Fine Art Photography

What (and How) Photography Collectors Buy Now

August 7, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

There are more ways to buy fine-art photographic prints than ever before, including a variety of online marketplaces. We asked five collectors about the photography prints they’ve bought in recent years, to find out where and how they made their purchases. The criteria they consider when buying a photograph are as varied as their interests, backgrounds and experience. Some asked to remain anonymous, and we’ve agreed to use only their first names. Though modest about their collections and their budgets, they are all equally excited by photography and spoke with affection about the images they’ve purchased.

© Karen Miranda Rivadeneira

Months after she heard Karen Miranda Rivadeneira explain how she made the photo “Seven Saints, Seven Devils,” a newcomer to collecting contacted Rivandeneira’s gallery to purchase the work. © Karen Miranda Rivadeneira

The Newcomer

Michelle, Financial advisor
New York City area

A longtime amateur photographer, Michelle began educating herself about the fine-art photography market two years ago after she bought a small, signed Steve McCurry print on eBay. She later learned that it had originally been sold in Magnum’s annual Square Print sale. After “snooping around online” for more prints she liked, she decided she needed to learn more about how photography prints are sold. As a professional investment advisor, she explains, “In my regular line of work, I wouldn’t make an investment for someone without doing my due diligence.” She took a workshop with collector and consultant Alice Sachs Zimet to learn about the difference between limited editions and open editions, “what to look for, and how to go about [buying], and how to research to make good decisions.”

In Zimet’s workshop she learned about “the plethora of ways to buy: auctions, online benefit auctions, benefit auctions in person, galleries, private dealers.” The workshop also taught her how prints are valued. “The market lacks a lot of transparency,” she notes. For example, she was interested in a Bruce Davidson photo available for sale in a benefit auction, then she found the same image for sale at a different price on the Magnum website. “You find that a lot,” she says. In Zimet’s class, she says, she learned that the retail price set by a gallery might differ from prices set by a photographer or a collector selling a print. She also began “understanding editions and artist’s proofs, and obviously that the higher the [numbered] print in the edition, the higher the price.”

She attended her first art fair, AIPAD, this year. She has also found the photography community “very welcoming to newcomers,” she says. “Walking into a photography gallery doesn’t have the same intimidation factor for that walking into other galleries or luxury retail spaces does.”   

Her buying is now “more sophisticated,” she says. When she has bought older works by William Klein and Sid Avery through galleries, she’s looked for signed prints made under the artist’s supervision. She appreciates the practice of limiting print editions. “I find as a collector, there’s satisfaction knowing that there is a finite number of objects out there.” So far, she hasn’t focused on one style or artist, but simply bought images she likes. “If it hits me in the solar plexus and I can’t stop thinking about it, I think that’s telling me something.”

During a gallery tour, she heard Karen Miranda Rivadeneira explain how she conceived and staged the images in a series she made in Andean villages in Ecuador, including the photo “Seven Saints, Seven Devils,” which shows costumed figures resting in an outdoor cafe. “I couldn’t get the photo out of my mind for months,” says Michelle. She finally contacted the gallery to purchase a print of the image.

“The hunt” for images excites her. When she missed a chance to bid on a vintage Sid Avery image at auction, she contacted the gallery representing his estate and asked for information on the print. “I was thrilled to get an artist-signed print of an image that I really loved,” she says. “A little part of me is thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if I were to find an up-and-coming artist I loved before anyone else, or if I stumbled on some masterpiece?”

© Barbara Strigel

Barbara Strigel’s “One Tree.” © Barbara Strigel

The Thematic Collector

Larry, Retired lawyer

Washington, DC

Larry estimates he has 300 to 350 prints, but isn’t sure; about 80 percent of his collection is in boxes and drawers. Since the 1980s, he’s been an impassioned collector of what he calls “new New Topographics”: artists inspired by the 1975 “New Topographics” show, as well as photographers who document “landscapes between landscapes,” he says.

“Now that I’ve basically collected the survey of contemporary American color landscape photographers, I’ve given myself some leeway,” and begun adding work by international artists, Polaroid still lifes and other work that attracts his interest. “A lot of the work I acquire now is by new photographers who don’t yet have gallery representation.”

His attention to new artists began after he bought prints by San Francisco-based artist Sarah Christianson, from her series about her family’s ranch in North Dakota. “She’s documenting changes to the land as a result of her family entering into oil leasing agreements to support the ranch,” Larry explains. He first saw Christianson’s work through the newsletter Your Daily Photograph. He contacted Christianson, and after an exchange of emails about her work, bought several of her North Dakota images, and later met her. He says, “She was really the first young artist, I think, I could talk to and actually meet. That creates a different sort of relationship with the artist than the purely transactional relationship with the gallery.”

In their correspondence, Christianson said his purchase provided her with the funds to continue her project, and to rent a helicopter to make aerial images. “The tiniest light bulb went off,” Larry recalls. “It sort of turned me onto this phase of my collecting where I feel it’s worth supporting artists.”

He adds, “I’m not investing in Sarah so that someday she’ll have a show at SFMOMA and the value of her photographs will go through the roof. I’ve learned you can’t play that game.” The images he buys demonstrate “technical mastery,” fit “the visual esthetic of the collection I’m putting together,” and must also “be saying something interesting or new.” Edition size doesn’t matter to him. “Are there six other people who have this image? Who cares? If the image works, it works.”

He notes, “There’s this dynamic in collecting: New work informs existing work, existing work tells you something about what to look for in a new artist’s work.”

For example, when he met artist Peter Croteau, “I told him that his work reminds me of Jeff Brouws, whose work I have.” Croteau said he’d studied Brouws’s work; Larry bought seven of his prints. After he purchased Christianson’s work on North Dakota, he visited Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco and saw Rebecca Norris Webb’s “My Dakota” series, which she made in her home state of South Dakota after her brother’s death. “In an interesting way, having seen and collected Sarah’s work—a young artist struggling with how to portray her family’s land—it informs something about the work of Rebecca, a very accomplished photographer. I got about five of her prints that were absolutely beautiful.”

He maintains relationships with about 15 galleries around the U.S. and visits art fairs, but he has a number of ways of finding new artists. When Photograph magazine did a feature on some photographers showcased by the nonprofit Blue Sky Gallery, he introduced himself via email to three of them: Barbara Strigel, Isaac Sachs and David Kressler. They sent him jpegs, and he bought prints from all three. A feature in Photograph also inspired him to contact Edie Bresler and buy prints from her series “We Sold a Winner,” on stores that have sold winning lottery tickets. Through the Washington Post In Sight Blog, he discovered the industrial landscapes of Niko J. Kallianiotis.

He makes a point to look at the images sold in the annual benefit auction for Photo Review. After he purchased a print by Lynn Saville through the auction, Saville sent him an invitation to the opening of a show. “I was delighted,” he says.  He emailed her, and they arranged to meet at AIPAD for an hour-long conversation.   

Though he finds most artists’ statements “off-putting,” he says, “I have yet to meet a photographer who is not articulate about their process.” When he corresponds with artists, “I’m hoping that it becomes a gratifying conversation on both sides,” he says. He wishes artists would foster more of these dialogues. “I’m surprised that some of the artists I collect don’t say, ‘Would you mind if I gave your name to this colleague of mine? You might love his work.’ Aren’t they helping each other out?”

© Matthew Pillsbury Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC.

Matthew Pillsbury’s “La Sainte Chapelle, Paris,” 2008. © Matthew Pillsbury Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC. Robert, a collector for 15 years, says he’s interested “to see how artists grow and change over time.”

The Un-Iconic Collectors

Robert and Joan

Architect and lawyer (respectively)

Boston, MA

At the AIPAD art fair in March, Robert and Joan were introduced to photographer Witho Worms at the L. Parker Stephenson Gallery booth, and he explained his printing process to them. They decided to buy two prints. “That was the first time that we’d seen them,” Robert says. That quick decision is unusual for them. In the 15 years they have been buying photographic prints, “We’ve often seen artists before and are looking for just the right image from that artist,” Robert says. “We sometimes buy impulsively, but more frequently we see an artist, like an artist, and we look for the right thing to buy.”

For example, they followed John Chiara’s work for years. One day while visiting Yossi Milo Gallery in New York, the director told them some new Chiara prints had just come in. “We looked at them, and we saw the one that clicked for us.”

They visit galleries in New York City and Boston regularly, so gallery owners have learned their tastes. “Every once in a while I get an email from someone saying, ‘Here’s a new piece from an artist we know you’re interested in.’” They will ask the dealer to mail the print to them so they can check its quality, and return it if they aren’t happy.

In choosing what to buy, “It’s not just about the image. It’s about a point of view.” Their collection of images include mid-20th century photographers and several contemporary ones. Many, such as Alison Rossiter, Marco Breuer, Matthew Brandt and Chris McCaw, make work that is “abstract, process oriented,” Robert explains.  He adds, “We don’t necessarily go after the most iconic images of any artist. We usually can’t afford them.” An architect who studied art history, Robert says he’s interested “to see how artists grow and change over time.” Of the works by Ray K. Metzker that they own, for example, one was made at the end of the photographer’s life: “It’s very different from the others,” Robert says.

They’ve also bought images by young artists early in their careers. Some, such as Alex Prager, Sam Falls and Matthew Pillsbury, “have ended up becoming well known,” he says. He adds, “It’s fun to invest in them because these artists, particularly the young ones, have a hard time making a living.” In recent years, he notes, prices have risen even for new artists with limited exhibition histories. “It’s harder to say I’m going to spend $5,000 on a new artist than to say I’m going to spend $1,000.”

Of the many prints they’ve purchased, Robert says there’s only one they now consider “a mistake.” They bought it from a gallery they had visited many times without purchasing  a print. “We felt obligated to buy something,” he explains. In hindsight, he says, “We should have gotten over it.”

They have hung all their prints salon-style on the crowded walls of their apartments in Boston and New York City. Robert notes, “I love hanging the pictures and finding pictures that have something to do with each other.” One wall is devoted to images made in New York City by different artists at different times and in different styles.

“We’re proud of what we’ve collected and what we’ve learned and the way we put things together, and it hasn’t been on a huge budget,” Robert says. “I love walking into my house and seeing these pictures.”

© Isa Leshk

Isa Leshko’s “Phyllis.” © Isa Leshko. A collector read a magazine article about Leshko’s work, and looked up her galleries. After buying one print, the collector says, “I was so taken by her work, I wanted more.”

The Casual Collector

Lucie, former biologist

Charlotte, NC

Lucie says the photos and paintings that she and her husband have bought over the years were impulse buys. “We’ll just fall in love with something that has a lot of meaning to us, or the beauty of it takes our breath away, and we’d love to see it every day.”

After working as a biologist for a decade, Lucie is now the full-time caretaker for her autistic son, so her opportunities to travel are limited. Most recently, while passing through Charleston, South Carolina, Lucie and her husband purchased images of wildlife by nature photographer Jamie Cathcart Rood that they saw displayed in a resort. A nature lover concerned with animal welfare, Lucie notes, “My daily work as a caregiver is very stressful, and I think I gravitate to artwork that radiates peace.”

After she read an article in Smithsonian about photographer Isa Leshko’s “Elderly Animals” series, featuring portraits she made at farm sanctuaries, Lucie wanted to know more, so she visited Leshko’s website. Leshko had posted on her website a short film showing how she approaches her subjects. “I was moved to tears,” Lucie recalls. The website also links to the two galleries that represent Leshko’s work. Lucie contacted both to say she wanted to purchase prints.

Through Richard Levy Gallery, she first bought an image of Phyllis, the elderly sheep Leshko was photographing in the video. Though she was buying the limited edition print sight unseen, she says, “Maybe because it had been featured in Smithsonian, I had assumed the quality [of the print] was great.” After the first print arrived in the mail, Lucie adds, “I was so taken by her work, I wanted more.” She bought another large print and some smaller-sized prints through the gallery, and bought another Leshko print through Fraction magazine’s annual print sale.

Lucie has chosen to put the animal portraits in different parts of her house. In her bedroom, for example, she has both the photo of Phyllis and a photo of two sheep together. “The two sheep [photo] reminds me of my relationship with my husband. When we approach the winter season of our life, we’ll be together,” she says.   

Lucie says of owning the work, “Perhaps to be able to choose how to display the art is our own chance to be artistic.”

Courtesy of Thames and Hudson

The limited edition print sold with the collector’s edition of Alex Prager’s Silver Lake Drive. Richard has purchased several prints from publishers funding book projects through print sales. Courtesy of Thames and Hudson.

The Everywhere and Anywhere Collector

Richard, Albuquerque

Richard has been dealing photography in one form or another—cartes de visites, found images by unknown artists, editioned work by contemporary artists—for 40 years. When it comes to his own collecting, Richard buys prints “everywhere and anywhere.” “I’ve used every online resource there is, and there are tons of them,” he says. They include online benefit auctions for nonprofits and arts organizations, and eBay. “I’m happy to just find something I like anywhere online, and take a chance on it.”

Every year, for example, when the Museum of Contemporary Photography holds an online print sale to benefit the museum, he checks out the three prints they’re selling. “Some years, I bought all three, some years I didn’t like them,” he says. He’s bought prints from the Fraction magazine holiday print sale. When a nonprofit gallery in London sold a small print by Elger Esser for 300 pounds, he bought one.   

“I spend hours looking at whatever I can find anywhere,” he says. A story on The New York Times Lens Blog introduced him to Natsumi Hayashi, a young Japanese photographer. “I wrote to her and said I would love to buy something for myself,” he recalls. She had just signed with a gallery, which shipped him the print.

He also purchases photo books that are printed in limited editions and are sold with a small print. He recently acquired an Alex Prager print that was sold with her new book. Prints like those are often in an edition of 100. “Some collectors will say, ‘Oh no,’ if it’s more than five or six [prints in the edition], they don’t want it,” he says. “I’m not as concerned with that as people I sell to. They want one of the only prints in the world.” He adds that some of his customers look at fine-art prints as investments, and believe the scarcity of a print adds to its value. He advises: “Buy this to enhance your life and make your life better by seeing it every day.”

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