A new collector’s guide to fine art photography

Interested in starting a collection of photographs? Here we consider the three key questions faced by buyers new to the art form

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Nan Goldin (b. 1953), French Chris on convertible, NYC, 1979. Cibachrome print, flush-mounted on board; signed, titled, dated and numbered ‘8/25’ in ink. Image: 66 x 97 cm (26 x 38¼ in). Sold for €18,900 on 6 June 2023 at Christie’s Online

How do I know when a photograph was printed?

Photographic prints are not necessarily created at the time the image is taken. The term ‘vintage’ refers to a photograph that was printed at, or near to, the time the exposure was made. Although the word appears frequently in discussions around a work, Christie’s does not use it in its cataloguing. The medium is included, however, to indicate whether the print was made in a manner in keeping with the artist’s practice around the time the image was taken. 

Guy Bourdin (1928-1991), Charles Jourdan, January 1978. Fujiflex Crystal Archive print, printed 2011, flush-mounted on aluminium; signed by Samuel Bourdin and numbered ‘1/18’ in ink on a label with stamped photographer’s copyright credit. Image: 61 x 90 cm (24 x 35⅜ in). Sold for €25,200 on 6 June 2023 at Christie’s Online

If a photograph has been printed some time after the date of the original image, this is most commonly indicated in the cataloguing by the phrase ‘printed later’. Where possible, the aim is to be specific: for example, you may find works listed as ‘printed 1960s’ or ‘printed c. 1968’ in Christie’s sale catalogues.

Is it possible to know how many prints of a given image exist?

The answer to this depends entirely on the artist in question. Some photographers, or their estates, have good records of this information; for others, it does not exist.

Where a photograph is numbered from an edition, this is a great indicator, since editions specify the number of prints of a given image in a particular size. It is more typical for contemporary photographs to come from an edition than older prints.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), Self-portrait, 1985. Gelatin silver print, flush-mounted on board; signed, dated and numbered ‘6/10’ in ink (margin); signed, titled, dated and numbered in ink with stamped photographer's copyright credit (flush mount, verso). Image: 38.5 x 38.7 cm (15⅛ x 15¼ in). Sold for €75,600 on 6 June 2023 at Christie’s Online

If it is not specified in the cataloguing, consult a specialist, who will use their knowledge of the photographer’s practice to offer advice on how many prints may exist.

Does the condition of a print affect its value?

The condition of a photograph generally affects the overall value of the work, but not always. In prints from the early, experimental days of photography, for instance, condition issues are to be expected given the age of the works and the fact that the process was not yet fully developed. By contrast, contemporary photographs may be expected to be in much better condition.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), Srinagar, Kashmir, India, 1948. Gelatin silver print, printed 1960s; signed and dedicated in ink ‘pour Marc, très cordialement, Henri’ (margin). Image: 24 x 36 cm (9½ x 14⅛ in). Sold for €11,340 on 6 June 2023 at Christie’s Online

Press prints, by their nature, will have been handled more than fine-art prints because of their use for disseminating information, which explains why they may have more creases. 

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But any issues regarding condition should be considered in light of their overall impact on the image, and indeed whether any imperfections are visible at a distance.

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