultural knowledge or other motives, including financial.

Many collections are formed out of passion, but also with the hope and knowledge that their monetary value will be considerably more than their cost. Almost every auction season sees a private collection coming on the market, with great honors heaped on the collector, as well, usually, with great profit.

Many of these collections have been assembled at a far greater cost than Stanford’s, a much greater cost than most who read these newsletters can manage, even if they stretch their resources. Many collectors become more knowledgeable as their collection grows, and their collections can add to the cultural heritage of society.

It is fortunate that Stanford’s collection was significant enough to attract the interest of Carol Johnson, formerly of the Library of Congress, who helped arrange for its acquisition, as well as its public availability on the Library’s website.

Stanford had planned to leave the collection to her son, who passed away. Many collectors, as they age, discover that their families have little interest or understanding of the collection. Sadly many of these collections get dispersed and the knowledge and conceptual thought that went into them gets lost.

As usual, many more issues come tumbling forth than what I started with, so it seems best to leave this open-ended for the time being

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.


New YearNew Year

It includes a photographed design by Peter Britt, who was an artist as well as a photographer, His son Emil joined his father’s studio in 1883, and so it was appropriate for his portrait to be on this card.

Peter Britt (1819 – 1905) was the pioneering photographer in Southern Oregon throughout the 19th Century.

There is a soft horizontal bend about one inch to the right of the left edge that doesn’t break the surface.

$150 – Postage paid within US, $10 to Canada

27. GENERATIONS–How close to the original?

This is the 27th of these occasional essays on collecting photographs.

The daguerreotype plate that you usually see in a case or passepartout was itself once in the camera. It was worked on to create the image that we see, still on that original silver surface. In some cases the daguerreotypist would take several successive images, each one requiring a new plate in the camera, but this was costly and only done in special circumstances. Each plate is unique.

There was frequently a need to have several copies of an image, so instead of using additional studio time (in the case of portraits) the studio would frequently make a copy or copies of a daguerreotype onto additional plates. This could be done with a copy-stand without requiring additional sittings with the necessary adjustment of posing and lighting each time. Thus copies of daguerreotypes made in the original studio are not uncommon.
They are part of the normal practice of the era. Scenes were copied as well, as needed.

Paper copies of daguerreotypes were also made. There are many salted-paper copy prints of important portraits or other significant subjects. But these are less common than copies on daguerreotype plates. Daguerreotypists were usually not familiar with techniques of photographing and printing on paper, and albums of paper photographs were a separate market than daguerreotypes in the early period.

Often we cannot tell whether a daguerreotype is “original” or a copy. In the period it seems that it was of little consequence to owners whether a daguerreotype was an original or a copy.  There are sometimes telltale signs that a daguerreotype has been copied from another plate. Some artifact on the surface of the original plate is now in the image on the copy plate. Or, if the daguerreotype is unsealed so the entire plate can be seen, one can sometimes see the edges of the original plate or even part of the frame inside the edges of the copy.

Indian daguerreotype in case and mat

Indian daguerreotype in case and mat

In this unsealed daguerreotype, the entire plate--and part of the frame inside the edges of the copy--can be seen.

In this unsealed daguerreotype, the entire plate–and part of the frame inside the edges of the copy–can be seen.

A certain amount of magical thinking views the original as containing something of the aura of the subject, whether a portrait or a scene, because it occupied the same space and time of the subject. In that view, the daguerreotype not only captures a visual impression of an instant, but it itself preserves something of that instant it shared with the subject. The daguerreotype is seen as a type of mirror of the scene that was before it.

This of course ignores the things about a daguerreotype that give it its special character far different from the mirror [or the actual scene in front of the camera]. The contribution of the physical process, the lens and other mechanical attributes of the camera, the framing and other elements of the photographer’s vision in composing the image and working with the plate and the chemistry, result in an object that has its own object nature.

It is surprising that this fetish does not carry as much into photographs on paper, especially from the now vanishing era of film. After all it is the negative that was in the camera, just as the original daguerreotype plate was.

Calotype paper negatives, from the same era as daguerreotypes, are seen as having their own aesthetic merit. Their physical characteristics are appreciated in themselves. They are not seen simply as just the source of the “real” photograph, and are not particularly valued for having been in the camera at the time/space of the exposure.

The glass plate negative, on the other hand, is usually not seen as having any merit other than as the source of the ultimate photograph. It carries no aura of having been in the camera and thus sharing the time/space of the subject. Its reversal of dark/light values, only a stretch removed from the “artificiality” of black and white itself, is only appreciated as a special effect, for example in some surrealist photographs. These are already from the era of flexible film, where the often miniature negative carries almost no value other than its utilitarian purpose.

It is true that exhibiting glass negatives still presents a challenge, but until recently daguerreotypes and other small formats were a challenge for museums to present.

The magic aura that attached to the daguerreotype from being in the presence of the subject is similar to the aura of the presence of the photographer in the print. The photographer’s “eye” is present in the picture. The spirit of the photographer’s hand is thought to be present in the print. This is part of the value given to the vintage print, and to the signature. A signature in the negative that shows in the print is seen as a copy, and less authentic than a “hand-signed” name.

Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay that is iconic in photographic theory, thought the loss of “aura” was one of the great features of photography, precisely because copies could be widely available that would be hardly distinguishable from the original.

In the 19th century there was already a distinction between the photographer and the printer. Alexander Gardner’s Sketchbook credited the printer as well as the photographer. Blanquard-Evrard’s printing establishment was understood as having printed many of the “vintage” prints of major 19th-century French photographers. Many stereographs credit the “publisher” as well as the photographer, or in some cases only the publisher. Anthony only sometimes credited the photographer, but always credited themselves. In most cases the actual printer is unknown, except perhaps to experts. This is especially true of the photographs by 20th-century masters.

What of the numerous prints of a picture? Even when the photographer prints them, are they always printed from the original negative? Surely not. A system of copy negatives was soon established. For widely disseminated images such as stereo views and cartes de visite, there were many copy negatives required to keep up with the demand. Indeed in order to print stereo views from the individual left and right glass negatives it was required to make a copy negative that would put the two images in their proper relationship.

As far as I am aware there is much to be learned about the printing details of most 20th century photographs. Contact sheets by their nature were made from the original negatives. But when did those negatives cease to be used for printing, and what replaced them? How many generations away from the original negative is a certain print? To what extent is a print a “copy” often multiple times away from the original? Doesn’t the intervention of the enlarger and the techniques of printing enhance rather than detract, even though they remove the print from an exact duplication of what was in the camera?

Getting back to what began these thoughts, I’m questioning why a copy daguerreotype is undervalued, as opposed to a paper print that may be many generations away from its “original.”

The materials of copy negatives were designed and constantly improved to give a “faithful” rendering of the desired image. Often the final print would intentionally reveal something of the intermediate process, for example in many pictorialist pictures.

Collectors of widely distributed small format processes such as stereo views and cartes de visite are familiar with crudely printed copy prints that were made from re-photographing paper prints. They are easily recognized because of their poor quality, and are justly looked down on.

But what of the numerous images that appear on different mounts, crediting different photographers than the known maker of the original? Many of these are only distinguished from the “original” by the name or lack of name on the mount. Are these images less directly “from life” than the images on the original mounts that were made from copy negatives?

Vintage press prints and even wire photographs are starting to receive the attention they deserve, as authentic “immediate” renderings of the subject. Indeed they often do convey the aura of the scene as originally captured much more so than later exhibition prints. Each version of a photograph is several generations away from what was in the camera, and each has its own strengths.

Are copy daguerreotypes comparable to those justifiably sneered views that were illegitimately copied from original prints and offer a degraded rendering of the original? I would argue that they were a legitimate part of daguerreian activities, generally made by the studio that produced the original, and should be viewed as many other forms of photographic prints.

I hope this has generated some thought about subjects that are important to explore further. How these issues carry into the digital area requires much more thought.

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