The very first thing to do when you're thinking about putting together a collection of photographs is to choose what I would call your principles of collection. (I'm certain I came across the term while reading about book collecting.) A collection is not a mere gathering; it's not just an accumulation of pictures you like. It needs to have a theme, a unifying idea. The principles of collection are merely the boundaries you choose for what will be allowed in or kept out.
As far as I'm concerned, everything and anything is fair game for specifying. What the picture is of; when it was made; how it was made; by whom it was made; the process it was made by; how you found it; the style it's in; what size it is; what it was used for; its significance; its value; whose taste it suits; who once owned it; etc.—the list can literally be as long as your imagination can make it, and the parameters can be as sensible or as quirky as you like. Not all things have to be specified, of course. But just about anything can be.
You can collect pictures of diesel locomotives, cartes des visite found in antiques shops, pictures made so early in the digital era you can see pixels in them, landscapes that exclude sky, pictures purchased for $25 or less, ultra-large-format contact prints, photographs by painters, representations of Mexico City, pictures with a lot of orange in them...let your imagination run. The possibilities are unlimited. It's up to you.
Although anybody can collect on any principles they decide on, I believe that one crucial distinction between a "real" collection and just an agglomeration of work is to be found in the exercise of taste. It's essential that a guiding sensibility reside behind the choices. Collecting is a form of connoisseurship. And well-chosen principles of collection enable the sensibility or sensibilities behind them. They don't limit, but guide; they make it easy to ignore the temptations of nice things that don't fit and motivate your pursuit of those that do. Pick the right principles of collection (for you) and you'll be off and running—ideas will spring to mind; quarry will appear in your sights; the principles you choose will be like a filter that let luminous examples shine through like a bright penny among pebbles.
So what are mine? I'd say, but I don't quite know yet. I've narrowed it down. I'm getting closer. I'll keep you apprised.
Featured Comment by sporobolus:
"I appreciate your attempt to explore this subject, but I think it
might be more valuable to focus on the nature of collecting, rather
than 'the collection'; by positing that principles and taste must come
first, before a state of 'attainment' arrives, you've set an impossible
barrier to those who would grow and evolve through a life of
interaction with art, who would see it as a path without end.
"I would hope principles and taste are a side-effect of collecting,
not something to be deliberately sought or set out in advance; in other
words the principles evolve and become more clear as we develop
knowledge and interests—we pursue our small and large obsessions and
recognize in them our neurosis and imperfection, and while the first
reaction might be to defeat neurosis, eventually we start to accept it,
and thus we have a principle (long after we have a collection).
"Meanwhile taste is a constructive engagement with society, and a process, not a state; collecting can be used as a vehicle to play the game, or dance the dance, of taste; but if it is considered a solidified pre-requisite then it will doom collecting to be a process of making inedible pickles...I would rather that a collection continue to squirm while it is in my arms, and not sit in specimen jars until I do too (if ever)."