The Vintage Print – What is it? – Why should I care?

The much abused and maligned term Vintage Print is perhaps the most hotly debated attribution of all. But what does it mean? And perhaps more importantly, why does it matter?

My definition, which I think is probably accepted by most dealers and galleries is a photograph printed by the artist within 12 months of the photograph having been taken and the film developed.

But why does it matter? The argument goes along the following lines: A photographer makes a photograph, develops the film and makes a print, all immediately following each other without any real lapse of time. The hard core collector will argue that this represents the most authentic version of the photograph, as it is perhaps the best representation of what the photographer had in mind when the shutter was pressed and the image made.

The debate about the significance of vintage the vintage photograph will go on forever, but it is very much part of the vocabulary among collectors and dealers. Two collectors chatting will refer to a photograph as a ‘vintage Brassai’, as opposed to a ‘nice Brassai’ or a ‘great Brassai.’ Collectors value the term ‘vintage’ as part of their code and use it frequently, sometimes loosely. Think of it as a type of insider lingo that confirms that you know of which you speak.

The generally accepted rule seems to be as I have stated above, but what if a photograph is printed within two years of being taken, or maybe three? History has a way of compressing itself.

In historical terms, the Hundred Years War between France and Germany was actually not a war that lasted 100 years, but a series of wars that in combination took about a hundred years. In the same way, when our descendants sit in the classroom in a couple of hundred years’ time, the First World War and the Second World War will have become simply the World War.

Using the same logic, the definition of what is a vintage photograph becomes more fluid in the eyes of some dealers and collectors. If a photograph was taken in March of 1930, developed in March of 1930 and printed in April of 1930, everyone agrees that it is a vintage photograph. If it was taken in 1930, developed in 1930 and printed in 1933, the definition no longer applies, but the further we get away from the 1930s, the more compressed time becomes and the more tempting it is to regard the 1933 photograph as being ‘close enough’ to vintage that it enters the gray area that is termed ‘vintage’ by some.

Of course, another factor in dating photographs is that barely any photograph is stamped with a date, or dated by hand. As such, a lot of decisions become somewhat subjective and the materials and the visual inspection by experts starts to determine ‘vintage’ versus ‘printed later.’

Experts use a number of variables to judge whether they will call a photograph vintage or not. Provenance is of course a major factor. Provenance, as you will recall from my previous blog, is when you can prove by documentation the history of the photograph. This includes letters, receipts and other documents that show where and when you acquired the photograph and where it was prior to that. In the case of a weak provenance, other factors will help determine the classification of a given photograph.

In 20th century photography, the determination of ‘vintage’ versus ‘printed later’ can hinge on things like the paper the photograph is printed on and the appearance of a photograph in comparison to other work from the time by the same photographer, already known to be vintage.

It is a generally accepted fact that up to 75 per cent of the world’s Rembrandts are by other artists, contemporary to Rembrandt. There is a society that spends all its time and energy authenticating paintings by the Dutch master. On a much smaller scale, there are connoisseurs of photography that specialize and are regarded as experts on specific periods in photography, or specific photographers. In the case of Rembrandt, the sciences determine the age of the canvas, the pigments used, the solvents, the varnishes used, etc. X-rays will determine underpainting, sketches and other invisible secrets. But science can only go so far. The Rembrandt expert will look at brushstrokes, the particular way in which an eye is painted or a shadow laid down and from experience will look for all the secret identifiers that determine whether a work is by Rembrandt or one of his associates, or even someone completely outside the circle of the master.

In photography determination of authenticity and age is similar. Certain photographic papers were only made for a short time and analysis of the fibres in a photograph can often determine the age of a print within a range of a few years. In the same way as the Rembrandt expert looks for tell-tale signature traits of the master, the expert on a given photographer looks for specific things in a photograph.

A photographer will during a lifetime likely change the way he or she prints, but during a relatively short period, the printing method and appearance of the finished print is likely to be fairly consistent. The expert will look at similar prints in various collections, private and public, and will through comparison and experience lend his name and reputation to whether a particular print is vintage or not. Of course this is not an exact science, but the collectors give certain experts a lot of respect, and their say-so is good enough for most to accept that a work is indeed vintage.

There are some interesting variations on vintage. What, for instance do you do with a photographer who does not print his or her own work? But that is for another blog.

Harbel

 

Provenance – the importance of a little paperwork

When looking to buy a photograph, there are a few things to consider and be comfortable with. In photographs, like most other arts, perhaps the term Provenance is the most important of all.

Provenance is the collective term for the chronology of ownership from creation to the present day of a work of art. In other words: Who made it, where has it been since it was made and, who has owned it along the way.

The ultimate provenance is a photograph obtained by you, directly from the artist. This is asserted by a receipt made out to you that says you own the photograph. The receipt must be signed, made out to you, dated and it should include a very specific description of what you have acquired. This might include a description or title, the image size, paper size, the print number, if it is part of an edition, and any other pertinent information. It should be a proper receipt, consistent with other receipts from the artist – preferably not written on a scrap of paper, or the corner of a napkin. The receipt together with the photograph itself is the ultimate provenance, confirming that the photograph came to you directly from the photographer.

If you know the photographer, or perhaps have enough presence of mind to ask while in the glow of the halo of the master, you can ask for the photograph to be dedicated to you. The dedication might read: “For Mary Smith, best wishes, Lee Friedlander, June 5, 2010.”

You should know that some collectors find a personal dedication a negative factor when buying a photograph.  Some people don’t like showing off their photograph collection with dedications to people other than themselves, while others find any writing on a photograph, aside from a stamp and signature of the artist, to be undesirable. This is of course very subjective, but just be aware that some collectors will take issue with a dedication.

On a personal note; I have a photograph by one of my heroes, Marc Riboud. It hangs above me as I write this. It reads: “For Harbel, new best friends forever, Marc Riboud”. I asked that he write below the image, right across the front. I have framed it so that you can read the inscription. Of my entire collection, it is the only photograph that I have framed where the mat does not cover the signature. Usually, I find a signature distracting, but in the case of Riboud, I smile every time I look at it and read the inscription.  However, I do acknowledge that it has probably deducted a few bucks from the value of the photograph. Not everyone likes a photograph dedicated to someone else. But I digress…..

Failing this direct provenance, we now move into progressively more gray areas. The best in a retail environment is a receipt from the dealer, or gallery representing the artist. A receipt from the dealer accompanying the photograph is usually good provenance, particularly if it is a respected dealer in the photography community.

If you are buying from a fellow collector, and that person can present a credible receipt together with the photograph, that is pretty good provenance.

But as the string grows longer – more owners, more galleries between you and the artist – the facts become harder to check.  Auction houses, even the best ones, will have a long list of words that they use to cover themselves, like: “believed to be…”, “from the period…”, “property of a relative…”, “school of….”, etc. The bottom line here is that the more credible you think the paper-trail is, the better.

All rules have exceptions. Sometimes the provenance is less important. This sometimes happens when the previous owner was famous or had particular significance to the world of photography or art in general. This can change everything. An example would be a photograph that was owned by, let’s say Picasso.

Likewise, sometimes a photograph comes from the estate of a famous person, logic and even common sense, often goes out the window in this case. In the auction of Andre Breton’s estate, photographs sold for 10 times their high estimate, because they had belonged to Andre Breton, which begs the question whether it is still about the photograph at all, or about owning a little piece of Andre Breton.

Your tolerance for risk determines how you might feel about a photograph that you wish to acquire. But, always remember, if you love the photograph and know what you are buying, or at least are aware of any downside, should you wish to resell it at a later date, then by all means, go for it and enjoy! Sometimes passion is all that really counts.

Harbel

The Gastronomy of the Eye

I have been asked to put together an exhibition on the theme of Paris and France for a brand new spot in Copenhagen, Denmark. Having spent extended periods of my life in the City of Lights, this is a very welcome challenge.

Location is not usually a way I think about my photographs, and putting together the show presented an interesting challenge. I started to think about the idea of the flâneur. A flâneur is a uniquely Parisian term, rooted in Old Norse, where a verb flana meant to ‘wander with no purpose’. In sixteenth century French the verb flânerie evolved and took on the meaning of “idly strolling with no particular urgency or destination”. In the nineteenth century someone engaging in flânerie became a flâneur. A person widely romanticized in the second half of the 19th century by the likes of Baudelaire, who referred to the flâneur as one who engages in the ‘botany of the sidewalk’, and Balzac – who gave me the title for this show – referred to the flâneur as someone engaged in ‘the gastronomy of the eye’.

What can one say about Paris? She is in your blood. Nowhere else does a river, acres of cut stone, and uncompromising nineteenth century urban planning come together to successfully form a city that dreams are made of. A city of light, of enlightenment, philosophy, and fifty years ago, where the spirit of ’68 erupted to echo around the world, so very apropos.

People who live in Paris have found a way to coexist and share their good fortune with millions and millions of visitors each year. Parisians get on with their lives, enjoy their croissant, their café-au-lait, their petit verre and slices of saucisson sec. More often than not, they do so on the sidewalk, protected by an awning, sitting at tables that are impossibly small, on chairs that are comfortable, but not too comfortable.

Paris is a tempting mistress. A place where you can disappear and be the photographing flâneur. I wander the streets of Paris, soaking up the atmosphere, taking in the smells, merging with the pavement and the walls to see, but not be seen. I see, compose and photograph, only to once again fade into the background.

If you happen to be in Copenhagen, please visit the exhibition anytime after April 19th, 2018 at: Frenchy, Store Kongensgade 69.  Frenchy serves a mean coffee and the brunch is legendary.

Harbel

For more information, visit harbel.com

 

 


 

“I only pursue one goal: The Encyclopedia of Life.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. One of the world’s most expensive photographers, born of the German post-war tradition, Andreas Gursky (b. 1952) says with a straight face: “I only pursue one goal: The Encyclopedia of Life.”

Gursky is a child of the Bernd and Hilla Becher school, two masters who set out to show sameness and differences in buildings and industrial installations, cataloguing and recording them for posterity.  In short, the founders of what has become known as The Dusseldorf School. How is it possible that one who shoots with a digital camera and admits to manipulating the digital files, so as to make them more pleasing and interesting to the eye – adding a couple of bends to a race course, or removing a large and unsightly factory from the banks of the Rheine, as in Rheine II – can be the maker of The Encyclopedia of Life. How is it that curators and critics quote and agree with this pretense? How can this graphic artist – I refuse to call him a photographer – even contemplate calling himself the maker of an “Encyclopedia of Life”?

It seems to me that yet again, we are having to question everything we see, every image, every movie, every piece of news, because not a single conveyor of knowledge or imagery can be trusted? Is that really the legacy we want to leave for the next generation, or the ones after that, who will never know the truth, because we in the present day knowingly allow it to be altered.

Andreas Gursky: Rheine II

Anonymous photographer:  Rheine I

Is it photography when what is in the photograph does not exist in real life? Are we getting so accustomed to an alternative reality, where super heroes dominate the silver screen, zombies walk the streets and natural disasters are glorified though CGI, not because it is a great story, but simply because we can. When one can sit at home on the couch and virtually walk through a busy shopping area with a Kalashnikov and try to hit the bad guys, but if you take out an innocent civilian you lose three points. Is this to be our desensitized, pathetic legacy?

Do we have to check the raw file from every image printed to see if it is real? Do we have to physically travel to the banks of the Rheine to look across and see the ugly factory to know what is real and what is fake?

If Andreas Gursky gets to be the writer and illustrator of the “Encyclopedia of Life”, then it is nothing but a ruse, a badly written screenplay put to life in the form of a huge piece of brightly coloured paper, mounted, framed and carrying a million dollar price tag. One great big lie.

How sad.

Harbel,
Copenhagen