Bringing Back the Good Old Days




4 minutes reading

Digital cameras, mobile phones with ultra-megapixel cameras and computers have pushed analogue photography to the background. Nowadays, photography is as accessible as watching TV.

But new developments have also increased the interest in 19th and 20th century art photography. The story of photographer Diane Arbus, who simply gave away one of her images in 1970, not knowing that that it would be worth € 300,000 in 2004, illustrates how photographers used to regard their work a few decades ago. Who’s talking about Art? Photographers shot pictures of what they saw, or wanted to see. Money could be made with republications in papers and magazines, the main market for photographers. It was highly exceptional for a gallery or auction house to show in interest in their work. 

Changing times
Photo galleries are mushrooming and museums focus, to keep their collection contemporary, more on photography than ever before. In 1985, the Rijksmuseum got in before the rush, when it invested € 1.5 million in buying 60,000 images of the Amsterdam collector Bert Hartkamp. When Sotheby’s in London auctioned the collection of the French collector André Jammes for € 10 million in 1999, photography gained an even firmer footing in the art world. The figures speak for themselves: Artprice recently reported that prices for both vintage and contemporary photography increased 30 per cent in the last year and 207 per cent in the last decade. 

An expert’s eye
A silver print has the same effect as a crackling vinyl record: it’s pure nostalgia. When it comes to tonality, resolution and shelf life these silver prints are of a high quality. The simplest way to obtain a vintage barite print is at a gallery, where they can help you find the print of your choice in a calm environment. Galleries also often offer payment in interest-free instalments through the KunstKoopregeling of the Mondriaan Foundation.  A busy auction is a completely different way of buying vintage photography. The Utrecht gallery owner Ton Peek buys 95 per cent of all his purchases -“First I let everybody blow off steam, then I jump at the chance”- at auctions. In his opinion, the auction is where you can get the latest news from experts and where the staff can fill you in on all the details of a photograph’s history. This information is the basis for your decision to buy a work or not. Prices at quality galleries do not differ much from the ones at large auctions; both start from € 2500. If this is a little bit over your budget, you could try your luck at international auctions, which might knock 20 per cent off the price according to collector Josje Janse-de Ronde Bresser. A reason for this could be that there is not so much historic Dutch photography available, especially when it comes to 19th century work. In France, Great Britain and the US there is a much bigger market, enriched by gems from albums of rich families. No other country has so much historic art photography as the US; they have no Rembrandt or Monet but their relatively young history is recorded in photography. A visit to illustrates this point. 

The interest in photographic work from past centuries also resulted in increased attention for contemporary work. Work by contemporary photographers such as Gursky, Dolron and Lux are very much in vogue. These works show that photography is a technical medium with a continuous development. As a result, the perception of what photography means has changed. The first period of photography (19th- 20th century) now has its limitations; the canon consists of distinctive and high-quality work. But nowadays you can compose an image from dozens of negatives, or edit elements in or out of the image, which can make the work come across as emotionally detached. This applies less to early-period photography. If you want the latter, you will have to search for it and pay the price. Traditionally auctions have been the pillar of the market and the price indicator. Galleries are positioning themselves separately, mostly by presenting new names in the public space. In both cases, we advise you to not just go for the big names. First of all, find out what you like, follow your intuition. Needless to say, work from renowned photographers is more expensive than from people at the start of their career. So why not visit exam shows of photo academies and do a little research on photography from underexposed regions of the world. Look for opportunities to buy good work, before prices will sky rocket once again.

Resources to explore:  (One of the oldest and largest photo archives in Europe.) (International visual materials from 1930 to the 1990’s) (Antique firm with more than 40,000 photos from the 19th and 20th century.) (Auction house specialised in photography)