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.