Now is a great time to get into collecting photography
By Kurt Shaw
Published: Saturday, April 14, 2012, 5:36 p.m.
Four years ago, when Wexford-based dermatologist Dr. Debra Tanner Abell was visiting Miami to attend Art Basel, one of the world's largest contemporary art fairs, she happened upon the work of Canadian photographer David Trautrimas at Photo Miami, one of the many spinoff art fairs that have cropped up around the event.
Intrigued by the industrial look of his work, which combines photographs of old appliances and flea market finds into newly imagined post-apocalyptic cityscapes, she was immediately convinced they would be perfect for decorating her offices.
"I see about 10,000 patients per year," Abell says. "Because Pittsburgh has such an industrial past, I figured a lot of my patients could relate to his work."
An art and antique print collector for many years, Abell has since added more work by contemporary photographers to her collection, most recently the abstract works of New York-based photographer Eileen Quinlan.
As far as art collectors go, she's not alone. Many are acquiring photography as a fitting addition to their collections, with some concentrating on collecting photography exclusively.
Andy Warhol Museum director Eric Shiner says that, currently, photography comprises about 28 percent of his personal collection of contemporary art. Shiner says that not only has photography become an important medium to collect, "It's certainly much more affordable than other forms of contemporary art, or any other art for that matter. And putting pictures on your walls certainly makes your life better."
Shiner says collecting photography rewards collectors at all levels, whether they are newcomers or experienced collectors. Prices for important works can be much lower than in other forms of visual art. That makes it easier to get your feet wet with a purchase or two. But of course, it's not just for newcomers. The medium rewards thoughtful connoisseurship as well as any other art form, so there is always something more to learn and explore.
Shiner is quick to point out that you don't have to travel to Miami or New York to start collecting. This month, Pittsburghers will be privy to two important photography-related events: the PGH Photo Fair, April 21 and 22 in the former YMCA building in East Liberty; and Silver Eye Center for Photography's 2012 Benefit Auction and Brunch on April 29 at Pittsburgh's Clear Story Studio.
Organized by photography collector Evan Mirapaul, the PGH Photo Fair will feature six internationally known dealers who will exhibit museum-quality prints and photo-based art spanning the history of the medium, from 20th-century vintage prints to contemporary photography and photographic book art.
"I invited the highest quality dealers I knew," Mirapaul says. "That was the primary criterion ... I wanted to invite dealers that could bring a lot of knowledge and expertise to any conversation with a new audience, but without any high-art attitude."
This is the first of what Mirapaul hopes will be an annual event. "I want attendees to be completely comfortable asking questions and starting conversations," he says.
One of the local exhibitors at the fair will be Spaces Corners, a newly opened bookshop in Lawrenceville dedicated to the photographic book as a contemporary-art object. Spaces Corners will feature several critically acclaimed photographic books from notable indie publishers. "Our prices go as low as $10 for Jason Fulford's 'Notable Rocks' to as high as $90 for a title such as 'Abendsonne' by Dutch artist Misha de Ridder," bookshop owner Melissa Catanese says.
Shiner says another reason photography is hot right now is that, as it develops into a digital-only realm, original prints -- created in the traditional silver-gelatin process -- are becoming increasingly scarce. "There'll only be so many of them out there," Shiner says. "And that's certainly something to think about when collecting."
Over the past 14 years, Silver Eye's biennial benefit auctions have afforded many local collectors wonderful opportunities to acquire original prints, and this year will be no different. On the auction block will be several original silver-gelatin prints by some of the biggest names in 20th-century photography, such as Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Edward Steichen and local favorite Charles "Teenie" Harris. Currently, about half of the photographs that will be in the April 29 auction are on display at Silver Eye's gallery in South Side.
Ellen Fleurov, Silver Eye's executive director, says although many of the works by contemporary photographers in the auction are digital prints, many more, like an untitled print by Berenice Abbott, are original silver-gelatin prints that offer a real slice of history.
Abbott (1898-1991) is an important figure in 20th-century photography. She is best known for her portraits and for the WPA project "Changing New York," which offered an epic look at that city in the 1930s. However, Abbott's largest body of work devoted to a single subject are the evocative photographs she made on a trip along Route 1 during the summer of 1954. The original print in the auction, which is valued at $1,800, is one of 2,400 images she photographed while on that trip.
Although it isn't from a numbered edition, the photograph is signed with the initials "AB" in pencil and stamped "Original Photograph, Berenice Abbott, Abbot Village, Maine" on the back.
"The marketplace has made editioning something important, but when these photographers were working it wasn't an issue," Fleurov says. "If they sold three or four pictures, it was a great thing."
Although today digital photography has outpaced film photography, Fleurov says some photographers, "are never going to give up film." Still, she says, "it certainly is a changed game."
But as far as collecting goes, she says, "I don't think it's an issue, but it may become a question of rarity. Whereas the black-and-white print once seemed ubiquitous, now they're much more valuable in certain ways because nobody's doing that kind of work that way anymore. Or, at least, very few people are."
Either way, Shiner says collecting photographs is a good investment overall, especially when it comes to original works.
"It's fine if you go to IKEA or your interior designer and order a print of a flower or a poster of something. But, if you are spending a couple of hundred or even a couple of thousand dollars for something that's just machine made, if you will, why not spend it on original artwork• It's not only going to hold its value, but in some cases it will increase in value as well."Additional Information:
PGH Photo Fair
When: 12-6 p.m. April 21, and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. April 22
Where: Former YMCA building, 120 South Whitfield St., East Liberty
Silver Eye Center for Photography's 2012 Benefit Auction and Brunch
When: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. April 29
Where: Clear Story Studio, 1931 Sidney St., South Side
Details: 412-431-1810, ext. 12; or website
• Auction preview, noon-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through April 25, Silver Eye gallery, 1015 East Carson St., South Side. Free. 412-431-1810; www.silvereye.org
• Gallery talk and reception, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Ellen Fleurov, Silver Eye's executive director, and Brian Lang, curator, BNY Mellon corporate art collection, discuss the pleasures of collecting photography and highlight works in the auction. Free. Reservations requested at 412-431-1810, ext. 12; or firstname.lastname@example.org
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