“I don't think any collector knows his true motivation.”
The discovery that some respectable fine art photography dealers are offering anonymous snapshots, and not necessarily exceptional examples of the genre, for $300 to $400 shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise; anybody who has been collecting for a while has watched the prices creep up and the art market depends upon the intangibility of value for its survival. It raises a few questions, one being who is willing to pay that much for an anonymous snap when, if they’re prepared to spend time instead, they can find what they want at a fraction of the price. A more pertinent question is how do you value a snapshot?
If you accept the definition of a work of art being something consciously created to be so, then snapshots are not art. Part of their allure is that we can’t tell how much of what we are looking at intentionally came from the photographer. Was the decision to press the shutter at that precise moment entirely wilful? How much credit should we give to the camera? And how much to the lab, which in processing every print to an average did not pay due care to one and so gave us something dark and moody when the photographer only saw gray, hazy skies? The contemporary idea that every beautiful object created by people can be considered art evokes G K Chesterton’s famous quote: “When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything." It suggests we’re in danger of losing the ability to discriminate and if you don’t have that can you really make a sensible judgement about the value of an object?
Anybody who has shuffled through boxes of old snapshots knows that not every photograph is a wonderful artifact in itself. One family can look an awful lot like another and the only intrinsically enigmatic quality to most of the photographs is their anonymity. But certain photographs hit you. Sometimes a tiny detail like somebody’s gesture changes the whole dynamic of the scene but it could also be the particular tone of the image that lifts it out of the ordinary. Suddenly a tiny photograph has a strange weight to it. It is difficult to describe the feeling these snapshots impart and if we could make it clear what that elusive quality was we probably wouldn’t be interested in them in the first place. We know however it has nothing to do with monetary value.
One thing dealers do recognize is that snapshots are unique objects. Most of the time the original negatives have been long lost and another print can never be made again. That puts them in a different category to works by master photographers held in museum collections. The museums often own or have access to the negatives too so if a print needs to be made it won’t be vintage but if printed correctly it won’t have lost the original quality either. The uniqueness of snapshots makes them fragile and fragility has its worth.
Something else unique about snapshots is their randomness. Since professional photographers are professional by reason that they know exactly what they are doing, they eliminate the mistakes and accidents that distinguish snapshots even when it appears that they have included them. It isn’t only the print that can’t be replicated but the entire circumstance. Even so, it’s hard to reconcile prices in the hundreds of dollars when it’s still possible to pick up prints by well known photographers at not even half the price. That is particularly true of 19th century photographers. A carte de visite by Felix Nadar of an ordinary French citizen needn’t set you back a lot and what do you have but an original print by one of the pioneers of photography. Nadar is reckoned to have photographed some 30 000 French citizens and quite a few of those prints are still kicking about, so you can say for a start that there are a lot more Nadar’s than any single collection by any amateur snapper.
There are also trends to consider: snapshots in, Nadar out, for the time being. No astute dealer is going to attach a price to something unless they are confident they can get it so you’d think, hope even, that the prices some snapshots are being offered for come from careful consideration. Even so, collecting snapshots is highly idiosyncratic. Most collectors have their particular categories; indoor shots, photos of cars, dull banality, double exposures and printing errors or mottled effects and stains, but everything is fluid. Nothing that gives an object an intrinsic value exists in snapshot collecting. It’s purely an aesthetic pleasure and a desultory one at that, seeing as so much is left to chance. Nobody sets out collecting anonymous snapshots with the idea they’ll get rich. This revelation about prices, while no great surprise, is ominous.
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