Friday, March 5, 2010

Collecting photography books

If you can afford one of the prints above (about 30,000 euros each) then this post is probably not for you.
And I hate you (but in the best possible way).

Well-heeled white-gloved obsessive-compulsive collector types, move along to a site on connoisseurship that covers buying and selling prints, insuring them, et cetera et cetera. I have little interest in the kind of collecting that fetishizes appraisals ("near-fine condition with slight wear to dust jacket") and "investing" in books that you never open for fear of smudging a page. When I was at the "Paris Photo" show in November, I can't say that I didn't covet the prints. I would love a signed Cartier-Bresson, but I don't have a spare 25,000 euros in my wallet.

Enter the middlebrow solution to the collecting impulse: the photography book.

The countdown
Only recently have I started to buy photography books, most of them as prep work for either the photo class I taught in Paris last fall or the one I'm teaching here now. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I made up a list of books to buy back in December. I had about $1300 in books just sitting in an cart waiting for new funding to hit my research account on January 1st. Consequently, the "only 4 left in stock," "only 3 left in stock," shopping cart countdown became more interesting to me than what was happening in Times Square. By the time I hit "buy now," a couple of the books were no longer in stock. No biggie, right? They'll replenish their stock, I thought. Nope. Suddenly, books in the "buy from these sellers" part of the Amazon marketplace doubled or tripled in price. The most confusing case was Bruce Davidson's Journey of Consciousness, which went from supposed availability at $158, to a "buy from this seller" price of $997, and has now been relisted as a pre-order under the title Outside Inside for $158. It's as confusing as the stock market—but a lot more reliable. Here's why:

I will quote a really excellent basic guide to collecting photography books in which the author (Mike Johnston) describes the life cycle of a photo book:

1. Newly released, available in bookstores for full price. Not available everywhere, but readily available if you keep up with your sources.

2. Remaindered or sold on sale. Seems like nobody wants it. Book is common and cheap at this point.

3. Book is out of print; remainders are gone; book starts to get harder to find.

4. Most copies have gone into libraries or private hands; book is scarce, found mostly on the used / rare market; value rises. If it's a good book, the value can rise quite a lot.

That cycle is not good for publishers but great for collectors. I know from personal experience that you have to fight tooth and nail to get an exhibition catalog published these days. Well before the recession, museum directors were drastically cutting down on catalogs. Many important shows open and close with no publication, and those that have catalogs have limited runs to cut their losses.

Take Irving Penn's Small Trades (pictured above): This wonderful exhibition catalog from a recent show at the Getty, was on sale for around $35 at Amazon in December. Then it went out of print. Now you are lucky if you don't have to pay several times the original price to get one. As I write this, one person is selling them at $165 on ebay.

Another example:
I bought a new copy of this 2002 William Eggleston book off of eBay for $140. Pretty expensive since it retailed for $40 only 8 years ago. But compared to the sellers at Amazon, where you can't buy a new one and a "very good" used one is $385, the eBay price felt like a steal.

The collecting begins...
If you like photography anyway (and I assume you do), then knowing that your book collection will outperform your stock portfolio (OK, bad example) adds a new level of enjoyment to your image acquisition addiction. If you're like me, you don't buy books to make money, but it's part of human nature to enjoy possessing an object of desire. And along those same lines, it can be fun to drool over another person's collection. When you find yourself fantasizing that you happen to stumble upon one of the ten most collectible photography books of all time at a garage sale, then you know you're caught in the circuit of what some academics like to call "mimetic desire."

and now for a mental palette cleansing break....
Remember the Beanie Baby craze? Remember that hilarious "3rd Rock from the Sun" episode about "Fuzzy Buddies?"

best. cast. ever.

but back to photography book collecting...
Collecting photo books is not a frenzied activity, and it isn't a phenomenon in which one company makes a calculated attempt to drive sales through a mania of consumerism. In fact, go to a local chain bookstore like Borders or Barnes & Noble. Go. I'll wait.

Back already? Well, did you notice how pathetic the photo book section is? My local Borders has at most two or three small shelves devoted to photo art books. No craze going on there. The uninspiring selection means that you will have to make an effort just to know what photo books exist in print.

My advice is to look at Photo-Eye bookstore online. It's not as fun as paging through the real thing, but it is as good as it gets online. For many of the books, Photo-Eye uses "booktease" to show you some pages, but you will never be able to flip through an entire book. Possibly the best place to start is with one of their "best of" lists. The 2008 and 2009 "best of" lists compile lists from a variety of professionals. You can look at the individual lists as well as see the most frequently mentioned works. Sometimes, when you see the same book on everybody's list, you might just take the plunge and buy it. That's what I did and I have been very happy with the results (I'll share some in the next post).

Photo-Eye also does auctions—you can read a fun and informative interview with Eric Miles, the director of Photo-Eye auctions, on Elizabeth Avedon's blog.


michelle said...

How in the world did you remember that episode? I had no memory of it.

I think it's interesting that photo books seem to be a phenomenon unlike any other.