What links the portraits in this article? The figures here are very different: a young Burmese girl elaborately encased in metal-hoop adornments, from a century before Paco Rabanne launched his radical metal couture; a Wigan mining girl of the 1860s with the paraphernalia of her trade, a prototype of Irving Penn’s Small Trades series; Oscar Wilde in the precious costume affected by aesthetes of the fin de siècle; a trio of young Germans photographed by August Sander for his 1929 anthology Antlitz der Zeit; and chic Vogue editor-in-chief Emmanuelle Alt, photographed on the street in Paris in 2007 by The Sartorialist.
The common thread is that they are all straightforward, full-length studies of people in the costume or trappings that define them socially. One might describe them as anthropological or ethnographic portraits, although, from a Western perspective, we tend to use the latter term to label our own curiosity regarding peoples from cultures other than our own. But we should not forget that to most people across the globe, we are the ‘other’ — the objects of reciprocal curiosity with our own distinct ‘tribal’ garb and customs. My purpose in presenting the following images and reflecting on their relatedness is by way of example, as just one possible line of enquiry that might be pursued by a collector of photographs.
Why are photographs so compelling a field for collectors? Consider both the photographer and the image. A great photographer is someone with a distinct perspective and a mastery of his medium that enables him to express his unique point of view. We can all use language, but great writers are few; similarly, we can all make photographs, but the ability to communicate effectively through this seemingly facile medium is all too rare. So, already, collectors are inspired by the power of authorship.
The images themselves are another compelling draw for collectors. Every photograph has a subject, and every subject has its lure; herein lies the magic of photographs in all their variety, from those made with high artistic or expressive ambitions to the unassuming amateur snapshot or banal postcard. Photographs, from the 1840s until our digital present, have provided an irrefutable mass of evidence of enormous value to enquiring minds of every stripe.
Through photographs we can reconstruct history. We see a record of people, places, costume, architecture, innovation, conflict, social customs, and events. These are indisputable documents and an irresistible draw for the curious.
Within the art market, the focus as regards photographs is on the work of those practitioners who have established the highest aesthetic or conceptual credentials, both for themselves and for the medium. Rarity, print quality, and reputation also, of course, become key measures of value. But subject matter is also fundamental to a photograph’s ability to attract and hold the viewer’s attention, and in turn to establish financial value.
What areas of photography would I recommend to a novice collector? My answer is that every collector must pursue what interests them, and in the field of photography this means finding a subject that captures their imagination. Surely, within the broad generic theme of humanity itself we have the most fascinating and compelling range of subjects within which anyone can find pictures of considerable resonance — images that illustrate how people present themselves to the world, their dress, adornment, and even their stance providing a series of signs from which we are invited to situate their sense of self and their allegiance to tribe, race, culture, or profession.
From the modestly priced cartes de visite so popular in the 1860s, to masterful and expensive prints by such distinguished practitioners as Irving Penn, portraits that illustrate the human condition provide an endlessly fascinating theme.
All images are from a private collection. The portrait of Emmanuelle Alt is reproduced courtesy of the Sartorialist and Danziger Gallery