Until the year 1839, our only way to know what the world looked like was through artistic media such as painting, sculpture and drawing. While the value and legacy of these works are indisputably immense, we can’t claim that they could serve as factual documents of their times - mainly because, after all, it’s art we’re talking about here, meaning that most of it was subjected to highly personal interpretation, and therefore it is not necessarily representing reality as it actually was. But then came photography, aiming to do just that: transmit reality exactly as it is into a permanent visual statement. In fact, it is vintage photography we have to thank for having a very precise idea of what certain important 19th century people looked like, or how an event which, for example, took place almost two centuries ago went. Today, these photographs represent items of a great value because of their uniqueness, but also their particular flair and spirit that can never be created again. Collecting vintage photography means preserving history, and for those who wish to start their own collection for financial gain too, there are a few things to know beforehand.
Before the invention of film in the 1880s, which marked the beginning of a new era for photography, the medium relied of different types of processes in image-making. For a vintage photography collector, these are important, as they directly affect a photograph’s value, quality, scarcity and, of course, condition. The first such commercial process was the daguerreotype, named after its inventor, Louis Daguerre. Patented in 1822, Daguerrotype dominated the field of vintage photography until the mid-1850s, and today represent the most popular type among collectors. It is a copper plate covered with a thin layer of polished silver. Creating a quite contrasted image, with deep shadows and almost detail-less lights, this type of vintage photography gave no possibility of reproduction, hence you can only find original and unique daguerrotype photos. Because they were affordable to an average person by the mid 1840s, they are quite numerous, but because of their fragile state, they are usually preserved in glass cases filled with chemical gas. Most daguerrotypes were studio portraits, on rare occasions they depict outdoor scenery, and the most popular example is the first authenticated photo of Abraham Lincoln, taken in 1846.
Mid-1850s saw the rise of ambrotypes, a negative put on glass and placed against a black background, in order to make it look like a positive. Ambrotypes were less expensive to create, so their most common topic are family portraits from all social classes. This also means that they vary in quality, as some were handled better than others. At about the same time, there were also tintype and stereoviews or stereographs, with the former being made usually by travelling photographers using a think sheet of iron and the latter simulated a 3D view and captured faraway places. Carte de visite, or CDVs, came to existence in 1859 in France, in form of small 2,5 x 4 inches paper prints even more affordable than their predecessors. CDVs had great success, as they anticipated the concept of photo albums, and their most common subjects were, for example, Civil War soldiers. They were, however, replaced by Cabinet Cards soon enough, having been bigger in size (6.5 x 4,3 inches).
Another vintage photography process to look out for is photogravure, a print-making process where a copper plate is coated with a light-sensitive gelatine tissue exposed to a film positive and then etched, resulting in a high quality intaglio print.
For someone who is passionate about history and images, vintage photography represents the best way to go when it comes to collecting. If you’re planning on buying photos so you could sell them for profit further on, it’s good to know that, for instance, a rare photo of Billy the Kid, purchased for $2, sold for $2,3 million in 2011, or that a 1842 daguerreotype of Temple de Júpiter went for almost $1 million in 2003. Although these are particular sale examples, the value of a vintage photograph is actually determined based on several factors I also mentioned earlier. Depending on the type, an image can cost more if it’s an original, or if it’s made in fewer copies. Originals are, in fact, much more expensive than reprints, but if you do find a decent reprint, make sure its printing date is as close to the creation of the negative/original as possible. Of course, the condition of the image is also crucial, so the less damaged it is the better. The value of a photograph can be increased even further if its author is famous, or if it comes from an esteemed photographic studio. With this in mind, collectors should mind the copyright issues - some of the images produced by a known photographer are protected by law, most of vintage photographs are in public domain, meaning there is no copyright on them and are available for any kind of use. Finally, as vintage photography is closely connected to historical figures and events, it’s important to understand its social impact, as some of these images became iconic overtime.
When in search of a vintage photograph, it is probably best to get out there and “get your hands on” some actual prints. There are many antique or second-hand shops which still sell vintage photos, alongside flea markets, garage and deceased estate sales, which often offer an interesting choice of imagery. If you’re able to spend a bit more, you can look for antique stores which specialise in selling larger collections of these pictures. When it comes to online hunt, two of the most valuable archives are those of the Smithsonian Institution and there Library of Congress, for example, but you can only download image files, as there are no prints available. Otherwise, you can always browse through websites like art.com or even eBay, get in touch with other collectors through forums and dedicated websites, or even get your print from numerous art auctions dedicated to photography and its vintage period.
Featured images in slider: Gustave Le Gray- The Great Wave, Sete, 1857, detail. Courtesy vam.ac.uk; Louis Jacques Daguerre's first surviving daguerreotype image, L'Atelier de l'artiste, which he produced on a silver plate in 1837 Illustration- Louis Jacques Daguerre/Getty via The Guardian. All images used for illustrative purposes only.