Vintage, Shmintage
Frank Van Riper On Photography

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 [ http://www.hemphillfinearts.com/], 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.

Noted Hemphill: "If painting was the voice of God, the voice of man was the camera."

To be sure, there are exceptions to today's high-tech visual overload. There are fine art photographers who are gravitating back to such classic techniques as platinum/palladium printing, pinhole photography and other alternative processes. They are enjoying their share of success, especially as the digital revolution makes nearly all wet darkroom processes seem increasingly arcane and rare. Here, in fact, I am reminded of what photo curator Tom Beck once told me: as fewer and fewer people actually get their hands wet to create individual photographic images, these images inevitably will be viewed as the result of rare "antique" processes -- and their market value will reflect that scarcity accordingly.

But, for this discussion anyway, Hemphill -- and I -- are talking about general trends and changes.

Today one can see a move away from the traditional gold standard--vintage archival black and white prints -- in favor of edgier, and much larger, work by contemporary artists. And much of this work is in color.

"By the 1990s photography achieved economic parity...with large scale prints," Hemphill said, noting that such color photographers as Joel Sternfeld have enjoyed a healthy resurgence in popularity and sales by having their work reprinted in mural size editions. Today this Brobdingnagian growth in image size is made even easier by the increasing popularity of Iris printers, that can achieve success in tone, scale and detail with scanned negatives, slides and silver prints that would have been impossible to duplicate with traditional projection enlargement. Add to this the fact that the ink sets available to Iris printers (and to some of their Epson brethren) are archival and you have conditions that appeal to many of today's sophisticated photography collectors.

In fact this is precisely what my wife Judy and I have done with much of our work from our just-completed project depicting Venice in Winter. Using 11x14 silver prints that I have personally made in our darkroom, we have had many of our more atmospheric bxw views of the city scanned and made into huge limited edition Iris prints that are larger (3'x4' in some cases) than anything I ever could hope to make in a conventional darkroom. And they have been selling very well.

[One note of caution, however. Computer-generated Iris and Epson prints, even in signed limited editions such as we produce, may always be viewed in the higher echelons of the fine art photography market as just that: computer-generated, as opposed to hand-made. I remember, for example, respected New York photography dealer John Stevenson conceding to me that, while beautifully done black and white Iris prints of our Venice work surely can approach -- or even rival at times -- one-of-a-kind platinum/palladium prints, "my clients won't touch them." Why? Largely because Iris prints are produced with the push of a button, and not by a master printer working alone in the dark.]

In the old analog days, a photographer took a photograph on film, then either printed the negative or transparency by him or herself, or had someone else do it. Either way, the final exhibition prints most often were made one at a time and by hand using technology that was -- and is -- reassuringly low-tech, if also smelly, tedious and occasionally harmful to the printmaker's health.

This secondary procedure -- the individual printing of the image in the darkroom -- added to the final product's appeal in the marketplace as an individually made, virtually one-of-a-kind, example of genuine craftsmanship, if not a whole separate art form in an of itself.

With digital, this concept -- this quaint artistic conceit of uniqueness and artisanal craftsmanship -- barely exists. What this amounts to is the blurring of the line between original photographic prints and posters. In fact digital has created a wide -- and oftentimes gorgeous -- middle ground: the computer-generated facsimile of an original photograph, whether film or digital, that can be produced en masse after the initial prep and set-up, no matter who is pushing the button.

Or, in other words, vintage shmintage.

It's worth noting that such prints often are printed on fine art paper in signed and numbered limited editions to lend them cachet in the marketplace and to correctly set apart these beautifully printed (albeit mechanical) reproductions from a run of posters or similar reproductions that are made on comparatively much cheaper stock and offered to the general public in huge numbers.

Homage also needs be paid to the high degree of skill, not to mention the huge learning curve, involved in preparing a photograph for digital printing. Even the comparatively simple task of translating exactly onto paper what is seen on a screen, a print or a negative is fraught with electronic dilemmas, each if which must be overcome. And for those looking beyond mere translation, with sufficient skill, and pricey programs, a person can transform his or her image into any number of incarnations, some of them frankly bizarre -- again with the push of buttons.

Give John Stevenson his due. He appeals to a very high-end, very sophisticated and, forgive me, sometimes snobbish, clientele that can afford, in platinum prints, the photographic equivalent of one-of-a-kind images.

But there are a hell of a lot of other folks who are becoming educated about good photography, whose Baby Boomer tastes are somewhat more edgy, and who like the idea of buying limited edition artwork whose size and emotional impact rivals that of fine painting at a fraction of the cost.

George Hemphill notes that the emergence of large scale photographic work co-exists with the growing influence of design in the artistic preferences of the consumer. "It is surface design that rules the world," he declared, whether it be the curve of a toilet brush bought at Target or the high-tech sheen of a state-of the-art cell phone.

Bottom line: issues of usefulness being equal, "people will pay more money for more pleasing design."

In photography, this can translate into edgier, more abstract, imagery that can seek its own legitimacy merely through size and composition. And that in turn has led to a stronger impact of color on the traditionally black and white-dominated fine art photography market.

The work of the Starn twins is a good example: sometimes bizarre technique, outside-the-box concept, large scale. On a more traditional, yet in some ways equally out-there, plane is the color work of Tina Barney -- the seemingly fly-on-the-wall chronicler of the ennui and angst of her own WASPy social class.

Even more traditional work -- yet also mind-blowing in the elegant simplicity that can explode into abstraction when it is writ large on the walls -- is the color landscape photography of Richard Misrach.

So today there are, in fact, two new elements at play in the photographic marketplace. The first is the emergence of photographers who are gravitating to larger-scale imagery, often in color. The second is the ability of digital printing to produce these images far more easily.

It is too early to say what effect the element of mass-production will have on the one-of-a-kind world of the darkroom. My guess is that there always will be a (legitimate) market for work actually signed by an artist and produced in limited editions -- even if the work itself is made by machine. As for photographic prints individually made in a darkroom and signed by the artist, I join Tom Beck in believing that their value only can increase. [And in these circumstances there is no need to go the sometimes abused "limited edition" route. By nature prints made by hand in the darkroom and subject to all the vagaries therein of chemistry, paper, temperature, humidity -- God knows, even sunspots -- are always, in effect, one-of-a-kind.]

The danger, of course, is that technique -- or what passes for technique -- can trump content. Hemphill, who is not shy about voicing his opinion of mediocre work, put it thus:

"You want to know how hot photography is? Photography's so hot that people who call themselves photographers, who have minimum skills and crappy equipment and nothing in common [with real photographers], can get shows in Chelsea in one gallery after another."

And on the digital front I have to confess my own prejudice that, marvelous though something like Photoshop may be for making digital prints, its multiple menus -- and those available from other sources -- seem at times like a midnight smorgasboard on a cruise ship: simply too much, and of too little actual value. In addition, the troglodyte in me values the idea that it is the artist who initially decides what he or she wants to produce, then goes about producing it (silver print, C-print, platinum print, solarized print, etc.) within the confines of that decision, and not at the whim of a pulldown menu of printing options.

So what is a potential collector to do, to avoid paying thousands for flash-in-the-pan, or plain mediocre, work?

Here, Hemphill said, there is no substitute for doing one's homework, for immersing oneself in photographic images to get a grounding in the craft itself -- at least from a purely visual standpoint. In this respect, he said, Washington DC is a fine place to learn, given the vast archives of the city's museums and galleries.

For my money, the hands-on archive at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in Catonsville, Md. (where Tom Beck hangs his hat) is a perfect place to start one's photographic education. Being a teaching institution, UMBC's huge photography archive in the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery is open to any who are curious to see what treasures it has in its stacks. And the treasures are many. They even supply the cotton gloves for viewing original photographs that are brought to your desk by helpful and knowledgeable staff.

I am proud to have my work in this collection. There is nothing like going through the catalog and seeing one's name next to that of James Vander Zee or Diane Arbus, or any number of other photographic giants on whose shoulders we all stand and from whose work we all can learn.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His current book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website http://www.gvrphoto.com/

Frank's Picks

An occasional feature with Frank Van Riper's recommendations on current shows, exhibitions, as well as other subjects, that are worthy of a look. They concentrate on -- though are not limited to -- photography and the visual arts.

Irene Owsley & Barbara Tyroler at Photoworks

(Through November 13th)

Here are two photographers who have jumped with both feet into digital--in Barbara Tyroler's case, both literally and figuratively--and who have come up with glorious images that are both "Wide and Intimate."

The title refers to their joint exhibition at the Photoworks Gallery at Glen Echo Park--that marvelous, family-friendly and lovingly restored relic of an amusement park in Glen Echo, Md. that I think of as a statewide, if not national, treasure.

Barbara's wonderfully abstract series of "water portraits," many of them diptychs, involve children and adults at play in swimming pools--but these are hardly summertime happy snaps. Working in the water herself and using a mylar reflector to create bizarre underwater imagery Tyroler creates an aquatic world of wonder, enhanced by Photoshop but never losing its essential humanity.

As panoramic as Barbara's work is intimate, Irene's panorama photographs seem to capture not only place, but emotion. Up to 50 inches long and superbly printed, these images are actually stitched-together digital images, each one of which can take up to several days to produce. There are wide vistas that take your breath away and equally wide--yet also intimate--views that seem to bring you just inches from rushing water--or the yellow prow of Irene's kayak.

"Wide and Intimate Views", Photoworks Gallery, Glen Echo Park, Glen Echo, Md. Hours: Sat. 12-4p; Sun. 1-8p; Mon. 9a-3p--and during scheduled photography classes and by appointment. Info: 301-229-7930.

Documentary Photography Class with Frank Van Riper

Photography columnist and author Frank Van Riper will once again teach his popular 6-week evening workshop in documentary photography and photographic printing at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio this winter. The Thursday evening classes will begin February 16th and run from 7pm to 10:30pm each week.

In the documentary class students will be expected to initiate or continue a project of their choosing, with the goal of producing a finished picture story by the end of the session. Students wishing to accompany their photo essays with written text are encouraged to do so. Students may work in either film or digital. Class size is limited. Early registration is suggested. For information: 301-320-7757.

Frank Van Riper columns before 2005 -->

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