Some days ago I was seeking cover from the spring rain that came pouring down in the busy Amsterdam streets where I was photographing. Shoppers and tourists alike were huddling together in a covered passage between two streets, suddenly standing shoulder to shoulder looking at each other. I was holding my camera in my coat pocket, finger on the trigger as it were, ready for whatever was coming. As the small crowd was accumulating I spotted another photographer with his camera around his neck; I knew him because he has also been photographing people in the streets of Amsterdam for a long time. From time to time I almost bump into him because I like to move around in the crowd while he often stands at a strategic spot like a rock in the sea, watching the passers-by. We don’t speak though, as I get the impression that he doesn’t like to as he avoids eye contact. I’ve seen some of his work on the internet, and have read that he wanted to photograph people’s activities in the streets and group these pictures into categories, which would eventually lead to some kind of encyclopaedia. He actually has a small book out with such pictures and categories. I looked it through and concluded that his approach is that of a collector. He adds pictures of eating people to more pictures of eaters in the streets, etc. He uses a digital camera, shoots a lot from the hip (therefore does not compose in the finder/on the screen), crops his photographs. A very different approach from mine, so it’s interesting for me to see if the results are very different and what these differences are. After all my approach is more like hunting, I don’t stand and wait, but I move continually, trying to find the hotspots looking for action or turmoil in the crowd, a technique I developed in the years I did my photography amongst the night-long dance parties of the house era. What I look for is that special moment that the banal suddenly shows something of a higher order which lifts the scene above the everyday moment. That’s what I am hunting for.
Original prints by well-known photographers have become very expensive. Many collectors have moved to collecting photography books instead, rather than looking for less famous names and photographers whose work is still available and sometimes just as interesting. Martin Parr’s publication The Photobook about what he considers to be the most important photobooks did the rest. Personally I don’t care which photobooks are hot or not, I know what I like and I will buy the occasional book that I love (and if you read my blog or visit my website www.tomstappers.com you won’t be surprised that it’s mostly black and white photography, of which a big part is street photography, and no digital). I prefer the original print, there’s nothing to beat it, and one of my own signed 30/40 silvergelatin prints for instance, is still cheaper than some of these collectable photobooks, so ….
I have come across photographer’s sites where every photograph is accompanied by a price tag and a shopping cart symbol. Obviously the author of those images wants to make it very easy for a possible buyer and/or wants to give the impression that it is a commonplace thing to buy a print. This, however, is not my experience at all. I don’t have a shopping cart on my site (neither do I want to appear to be an image pedlar, it doesn’t even actually pay off…). Safe payment systems like PayPal and others make it easy to buy for (aspiring) collectors, but they seem to prefer to buy through galleries (and pay the extra amount). Being a collector myself as well as a photographer I am willing to go the extra mile if I want something. Fortunately my work is in demand with certain international museums, and you can see for yourself on my site that it does have quality. If I did not get the occasional collector visiting me too, like happened today – I might start to doubt whether any other collector reading this, after enjoying my site, would ever contact me for wanting to own some of my work. So if you do, let me know…
When I was young I used to work in a photo archive. It was an archive with thousands of images of Dutch landscapes, windmills, national costumes, folklore, old buildings etc., etc., to which I had proudly contributed. All of these photographs were just “material” for publications by the tourist industry, and the photographers were paid very little. We used to charge only administrative and actual replacement costs to those customers who never returned the lent material after use. Some even had the nerve to send back an envelope with the cut-up prints, snippets and all, or otherwise spoilt photographs with paper pasted on, texts written on the back that showed up like relief on the front, as more signs of utter disrespect for the photographer’s work (and remember, I’m talking about the darkroom, not the computer). Captions reattached to the prints after use by means of a stapler, small creases or scratches were no real problem! “You can’t see that in printing.” When the stock was almost gone for very popular images (yes, you guessed right, the inevitable windmills, tulips – in black&white – and wooden shoes) we just ordered another batch from the photographer, who didn’t mind… When a particularly nice picture came by, it was more than once confiscated and pinned up to the wall. There were some with well-known photographer’s names.
Ed van der Elsken said to me once that he regretted he had disregarded the uniqueness, and indeed value, of his old (vintage) press prints from his Paris, old Amsterdam and Sweet Life periods. He had used them to create a unique intro to his exhibition at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum: by gluing them to the walls, the floor and the ceiling of the entrance hall. Very hip and contemporary at the time maybe, but what a pity in retrospect !!!
It is a strange thought that in fact, even the photographers themselves had to be taught the value of a lot of their old, and often forgotten prints. The scarcity of good (often vintage) prints, not caused by limited editions, but simple lack of interest in those days, has not escaped the attention of the collectors. They already know that a work of art “signed all over” needn’t necessarily be signed to be collectible.