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Thursday, 19 March 2009


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It's prices segmentation. Let museums and art-investors bid themselves to nirvana over "vintage" prints. People who care about having the art and not the resale value have cheaper access to non-vintage prints as a result.

Which is pretty much how the world sorts itself out. Museums buy the "real" prints for millions and then sell coffee table books and posters and prints at the gift shop.

Mike, I'm with you, and Larry Kudlow, get rid of mark-to-market accounting. ;)

Once again I seem to agree with you. So, the current state of the art market is good for us as collectors -- it sends the big money chasing the prints we don't value that much, leaving the others for us. Not so good for artists, though, who end up not getting good prices for their good prints a time of life when they may need the money.

Remember, art collecting is about the collecting, not about the art. (Certainly some people can appreciate both at once.)

Tangentially related: what about the whole notion of limiting editions of photographs in general? A photograph, by nature, can be reproduced an infinite number of times, but the art market seems to favor more expensive limited editions. I am OK with it in the sense that it creates an incentive to purchase (especially when edition numbers are low or an edition is just about to sell out), but I've never been happy about the fact that, once I've made and sold that last print, I can never make another one again.

But clearly here, the real issue is not so much "vintage" vs. "modern" prints. It's about who makes the profit off the art. Vintage prints most likely made the artist very little money, but made collectors lots.

It's understandable that artists would want to capture more of that profit, but I don't see how it's possible, without trying to go toward some sort of licensing scheme where you're "leasing" the work from an artist. And I think anything like that is just doomed to failure (with good reason.)

Right on, Mike.

I think that this near-obsessive focus on "vintage prints" among collectors, dealers, and other cogs of the "art market" is just one aspect of the great divide between that world and the artist-photographer's. The interests / desires / goals of the market -- those who treat the artist's work as a commodity to be bought, sold, invested in, traded, etc. -- often don't align with that of the person who made the "product" (who likely created the work because he just had to or wanted to, regardless of whether anyone would pay him to do it or not).

E.g., I personally would much prefer that (cost/production issues aside) 10,000 people had a print of one of my photographs, at a cost of $1 each, rather than 2 people having a print each at a cost of $5000. Assuming that the profit to me is the same (i.e., likely meager in either case), I would prefer that more people see / own my work than fewer.

The art market, of course, would much prefer the opposite. Scarcity is a driving force in that world, and collectors take great pride in owning rare items (I've had the collecting affliction in the past, for midcentury design objects and furnishings). Collectors generally aren't interested in things that anyone else can have.

Somewhat relatedly, I've long had some discomfort with the very idea of collecting photographs. I understand that individual prints can be precious objects, art items worthy of being cherished. But collecting almost always demands scarcity in the items sought, and the notion of enforcing scarcity on photographs seems to go against one of our medium's fundamental aspects -- that it is democratic, in many ways, one of which is that photographs (well, most) are infinitely reproducible. It's not a painting in this respect -- and this is something we should embrace.

'Nuff rambling.

Since when have prices in the art world made any logical sense? It's all a big confidence game. I'm not sure what the point is in complaining about it. It is what it is.

The vintage print carries with it some historical significance. If an image changed how people percieved art and/or the world in its time, then that old print, with its old interpretation did it, not the new one made today.

Isn't this similar in other collector's markets with multiples? Think old books, or music on vinyl. Surely, the newest editions of these classics are higher quality. Yet, the first printings are more collectable.

I think anytime you have a few people, with too much money, as the bulk of your market, you'll be exposed to irrational pricing. I'm just a simple guy - if it looks good and I can afford it and have a place to hang it, I'll buy it.

Of course, the real question is 'which one looks better on my wall?'

I took a workshop with Mr. Vestal 20+ years back; I enjoyed it, and in retrospect, learned a great deal from it. One thing that has stuck with me was (I'm paraphrasing here) that the art business is art's traditional enemy.

Before you judge vintage seekers too harshly, consider your own value guide: why does the photographer's creation or approval of the print matter? I read a while back about a painting selling for something like $4 million that will be worth either $4,000 or $40 million depending on if it is or is not proven to be by the famous artist (Rembrandt, if I recall correctly, vs just being by his student). I must confess I would want the print to be by the photographer, and I wouldn't spend millions unless I was getting Rembrandt, but when I thought about this I have to admit it's not terribly logical.

Let me give you a hypothetical: which would you value more, a very good print of a favorite photo by the photographer (not famous, as we don't want you considering resale value, but value to you), or an even better one, as in clearly superior in quality, made after the photographer's death because the estate commissioned a master printer to do a retrospective? (Bonus question: would it make a difference to you on the value if you knew the photographer had wished his negatives destroyed so no one could do just that type of printing?). I probably would want the photographer's print, but I admit this preference is just as arbitrary as the "vintage" one. It's almost like brand loyalty.

Then again, the assignment of the "vintage" label for under 5 years and over 5 years from the time of the photograph just seems arbitrary and absurd. I think I could understand it were identified as a "first printing," like books often are, but if it's just a date then who cares. To each his own I guess.

Actually, I want to follow up that hypothetical with maybe a more difficult one: a very good print by the photographer vs an even better one made against the photographer's wishes by the new rights holder after the rights were seized. If how good it is were the only measure, clearly one buys from the bank. Could certainly happen, see your current favorite photographer Ms. Leibowitz' loan.

I agree with you, Mike. But the core of this particular topic is related as much to the antique market as it is to the art market. Of course they overlap, not coincidentally in identifying and promoting distinctive unreproducible qualities that can command premium prices from fetishists. Whether or not those qualities are of any practical benefit, or were actually early shortcomings, is immaterial to followers.

Anyone want to make an even trade of their beat-up first edition of "The Americans" for my more recent, non-yellowed, better-printed copy?

Seriously, and on a different track, I would like to hear your take (as someone suggested above) on the arbitrarily "limited edition" approach (not as applied to necessarily-limited-by-darkroom-time silver prints or dye transfers, but rather to digital prints spat out of a huge inkjet printer).

I love GPA's work. I always wanted a print of his Moonrise Over Flock Of Sheep.

Dear MikeW.,

Laws that allow the artist to share in future profits are not at all uncommon. It doesn't involve "leasing" at all. The new owner owns the artwork and the artist has no claim on the physical work. It just specifies (in some form or another) that if the work is sold for $X (or X%) more than it sold for previously, the artist gets some fraction of the amount above X.

The size of X, the fraction that goes to the artists, and so on all depend on the specific implementation of the law, but the basic code is pretty straightforward.

Most of the ostensibly "real world" arguments for and against it are red herrings (the artist living in poverty while their works sell for a small fortune is an extraordinarily uncommon stereotype; the suggestion that this somehow "distorts the art market" just makes my head hurt it's so incomprehensible; the paperwork required to track this is in no way difficult). I think it just boils down to people's preferences. I think it's fair and just; I have entirely sympathetic-but-libertarian friends who would consider it inappropriate for law. In my judgment, none of us can marshal particularly compelling arguments that actually have anything to do with art, artists, or the specific issue. It's one of those "policy" things that some people think is a good idea and some think is a bad one.

This is only vaguely related, but I think you might have alluded to it. Understand that when you buy an original artwork, you're buying that physical work, but you're not acquiring any copyright. You are not getting any "license" from the seller unless that's explicit in the sales contract.

Most of us here would know that about photographs. If I buy a photograph from you, I don't have the right to publish it in a book, or make posters of it or put it on T-shirts, not without a license from you for that use. What many people don't realize is that it's true of all artwork. You buy a painting, you get the painting. You don't get reproduction or derivative rights for its use. Those stay with the creator (until they are explicitly sold or transferred).

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

"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?"

The thing is, the art market is schizoid. Some of the time it's about art and aesthetics. And some of the time it's about an investment game. When it's the latter, the pleasing or artistic qualities of a work are a distant second consideration. When they are considered at all.

All of a sudden, half way through this post, it dawned on me... I have a Johnston print lying around somewhere! I framed it right away and finished reading the post with Elliot looking over my shoulder!

To answer your hypothetical, I would personally prefer the better print not made by the photographer. (I actually do prefer pristine reissues of LP records and excellent quality modern editions of books to the originals.) But I would consider it wholly logical if the conventions of the market as a whole were to prefer the photographer's own prints.

Caveat: the "better" prints couldn't go against the photographer's own known style or intentions...that is, I wouldn't want a "normal contrast" Ralph Gibson or a high-contrast Henry Wessel....


I couldn't agree more, Mike. This is the art market's way of creating scarcity of something quasi-duplicable. Down goes supply, up goes price.

I like to collect things but I'm interested in what is attractive to me and well-made whereas the majority of the collecting market likes to collect what is rare. For example, I don't care how rare that penny is. It looks like all the others. I just like coins with architechtural images on them. Or look- that camera is the special year of the ox version in only 10 known examples! So what? It still takes pictures the same as the regular model. "Yes, but this one goes to 11."

Additionally, I do not have the room or equipment for a darkroom. So, if I have a technically perfect negative I have no way to make a print that later on the museums would want. (Not that I will ever be famous).

Dalton: The whole idea of limiting editions, eh? In photography, I'm against it. It evolved when the printing technology couldn't make as many prints as people really wanted, and the quality of the print degraded through the run if you tried, and in that context it made sense.

Applying it to photography is relatively artificial, and I don't really like that (you probably can't make millions of prints from a negative without damaging it, but that's not the kind of number relevant to "limited" editions; and digital prints of course you can make as many as you need, buying a new printer each time you wear the old one out, because the *file* isn't wearing down).

You're also dependent on the artist to respect the edition they've declared (and suddenly introducing another edition, say a bigger size, is apparently fair game).

This also encourages artists to destroy negatives, which my archivist part and my academic part seriously hate.

It's done basically to get the artist more money (some people won't buy and some galleries won't handle non-limited editions, right?), and while I think some artists get more money than they deserve, they still get it almost entirely from people who want their art buying it, and I can't object to that.

I've read and enjoyed what David Vestal has to say almost forever, and enjoy his pictures whether in collections like "The New York School," or in his newsletters. He captured a furious Manhattan rainstorm (reproduced in the NYSchool) that I've never seen equalled. But why is it that in the two pictures, it is the vintage Vestal that seems to be the Grump?


This article made my eyes well up, unexpectedly.

Vintage Portriga... :(

(Writer sniffs,wipes away a sentimental tear}

How does this work in the era of digital prints? Are there any differences between vintage and non-vintage then?

I appreciate early 'vintage' Johnston comments on photographic equipment. I often like them much better than later ones. Although he may have made better comments recently than he used to, his recent attempts to comment on almost anything in and outside photography dampens the worth of the more recent ones. Also, the more recent comments begin to create inconsistencies with the 'vintage' ones. ;-)))

On the one hand Neil Selkirk is a much better printer than Dian Arbus was, ( or maybe a lot of Arbus's prints are in circulation that would not have have been had she lived ) but on the other hand her prints have an emotional pull that in part derives from their flaws.

Isn't collecting anything a form of insanity anyway?

In a recent conversation with a friend that works in a gallery it was stated that the change in available printing papers was really affecting the perceived quality, desirability and price of some photographers work. I should also comment that I would rather own a less than perfect print created by the photographer than one technically superior made by someone with a less passionate investment in the photo. That may no make sense but it is where I come from on the issue. Well made and well created may not always be the same when it comes to art.

John Sartin: The artist may very well not have any passionate investment in his image by the time he makes the print. This is part of the argument *for* "vintage prints", of course. Particularly a successful artist can easily get tired of his own popular favorites. It seems to me I'd read that Ansel Adams was rather tired of Moonrise, for example.

Indeed. But then, he should have been, since he printed more than 800 copies of it in his lifetime!

I think it's very common for artists to get weary of their most popular undying chestnuts as time goes on. Beethoven was reportedly quite tired of the popularity of the Moonlight Sonata, for instance, and Brian Wilson was reportedly tired of "Good Vibrations."

Of course many artists eventually come to the realization that having a great popular hit whose popularity never diminishes is better than not having one. Chubby Checker made an entire career out of "The Twist," happily singing it several times a night hundreds of nights a year, year after year, decade after decade. Beats a wage-paying job, I guess.


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