Reading the last three TOP discussions and a perusing some of the referenced sites raise the following question in my mind. From the perspective of a photography collector, rather than relying on the traditional mechanism of the gallery system, would one be any worse off investing serious critical time to identify prints to acquire directly through artist websites?
I have seen on these sites some terrific work at shockingly low prices, which I confess is a very compelling combination. Setting aside the work they show from very well established artists, the gallerists charge hefty sums even for the work of newcomers to the gallery scene. This premium, I suppose, is justified on several grounds. Since the artist was anointed by the gallery, his or her work is more valuable by that fact alone. A gallery show certainly provides a higher level of exposure, which impacts immediate and prospective demand for the artist's work. Also, in choosing any new artist, the gallery invariable has eliminated hundreds or thousands of alternatives deemed less deserving of gallery representation.
That may be a fair deal for collectors who don't trust their own ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. Historically, however, the collector's principal reliance on the gallery system has been based on a different type of necessity: individual collectors simply have not been in a position to directly survey the work of artists. There was no mechanism for countless artists to submit slides of their work directly to collectors for review, as artists did with galleries.
I don't know why I haven't thought this through before, but isn't it the case that all these photographer websites create the basis for a paradigm shift?
I have, or have had, several areas of collecting focus over the years. Very early pioneering photography; 19th century photography of Spain; what I call "accidentally modernist" 19th century photography; Czech photography; some classic modernists; a good number of well-known contemporary photographers; etc. I am now weighing the possibility of a little collection garnered directly from photographer websites. Perhaps 30 or so images carefully selected from these sources alone—sublime from the virtual five and dime. I'm wondering how good such body of work can be but, given sufficient spade work, I think there might be reason for optimism.
"Calvin Amari" is the pseudonym of a photography collector who prefers to remain anonymous.Featured Comment by Dalton: "I have been treading these waters for a couple of years now, so I might be able to provide some insight. A significant portion of my photography collection (somewhere around 40–50 prints now) comes from photographers I've discovered through their websites. I've either purchased prints from them directly or traded with them for one of my own prints. Many of these are unrepresented artists, but occasionally they are gallery artists who are selling work that is not part of their gallery portfolio. The quality of the work can vary, but overall I have been extremely happy with my growing collection.
"I think there is more great art out there than the gallery system can currently handle. Projects like Jen Bekman's 20x200 make art affordable and does a lot of the 'spade work' you mention, but there are still many, many artists who are under-represented and looking to make some money and get exposure from their work.
"I can also speak from personal experience as a photographer who sells my work directly through my website: it works! I have sold a surprising number of prints in the last year, and developed a significant network of collectors and friends who support my work. Whether or not I am able to parlay that into a career as a fine-art photographer (it's a tall, steep hill, and I'm still at the very bottom looking up), the experience of making those connections and feeling rewarded for my work has been worth it.
"Two websites to visit: printsociety.com, which is a directory of work sold directly by artists, and kickstarter.com, which has created a new model of fundraising for artists. On Kickstarter, artists are able to post project ideas and then solicit funds to complete the project. I recently funded a photographer this way and it feels really good!"
Featured Comment by Mark Hobson: "Kudos to Cal for 'thinking it through' and coming to the conclusion that he can just do it.
"I assume that he has managed this feat because, as a collector, he actually likes pictures as opposed to liking their return-on-investment potential.
"While I agree with his paradigm shift premise, the fly in that ointment is still similar to that of the good ole days—even though the web does put individual collectors 'in a position to directly survey the work of artists,' the amount of time it takes to find the wheat amongst the chaff can be staggering, eye-blurring, and mind-numbing.
"What I would like to see is a paradigm shift that includes web portal sites that are devoted to presenting 'pre-screened' photo website listings of those sites that merit at least a look. Those portals would by necessity have to be subscription-based services, mostly likely with a fairly substantial fee that would cover the costs of operation and ongoing research.
"However, I wouldn't think that a subscription cost would be a deal-killer for serious collectors. Especially since the portal would take no cut on sales and there would still be plenty of sublime-from-the-five-and-dime deals at shockingly low prices out there."
Mike comments: I don't disagree with you, but one thing you're presuming is that there would be agreement as to which sites would "merit at least a look." I've found over the years that photography collectors are like music collectors: you can have two people who are equally passionate and who both have huge collections, but with no, or very little, overlap. The big advantage of the web is the same as the big disadvantage: there is no equivalent to the gallerist imposing his or her taste on the selections, so you can (or have to, depending on how you look at it) go make your own.Featured Comment by Rodger Kingston: "For ten years or more I have been buying vintage photographs on eBay to add to my collection. Some of my finest images have come from this source, and I might add that I have been burned only a very few times, usually by sellers who misrepresented what they were selling out of ignorance, not dishonesty. Only a couple of times have items just never come. Mind you, this is out of many hundreds of purchases.
"As to buying from living photographers off their web sites, I don't see why not; as long as you can establish a good dialog with the photographer, and there is full understanding about exactly what is being bought (what kind of print it is, size, condition, edition size if any, and especially the return policy), then I'd say it's a wide open field with great possibilities.
"The only problem is one common to all mail order purchases: you have to forgo handling or seeing the actual print before buying. Top mail order sites such as L.L. Bean get around that problem by providing great customer service, fast, inexpensive shipping, and a fabulous return policy.
"I have sold prints and limited edition artist books off my web site numerous times. I always exchange multiple emails with potential buyers, and even talk with them by phone when possible. I let them know that their satisfaction is guaranteed. I've never had a problem, and have even made a few new friends."
Featured Comment by Jeffrey Goggin: "The only cautionary note about the 'buying directly from photographers' approach I would add is that, based upon my very limited experience of swapping prints with other photographers, the image that caught your eye on a monitor and the one you eventually hold in your hand may not look nearly as alike as you may expect.
"Sometimes the prints have looked better, but most of the time they have looked worse, presumably because the web doesn't demand nearly as much from an image file as a printer does.
"In short, unless you're paying essentially throw away money for a print, I would insist upon a review period during which you can return it for any reason."