Photographers who aren't collectors of photography might be only vaguely aware of the art market's obsession with so-called "vintage" prints. I consider it almost a form of hysteria, a sort of derangement.
A "vintage" print is one that the photographer made within a certain short time of taking the picture. The idea is that it's supposed to be more authentic, because it reflects how the photographer was working and visualizing at the time. Really, of course, it's yet another way of increasing scarcity and hyping rarity—important means of jacking up prices.
It makes a certain amount of sense, as most fundamentally bad ideas do. It's meant to distinguish between artifacts made in the thick of the creative drive that spawned them, and editions made later to capitalize (perhaps) on a picture's popularity or a photographer's increasing reputation.
There's nothing worse to the art market than a printmaker who can flood the market with perfectly good new prints of pictures that have already established a track record for value. It destabilizes prices, and acts as a sort of ex-post-facto deflation on the value of products that dealers might already have sold. If Great Photographer A made thirty prints when he was young of a picture that later becomes sought-after, those prints create a market value based on their scarcity and availability, one that is reflected in the established auction record. If GPA then makes another edition of 300 new prints of the same picture as an old man, the older prints would naturally be worth less—unless you could somehow distinguish them from the later prints.
Another reason vintage prints might be more "authentic" is because materials change over time. If Great Photographer B made a picture when he was printing on "real" Portriga (the good stuff, before they took the cadmium out), then presumably he visualized the picture and made the negative for printing on that paper. A modern paper might have a different characteristic curve and a different print color, etc., and the same negative couldn't be printed the same way it was originally. So even if the same photographer makes a print from the same negative, it might not result in a similar print to what what was originally intended.
All very sensible.
But the practice leads to all sorts of idiocy and distortion of real value, if "real" means the inherent value of a print as an art-object and craft-object, as something someone would want to own. Because if GPA makes a small batch of prints of a given picture right after he took it, and then a large batch of prints from the same negative 30 years later, it's clear which are vintage and which are modern, and preferring the vintage version might make sense. But what about Great Photographer C, who makes a few prints from the same negative every year for years after she took the picture—say, to fulfill sales orders for it?
In this case, the art market has a ready answer: vintage prints are considered to be those made within five years of the time the negative was made. Which is, of course, absurd. It means that GPC could have made five prints of a 1980 negative in 1984 and five more exactly identical prints in 1986 and the former would be worth more than the latter. Really? (I always wanted to schedule a printing session for a certain negative exactly five years after it was made, so prints from the very same darkroom session would be split between "vintage" and "modern" versions. I'd do it, too, except for the considerable fly-in-the-ointment that nobody in the art market cares about my prints whatever their age.*)
And what about the case of a photographer who shoots a lot during a hectic youth, and prints a lot in a more leisurely older age?
More than that: what about a photographer who learns to be a better printmaker later in life, and makes later prints that are much superior to his earlier ones? This is David Vestal's main objection to the "vintage print" mania. He feels he's making much better prints recently than he used to, but that collectors and galleries prefer, and pay more for, his inferior earlier prints than for his superior later ones. (He'd also probably like to be able to make the same money for prints he could make now as he gets for older ones.)
Of course the materials argument can be turned on its head too. What if an old negative can be printed much better on newer materials? What if the photographer was simply too impoverished to buy good paper back when he took the picture, but later in life can lavish more money and time on making great prints?
An absurdity that's unfortunately not uncommon these days is that some really crappy scraps of peoples' early work—repro prints, file prints, proofs—are going for highly inflated prices just because they're vintage. They're rare, don'cha know. Oooh.
Is it good?
Personally, I think two things should mainly have an impact on the value of a print: whether the photographer made it—or, in the case of photographers who didn't ever make their own prints, whether it was made under their supervision and with their approval during their lifetimes, which would mainly be signified if they signed it; and how good a print it is. Personally, I'd much rather have a really good modern print of a picture I liked than an obviously inferior but "vintage" one.
There should be no distinction made between the age of prints made by a living photographer, certainly. As long as a print is made or approved by the photographer as meeting his or her standards as his or her art, it makes no sense to me to exalt some and scorn others, except on the basis of intrinsic merit.
...In a perfect world, that would be.
*They'll be sorry when I'm dead!
Featured Comment by John Camp: "I have a collection of prints both vintage and non-vintage, although the vintage prints are usually the ones that were not so sought-after (by photographers who were out of fashion, or 'lesser' images by photographers who were in fashion) because the very designation drove the prices of sought-after prints out of my buying range.
"And my feeling is that, in general, the later prints are better. As a photographer becomes better known, and more experienced, and has more money to spend on printing, and is more sensitive to reputation, the technical quality of the prints seems to improve.
"Also, the flip side of the concept of 'initial authenticity' is 'he thought about it longer and more deeply.' This last aspect is pretty visible in iconic prints like Adams' 'Moonrise.' I've seen some vintage prints that seem not so good to me, because I'm not sure he'd fully conceptualized them, to use an offensive cliche. Art ideas do evolve, and later is often better.
" 'Vintage' isn't always a sales tactic. There are genuine 'vintage prints'—prints by people like Julia Margaret Cameron, of which only one or two exist. But what is a 'vintage print' by someone like Richard Prince, who didn't even make the original? I think 'limited edition' would be a better designator in those cases...."
Featured Comment by Maxim Muir: "Hello Mike,
"Years ago, the Joslyn Museum in Omaha had a deplorable exhibit of Dorothea Lange vintage prints. Many well known classic images were included, but the prints had bad to horrible fading/sulfiding from age and environmental (air pollution) exposure. To make matters worse, the lighting on the prints was poor (as if the dim lighting would effect the deteriorating prints further). Archival printing methods were not practiced in the 1930s–1940s and it clearly showed in this exhibit. :)
"My poor wife had to listen to me make variations of the same remark endlessly the entire time we were there; 'let me get my hands on the negatives, and I will make prints that do not sully Ms. Lange's reputation.' What value is there to a vintage print when it makes the viewing experience a positively painful one?
"I had a similar experience with an Edward Weston show at the same venue. I was hoping to see some beautiful Cole Weston prints of the classic images (Cole was a better printer of his father's work IMO). What I saw was more deteriorating/random sulfiding of some of my favorite Weston photos. Since Weston is among my photographic heroes (along with Bruce Davidson and John Sexton) the sight of these prints literally filled me with sadness, and tears were visibly flowing from my eyes! (My wife thought I was being moved emotionally for other reasons:))
"Honestly, I would gladly pay more (if I had the funds) for a Cole Weston print than any vintage Edward Weston original. How are deteriorating/ badly printed vintage prints going to convince any non-photographers among us to appreciate the artists involved? It sure beats me!"