On Collecting Photography Books

by Richard Pitnick

Black and White Magazine, December 2005

It is William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the seminal figures in the early history of photography, who is credited with publishing the first book of photography. With the publication in 1884 of The Pencil of Nature, which featured text and 24 actual photographs illustrating his experiments with paper prints and negatives, Talbot not only ushered in the era of modern photography, but signaled the importance of the book as a prime means for photographic expression.

Throughout the history of the medium, photography books have played an underappreciated but much more significant role than prints themselves in disseminating the work of artists and creating a broad appreciation for the art of photography. "From the sheer proliferation of photography books throughout the history of photography, the equation is self-evident in that I believe the book is the medium of photography," asserts bookmaker Michael Torosian, whose Lumiere Press imprint publishes highly-regarded books on fine art photography.

"It's inescapable that any photographer wants to use books as the appropriate medium of expression, and for many people their primary experience of photography is books," adds Torosian, "If you live outside the major metropolitan centers you may never see an exhibition of work of a photographer you admire, but through books you can have an extraordinarily deep familiarity with an artist's work. Books are what develop connoisseurship, and I've seen ample evidence that books are the principal form of dissemination for artistic photography."

Among print collectors and bibliophiles generally, art photography books have come to be regarded as important collectibles in their own right. Within the past five to ten years, rare and collectible photography books have paralleled the broader photography market in terms of increasing valuations, scarcity and interest. It is the boom in print collecting that has created the ancillary effect of generating greater interest in photography books. For many collectors, photo books have become important not only as a useful adjunct to providing a deeper scholarly and aesthetic appreciation for fine art photographs, but also for their intrinsic artistic value.

"There are only a couple of media in which you can have a facsimile, and for all intents and purposes a photography book gives a complete and thorough experi-ence of the original," says Torosian. "The technology for creating the illusion of continuous tone is beyond belief. A book is the perfect medium for photography because it provides the opportunity to create thematic bodies of work, and a definitive repository and opportunity to rediscover work over and over again."

Just how significantly land­mark publications by important photographer have appreciated in value is easily discovered by perusing book dealer and auction sites on the Internet. In some cases, books are commanding prices that rival the cost of prints themselves.

A first edition of Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment, currently lists in a price range of $2,000 to upwards of $5,000 for a signed copy. Larry Clark's groundbreaking documentary work, Tulsa, issued as a soft cover first edition lists for as high as $1,500. A first U.S., edition from Grove Press of Robert Frank's The Americans, sells for up to $2,000, with later first editions by Aperture selling for up to $500, well above the original publication price. A signed first edition of American Photographs by Walker Evans lists for $10,000, while first edition, single volumes of Edward S. Curtis's folio, The North American Indian are priced at up to $20,000. Facsimile editions of The Pencil of Nature, published by Da Capo press in 1969 to mark the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography list for between $500 and $2,000.

In accounting for the increasing valuation in photography books, Long Island, New York, book dealer Harper Levine ascribes the growth in print collecting as a primary rea-son for the boom in the book market. The price of photographs has gone up so much that many collectors have been priced out of this market," says Levine, who maintains an inventory of approximately 500 titles.

"My sense is that even as little as 10 or 15 years ago, people were collecting photo books for reference or for the images themselves and not as objects of art. It's only in the last five years or so that the market for collecting photo books as art objects in and of themselves has really flourished. Many photography books are now unique, with photographers putting a lot of creativity into design, sequencing and making of the book, and have now become another method of collecting work by a particular photographer."

When deciding how to assemble a collection of photo books, Levine advises collectors to apply the same criteria as they would for photographic prints. Rarity, condition, provenance, and in parti-cular the artist's signature, are all key considerations in determining the current and future value of a collectible book says Levine.

"You should try to buy first editions and look for books that are signed," he recommends. "If you're seriously collecting and buying rare books, it's crucial to look for the nicest possible copies. Books in inferior condition, unless exceedingly rare, don't hold value. The number of classic photo books is quite small, and most books do not become rare. One way collectors can help themselves is to establish a relationship with photo book dealers who can answer questions."

Among the many publishers of high-quality photographic books, including such imprints as Aperture, Lodima Press, Nazraeli Press, 21st, powerhouse books, Taschen, and Twin Palms, none is more highly regarded than Torosian's Lumiere Press, whose fine press, limited-edition publications have become instant collectibles.

Since 1986, Lumiere Press has released 18 books on a host of photographers including Edward Weston, Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer, Paul Strand, Gordon Parks, and Lewis Hine, among others. With editions imited to between 150 and 250 copies, and painstakingly handcrafted and printed in letterpress, Torosian's books have appreciated significantly. Volumes that originally sold for between $250 and $650, now sell for up to $2,000 at auction or through rare-book dealers.

The appeal among bibliophiles for his books, says Torosian, can be attributed to the combination of craftsmanship and scholarship that goes into the research and production of each book.

"I really work within the lineage of the fine press that for all intents and purposes was established by William Morris in the 19th century," explains Torosian, himself a fine art photographer. "That arts and crafts movement, that lineage that has persisted throughout the 20th century hadn't existed in the world of photography until Lumiere Press."

Torosian regards the growing interest in quality photography books as paralleling the revival in handcrafted, antiquarian photographic processes. "There's more sensitivity toward more arcane craft, which is a natural human phenomenon as things ramp up more technologically," says Torosian. "We're going to see this with black and white printmaking. As the world rushes headlong into the digital future, people will cherish the classic black and white print even more."

In advising collectors regarding what to look for in collectible books, Torosian emphasizes the importance of creativity, craft and design as essential elements in producing a book of true artistic value. "Collectors should look for books done with style and verve," he says. "Most photography books are not that adventurous when it comes to design philosophy, and for decades now a lot of photography books have been banged out from the same template. Being a fine press with a scholarship of bookmaking and knowledge of typography, I try not just to do a book that is attrac­tive but to be creative and experi­mental, and make each new publication more ambitious than the previous one."

Upcoming, Torosian has several books in various stages of planning and development, includ­ing volumes in his Homage Series on Alfred Stieglitz and Andre Kertesz, and a book on Ryerson University's Historical Black Star Collection. He is also working his magnum opus, a book of his own photography, entitled Electra.

"My books aspire to provide something biographical as well as scholarly," Torosian explains. "I'm not trying to be definitive but to find some area of the artist's career I can illuminate and that can stand for some kind of broader understanding of life and work and make an important contribution as a companion to other available literature on the artist."

In much the same way that the Internet and digital imaging have helped promulgate the astonishing growth in the art market for photographs over the past two decades, these same technologies have helped provide the catalyst for the unprecedented growth in photo book publishing and collecting. Photographers can now produce relatively low-cost, high-quality, affordable books using digital technologies, while collectors can access an unlimited range of books using the Internet.

Among the many resources on the Internet, the most valuable and comprehensive is photoeye.com, founded in 1996 by Rixon Reed and based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Reed, who formerly managed Lee Witkin's New York City gallery book department, has been in the photography book business for over 25 years, beginning with a photo book mail order company he started in Austin, Texas, in 1979, and later a bookstore/gallery in Santa Fe opened in 1991 and expanded with the addition of the Internet site five years later.

Reed currently maintains an inventory of around 14,000 books in his database, and adds on average about 1,000 new titles each year from major U.S. and foreign publishers as well as small press and privately printed books. He also maintains a significant inventory of prints and artists' port­folios for sale and auction.

Unique to Reed's site is the ability to view pages of books listed for sale, as well as an active auction site that features rare, out-of-print, and collectible books.

With his 30 years in the business, Reed has witnessed firsthand the remarkable trajectory of photo books from mere reference works to true, intrinsic works of art. "Photography books are a unique breed of illustrated books and an amazing collectible art form in their own right," says Reed. "They reproduce the actual photographs so well that they become a dynamic collectible medium in themselves. There's something about a book that is edited and designed well that you can't get from the experience of going into a gallery and seeing prints on the wall."

Eric Miles, auction expert at photoeye.com, recommends that collectors, before buying at auction, get online and compare price and condition of books listed by book dealers. "The way in which condition is described is not absolutely uniform. One must read between lines," warns Miles.

"Most of the time you'll find another copy or two for sale by dealers, so researching on the Internet can give you a good gauge of a book's market value."

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