Before You Jump In: A Few Helpful Guidelines for Collecting Photographs

Before You Jump In: A Few Helpful Guidelines for Collecting Photographs

While HIP’s various platforms are devoted to celebrating the many gems in our collection, we’re also here to help you build a collection of your own. For those who are new to the art of collecting photographs, here are some basic tips to help you get started:

Rule #1: Collect what you love.

Most collectors agree on this point. If you’re going to get into collecting, you should collect what you love, not what you think will make you rich. While many would-be collectors fantasize about buying a piece that could eventually pay off their mortgage, these types of success stories are few and far between. The truly successful collector is one who surrounds herself with what she loves and derives joy from her collection. Being a collector is about relishing the pleasure of hanging a new purchase on your wall and enjoying its beauty every day. The process is only fun if you collect what you love. Otherwise, collecting will quickly become an expensive chore, and you’ll lose whatever spark initially drew you to photography.

Rule #2: Become an expert.

Learn about the history of photography, especially the styles and trends that pique your interest. Whether you’re drawn to portraits or early street photography, read as much as you can. Let your studies span from art history to price guides and auction records so that you can develop a better sense of pricing. Some excellent starting points include John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye, websites for various auction houses, and the Association of International Photography Art Dealers.

As you begin your studies, you’ll quickly learn that research is a lot easier if you’re studying images that interest you. Art collection expert Susan Theran notes that the research process occurs naturally and easily if you’re studying what you love. This makes Rule #1 all the more important. If you’re collecting what you love, your research will be a joy, not a homework assignment.

Rule #3: Look at lots of photographs.

Lee D. Witkin, whose famed Witkin Gallery shaped the field of photography collection and whose book The Photograph Collector’s Guide remains one of the most important titles on the topic, agreed that a collector should go with their gut when it comes to purchasing a photograph. That said, Witkin added that it’s best if your gut can be as informed as possible.

To cultivate good taste, look at lots of photographs. Learn from the greats. Even if prohibitive travel expenses or a global pandemic prevent you from visiting in person, you can still access some of the world’s best photographs via online collections. MoMA and the Met are great places to begin. Create a new daily routine. Enjoy gorgeous photographs over your morning coffee or on your lunch break. Your taste will improve, and your days will get easier.

Procession of the blessing of the fleet parade in gloucester, massachusetts 1940s
St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the 1940s.
Photo: Courtesy and copyrighted by History in Photographs (HIP).

Rule #4: Know the story.

Susan Theran explains that a photographic print may come with its own story which will impact its value. This story, also known as the provenance, is the history of the print, and it can include all kinds of information. For instance, has the print won any awards? When was the print originally made? Who previously owned the print? Where has it been displayed?

As you dig into the history of a particular photograph, it’s also important to figure out the story of the print’s creation. The number of prints that are made from a specific negative (called the edition) will influence the value of the prints. If a print comes from a smaller edition (for instance, if it’s just one of 5 total prints), then it will be worth more than a print that comes from a larger edition. As gallerist Laura Noble explains, the exclusivity of a print makes it more valuable.

Then again, the influence of scarcity isn’t set in stone. Lee Witkin noted that Ansel Adams made hundreds of prints of the photograph Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. This high quantity doesn’t stop the prints from selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A final data point to consider is who created the print. A vintage print is one that was made by the photographer around the time that the original negative was shot. Vintage prints typically have more value than later ones. This is especially true if the later prints were made by family members or keepers of the photographer’s estate. The price discrepancies for various Diane Arbus prints are a perfect example of this. If you’re considering a purchase (especially an expensive one), be sure to find out who made the print, when it was made, and the size of its edition.

Rule #5: Forget about big names.

Collecting prints by famous photographers is an expensive pastime. If money isn’t a problem for you, congratulations! For everyone else, it’s best to aim for lesser-known pieces and little-known photographers, especially when you’re getting started.

Buying from an unknown artist at a graduate exhibition or purchasing anonymous photos from a yard sale might not carry the same thrill as owning an Edward Weston. However, there is a certain joy that comes from discovering overlooked gems or supporting an emerging artist. Pay attention to contemporary photographers. See if any of them catch your eye and if you want to invest in their work. Give yourself permission to dig through the overlooked pieces at estate sales or thrift stores. If a photograph tugs at your heart, it’s worth purchasing, even if it’s not attached to a famous name.

Rule #6: Choose a theme.

As you spend more time looking at photographs, you might notice that certain compositions, subjects, or settings excite you more than others. Let those details give a sense of unity to your fledgling collection. Maybe you love collecting Polaroids from family photo albums, or perhaps you find that photographs of trains tickle your fancy. Whatever your aesthetic interests, embrace them.

Rule #7: Jump right in.

While you might feel tempted to do copious research before making your first purchase, Susan Theran encourages would-be collectors to jump right in. You don’t need to be an expert to become a collector, and nothing will help you refine your taste like making a financial investment. That said, you need not (and should not) spend tons of money on your first purchases. You might discover that collecting old photo albums isn’t really your thing or that self-portraits don’t excite you as much as you initially predicted. These revelations are perfectly normal, and they help refine your taste. Such observations are good for your development as a collector (as long as they don’t damage your finances in the process). The thrill of your first purchases will inspire your research, lead you to new galleries, and introduce you to new artists. No matter your photographic interests, go ahead and take a plunge.


In addition to her role as HIP’s curator of photography, Allison Radomski is a writer and filmmaker. She spends her days hunting for analog cameras, scoring her own movies in her laundry closet, and building her collections of Polaroids and handkerchiefs. She has degrees in cinema & media studies and religious studies from the University of Chicago.

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