The spectrum of relationships to photography runs very wide. The plumpest section of the bell curve is devoted to recording events and places for a purely personal notebook use : birthdays, family reunions, selfied or unselfied travels, graduations, … The driving force behind this is mainly social. Many asian travelers compose their travel pictures with themselves as center point with the background offering glamorous variation and proof of travel, for example. And only bad parents don’t have photographs of the 7th birthday or A-levels celebrations, right?
No one has studied and analysed this social driver of photography better than Susan Sontag, after whom this website is named.
But, to me, the extremes of the curve (dare I call them the bell ends?) are even more interesting.
At one end sit the gearheads. We know enough of and about them not to need any further exploration. I’ll only say that no-one is static in this classification. We can be happily shooting for years and get swayed like total beginners by some innovation or fancy new design. It takes time to emerge sane and sound, but we mostly do.
At the other (and again, this is neither static not completely mutually exclusive) sit the art lovers. The collectors.
The two groups could stare at one another for weeks and gain a weaker mutual understand than early explorers and the native tribes they stumbled upon. Why would anyone in their right mind spend 6 grand on a camera when that could buy an early Crewdson? Who, in the name of all that’s sweet and green, would spend 14 grand on a piece of paper and pigments when that could buy you the kit to produce your own photographs plus a healthy number of trips around Terra?
There’s obviously no correct answer to either, which makes it (not) a lot of fun when your brain errs towards both (trust me). Liminal torture, t’is.
But let me try to defend the collector camp here, because it is vastly underrepresented in the amateur photographic world. While some people in the center of the curve will eventually fall for the lure of better equipment to make better photographs, very few will be told to collect to become better artists themselves. That’s only because the PR spend of gear makers is far greater than the PR spend of galleries, museums, artists put together. Plus collectors and artists are often a discreet bunch that keep to themselves, away from the great unwashed hoi polloi.
“Good artists copy, great artists steal”
If it’s good enough for Pablo, it’s good enough for me. Jim Jarmusch said the same thing differently: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” Scores of personal coaches and self-development gurus are now making it their own trademark mantra. Still, the profound truth behind this is that you’ll never be a good photographer if you don’t view the work of great photographers and draw from it.
Social media is a death trap for aspiring photographers. We are all influenced by what we see others create and by how others still react to it. But the sad truth is that the vast majority of what is on display on social media is exquisitely uninspiring, whatever the number of likes it receives. Social platforms reward mediocrity in its most mathematical sense. It’s the very basis of their business model. Whatever appeals to the largest number makes the most money for them.
Just like the saying “you are the average of the 5 people you spend most time with” goes, our photography is probably about as good as our 5 strongest artistic influences. So those might as well be Peter Doig, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ed Burtynsky, Francis Bacon and Colin Prior, rather than canonzoom_64, bless his cotton socks (I hope no one with that username actually exists 😉 ), or a lab rat website with photographs of charts in a basement.
“But a 4 year-old could paint this!”
Yup, been there. Particularly unfathomable to me are some conceptual installations. Often, they feel like a candid camera waiting to pounce on my incredulity.
But do you really think people with the money to become patrons to these artists are stupid enough to do so simply because the work looks ugly or silly or provocative? Some knobs, in the world, may have inherited large fortunes but they typically spend that on other distractions. Art collectors are often passionate, sometimes pathologically so, and definitely not stupid.
The minute we feel like “but my 4-year-old niece could have painted that”, we’re faced with a tremendous learning opportunity. Not that we have to take it up, mind you. Flying settees and pianos with sausage keys will likely never be my thing but I’ve learned a lot about other artists, those whose work I didn’t grasp but had an emotional impact on me, at first sight. And when you scratch below the surface, it often is so fascinating you can’t let it go.
The fact that “I (I.e., you) could take that photo” is also largely irrelevant as it’s why, not how, that matters in contemporary art. The artists who create those seemingly easy photographs often do so in series to make their point very clear, and that’s a lot more work than just grabbing one image, out of opportunity. To the best of my knowledge, Andreas Gursky is one of the very few photographers who manage to deliver very powerful messages in photographs that do not require series. And that’s probably what makes every one of his creations so precious to the art world.
Plus, no, we probably couldn’t (take that photo). They may look simple, but some require months of work !
“But that’s so expensive”
And that’s a good thing for so many reasons I don’t know where to start.
If it has value, it’s desirable. Unless your ideology against money forces you to systematically see rich people in a bad light, desirability – to people who have the education and the choice – is a safe indicator of quality.
If it’s expensive, it makes you choose. Decisions are what shape your life. When you’re excited enough to commit to a big buy, the thought process and investigation are half the fun. If you’ve never been in an auction room with your heart racing, you’re missing out on a lot of fun (you go can even with no intention of buying anything, many people do, often to study the market or get close to pictures they might never see again). I bought my everyday car at an auction a few years ago. Cheapest car I ever owned and I loved it so much. Could have been a dud, but it wasn’t. So much fun and excitement.
But, mainly, no, it’s not that expensive. Well chosen photographs are money on the wall. And most of them appreciate in time. I used to be able to buy a few as a student. Today, with more in the bank, it’s much more difficult for me to afford the same artists. So, if you buy and need the money some years later, you can probably sell well above what you initially paid (think long-term, though, as fees are enormous, both ways).
And, more importantly, no, it’s not that expensive, because you can buy in antique fairs, in cheap galleries, look for rising but unknown talent that still commands less than a good bottle of whisky, collect photo books rather than prints … A grand can get you a tissue-sized portion of a recent Crewdson, a poststamp-sized piece of a Gursky or 30 lovely prints from an unkown photographer from 60 years ago. The latter is actually a lot more fun and you leave the heavy brigade to oligarchs, drug barons and celebs in need of ego boosts.
“I’m sorry, that’s just ugly”
It doesn’t have to be ugly. But yeah, sometimes, you really don’t fancy some of the images in galleries hanging above your bed …
Let’s draw a line between fine art and conceptual art. On the one hand, the beauty of the final object is what buyers look for. A well executed photograph of a beautiful scene masterfully printed on superb paper inside state of the art framing. The subject and motivation matter little. The good news is that you are paying for evident quality and the value will likely never rise to silly proportions, meaning you can sleep at night, you can buy more prints to start a collection, you can talk about your acquisitions without fearing judgement …
On the other (conceptual hand), the reason behind the print far eclipses the technical quality and obvious beauty as a justification for the price. Whether is it the historical significance in a trend, the storytelling, the provenance, the style, the message, … collectors value deliberate thinking prior to making the shot far more than craftsmanship while making the shot. Yes, conceptual artists like Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Richard Misrach, Candida Höfer may all follow the route of huge prints made from large format cameras, but this approach only serves a common vision of depicting a scene in the greatest possible detail and using the most detached technique in order to increase engagement with the subject in ways that would not be possible otherwise, or with your own eyes. It has nothing to do with fine art. Beautiful doesn’t come into the equation, neutrality rules. And other contemporary photographers certainly do not follow the same technical path to create their work.
There’s nothing wrong with collecting beautiful photography. Barbara Kasten explains “In the ’70s the rest of the world thought that beauty was a weakness. But the reality is, it’s a strength.”
Or with collecting photographs that many will find ugly. But, in either case, those photographs will likely be the greatest influences on your own work. Hence, on a big chunk of your creativity and its many derivatives in your life.
“I don’t know where to start”
Today, you can learn the history of photography and start a collection based on canon that may (or may not) appreciate in time, following the trends, as if buying Amazon and Apple stock. It’s investment and no fun at all (where do you keep the photograph, how do you protect it, what if it fades, is all the paperwork in order, is the insurance OK with it, how much does it need to rise before I can sell without taking a serious hit, what if I need the money fast …)
Or you can simply go to fairs and galleries, trust your gut, take note of what you like and do some research. Do this regularly and you’ll soon see a list of favourites emerge. You’ll also learn a lot and build great confidence. Don’t rush it, most of the fun is in the search. But every now and then, something will blow your mind and won’t threaten your financial security. Boom, you’re on your way.
Collecting is simpler than fight club. Rule number one is buying stuff you deeply care about. There isn’t a rule number 2. Can’t afford a print? Get a poster.
I love William Neill but couldn’t afford his prints when visiting a gallery exhibition, long ago. In stead, I bought a 24″ poster (Dawn, Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Canada, with no writing on it) online, framed it and it’s still on my wall 20 years later. My corridor is full of Ansel Adams photographs from a beautifully printed calendar that was a Christmas gift, decades ago. All framed in museum style, the cut out pages look gorgeous. One of my treasured photographic possessions is a glorious print given to me by fellow DS contributor Bob Hamilton.
A good collection is just a thoughtfully curated series of photographs, whatever their commercial value and origin. The fact you deliberately chose each of them brings a consistency to the collection that makes all the difference with expensive but tasteless gatherings.
“I’m really not interested at all”
Well, that’s fine. The only question is “why not?”. If ol’ Maslow is to be believed, self-improvement is high on the list of vital needs once food, shelter and mating are taken care of.
Not everyone is a collector, though. And thank goodness for that, as the world needs variety more than anything else. Artists are rarely collectors, although some are and most are very interested in what their fellows are doing. Collectors aren’t often artists either. Some people just invest in art because the return and security from banks is flimsy, stock markets are a bit high and all the good cars have been bought. Others buy art for the fun of it, with no intention of creating a consistent collection or of spending big money. Others still don’t ever buy art, and that’s OK.
Collecting is a personal journey. It can build up into a passion that can bankrupt you or can feed your own photography and enrich your life. It’s a peerless learning and self-examination process. It’s a great diversion from tech talk and puts all gear-related insecurities into a very distant perspective. It broadens your horizon, deepens your love and understanding of the work of others. If you haven’t yet, you should really try it.
But back to the title question. No, I don’t believe collecting art will make you a better photographer, per se. However, if you already have laid the difficult groundwork for becoming a better photographer (introspection, mainly), the process of collecting the work of others will not only guide your learning process but also help you think deeper about what makes a valuable artistic contribution and what’s just random. In a world of ubiquitous daily life photography, that’s certainly a most precious tool.
Now, I’m writing all this with something at the back my mind. I want to make you an offer you can’t refuse. Tell me what your thoughts are about collecting and I’ll tell you my intention (and no, it’s not selling you prints of my photographs, you philistine 😉 )
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