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Thursday, 14 January 2010


If nothing else, it would make it much easier for your children to unload your "collection" after you bite the dust.

If a person's collection is for their eyes only, I don't see that it matters much in the end. This paradigm seems more academic than it is pleasurable, but who am I to say. I am, and have a motley of everything in my life.

You sure this new found desire to collect in this fashion is not just a metaphor for wanting a cleaner living room? ;-)

It's funny, I just read the comments to the first post after reading this post, and your concept of a collection seems more intuitive to me. Maybe it's because I've read quite a bit (including your writings) about what constitutes a portfolio. And about the value of collections that someone has amassed that are discovered after they die (or that they give away in old age). Nobody ever writes about a hodge podge, but they write about collections that have meaning in and of themselves by being focussed enough that you can view something in depth rather than everything in breadth.

I had been interested in camera collecting at one point. It started with a very small hodge podge which I thought about expanding to single representations of as many types of cameras as possible. A 6x6 TLR, a 126 instamatic, a 110 camera, a 35mm SLR, etc. Sort of a "history" if I made a timeline out of them. I never followed through. Later, I got the idea to collect compact rangefinders when I was taken by the couple of examples I bought and used. I did quite a bit of research to learn about them, about collecting, repairing, setup a priority list of the first few I'd get, then dropped that, too. Now I'm more interested in cleaning the clutter out of my closet. I just don't think I'm the collecting type. (I'm more the packrat type, but the results are far from satisfying).

I view your idea of a collection as a true collection and other peoples ideas as non-collections (a collection in a pedantic sense maybe) but I can see the appeal of the non-collection over the collection myself. I too would rather an assortment of pictures that I simply like to look at rather than a collection with a theme or mission. As I said, I'm not the collecting type. However, I have to add that while I'm inclined to look for standalone photos to put on my walls, I don't believe photography lends itself to the standalone image, and while I wouldn't want to collect in the manner that you describe, I'd also prefer to browse through a good portfolio of pictures; a book or a gallery display, than an assortment of unrelated pictures. Any photos I'd buy would be more "wall art" ... the standalone image that you look at in isolation. For the most part, I'm content to own photo books.

Great post Mike - made me genuinely LOL on a busy commuter train. Only one thing though:

"Would you go to a museum show called "A Bunch of Stuff the Curator Really, Really Liked"?"

Yep, I would - in fact, such a show, done right, would be sort of an antiart (as in antimatter) show in that one would learn a whole lot more about the curator than the exhibits but that would be the point.

Would I buy those books? No, probably not.

But if I'm correct that we agree that maximizing the resale value of the collection is not the point, I'm not sure the analogy to book sales is relevant, either.

And I think I might well enjoy the "stuff the curator likes" show better than most shows.

Given the definition of collection you seem to be working for, my question becomes "why do you want one?". The arguments for a collection seem to be its utility in teaching; and this isn't a strong argument for the personal collection of an introvert (am I wrong in remembering you as an introvert? if so, sorry).

It is easy, thanks to the equalizing effect of the Internet, to lapse into the conceit that commenters routinely know at least as much as the blog-host. With some blogs that may be true, but other blogs rise to the "top" of the blogosphere due mainly to their host's insight. Articulate posts like "What is a Collection?" serve as a useful corrective in reminding us who is the teacher here and who are the students.

Of course, teachers learn a lot from their students, and Mike, you've made clear that enlightened reader input helps us all, including you. And I'm not saying by any stretch that you're an expert on everything; most readers could whup you on Sandra Bullock movie trivia, for example.

But a big part of wisdom is knowing where one's expertise lies and which areas aren't worth one's energy. I for one appreciate that you know better than to take on every topic and that when you do take one on, you make sure you have something fresh and lucid to offer.

I agree with Mike J., in both posts. For most collectors, collecting is an intellectual exercise derived from a serious interest in art, not a manifestation of greed. Like anything else, there can be a pathological version of it; and there will always be those who spend their lives accumulating money, and then try to buy a little artistic cred by "collecting," usually through the offices of an "art advisor." Unfortunately for them, you can't buy either taste or knowledge.

IMHO, collecting is an excellent (perhaps the best) doorway into art...or, come to think of it, almost any interest or activity.


"from a subset of our commenters (who are a subset of our readers)...It's a grouping in which each piece enhances and informs and enriches the others, and is enhanced and informed and enriched by the others in return."...

Would you go to a museum show called "A Bunch of Stuff the Curator Really, Really Liked"?

If it was the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, most definitely. One of the most astounding collections of stuff I have ever seen.

Actually, after going to some themed exhibitions, I'd be interested in going to "a museum show called "A Bunch of Stuff the Curator Really, Really Liked"

"Would you go to a museum show called "A Bunch of Stuff the Curator Really, Really Liked"? Doubtful".

I certainly would if I knew the curator had similar taste to me but a much broader knowledge base. It is the fine art equivalent of a mix cd (not a mix tape i only want to date myself that much). As such, it can be quite useful in two way: it offers the chance to find new art you like in forms you would not have found on your own, and it offers considerable insight into the mind of the creator/curator. Perhaps you would view this as more appropriate for music and browsing the likes of flickr, but i think it would apply equally to fine art. Incidentally the only way I've found to browse flickr that I actually enjoy is to find someone with similar taste to myself and just look through their favorites.

"Organization, direction, and focus have purely practical purposes too".

This is certainly true. This type of collection seems mostly useful for the display to and education of others. Slightly less useful to the actual collector, and more difficult to set up for most people. I don't have a location I could hang such a collection without breaking it up, and I don't see the point of collecting art to not display/look at it.

Mike, I don't get where the blowback is coming from.

Anyone who ever collected books, or stamps, or comics, or scale models, or toy soldiers, or baseball cards, would understand you perfectly.

In fact most 12 year old boys would grasp this idea immediately. Noone, least of all Bart Simpson, would argue that a complete set of Radioactive Man comics is comparable with a pile of assorted magazines ;)

I read some really second rate sequels and prequels to Frank Herbert's "Dune" because I simply wanted to finish the complete set.

Finding a very rare Venezuelan stamp once sent a friend of mine into ecstasies for a week because no-one else in the UK had one.

My girlfriend likes Victorian engravings of London. You can buy them at junk shops for pennies. An entire wall in her apartment is covered with them, which works well as an aesthetic statement. In that sense they are almost abstract.

A "collection" simply implies that items are worth owning or viewing "as a whole". I saw no implication in either post that it has to defined by some arty-farty intellectual criterion (although why not if you have the knowledge and resources).

I get the impression that a lot of folk on photography forums react to any perceived challenge to their artistic comfort zone as if it were an implied accusation of philistinism.

Guys, it's just a hobby thing.

Personally, if I were creating a collection of photographs, my selections would be based on criteria such as:

1. Subject matter(street, nature, abstract, portraits, etc.)

2. Color only or black and white only

3. Size of print. A collection of small prints OR large prints holds together better than a collection of large AND small prints.

4. Geography. This could range from the United States to a specific state or a specific city.

It would be up to me how broad or narrow my focus could be within the category I chose. If I decided that my collection would consist only of black and white photos of jazz musicians, so be it. Ultimately, I would want it to be at least somewhat obvious to the viewer what the photos in my collection had in common with each other. Without this commonality it would be, in my opinion, just a miscellaneous assortment of photographs.

As a pathological pack rat, I think I know well the distinction you're making, Mike. The pack rat can rationalize in some way anything he "collects", but that's not the same as a set of things collected with an overriding principle or organization that is understandable, even valuable, to others.

It's interesting that a former curator has commented, because I was thinking about the similarities and differences between collecting and curating. It seems to me that on a scale where pack-ratting and self indulgence are at one end and professional curating is at the other, [principled] collecting can be something of a best-of-both-worlds blend of personal pleasure and acquisition, cultivation and education, and creating something that has intrinsic value.

A simple example (conveniently having nothing to do with taste): for a baseball fan, carefully collecting a set of every baseball card ever issued for one's favorite team could provide enormous personal pleasure, as well as creating something of value (to some at least), not to mention the cultivation of knowledge and skills and contacts required for the job.

But with respect to curating, there's quite a difference between curating a collection and curating a show, is there not? I would imagine collecting would be more akin to the former.

I’m sure it will be fun to follow you as you tread toward becoming a “photo collector”. I offer the following off-the-cuff observations and opinions to inform rather than necessarily dissuade you from your project.

First, I can’t help thinking that you’re approaching this bass-ackwards. During recent years my activities have introduced me to quite a few art collectors, many of which have large and extremely valuable art collections (mostly modern) and some of whom have stunningly large and broad photo collections. While their collections and tastes differ, they do all have one attribute in common: they all backed-into becoming collectors often by jonesing over some particular artist or type of work for decades, mostly when it was undervalued. Pursuit of these sometimes obsessive interests produced these collections and long-term appreciation made their valuations swell. By contrast, you’ve declared that you want to become a “collector” and are now trying to discover the answer to the natural question, “Of what?”. I’m not at all sure that’s a healthy approach.

Second, I wonder if the time for collecting photographs may be over? Specifically, the inventory of the world’s notable vintage 20th century black and white prints is largely spoken for. Nearly all of the 8-10 largest private collectors of which I’m aware are reaching the end of their lives and most have committed to donating their collections to museums. Museums, of course, periodically rebalance their collections and sell some pieces through dealers. But it’s not a flood of stuff. So that’s mostly that for photography’s old and most revered stuff.

Meanwhile, significant new work tends to be produced as contemporary art and tries to trade like it...if it’s lucky. That is, it tends to begin at extremely inflated valuations and waits for auctions -- which have not been especially productive lately. The notion of buying some cheap prints from a star of tomorrow seems somewhat unlikely. Trolling the Internet may garner you some low-cost prints of works that you like but it's unlikely to produce anything appreciable. For that you need to work through the pump-an'-dumpers.

Regarding your remark regarding museums’ collections being focused, oh how wrong you are. While you may not see many exhibitions titled, "A Bunch of Stuff the Curator Really, Really Liked" (other than stuff like MoMA’s New Photographers show) you’ll sure see it in their storage vaults. Museums are real hodgepodges of stuff, much of it consequent from large estate donations. The magic of curation is to make it make scholarly sense when it finally hits the gallery floor.

Anyway, what’s the point of my ramblings? Simple. Forget the “Theories of Collecting 101” crap. While you’re at it, forget that you’re “collecting”. You’ll just end up trying to impress others and find yourself with a lot of expensive stuff you don’t like. Start your journey by pursing your base interests. Don’t worry so much if they seem taxonomically disjointed. Jest enjoy yourself and let your interests take you where they may.

Could it not be a collection "of motley". Or could not your collection be simply photobooks I like, or photobooks of images from photographers I like - starts to sound like mine.
Mike, I am not into jazz but I love the blues. Not all the blues. I collect CD's of blues musicians I like.
So does this lessen the intregrity or value of my collections? Not for me.
One of course can extent this (slight pause as the CD changer moves from Rory Gallagher to Deep Purple) to what one photographs. I have a fetish for rocks in wild places. I photograph these - I "collect" these. Now maybe no-one else out there cares for rocks in wild parts of Tasmania but I don't much care. Its my collection.

Most worthwhile collections of art, in any medium, tend to grow organically rather than by design. (I mean affordable art purchased by normal folks, not multi-million dollar vanity collections assembled for wealthy dilettantes by name-brand dealers). Initially this of course can mean just the kind of chaotic motley Mike perfectly illustrates. "I know what I like" is one of those oxymorons; most of us think we do, but often our knowledge and taste are gradually refined through experience and education until we find ourselves collecting things far removed from what we started with. Only over time does our collection develop something like coherence and logic. Conveniently, once we realize what we really love, we can sell off items that don't 'fit' and use the proceeds to purchase items that do.

For example, I started out rather randomly collecting nicely printed letterpress books that struck my fancy. The predictable result was a chaotic mishmash of subjects, periods and styles. It took me years to recognize what I really found meaningful and beautiful in books-as-art. I finally ended up with a much more tightly focused collection of finely printed books circa 1895 to 1940 by small volume American printers, especially books designed by the great Bruce Rogers. Now it's a coherent body that demonstrates an artistic movement and its evolution. (Completely irrelevant aside: most of the books were picked up for a pittance at 'used & rare' book stores across rural New England and NY State back in the 1980s - 1990s. The arrival of the Internet drove prices of recognized masterpieces through the roof. I couldn't afford to duplicate most of it today.)

Two thoughts:

Photographic prints are already a very narrowly defined subset of all art objects.

Think about the Vogels; Herb and Dorothy.

I think Steve & Robert provided some enlightening insight. A collector picks out pieces to round out his collection. A collector knows what's missing and what's overrepresented. Someone who buys what he likes doesn't. His collection can't be 1/4 complete or 1/2 complete. It can't be lacking in anything other than quantity. I can't call my accumulation of music a collection. Nor the contents of my bookcases. A collection probably can be "motley" if there's thought behind what goes into it and what doesn't; if there's a concept of a collection. (My collection of cameras would have been motley, but still with a purpose).

My rule of thumb: any product advertised as "collectible" isn't.

You're on to something there. I actually have a house full of books, and it comprises a collection and a motley. My collection is of photography books. It's a discrete group of books, collected over many years, that includes, in descending order of importance, monographs, exhibition and collection catalogs, histories, critical texts, photographer biographies, and technical texts. The rest of my books are probably triple the number of the photo titles, but they're just a bunch of books. Some nice things, to be sure, some themes here and there, some areas of interest, but it's basically just a bunch of books. The photography titles I regularly cull out and also regularly "round out," as you say. I always sort of have in the back of my mind a list of books I'm looking for and mean to acquire when I come across them. It's definitely not a major collection but it's identifiably a collection. Not so the rest of my books.


So... what's wrong with a motley? They make really good family members when they are canines!

I have a motley in my house which was what I could afford at the time. (The motley AND the house!)

With best regards.


There's nothing wrong with a motley. If that's what you want. Everybody has a few motleys...of something or other. (I imagine.) It's just distinct from a collection, is all.


To me, the pleasure of collecting is learning about what I collect, which of necessity leads to a narrow scope. There is not much to be learned from a random miscellany of things I like, which doesn't diminish the pleasure I may have in the individual items. It's the difference between the pleasure of knowing things and the pleasure of simply owning things. I think Mike has got this one exactly right.

I have a friend who collects other peoples collections. That is to say that she buys things like albums filled with paper napkins or bugs or golf pencils or once a collection of lightning rods.
The best things are the diaries and photo albums compiled by circus performers. Albums full of photos of sideshow performers on their days off.

I wonder whether one's attitude toward a well-defined collection versus a "motley" is consistent with one's attitude toward having a personal style. Some photographers have a lot of images that are individually great but don't necessarily hang together as a coherent collection. Others have images that are not only great by themselves but gain even more strength when viewed collectively. I suspect the latter category is more marketable, but it's just a suspicion. I have no data.

Apropos of Ken T's comment: I think he is rather more talking of aquisition for investment which is rather antithetical to collecting for enjoyment. that a collect may appreciate is not to suggest that should be the aim.

And as a question - is there a point that a motley could grow such that it evolves into a collection by mere volume or implied comprehensive coverage?

Would you go to a museum show called "A Bunch of Stuff the Curator Really, Really Liked"?

Probably. One of my friends was once the director of our local arts centre. As far as the music was concerned, his policy was to book only those acts which he personally liked. A very selfish attitude but every performance was sold out.

Well, to continue the struggle against "collection" :) (which I really don't have anything against, I just wonder why should I limit myself), there's this...

In Zagreb, there's The Mimara Museum.

Everywhere I looked, it says it houses Mimara's collection. But it's extremely diverse. The Wikipedia article doesn't mention old Japanese swords, Chinese porcelain, Persian tapestries and what not. And no, it was not assembled by dealers. Mimara obtained the art all of his life, through some shady dealings sometimes. There's also controversy about some of the works - whether they are originals, "school of" or outright fakes. Nevertheless, he collected anything that struck his fancy.

I guess it's the regular meaning of "collect" that's creating the havoc with the definition.

BTW, like robert e, I'm a bit of a packrat, so it's probably my own leanings that make me rebel against gathering only a limited set.

As has already been mentioned, the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford is a most wonderful collection of "things the curator liked", and while I guess it is really a "motley" it is, I would argue, more captivating and possibly more enlightening than the carefully organised collections of, say, the Natural History museum.

While I agree that there is a difference between a "collection" and a "motley", I sometimes think collections lack soul. The joy of the motley is the unexpected juxtapositions, the possibility of surprise, which I think can often be more revealing than the carefully organised theme.

My own MP3 player is a case in point - the fact that a Blur track can pop up after, say, a Dave Brubeck track can make it seem somehow fresher - the contrast perhaps highlights the particular qualities of the song.



Dennis: Did you just say that somebody who buys what he likes has a motley, but somebody who buys what he doesn't like can have a collection?

Something is missing from this discussion and that is the understanding that there is motley, and then there is, well…… motley.

I remember walking into a museum gallery in the late 1970s and encountering what appeared to be a mish-mash of unrelated photographs of widely diverse subject matter, some old and famous, some cutting-edge, some anonymous and a few that could have been found objects. Within minutes I was overcome by the power and presence of a single unifying vision encompassing the room. These images had more in common with each other than anyone’s assemblage of, say, portraits of baseball greats. It turned out that this was a sampling from the vast collection of Sam Wagstaff, now recognized as one of the greatest of photography collectors.

This selection was not based on subject matter, print style, age, technical virtuosity, market value or any other superficial category. Rather, the glue that held this grouping together was Wagstaff’s commitment to and trust in his own unique sense of what makes photographs (and the world at large) interesting. He collected from passion in the pursuit of pleasure and had faith in his personal views, not a bad set of principles on which to build a collection. His amassed photo treasures are as much a portrait of himself as anything else.

I can’t remember the exact words or whose they are, but a quote comes to mind: a writer writes to find out what he is writing about. The same might be applied to collecting photographs. To begin with a strict set of guidelines is not unlike deciding what a photograph should look like before even leaving the house to ‘find’ it. Such strictures can preclude the possibility of discovering anew the world …. and the self.


I don't know how this idea got started that if you pursue a "real" collection you aren't "buying what you like." Of course you would be--you would almost have to be, because how else could you stay motivated? The point is just that you can't collect everything, so it makes sense to specialize on one more manageable, smaller, circumscribed area, where opportunity (i.e., your funds and your ability to buy), availability (i.e., the stuff you want is actually out there), and interest (i.e., your liking for the stuff) all come together. But of course you'd have to like it.


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