Modern Life

How to start a photo collection that you’ll love forever

Building your own collection of professional photos can bring more art into your life, and it’s surprisingly affordable.

By Bill Shapiro — July 30, 2019

One day, nearly three decades ago, I walked into a pop-up gallery in New York City and a small, 5 x 7-inch print spoke to me. In the picture, two children play, seemingly lost in their own world, with hundreds of tiny, hand-painted dots dancing across the photo’s surface. It felt like childhood memory, innocence and the swirl of time itself. I had zero idea who the artist was, nor did I care — I just fell in love. It cost $500 and has had a prominent place in my kitchen for the last 25 years. I’ve been collecting photography ever since. 

Today, thanks to digital sales, apps and an increasingly online art market, it’s never been easier to start your own photo  collection. Photography is still relatively inexpensive compared to other media such as painting or sculpture: While a picture from an established photographer might start at $1,500, you can pick up a work from an emerging artist for a few hundred dollars or nab a new print of an iconic image for as little as $100, if you catch the right sale. And while it’s true that photographs can increase in value over time, that’s not the best reason to start a collection. Instead, consider collecting as a way to enjoy something that delights or inspires you or starts a conversation. It’s also a great opportunity to own a piece of history and, maybe, even a piece of the future. Here, a few things to consider before you begin.

Magnum Photos / Elliott Erwitt

New York City, USA, 2000.

Figure out what you like

The first step is to get a sense of what sparks you. The art market is fickle — photographers and techniques slip in and out of style — so focus on finding a picture or photographer that you really love. The picture can reflect your passions, personality or aesthetic; there are no rules here. In fact, I’ve got one neat-freak friend who collects large, stunning photos of urban decay — mostly, I think, to make his house look neater by contrast. The bottom line is that you won’t go wrong if you love the way a picture looks and how it makes you feel. 

Start from the comfort of your couch by exploring Instagram. I stay in the loop by looking at @parisphotofair and @photolondonfair (for a broad range of styles and topics), @Magnumphotos (for world-class photojournalism), @Natgeo (the natural world), @vintage_vogue (fashion), @burnmagazine (emerging talent), @aperturefnd (cool). 

For inspiration — and for sheer volume — you can’t beat the The Library of Congress which has some 1.5 million photographs on its site available not only for browsing but, for a few dollars, to download and print out. (A small number of these have some rights restrictions, which are noted on the site.) From kitschy photos of roadside America to rarely seen color pictures from the Great Depression to Dorothea Lange’s iconic image of the Migrant Mother, it’s a tremendous resource both for learning about photography, but also to see what kind of photo looks best on your wall. If you find something you love, print it, frame it and hang it — or start looking for looking for similar, collectible pictures in the same vein.

Of course, the best way to educate your eye is to see photographs in person. Pictures “read” differently in real life — their condition, colors, even their mood don’t look the same on a wall compared with a screen. And for that, you should visit a local gallery or a photo fair. At last year’s big, buzzing AIPAD fair in New York, 90 galleries from 11 countries displayed the work of thousands of photographers. “You can find pictures for a few hundred dollars to, well, sky’s-the-limit,” says Joseph Bellows, who has been running the highly respected, photo-focused Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California, for the last 20 years and shows at AIPAD annually. “You get a wide variety of dealers and can look around without being bothered. Also, prices are often listed on the walls, so you can sneak in and out, compare, and get an idea of what you like.”

Salvador Dali and rhino. New York City, USA, 1956.

Magnum Photos / Philippe Halsman Estate

Salvador Dali and rhino. New York City, USA, 1956.

Learn about prints and editions

Once you’ve narrowed your focus and your budget, and have begun to search in earnest, you’ll quickly find that not all photos are created equal. If you’re looking at older photographs, one of the first terms you’re likely to come across is “vintage print.” A vintage print means that the picture was printed — either by the photographer or someone they were directly overseeing — close to the time when the photograph was taken. These are prized, Bellows explains, “because collectors want something that brings you closer to the moment in time when the photographer made the picture, closer to what they were seeing, what they were feeling.”  A “modern print” was likely not printed by the photographer (a “posthumous print” speaks for itself), meaning that it’s a step removed from the photographer’s original vision and, generally speaking, of less value. 

Whether you’re considering new photographs or old, you’ll almost certainly come across the concept of “editions.” Whereas paintings are one-of-a-kind works, because photographs are made from negatives, they can theoretically be reproduced ad infinitum. But since scarcity gives pictures their value, photographers usually limit the number of copies they print. An edition can be any size, but the smaller, the better; 10 to 20 is typical, and there are often separate editions for different print sizes. Some galleries offer an incentive to early buyers, with the first few prints selling for, say, $1,500 and the last few for maybe $2,500. 

Untitled, by Sebastiaan Bremer.

Bill Shapiro / Sebastiaan Bremer

Untitled, by Sebastiaan Bremer.

When you’re ready to buy

Keep in mind that the laws of scarcity, and of supply and demand, influence everything. Beyond that, says Bellows, remember that “you’re not just buying an image, you’re buying an object, an object that, hopefully, the photographer printed, touched and signed.” 

The most intimate way to buy photographs is to find a local gallery that carries the kind of photography you like. “Some years ago, in certain cities, a gallery might not have paid much attention to someone just getting interested in collecting,” says Bellows, who’s worked in the photo world for 40 years. “But that’s probably not the case today. We look at this as a long-term relationship, and if somebody walks in looking for a little education, that’s great.” Even if the pictures on the walls aren’t your style, a gallery owner likely has hundreds of other photographs in the back that they can show you. And from then on, they’ll be on the lookout for the kind of pictures you’re interested in. 

Ideally, you’ll want your photograph to be signed by the photographer, which goes back to Bellows’ point about owning an object — not just an image — that’s actually been touched by the hand of the photographer. A photograph signed on “verso” means it’s signed on the back; “recto” means the front.

While it won’t take you long to discover the bustling world of online photography auctions, as a newcomer, you’ll probably want to steer clear.  For one thing, by only looking online, you sometimes can’t discern any small dings or bends that will decrease a picture’s value. Also, auctions tend to be adrenalin-fueled affairs and, as Bellows says, “When you get caught up in the excitement, you can find yourself pushing the button on your keypad two more times than you’d want to.” Beyond that, the auction house tacks on a “buyer’s premium” (which can sometimes reach 25 percent of your winning bid) as well as a shipping charge. In short, it’s ridiculously easy to spend more than you’ve budgeted.

One great alternative to an auction is the flash sales that Magnum Photos holds every June and October.  Five years ago, the 72-year-old photo agency — whose members include many of the finest photographers ever to press a shutter, such as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson — began selling small square prints. These prints are hand-selected and signed by the masters themselves (in cases when the photographer is deceased, the prints come with an official stamp from the photographer’s estate.)  “We wanted to involve a younger generation of collectors,” says Sophie Wright, Magnum’s global cultural director. “And we thought this was an affordable way to make photographers like Capa, Elliot Erwitt, Susan Meiselas and Alec Soth accessible to them.”

While the number of prints isn’t limited (as they are in a typical edition), these flash sales last only five days; after that, the print will never again be sold in that size. The cost for this little piece of photographic history? Just $100 unframed. Two other outfits —, run by Getty Images, and Lumas — also sell affordable photos for your wall. While these images aren’t likely to increase in value, they’re certainly eye-catching. They’re also an easy way to dip your toe into the water: I know a few people whose enthusiasm for collecting began with a small Magnum print.

As for my beloved little picture of the twirling kids? It sat comfortably in the kitchen for a quarter century, where my own children would go on to speak their first words, learn to criticize their father’s cooking and, eventually, fill out their college applications. And where, one morning not long ago, I happened to be reading a story that featured a photograph with a strangely familiar aesthetic. I Googled around and sure enough: same photographer. Sebastiaan Bremer is now repped by a big-league gallery and his larger works sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Mine likely isn’t worth anything near that and even if it was, it wouldn’t matter: I’m not selling. But it’s nice to know that all those years ago, I picked a winner.

Bill Shapiro is the former Editor-in-Chief of  LIFE Magazine and the author of the recently published book, What We Keep. He writes regularly about photography.


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