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.