Rewriting Photo History?

I like to have a browse through the on-line auction catalogues of photography sales at Sotheby’s from time to time, if only to laugh at the prices that some people seem prepared to pay for some often pretty terrible photographs. Although all the prices seem extremely high these days, some often seem anomalously so, but this at times reflects the scarcity of works by some photographers.

Before photography moved into the art market – which really began in the 1970s – few photographers made many prints of any particular picture. Usually they only needed one or two, and if they made more it was often because they weren’t quite satisfied with what they were making and were trying to improve on the image, perhaps by fairly subtle changes in the dodging and burning.

Many of us spent hours in the darkroom tweaking until we were happy with what we saw, then washed all of the prints, including those we thought hadn’t quite made it, and went to bed leaving them hanging to dry, finding in the morning that we couldn’t see much difference between the final two or three attempts we had made. And given the price of photographic paper we often didn’t like to throw away those that weren’t quite the best either.

Strangely enough, the one thing that has probably increased the average number of prints of any successful photograph more than anything else is the idea of the ‘limited edition’. Photographers who before would have perhaps made only two or three prints started making 20 or 30, and in almost all cases, buying from a limited edition was virtually to guarantee that your purchase was less unique.

Of course there were photographers who did produce and sell large numbers of prints of some images, for example Ansel Adams. If you want to buy one (or several) of his images there are plenty going in the New York sale on April 8, although despite his mass production they are not that cheap.

Sotheby’s is a site that requires free registration if you want to access details or enlarged images rather than just the thumbnails. I use a special e-mail account for such sites rather than my normal personal account and I’d recommend everyone to do the same.

The sale on the previous day, The Quillan Collection of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Photographs is a more interesting collection, not least because of an anonymous photogenic drawing of a leaf which Larry Scharf speculates may have been made by Thomas Wedgewood in the 1790s (or by his friend Humphrey Davy or another member of their circle such as James Watt.) This speculation – and it seems to be little more than this – has raised the expected price from the rather unremarkable image (Scharf calls it “extraordinary”) from a mere $100,000 to considerably more. When sold as an anonymous work at Sotheby’s London in 1984 it went for less than £400.

As an image, it seems a typical result from the kind of exercise that many beginners in the medium make. They find the results of their ‘photograms’ extraordinary too (and often fail to fix them properly.)  Indeed many of us have taught courses where students make their own light-sensitive paper using silver nitrate as a part of their science or photography education, producing results little different from this.

Here what matters is not the image but the artifact, and the critical thing about it is it’s date and who produced it. Scharf’s speculation is obviously not idle, and the details he produces about its possible provenance are interesting, but appear to rely at the moment on rather flimsy evidence, unless there is more than appears in his note on Sotheby’s site. It certainly isn’t something I’d gamble a fortune on – even if I had one.

Also on the 8th is a sale of pictures by Edward Weston that he gave to his sister, Mary Weston Seaman, along with 10 pictures by Brett Weston. There are quite a few Weston images new to me as well – one is an early (1917) pictorial image of her daughter – as some of his better known works. Early works by Weston are fairly unusual as after he adopted a modernist style he destroyed much of his earlier work. Does this make the pictures more valuable or should we agree with his opinion and disregard them?

Peter Marshall

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