Issue #239  2/16/2018
In Praise of History, Context, Richness, Knowledge and Understanding in Photography (and Art)

By Alex Novak

"Tomorrow was created yesterday...And by the day before yesterday, too."--John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man

During my visit to last November's Paris Photo, I had a run-in with a man in the crowded aisles. He told our small casual group—quite haughtily—that "his generation", which, by the way, was nearly my own since I placed him easily near 60, was only interested in contemporary photography and art, and that 19th-century and 20th-century vintage photography and art were dead and unimportant.

The absolute absurdity and shortsightedness of the comment had me nearly biting my tongue through. But it is an idea that even some of my compatriots in the business area of photography sometimes give voice to--albeit with trepidation. After all, many of the largest art and photography collectors have either died off or are reaching a disconcerting age, as well as some of the dealers themselves. Although I might point out that that is also true of the entire art market (contemporary included). And while it is not unusual for contemporary pieces to eclipse earlier masterworks at auction, vintage photography has also continued to claim records. Although I don't believe, as one art market reporter once told me, that art should be judged by the only objective criterion: its price. Yikes!

At least we in photography don't have to put up with repeated headlines about how "Painting is Dead!" Talk about déjà vu all over again. I just saw that headline on LinkedIn last week. The first time the quote was used was in 1839 by Paul Delaroche, whose more complete quote was, "From today, painting is dead," after seeing a daguerreotype. So much for dire predictions.

Smart phones and Instagram often make it feel though like photography is becoming the provenance of all and none, especially when numerous contemporary artists make use of these sources for work that they sell in six-figures in some cases. Art photography has become one bad selfie to many—at least to the many who don't understand it or its context.

The night after this "disturbance in the force" I spoke to those who attended our annual Paris Photo group dinner, which is put on by Francoise and Alain Paviot, RX Galerie and my own Contemporary Works/Vintage Works. It is a large but very select group of curators, collectors and experts who are invited. But this year instead of my typical short "thank you" to those who came together as a part of the photo community, I decided to talk more at length about this important and ill-understood issue. The room was more than half full with contemporary collectors, and there were many dinner guests much younger than my antagonist at Paris Photo—indeed a fair number were even 20 and 30-somethings.

I discussed the encounter and suggested that with a lack of interest in art and photo history, some collectors of contemporary work had little-to-no understanding or appreciation for the work and artists that they collect. This lack of historical context cut these collectors off from a rich and complex relationship with the very art that they collect. If art or photographs are cut off from such an understanding, I believe they become only decorative. And decoration alone is not art in my view, nor the intent of the artist.

Daguerreian Society 2016 Pre-Conference Symposium Panel: "How Contemporary Art Photographers Are Influenced and Impacted by 19th-Century Photography and Its Processes.  Photo by Carlos Vertanessian.
Daguerreian Society 2016 Pre-Conference Symposium Panel: "How Contemporary Art Photographers Are Influenced and Impacted by 19th-Century Photography and Its Processes. Photo by Carlos Vertanessian.

After all, many of today's top artists, not only collect vintage 19th- and 20-century photographs themselves, but also utilize the same ideas, approaches, context and even photography techniques from these earlier periods. They look for the magic of prior eras' complexity. To name just a few who use the photography medium, contemporary artists such as Vik Muniz, Sally Mann, Chuck Close, Joel-Peter Witkin, Adam Fuss, Vera Lutter, Chris McCaw and Jerry Spagnoli all collect and/or utilize photo history as an integral part of their work in some key fashion.

The latter four artists were even on a panel moderated by Head Curator of Photography Sarah Greenough of the National Gallery of Art, who happened to also be in attendance at our dinner in Paris. Their panel focused on "How Contemporary Art Photographers Are Influenced and Impacted by 19th-Century Photography and Its Processes." During that day's program put on by the Daguerreian Society, they were joined by other presenters discussing the intersection of photo history and contemporary art, including several important collectors and experts.

As I said in the Wall Street Journal article covering the event, "It’s not an antiquarian novelty but a continuation. It’s still very much alive and a part of the progression of photography." Vera Lutter called it a "legacy of experimentation and uncertainty." Again, we had attracted many younger attendees to the program, and a mix of people interested in both vintage and contemporary images.

Roman-era nude statue as mural.
Roman-era nude statue as mural.

Since she was also a part of our dinner crowd, I told my audience about my 25-year-old daughter Lohana's recent work with the Louvre. She was one of 25 students in a special program—the only one not an art major, although with an artist mother and a photo dealer father she had enough chops for the job.

As with each of the selected French students, she had to make a presentation, taking an object in the Louvre and making it pertinent in today's world. Her choice was a Roman-era nude statue, which had been used as the image for a huge mural on the side of a building in San Francisco.

She spoke to the Louvre director about how the different contexts affected each other, how history had influenced the contemporary understanding and importance of the image. She could draw parallels between those contexts that often shared issues, such as the objectification of women that has long been and continues to be an issue in art today. How the issue of shame and nudity has changed and what it means for both depictions.

The program was designed to bring the art of the Louvre into the forefront of what is happening today by examining those changing contexts. History and context matter.

As even controversial contemporary artist Jeff Koons once said, "I spend much more time looking at art history and different references to art than I do at actual objects." Not doing so, risks losing so much.

By the way, my daughter's Master's thesis was on the history of photography and its influence down through the years, even through the digital age; and she is now shooting with a 35mm film Cannon, instead of the digital version she started with, because she is interested in all the older processes and wants to be able to experience them directly. Suffice to say that I am very proud of her, but she came to all these decisions most definitely on her own.

After I spoke at our Paris dinner, I had many collectors and curators come up later to thank me for the presentation, and to tell me that it was very much on target and something that needs further discussion.

Some Other Thoughts on Change

There are legitimate issues facing Photography and other parts of the art market. Many of them are identical across the various types of art media. But let's review some basics first.

Yes, there has been a wave change in collecting of all kinds as the Baby Boomer generation rolls through markets. But while the sheer number of collectors declines somewhat as a part of this generational wave, those interested in all aspects of photography, as a percentage has certainly not declined, and probably has gone up significantly.

There is no diminishing of interest in photography that I see at all. In fact, it seems very clear that the interest in photography as an art medium has been growing steadily, way beyond what I see with other art media. As Phillips Worldwide Director of Photographs Vanessa Kramer Hallet noted in Musee Magazine, "The market has changed in the sense that there is more interest than ever. I feel every year the medium becomes more and more established and collectable with a fast growing client base. On average, we have 40% new buyers to our sales each season--it is absolutely incredible. This is of course due to fabulous museum exhibitions, gallery shows, advisors and everyone else who contributes to the economy of the photographs market." I might point out that photo exhibits are breaking museum records over and over, as well as attendance records at the major photography art fairs.

So the question then becomes: Is there less of an interest in photo history and vintage photography? Again, I see little-to-no evidence of such a decline; instead it seems very clear that more and more people are interested in museum and gallery exhibitions on this very area, despite my misinformed Paris Photo contemporary enthusiast.

That's not to say there isn't a corresponding interest in contemporary photography and art. Of course there is. But is there a sudden shift away from vintage to contemporary photography? Or is there a shift in how certain elements of the market are now selling photography?

We've seen the major auctions attempt to change their market position to become part of the retail luxury goods market, selling art, photographs and other collectibles at times like jewelry, handbags, wine and champagne, watches and fast cars. They often position photography and art as one-off decoration. This may be why Phillips and other auction houses are seeing so many "new buyers" every year. They aren't necessarily capturing them as "collectors" and so need to find and replace their customer base when they focus on one-time decorators. The 40-60% "new buyers that the auction houses tout lately are relatively more difficult to attract and then retain if they are only occasional decoration buyers of splashy but mostly vapid contemporary pieces.

As I have pointed out over the years, that's not a particularly good business model long term. And the fact is that when major vintage collections come on the market, they bring a visceral excitement and usually break records along the way. It's actually amazing with all the negativity that one hears from time to time to see that the market has not only absorbed some pretty major collections, but done it with an upslope to values.

But not all is fairy dust and light.

Higher prices, while attracting some, have also made it more difficult for most new collectors to accumulate major work. In other words, the success of vintage photography has sown some of the seeds of its current challenges. The good news is that there continues to be a very active group of new buyers and collectors, but at a current level that doesn't attract many gallerists, but is commiserate with past levels. Having entry-level work is important for the long-term viability and success of the photography market place. It's why I have always had photographs listed on our websites with a huge range in prices, to accommodate both the advanced collector and those with lesser budgets. And it is important to point out that great work doesn't always have to be very expensive.

Dealers often forget their own roots. I started collecting by buying $5 daguerreotypes and stereos and cdv's for under a dollar. While some of those prices show my age, my point is that most collectors—except for the hedge fund guys—don't start at six or seven figures with their purchases, even if they might after 20-30 years move on to higher priced purchases, if they see financial success and continue to be passionate about their collecting interests.

Might I also note though that you can buy an excellent vintage photograph for three or four figures that will grow in value compared to most relatively inexpensive contemporary ones that rarely have any secondary market value. Most of the contemporary market that gets the attention starts in six figures and goes into seven. They aren't usually bought by 20 and 30-somethings any more than are similar priced vintage ones.

So how can we build long-term passion? Knowledge and the process of education. Also a sense of community helps and encourages this—to understand that there are others who definitely share this passion.

One of the key reasons that I worked on the 2016 19th-Century Photography Conference and Show produced by the Daguerreian Society for nearly two years was that I was getting a bit tired of the refrain from many of my clients and compatriots that "I'm the only one interested in 19th-century photography". U.S.A. Today once estimated that there were over 200,000 people collecting 19th-century photography. While that number is wildly exaggerated, it is fair to say that my friends were quite inaccurate with their pronouncements of being alone in their passion. I have seen no drop off in interest in this area, just more isolation of the participants in this era of a "social media" that somehow doesn't bring any of us together. For those that attended that Pre-conference, Conference and Show, I think they should find it a little harder to feel alone in their interests. Frankly I was disappointed, because I knew of many hundreds more that I thought would make more of an effort to attend.

One of my other pet peeves though is art and most photography fairs, largely because they lose their great opportunity to build community and provide true educational programs to encourage newer collectors.

Art and photography fairs have for a while now penalized vintage photography while unwittingly promoting contemporary photography. AIPAD's New York Show is a particular offender, especially in view of its genesis as a vintage photography dealer fair. Over the last several years virtually nothing has been presented in its educational programs that would indicate that there was still a thriving and important vintage market for both 19th and 20th-century photography. Everything has been focused on mid-level contemporary photography artists. It's done way too little to attract new collectors for its core vintage dealers. The one program promoting "Young Collectors" has been poorly thought through, but it at least had good intentions.

Of course, I don't want to just single out AIPAD, which would truly be unfair. Lack of in-depth educational programming that explores more than today's latest flavor of the day is a truism for virtually all the major photography fairs, including Paris Photo, Photo London, Arles (and other such photo events) and what's left of the photography shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

It's not that this was done on purpose; it's just that it's easier to find speakers (usually the contemporary photographers themselves) to talk about contemporary photography in a vacuum. I will say one thing for Paris Photo: their website at least has an extensive glossary of photography processes with examples, which is one nice way to educate those who come to that website that there are more than color inkjet prints out there. And their educational program is a bit more creative, albeit way too focused on just contemporary photography, and mostly in French. Photo London gets plaudits for its educational programs, which rightly deserve some praise, although they too could be a bit more balanced in their programming. At least they make an attempt. They hire a real curator to build the program with quality experts and good speakers.

And I don't mean to say that contemporary photography shouldn't be a part of the educational discussion, particularly when it's not just a piece of self-serving fluff and a simplistic slide show of an artist's latest work (or a panel of artists or a collector or curator doing the same thing). But it should be part of the broader discussion that puts it into context.

Another aspect of the art and some photography fairs is their ban on bins, or in the case of AIPAD, their demotion and semi-exile of exhibitors who use bins. If you asked most attendees, you would get positive answers about availability of more photographs. When I was just a collector, my love was to focus on going through and finding a gem in an exhibitor's bins. It also allows a dealer to bring work at a more reasonable price point, thereby encouraging more new collectors. Exhibitors know full well how expensive show wall real estate is. For a more local exhibitor it can cost $40,000-80,000 or more all in to exhibit. For an international exhibitor, it is not unusual to pay $65,000-100,000 or much more. Putting up photos that start at $10,000 and up, doesn't exactly pull in and encourage new prospects—or even older, more advanced collectors, for that matter.

Because of this, too many shows are focused on expensive, mediocre big color contemporary pieces. I actually stopped going to Paris Photo for a year or two, because—at least for a while--they lost their balance and there was no work on the walls that I had any interest in at all. And, of course, no bins.

The high expense of the big shows and their focus on expensive--mostly decorative--wall pieces has heralded a recent return of more successful tabletop shows both in NYC and Paris. But these satellite fairs are largely dependent on the major shows for their audience draw, and their educational aspects are frankly non-existent. But at least they allow beginners a more inexpensive way to join the larger photography community.

Today personal community and non-academic educational opportunities have been largely replaced with social media. That is an issue, since Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc. really don't provide trusted, in-depth information or a true sense of community, more than they provide a dysfunctional opportunity in one-upmanship.

What is needed instead is a major effort on the part of the entire photo community to provide an educational base to build collector knowledge and passion. I appreciate the occasional—too occasional unfortunately—efforts by the auction houses to provide panel sessions and speakers on topics related to upcoming auctions. And many universities and some other institutions often have good focused programs that are hampered by a lack of exposure and publicity and limited by their small local audience. The Daguerreian Society has often produced some excellent speakers and topics for its annual conference, but serious funding issues and having to rely on erratic volunteer support also limits the Society's contributions. No similar 20th-century collection group exists.

The major photography fairs in New York City, Paris, Arles and London could launch such programs if they were inclined and capable, but I am not holding my breath. It's an area that foundation funding could provide considerable support for the overall photo community, but I am not holding my breath. Institutions could partner with major photo fairs and provide in-depth educational programs. Again, I am not holding my breath.

To end with the full quote from writer and philosopher George Santayana is so eminently fitting here: "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Novak has over 47 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Photographic Historical Society (APHS). He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, or AIPAD. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and has sold at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, Art Miami, etc.