Susie and Friends, 2008 by Alex Prager. From The Photography Book
Susie and Friends, 2008 by Alex Prager. From The Photography Book

"Photographic collecting is overtaking fine art"

The Photography Book author Ian Jeffrey has some insider tips if you're planning on starting a collection

Ian Jeffrey, the art critic, lecturer, and photography historian, can personally recall a number of key moments within the development of contemporary art. While serving as a lecturer at Goldsmiths University in London, he wrote the catalogue essay for Freeze, the 1988 student exhibition that introduced Damien Hirst to the world.

Yet there’s another, more incremental turning point, he can recall from a few years earlier. “It started in the 1970s and 80s,” says the author of our newly updated overview, The Photography Book, “old-timers working for Magnum began to attract photo collectors. Like a miniature version of the art world, it crept up on us all.”

A little over three decades later, and that miniature world has grown an awful lot bigger. Could it eclipse fine art? Jeffrey has good reason to think so. “It has in a sense already overtaken fine art,” he explains, “because a lot of fine art is too difficult to store. To be a major fine-art collector you have to have access to professional storage facilities,” he goes on, “whereas even the most modest collectors can store photographs easily. But it’s like buying Greek vases; it’s open to connoisseurship, and it’s very, very, widespread these days.”

 

The Haystack, 1844, by William Henry Fox Talbot. From The Photography Book
The Haystack, 1844, by William Henry Fox Talbot. From The Photography Book

Photographs can still degrade, particularly when it comes to big colour prints. “Colour processes are pretty unstable,” Jeffrey explains,  “I think some of the pictures Boyd Webb produced in the 1970s have stability problems. Black and white prints seem to be altogether more stable, provided you keep them out of the light.”  

While, physical processes might undermine a fine photograph, a photographer’s estate can both help and hinder reputation, according to Jeffrey. “Sometimes a photographer’s heir thinks they’re sitting on a goldmine, and charge too much for reproduction rights. Brassai’s widow was like that, and he almost faded from the scene. Whereas William Eggleston’s people license his images much more easily, and in doing so have made his name. He’s in all the books. A wise estate will let the material out to responsible publishers, whereas others will try to make a small fortune, and kill a reputation immediately.”

 

Caledonian Road, July 2011, by Richard Wentworth. From The Photography Book
Caledonian Road, July 2011, by Richard Wentworth. From The Photography Book

So, who does Jeffrey currently admire? Whose reputation is assured? And why do good photographers so often burn out? Check back with us soon, and we’ll bring you further extracts from our interview with him. Meanwhile, to see the photographers he talks about and many more besides, order a copy of The Photography Book here. And while you're here you might like to check out our series Photos that changed the world, based on photographic choices made by Ian Jeffrey. If you're headed to Frieze next week, you'll need Collecting Art for Love, Money and More, before you go.