Issue #3  6/25/1999
Collecting: Some Of The Basics

By Alex Novak

I know that many of you who get these missives are beginning collectors and much of the information, especially on the auctions with their high-end material may seem totally unconnected to what you do. But here is the point: This top end effects all levels of photography collecting, even the very beginner. And many beginners (like I did, some 23 years ago) grow and develop. Without any roadmaps or understanding, it can be a costly experience. That and a little contact with the field is what I'm really trying to provide. I'll also try to cover some beginning level material now and in the future.

To that end, let me give you some opinions on typical questions that I get asked (in some cases by some very sophisticated people). I will also cover the most recent French and London auctions in the newsletter and some of the latest on the ebay crashes and other goings on. I suggest you print these pages out and read at your leisure. Please note that even though I list specific addressable web sites, many times web site links break in email transmission, so you may have to put these in by hand if you want to go to a site mentioned.

On Daguerreotypes

Make a good first step by joining the Daguerreian Society. You can reach them at their web site: http://www.daguerre.org .

You get a lot of bang for your buck here. First a one inch thick annual with some of the best features on the subject any where; second, the wonderful bi-monthly newsletter, which is really a full fledged magazine at this stage; third, a directory of other collectors and dealers; fourth the best conference and exhibit show in photography collecting (I wish there was something for paper photography like this); and finally the camaraderie of a great group of people.

Besides the Dag Society annuals (some back copies are available through the society), three dag-related books that I recommend heartily:

--The American Daguerreotype by the Rinharts (out of print and about $125; a copy was recently up on ebay for a bit more, but don't pay more than the $125).

--Nineteenth Century Photographic Cases and Frames by Berg. The latter is normally $65, but I have a few copies left for sale for $49.95 plus $3.50 shipping (by book rate 4th class/ins./handling). That's the lowest price that I know of: It even beats Amazon.com by about $10-12, when you include their rather high shipping charges. You can even call me to charge the book. It's the most comprehensive and most recent book on dag cases/frames.

--The three-volume set (Craig's Daguerreian Registry) on daguerreotypists by John Craig. In my opinion, this is the most important contribution made by a single individual to dag research.

These are three books/sets that are still three of the best despite some minor shortcomings.

Then there are the following books that you should consider purchasing: an excellent one on the chemistry of daguerreotypes by Susan Barger and William White: The Daguerreotype Nineteenth Century Technology and Modern Science; a super book on The Scenic Daguerreotype by John Wood (one of our more literate writers); the classic The Daguerreotype in America by Beaumont Newhall (getting a bit scarce now in first editions; you will be lucky to find a copy for under $100; but luckily low priced paperback reprints abound); the other classic book on cases by the Kraniks and still the best reproductions of cases on the market, but out of print; also another good book by the Rinhart's American Daguerreian Art; another classic on important daguerreian portraiture, Facing the Light; and finally the books on Cornelius and Southward & Hawes.

There are lots of other great dag books, but the above are the core of any research library.

On Cleaning and Dags

Most of the questions that I get about dags concern cleaning and how to tell when one has been cleaned. While I do not consider myself an expert (I will leave that title to people like Grant Romer), I will give you my opinion for what it is worth.

First, even telling an old seal from a new one comes with a little experience. Most dag collectors/dealers use Filmoplast P or P90 to reseal dags, which is available from Light Impressions of Rochester, NY. They even have a website. By the way, it's very possible to steam an old seal off, clean the dag and then reseal it. Also many dags were cleaned in the 19th century and early 20th, so old seals really aren't all that they are cracked up to be, despite the emphasis that a lot of collectors put on them. A black light will only tell you if something was done within the last 40 years or so, which is when fluorescence was added to the paper. If it's not falling apart, it's probably not an old seal, and if it is, it may not have prevented the dag from being cleaned any way.

How do you tell a dag is cleaned? Tough one, because there are good and bad ways to clean and some dags look quite wonderful cleaned and others look like a brillo pad has hit them. Most conservative dag collectors/dealers will not touch most dags, except to replace/clean bad glass or to reseal dags without seals or with broken ones (a rather common situation). In fact though, the current curatorial recommendation is to replace the glass at least once every 8-10 years. That means breaking the "precious" seal.

In general, a cleaned dag will have little evidence of tarnish, but even this can be controlled somewhat to keep that "ring" around the edges, especially with the newer ammonia process. If tinted, the tinting will be more subdued. Sometimes an older cleaned dag will exhibit "measles" or spotting, a common side effect of potassium cyanide cleaning. A badly cleaned dag may also exhibit wipes (from very light to bloody awful), loss of contrast and over deterioration of the image. Such a badly cleaned dag is probably to be avoided in most circumstances, but there are always exceptions. By the way, a fuzzy image is NOT one of the trademarks of cleaning but bad focus in the camera or movement in the subject. Also many extremely light surface 'scratches' are merely bad plate polishing marks.

Confused? Well join the club. The "experts" can't tell you definitively whether a well-cleaned dag has been cleaned or not (unless it's really obvious), unless they put the dag under electronic microscopic observation. A cleaning process more in vogue today involves various forms of ammonia treatment, some with electrical help. This process when done correctly can result in a surface that is actually "improved" rather than damaged (seriously, apparently no loss of silver at an atomic level). There is still apparently about a 2% chance that the dag will fog over in the process, although this is more a problem with sputtering cleaning (a not very practical cleaning method that is rarely used).

Also some fogging and surface grime can be removed in a warm distilled water bath. Is this 'cleaning'? Technically I would have to say it is, but is it a problem? Probably not, if done properly.

The problem with most cleaning is that it is done by amateurs using chemicals such as silver cleaners that remove the silver and destroy the plate.

I have personally never cleaned a dag, but I could see circumstances where I would send a dag to an experienced conservator for cleaning. I have also bought cleaned dags, as has EVERY dag dealer in the business, despite denials. Some of the loudest denials come from dealers who occasionally clean their own dags, so beware. A well-cleaned dag is not a detriment in my opinion, only a poorly cleaned one is. This is obviously a controversial statement, but I do think that Susan Barger's information on this subject relative to some forms of ammonia treatment supports this viewpoint. I would love to hear from people like Grant and Ken Nelson (by the way congrats and good luck to you and Meg Kaufman and your move further West). We need more honest and open discussion about this subject rather than some of the more irrational (and dare I say self-serving) responses one usually gets.

On Paper Prints and Hard Images and How to Tell Types

I often get people asking me how to tell the difference between an ambrotype and a dag, or between an albumen or printing out paper; or asking "What is a collotype?" or "How do you tell what is a salt print (something I am always in the market to buy, by the way)?" Here are four books to help you tell and they should be in any photographic library: The Keepers of Light by William Crawford; Care and Identification of 19th Century Photographic Prints by James M. Reilly (and published by Kodak); A Guide to Early Photographic Processes by Coe and Haworth-Booth (and published by the V&A Museum);and Looking at Photographs: A Guide to Technical Terms by Gordon Baldwin.

Basic Books on Photo Collecting

Here are a few of the very best basic core books for your library: The Photograph Collector's Guide by Witkin and London (out of print, I am afraid, but the occasional copy does come up on ebay every once in a while; expect to pay over $200 for the hardbound edition and about $125-150 for the paperback version); the International Guide to Nineteenth Century Photographs by photo dealer Gary Edwards (a great piece of research by Gary and one of my constant tools, but it too is out of print. Gary, do you want to reprint this one?); and while there are hundreds of wonderful histories of photography, let me recommend my friend Michel Frizot's fabulous new A New History of Photography. He was the editor on this huge project, which also involved a who's who of photo history researchers. This last book has recently been issued in English and you can buy this 776 page (!) massive book for under $40. I had recently broke down and paid nearly $250 for the French version before this version was printed! What a true bargain for some wonderful content and images.

If you collect either stereos or cdvs (carte-de-visites), the William Darrah books on these subjects are still the classic information source.

And the last item isn't a book but a CD-ROM: Michele and Michel Auer's Photographs Encyclopaedia International. It is the database where I find much of my information on a photographer.

Where can you get these books/CDs?

Well you can certainly try to buy them on-line at Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble's web site. But I like dealing with real live book dealers, who are helpful and find things that aren't on line. And many times the mammoth online bookstore will take your money but have you waiting for delivery for a VERY long time because they don't stock their own books in many cases (and then try to find a real person to complain to). I've even caught big online bookstores trying to sell out-of-print books that they will never get (but they will take your money for three months or so while you find that out). So here are a few places with real knowledgeable people to get your books:

--Fred and Elizabeth Pajerski at 212-255-6501 (publishes an extensive printed listings of books every quarter and keeps tens of thousands of books in stock), but they are not on-line yet. Best time to reach them is after 6 p.m. on weekdays. Mostly new and recently out of print books. But also a selection of rarer material as well. The best source in the U.S. (and even Europe for that matter) for foreign printed books. Worth setting up an appointment sometime, but they sell mostly from the catalogs. I've bought more books from Fred and Elizabeth than any one else. Maybe the most extensive photo book titles in the world.

--Dawson's Book Shop, Mike Dawson, at 213-469-2186 and listing on the web. This is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) photographically oriented bookstores in the US. Great stock of standard and rare texts. And Mike, like Fred and Elizabeth, is great people. Dawson's also deals in Western Americana, and several other specialty areas. Sells photos as well and puts on a nice lecture series at the shop in LA. Also maintains a large stock, but less Foreign titles.

Caney Booksellers, Joel and Rochelle Caney, at 609-667-7223 in Cherry Hill, NJ, publish catalogs every once and awhile, primarily monographs and rarer titles. Also by appointment and at many book and some photo shows. Good friends.

Henry Feldstein at 718-544-3002. Publishes catalogs occasionally and does the photo shows regularly. He also maintains probably the largest selection of Wegees and Albert Arthur Allens in the country. Good guy. His email is: henryfe@ix.netcom.com .

Also Stephen Rose, who has a new catalog out. He's at 317-926-6031 Email: roseart@indy.net .

Steve is another old friend.

And, of course, Swann's Auction House, 212-254-4710, has the largest selection of books at auction with usually one or two auctions a year. Contact Daile Kaplan.

Best On-Line Research

Try the Eastman House's newly redesigned web site and their database (although in a text only and very antiquated version). This is still the best database around on photographers with over 16,000 names. Look under the 'Ask the Curator' section for the Telnet database http://www.eastman.org/ .

There's also a more basic site with a very short list of some major photographers. You can find it at

http://masters-of-photography.com/ .

For dags, see the Dag Society site listed above under 'On Daguerreotypes'.

Also Robert Leggat's A History of Photography web site is the best such site on the web:

http://www.kbnet.co.uk/rleggat/photo/index.html .

And Bill Becker maintains the American Museum of Photography, with lots of information and some interesting exhibits, mostly from his personal collection. His site address is: http://www.photographymuseum.com/ .

Best Newsletter (Besides this one, of course)

The Photograph Collector is a newsletter that no serious collector or dealer should be without. Published monthly, this 16-page gem is sprightly written by Stephen Perloff and his many contributors (yours truly included). The annual subscription is only $149.95 ($169.95 international airmail). Credit cards are welcome. This newsletter has saved and made me many tens of thousands of dollars, easily repaying the small investment. Lots of insider information, auction reviews and an invaluable calendar of shows, auctions, exhibits, etc. Phone: 215-757-8921. Email: info@photoreview.org .

OK, it's not really for you if you collect very small things, but if you are getting serious about collecting (or dealing in) photography, it is a must.

In addition, it is part of a larger non-profit group that helps support photographers, so your money also goes to a good cause.

The group (Photo Review) has a charity auction each fall. Donations are very much appreciated. Just contact Steve and let him know what you want to donate. Also contact him if you would like to buy an auction catalog. I always get a few choice bargains here each Fall, and, again, it is for a good cause. Lots of reasonably priced items.

Novak has over 45 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. 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 at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.