Back in 1993, Gary Sokol, a San Francisco fund manager with Dresdner RCM Global Investors, walked into a show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art that changed his life. The exhibition of photos from the legendary Gilman Paper Co. collection "opened my eyes to how wonderful 19th century photography can be," Sokol recalls. Since then, he has amassed some 500 mainly 19th century French works by photographers such as J.B. Greene and modernist photos from the 1920s and '30s. He now spends much of his free time reading about photography, going to shows, and hobnobbing with other collectors and dealers.
Especially in the last decade, photography has gained respect as an art form. Prices of vintage prints by such masters as Man Ray and Gustav Le Gray have climbed into the millions. That's still relatively affordable compared with what great paintings sell for. New York money manager Arthur Goldberg, a veteran photo collector, predicts there will be "a period of catch-up until the price of photos comes much closer to the price of great art."
To get into photo collecting while the getting is good requires making some basic decisions. First, you need to set a budget. Blue-chip prints by well-known photographers start around $3,500 "and go way up from there," notes Chicago dealer Carol Ehlers. You can still find some signed prints from editions of 75 to 100 by a famous photographer such as Walker Evans or Henri Cartier-Bresson for under $5,000. From the 19th century, works by William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of modern photography, sell for $12,000 to $150,000, says New York dealer Hans Kraus, but one by the lesser-known Alfred Capel-Cure costs only about $3,000.
Your dollars will go furthest if you seek out contemporary works in the $500 to $5,000 range. Sokol says photos by Paula Chamlee and Mark Citret, both highly respected, sell for $800 to $2,000. New York dealer Howard Greenberg recommends Keith Carter, whose dreamlike black-and-white images start at about $800, and Ralph Gibson, whose graphic, often erotic black-and-white photos begin at about $1,500.
People on really limited budgets often collect 19th century visiting cards, which include photos, or even snapshots from flea markets and photo fairs that cost as little as $5. You can find another less expensive alternative on the London art Web site Eyestorm (www.eyestorm.com), which has commissioned series of up to 500 signed prints from established names such as Helmut Newton, Richard Misrach, and Susan Derges. The prices for prints run as low as $400.
But such large editions are not rare enough for some serious collectors. For them, the most desirable are vintage prints made by the photographer as close as possible to when the photo was shot, says Paul Sack, a San Francisco real estate investor who is a major collector. After that come later prints made by the photographer, followed by prints done posthumously or by an assistant during the photographer's old age. Serious collectors usually don't want contemporary prints from an edition of more than 25 or so. Kelly Close, a San Francisco collector who is a medical technology research analyst for U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray, recommends closely tracking photographers you like so you can buy one of the first prints in a new edition. The price tends to rise as an edition sells out.
Many collectors choose a theme. Sack only buys black-and-white photos from before 1975 and insists that each show a building his firm could have bought. Michael Wilson, a London movie producer who has one of the world's biggest collections, favors vintage prints from the first 30 years of photographic history. Lately, he has been buying 19th century ethnological pieces from places such as China and the Middle East featuring people being photographed for the first time.
After that, look at as many photos as possible--in photography books and at museum shows, galleries, and photo fairs. Kelly Close suggests joining a museum auxiliary such as Foto Forum at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The museums with the best photo collections--such as the Met and Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Chicago Art Institute--usually will let you study works in their photo archives if you make an appointment. Web sites such as Eyestorm and Photography in New York (www.photography-guide.com) are other invaluable sources of information.
Wilson says it's also important to "find yourself a good dealer" who will learn your tastes and help scout out potential purchases. Dealers you know well, he says, often will let you take home a print for a few days before you decide whether or not to buy. Among the dealers many collectors recommend are Ehlers in Chicago; Kraus, Greenberg, and the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York; Jeffrey Fraenkel in San Francisco, and Jane Jackson in Atlanta. Collectors also monitor the spring and fall photo auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's.
WIDE RANGE. Gathering intelligence is crucial because print quality varies widely. That's especially true of works from the mid 19th century, when all sorts of processes were used before the advent of transparent negatives. Some collectors prize highly textured salt prints, in which paper was made light sensitive by coating it with salt water and silver nitrate. Prices range from under $500 into the tens of thousands.
Evaluating modern photos is just as tricky. Some collectors doubt that prints using many color processes will last over the long term. Even with more durable black and white, the price difference from one print to another can be big. A print of Identical Twins, one of Diane Arbus' most famous images, went for $270,000 at a Christie's auction last year. A posthumous print of the same image would go for about $25,000, says Rick Wester, director of the international photo department at Christie's. Why the huge gap? The artist herself made and signed the one sold at auction, Wester says. The type of paper Arbus used gave her photos an eery quality absent from those made after her death in 1971.
Learning such esoterica is one of the allures of photo collecting. After a while, the hobby often takes on a life of its own. "Someone once said, `You become a collector the first time you buy something you no longer have room for on your walls,"' Sokol says. Getting to that point can be a lot of fun, too. By Thane Peterson