Published on Thursday, October 3, 2019
Presenting the Past
Alfred Stieglitz, “A Wet Day On The Boulevard-Paris”, 1894
Courtesy of Lee Gallery, Winchester, MA
Following is a conversation with AIPAD member Michael Lee on what it’s like to be a vintage photography dealer in 2019.
Tell us about your mission at the Lee Gallery.
Above all else, the Lee Gallery is about improving the top-end quality of a collection. We have a wide range of interests, but everything is based on that idea of connoisseurship - speaking with curators, hearing what they’re up to, then finding the kind of rare or hard-to-get (thing) they want, whether it’s an early American salt print or a conceptual photograph from interwar Paris.
Once we learn a client’s interests, we look for prints to present to them that may be of interest, particularly rare ones or ones that might be hard to find. As you spend more time in the field, you start to see certain holes that emerge consistently. For example, there’s a pernicious shortage of work by women photographers from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Part of our goal is to identify and address those shortages.
How would you describe the market for vintage photography today?
Well, there’s no “vintage market,” per se. Buyers are extremely diverse and it’s difficult to generalize, especially because the field is always changing. Needs vary by category and subcategory, genre and subgenre. For example, in some 19th-century American photography, the pricing of a photograph may be less important than the print quality. But the bottom line is knowing individual clients and their collections well enough to find the best material for them.
Broadly, I’m comfortable saying that most of our buyers are not buying photographs as a monetary investment. They’re looking for photographs to fill collections, and that shapes how you go about acquiring things. And that shapes the market.
It might go without saying that the supply of vintage photography is variable, but it isn’t just that the prints are aging - that’s true, but the concept of vintage is also evolving, becoming newer every year. Generally speaking, people don’t sell very often. As such, our role is not to help them identify deals or investment opportunities – we help them build their collections, not their portfolios.
What makes dealing in vintage photography distinct from other genres?
Print quality takes on a special prominence with older photographs. Many nineteenth-century prints are found in bad condition, so it’s important to understand best practices in the area of conservation. For example, say there’s something minor in a print, like a crease or a frayed edge. What would be done about this in a museum setting? Your client may well be a museum, and even if they’re not, they’re likely to pay attention to those standards. So to know how they would think, you need to know something about conservation, even if you’re a dealer.
Likewise, in the vintage photography market, questions may arise about a print’s provenance or authenticity, and a dealer must be trustworthy beyond reproach. Honesty and integrity are a dealer’s stock in trade.
On the more positive side, one thing I find especially intriguing about vintage photography is how the concept of “use” can evolve over time. For example, we’ve recently acquired several photographs of performance artists. Most of these documents were originally used to transmit information about a performance that was happening, be it a dance, an opera or something along those lines. The photograph itself was not made with artistic intent, per se, but it was being used to represent a work of art in another medium.
Thus the document serves a practical purpose, but one that serves an artistic vision. How do you evaluate that sort of object? What kind of client will it appeal to? Vintage dealing is full of these kinds of subjectivities.
As a private dealer, what value do you find in art fairs?
So much of vintage dealing is a collaboration. Buyers are focused on their collections and those collections have specific needs, and the dealer is instrumental in figuring out what those needs are. Art fairs, especially legacy shows, provide an indispensable service by making many of these conversations possible.
They’re also a critical opportunity to stay in touch with other dealers and the ever-changing field.
I find my colleagues in AIPAD to be an intelligent and capable group and their insight is valuable no matter what their own specialties may be. We all deal in slightly different markets, and we might not all hear about the same opportunities - a donation, an inheritance, that sort of thing. So it’s important to make contacts and keep strong relationships with each other. Being part of an association like AIPAD is key to accessing that well of knowledge.
On the whole, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the fairs, like the upcoming Paris Photo New York, presented by AIPAD and Paris Photo, are central to my business. They’re where all that conversation happens.
Postscript: AIPAD is committed to giving dealers the professional tools they need to collaborate and contribute to a body of professional knowledge. Its newest offering to this end, Paris Photo New York, will take place on April 2, 2020 at Pier 94.