Rhondda Bosworth, C. M, 1977, gelatin silver print, 170mm x 253mm

Collecting Photography

People buy art for a number of reasons but what many buyers aspire towards is not just a group of works, but a collection — a selection of artworks which complement one another and speak to the particular tastes and interests of the collector. However, collecting media such as paintings is a particularly expensive proposition, especially if a collector is interested in particular historical periods or is focusing on only the most well-known artists. For example, a significant painting from the 1970s by an artist such as Colin McCahon can cost in excess of $200,000 — an extremely substantial investment. On the other hand, if a collector is willing to look at other media, the associated costs are often much lower, without sacrificing the quality of the work. There are many possible avenues to pursue when it comes to building a collection, but for budding art collectors photography represents an appealing option, because a relatively small financial investment can result in the acquisition of works by some of New Zealand’s leading artists.


A rare photograph of comparable quality to a McCahon is unlikely to cost more than $8000 — and in many cases, will cost much less. In fact, copies of many important New Zealand photographs, including some held in national museum collections, can be had for around $300-600. Because of this price disparity between photography and other media, a (comparatively) inexpensive collection of photographs can still be an impressive achievement with a great deal of cultural significance. Given an interest in the field and a willingness to learn and explore, a modest handful of photographs can quickly grow into an important collection.


Recently, there has been a surge of interest in analogue photography as an art medium, due to the technological and cultural significance of the process itself, and also the historical importance of many chemical photographs. In a time when most photography is produced digitally and consumed on screens, the physicality and texture of the chemical photographic process has become all the more apparent, and is increasingly valued by art connoisseurs. The buying public is also beginning to understand that analog printing is something of a dying art, and that chemical photographs are, in this sense, a finite resource, and are likely to increase in value over time, to reflect their cultural and historical worth.


Jane Zusters, Life Drawing North Beach, Christchurch, 1978, gelatin silver print, 140mm x 225mm


Because of the nature of the medium, photographs can have a value which is documentary, as well as artistic: a photography collection can record important historical moments, changes in society, or places and things with which you feel a particular affinity as a collector. One of photography’s strengths is its ability to give the viewer a sense of immediacy, even intimacy, with the subject, to make us feel as though we are ‘there’, in the moment when the photograph was taken. In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, she states that “to collect photography is to collect the world”.


A collection should be a representation of your own tastes and interests. The best art collectors buy works that they love and that they want to preserve and cherish, rather than speculating on market movements or trying to predict trends. The fact of the matter is, if you like something and see value in it, there is a good chance other people will, too. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid works by well-known artists — these people are the cornerstones of their field for a reason, and educating yourself about the critical consensus is an important part of growing and developing as a collector. However, trusting yourself and your own likes and dislikes is the key to building a collection which truly reflects who you are.


For anyone interested in beginning a new photography collection or adding to an existing one, Bowerbank Ninow’s upcoming Auction N˚5 would be an excellent opportunity to do so. This auction will be exclusively dedicated to photography, and will be accompanied by a catalogue containing colour plates of each work and an extensive selection of essays by leading voices in the field.


Words: Andrew Clark