The Art Of Collecting Photography

by Matt Damsker


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By Laura Noble. Ava Publishing, 2006, Distributed by Sterling Publishing Co.; 256 pages; 200 photographs; hardback; ISBN No. 2-88479-028-4; $60 (US). Information: Ava Publishing, Switzerland; phone +41 78 600 5109; , ; also Ava Publishing, London; phone: +44 1903 204455; fax: +44 1903 237346; in the U.S., Sterling Publishing Co., New York; phone: +1 212 532 7160; fax: +1 212 2132495; .

This handsome and approachable volume is an earnest primer for anyone who desires to be more than casual about appreciating, let alone collecting, photography. As a young scholar and collector of the medium, Laura Noble shows more passion, perhaps, for the gallery of great images--"Profiled Photographers"--that takes up nearly half of the book, than for the nuts and bolts of structuring, building, and curating a collection, but she provides some important details nonetheless. She also provides an appendix of galleries and dealers by country, city, and gallery--and by not presuming to be comprehensive, her apology is implicit. Her further appendix of scholarly resources cites a world of published materials, including periodicals and websites, that, while almost exclusively English-language, are nonetheless central to serious photography--from Andy Grunberg to John Szarkowski on the critical side, to Wetling's 19th-century collector's guide, Witkin's and London's 1979 tome, all the way to ebay and

The collecting establishment may quibble with and question what's here, citing omissions and errors of fact and interpretation that future editions may have to reckon with; meanwhile, this book is concisely designed for an audience of young art admirers who possess the means to start acquiring, and not for collectors already in midstream. Noble's work seems to acknowledge the short attention span of contemporary readership, and makes things easy, in its way--without suggesting that serious collecting is anything of the sort.

That said, Noble's eye is very much on the modern centuries, and so the 15 pages she devotes to the early period of photography (1500 to 1899, by her reckoning) are desultory, scratching the surface with familiar descriptions of photo processes and quick nods to Beato and Fenton, Frith and Bourne, before leaping into a decade by decade overview of the 20th century and beyond, noting key movements, techniques, and photographers. Is it ironic that she insists on "a sound working knowledge of the history of photography" as a prerequisite for any collector, or that she emphasizes "the importance of historical context" without providing a deep context? Perhaps, and the solution would have been to fashion this book more along the lines of Wetling or Witkin, but again, this is something of a coffee table book for the contemporary market. At the very least, it points novices toward more serious contextualizing and more thorough scholarship, while at its best it provides a useful gloss on many great photographs, how they are priced, what distinguishes them, and how their creators distinguished themselves through vision and methodology.

Noble's subjectivity is most evident in the "Profiled Photographers" section which dominates the book. Many of these are clearly personal favorites, such as Gregory Crewdson's domestic surrealism, or Nobuyoshi Araki's explorations of Japan's sex industry, but there are more examples of the iconic than the idiosyncratic--classics from Nadar to Brassai, Steichen, Steiglitz, Weegee, Evans, Brandt, Hine, up to Wegman and Gursky. In the end, though, this immersion in the historic flow of photography is good for whetting the appetite of a fledgling collector but probably less helpful to the collecting impulse than Noble's dry descriptions of how one might structure a collection, be it biographical, historical, thematic, stylistic, and so on. Her practical advice on buying prints at galleries, from collectors, or at auction tends toward common-sense cliché ("If something seems a little too good to be true then it probably is!"), but it is good advice for beginners. Better yet is her concise information on protecting prints from pollution or excessive heat, and a brief section on conservation, which focuses (via an interview with Lenny Hanson, conservator of Getty Images' archival London collections) on dealing with foxing stains, water damage and preserving photographic emulsion.

Ultimately, Noble's effort is at least noble, walking a line between art and commerce dictated, in part, by the exigencies of publishing in today's very competitive market for expensive specialty trade books, which tend to face nasty, brutish, and short lifespans. At $60 (US), it's a thoughtful and entertaining holiday gift for those who may know far less about photography than they wish they did. And as a quick-study approach to the complexities of collecting, it is a fair place to start.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.