Fine Art Photography Collecting – What to look for when starting your collection


Photography is one of the youngest mediums, only rising to popularity as an art form in the 1970s. Today, contemporary photography can be found in private and institutional collections across the globe, and at top international auction houses, including Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Dortheum. Over the last few decades, the capacity of photography to convey complex aesthetics combined with the artist’s precise technical control has inspired a well-deserved following by art lovers and collectors alike.

Purchasing artwork has the potential to be a nerve-wracking undertaking – starting a collection even more so. If you’re just embarking on your journey as a collector, photography is one of the most affordable ways to begin. There is a wealth of information and advice about investing in art, but how does it apply to this relatively new medium? We’ve delved into topic, scouring the sources for their top tips on starting a photography collection.

“Buying art is the same thing as falling in love” Nohra Haime

When you’re simply buying a photographic work of art, the purchase tends to be driven by personal preferences – you like the work, or perhaps you want to support the artist’s practice. On the other hand, collecting has two purposes: a collector often chooses works that will form a pleasing aesthetic group alongside other works and the purchase is an informed financial decision. According to Deloitte’s Art & Finance 2016 report, 72% of experienced collectors purchase art based on an investment-driven passion for the work, while only a few (6%) purchased art purely as an investment. This leads to the first and most important question collectors ask themselves: Do you like the work? Regardless of whether your photography collection is serious or leisurely pursuit, great collectors are true to their personal tastes and instincts. As New York-based gallerist Nohra Haime once said, “Buying art is the same thing as falling in love” and should never be purchased with the expectation that it will increase in value – the joy of collecting comes from having a great piece on your wall.

Just as with any significant purchase, you’ll want to know more about what you’re buying: Who is the artist? While it may feel slightly passionless to delve into the body of work and history of a photographer, a collector should have a sense of who created the work they are purchasing. Is the photographer actively working and producing in their field? Are they represented by a gallery or featured online? What types of exhibitions or publications have they been featured in? From the stunning landscapes of Ansel Adams to Annie Liebovitz’s intimate portraits, it’s worth noting that many photographers also have thriving commercial practices, publishing their work in magazines and advertising in addition to their artistic practice. By gathering information and asking questions about the artist and the work, you’re not only on the first step to establishing provenance, but also likely have a more intimate understanding of both the work and the photographer’s motivation. Likewise, seek out new works from burgeoning photographers you enjoy as well as recommendations from other sources (such as BLACK IRIS guest curator, Christiane Bördner).

"I noticed what a difference a picture could make to the ambience of a room, and indeed how shifting work around could change a room's whole feeling." Michael Audain

This leads any fine photography collector to the next step: provenance. Simply put, provenance is written documentation about the work’s origins, which will be provided by any reputable seller. While it may not seem important for a work you simply want to have on your wall, good documentation increases the work’s future market value and more importantly, conclusively authenticates the work. This means – keep your receipts any time you purchase work as well as documentation including the title, year and edition. The source of the artwork also is important – is it a reputable, registered business working with established firms? Not to be forgotten is the growing online market – in the Art & Finance 2016 report, 73% of art professionals and 63% of art collectors surveyed believe that online sales of artwork will grow in coming years –meaning, online platforms for purchasing artwork, such as BLACK IRIS, are a fantastic resource.

Printing, size and placement: The printing process chosen by a photographer can be as important, and intentional, as their subject matter. New technologies have extended the life of a photograph by decades (if not centuries). A quality print from an experienced printer will augment the tones, depth and life of a photograph. Here, it always best to choose the highest quality available. Size and placement also play a determining role in collecting photography. Renowned Canadian collector and philanthropist Michael Audain speaks of his humble beginnings, remarking, “I started collecting […] simply because I wanted pictures to hang on the wall. I noticed what a difference a picture could make to the ambience of a room, and indeed how shifting work around could change a room’s whole feeling.” Larger images have a larger impact, yet smaller, serial images can result in a striking a visual aesthetic in a space.

And finally, perhaps the most satisfying aspect of collecting (after having a work you love) – see the world. Hang out with people in the art scene, go to exhibitions and museums and have conversations about art. Listen and learn from others. Talk to gallerists, artists and other collectors. The effects are multifold – not only will you increase your expertise for future purchases, but you’ll inevitably cultivate friendships –earning you both knowledge, and possibly, some insider tips.