Vintage, Shmintage

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Tuesday, October 25, 2005; 5:20 PM

For decades a good rule of thumb for anyone collecting photography was "the older the better."

Vintage prints (most often black and white silver prints produced around the time the photograph actually was made), and especially those personally made by prominent photographers, were highly prized by collectors and galleries. Prices for such work by Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus or Cartier-Bresson (though he rarely printed his own photos) reflected this truism.

To mix one's metals: a signed vintage silver print was golden.

And in the past such prints rarely ranged in size beyond 16"x20" and generally fell between 8x10 and 11x14.

But today that may be changing. Not that prices are falling for work by these and other great photographers (especially great dead photographers). It's simply that this work now shares the photo market's top tier with some large, "loud" -- and colorful -- young upstarts.

For many years George Hemphill has been one of Washington's premier art dealers, with an acknowledged expertise in the changing--and growing--art photography market.

His old headquarters at Hemphill Fine Arts, on a Georgetown side street, housed an airy space that compensated in its elegant atmosphere for what it may have lacked in pedestrian and auto accessibility.

Happily that has improved. Recently George moved his operation to 1515 14th St. NW [], a newly renovated location near DC's bustling Logan Circle district that is sure to create its own arts scene. As Hemphill Fine Arts changes location, so too does the photography market change its direction, reflecting the inevitable influence of the taste and preferences of the huge cohort born in the victorious aftermath of World War 2.

"We're seeing [the emergence] of guys our age," George told me during a recent conversation. "In the 1980s the Baby Boom generation came of age as creators and collectors."

This, in turn, has prompted a significant change in the market for photography -- a legitimization, Hemphill declared, of the process of creating "images of the world by photo-mechanical means."

"By the 1980s," he said, "the influence of photography over painting became absolute."

Whereas in the past painting had influenced nearly every type of fine art photography (witness the over-the-top excesses of the Pictorialists more than a century ago: aping classical poses, hand-coloring prints, even scratching negative plates to make photographs look more like drawings or etchings) today it is photography and its aching immediacy in an ever-faster-paced digital and electronic age that informs painting. It is no accident, Hemphill said, that in the new Times Square, the pedestrian has only to look up to be bombarded by literally scores of photographic images, still and moving, as part of an endless campaign of selling and shrieking that can make one almost long for the bad old days when the Crossroads of the World was a soot-covered collection of X-rated movie theaters and strip joints.

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