How to Collect Contemporary Photography

24 Jan 2018

1. Use photography to start a collection   

Photography can be an accessible way of beginning a collection, and is often more affordable. ‘For the price of one major piece of contemporary art, you can build a significant collection of contemporary photography,’ says Michael Benson, Director of Prix Pictet, the international photography prize.

Today, auction houses and fairs offer works across a variety of price points, appealing to both established collectors and those buying their first photograph. At PHOTOFAIRS explains Georgia Griffith, Group Fair Director, works can range from US $2,000-200,000: "The fairs feature young, up-and-coming artists alongside iconic masterpieces by photographers such as Irving Penn and Henri Cartier-Bresson."

© Henri Cartier-Bresson. Courtesy of Time Space Gallery Beijing


2. Look beyond the camera

We tend to think of a photograph as an image created using a camera. That isn't always the case, and while many iconic images have been created in this way, a number of contemporary photographers are exploring new forms. Michael Benson encourages collectors to look into these new formats, and cites artist Taryn Simon, who created her 'ground-breaking' work Image Atlas (below) using images from search engines — the result of a collaboration with computer programmer Aaron Swartz. 

Taryn Simon, Image Atlas © Taryn Simon. The work is an index of top image results for given search terms from local engines throughout the world, highlighting cultural differences. 


3. Choose photographs you could look at for hours

"A great photograph is a work of art which grabs you and holds your attention," comments Alexander Montague-Sparey, Artistic Director of PHOTOFAIRS, describing what he looks for in a work. "It makes you ask questions about the medium. It depicts the ordinary in a new way — or indeed the extraordinary. At the formal level it contains layers, it surprises your eye and takes you in on a journey [...] a great photograph stays with you for an hour, a day, a week."


© Marc Riboud, China 1965: A street in Beijing as seen from inside an antique dealer's shop, 1965. Courtesy of Magnum, London. 


© ZHANG HAI'ER,The Forbidden City, Beijing,1987. Courtesy of Blindspot Gallery (Hong Kong)©ROMAN SIGNER,O.T., Kugel mit blauerFarbe,2012.Courtesy of GalerieStephanWitschi (Zurich)©YANG YONGLIANG,Endless Streams,2017Courtesy of Mathew Liu Fine Arts (Shanghai)© MARC RIBOUD,CHINA 1965:A street inBeijing as seen from inside an antique dealer'sshop.1965.Courtesy of Magnum (London)

Michael Benson agrees: "As a curator, I look for work that tells you more about the photographer's subject every time you look at it. This is work that is carefully-made, which gives up its secrets slowly: you can revisit it and, every time you do, it offers something new. That's something that most iPhone photographs don't do."


4. Seek out new talent

Fairs present a fantastic opportunity to discover works by photography's rising stars, and many offer a section dedicated to today's most exciting emerging artists. "At PHOTOFAIRS, many dealers are presenting a diverse range of next generation talent," explains Georgia Griffith, highlighting art fairs as an ideal location to discover the genre's rising stars.

© Pixy Liao, Golden Mouse (2014). Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai. 


5.  Keep your eyes on the prize

For collectors keen to discover new names, established prizes can also provide an overview of some of the most exciting and well-respected photographers currently working today. Founded in 2008, the Prix Pictet has become one of the world’s leading photographic awards, highlighting the work of artists whose work considers an aspect of sustainability. A glance at its laureates offers a quick insight into some of the most interesting names of contemporary photography — from Nadav Kander to Luc Delahaye, Michael Schmidt and Valérie Belin. 


6. Talk to industry experts — and look out for edition numbers

Found a photograph you like? Don't hesitate to quiz sellers to find out more about condition, or ask about key issues such as the edition number. For photography, the latter is particularly important: many photographers produce several editions of a single work, along with an additional copy known as an artist's proof. Check whether works are part of a numbered edition, and be wary of buying editions produced beyong this number at a later date: their value could be compromised. 

Talks with industry experts can also be a source of wisdom. "I'm always really excited to see the Public Program come to life," comments Griffith, outlining PHOTOFAIRS vibrant series of talks and panels, which provie visitors with an opportunity to further explore both the local and international photography market. 

© ​JR, JR at the Louvre, La Pyramide, 17 June 2016, 9:13. Courtesy of Jenny Wang.


7.  Collect things that matter to you

As a curator, Benson admits his collection is built from works he has been given, rather than purchased. "There’s a history behind everything I have — they might be works given by an artist in recognition of a collaboration, for example." While the average collector might not be able to acquire works in the same way, Benson does impress the value of finding works that tell a story, or hold personal significance in some way. "Focussing on things that hold personal significance can be a means of instilling coherency in even the most eclectic collection."

How to Collect Contemporary Photography