Photobooks – affordable collectibles that are soaring in value
Rare editions now sell for tens of thousands, but collectors on a limited budget can invest in emerging photographers
At first glance they may look like overpriced coffee-table books, but photobooks are highly collectible works of art. In recent years, a boom in the market has seen prices skyrocket. At a dedicated auction at Christie’s in London last year, signed early editions of influential photobooks such as Robert Frank’s The Americans and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment sold for £43,250 and £13,750 respectively.
The sudden surge in prices is thought to have begun with the publication of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s lushly illustrated two-volume retrospective The Photobook: A History, in 2004. These books, along with Andrew Roth’s 2001 work, The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, attempted to reveal what Parr described as “the final frontier of the undiscovered”. As a result, a canon of sorts was established and the values of the featured books soared.
According to Sven Becker of Christie’s Books and Manuscripts, prices have risen so quickly in the last five years that values put on the more famous books have stalled. Higher prices will only be attained, he says, when the “books or copies are in perfect condition” or where they have “extraordinary things attached such as signatures and inscriptions”.
Despite the scarcity of signed or inscribed books and the high plateau in prices on the seminal works, there is hope for the average collector with a modest budget. In fact, even if you’re a complete novice, there is a good opportunity to combine learning about the art form with a sound piece of investing by collecting new editions.
Photobooks are expensive to produce and, while demand is too small to warrant long print runs or multiple reprints, it is large enough that the books remain desirable, soon become scarce and can eventually be very valuable. This means new editions costing between £20 and £60 can double or triple in price in as little as two to five years. In 10 or 20 years – and if the work of the photographer becomes particularly fashionable – the price may increase even more.
Jeff Ladd of the photobook blog 5B4, cites the example of John Gossage’s book of gritty landscapes, The Pond. When the groundbreaking work was published in 1985, you could pick up a copy for about £20-£30, but it soon went out of print and became very scarce. Today it sells for £500-£600 via rare book trader Vincent Borrelli.
Similarly, photobooks by Bruce Davidson have become very valuable. Reprinted 2003 editions of his 1980s book Subway (see below) cost £40 on release but now sell for anywhere between £200 and £300.
If you want to pick up some books currently on the shelves that might follow this trend, William Eggleston’s For Now (Twin Palms, 2010) and Before Color (Steidl, 2010) can still be found for around the £30-£40 mark; they are expected to double in value relatively quickly and perhaps even increase beyond that in years to come.
You need to look after anything you buy very carefully. Martin Amis of photobookstore.co.uk, which sells rare and limited-edition books, says books must be in perfect condition. “Blemishes or damage can knock as much as 40% of the price,” he says, “which is why you have to be careful with places like Amazon who don’t always package books as well as they might.”
Amis, a collector himself, recommends buying from stores that specialise, straight from the publisher or from dealers you know. Other online specialists include the excellent photo-eye.com, based in Santa Fe. If you prefer to buy from a physical bookshop and can get to London, Photobooks International in Bloomsbury is a good place to rummage for used editions.
But one of the great things about photobook collecting is discovering the work of emerging photographers whose early books may become sought after. A good place to look is among the current boom in self-published titles.
Self-publishing in photography has a fine pedigree. Perhaps the greatest example is Ed Ruscha‘s 1963 work Twentysix Gasoline Stations (see below). More recently, Ryan McGinley’s self-published 2000 debut The Kids Are Alright sold for £3,528 at Swann Galleries in New York.
“You can’t go wrong if you are paying £7-£10 for something you like,” says Becker, who believes these self-published books are “guaranteed to be collectible in the future”.
To help you navigate the bewildering array, look at websites that collate the best of self-publishing, such as theindependentphotobook.blogspot.com, indiephotobooklibrary.org and selfpublishbehappy.com. Also, many established photographers, such as Stephen Gill, sell through their own sites. His Book of Birds, £19, or Hackney Flowers, £28, are available through Gill’s own imprint Nobody and are worth a look for their uncommon detail as well as their potential collectability.
Finally, to make the most of collecting you will need to stay in the know and – most importantly – get to know what you like. Luckily, there are some excellent resources at hand. As well as Ladd’s 5B4, there are blogs such as Marc Feustel’s eyecurious.com, Nathalie Belayche’s foodforyoureyes and the Guardian’s own photo blog by Sean O’Hagan, all of which cover in depth what’s new, where to go and what to see. Add to this magazines such as the British Journal of Photography, Photoworks, and Foto8 and galleries such as the Photographers’ Gallery in London and the Redeye network in the north-west and you will find many opportunities to learn.
Collecting photobooks is a wonderful way to discover more about photography and build a small alternative nest egg at the same time. The only downside is that you might incur the cost of installing a sturdy set of shelves.
Where to start
The Photobook: A History Volumes 1 and 2 by Martin Parr & Gerry Badger £49.95, Phaidon; £30.40, Amazon
Published in 2001 and 2004, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s retrospective of the history of photobooks has become hugely influential in the used photobook market. It’s a good place to start learning and may even become a collectors’ item itself.
New editions and reprints likely to go up
William Eggleston – Before Color £40, Steidl; £28, Amazon
Elegant edition of the eccentric American photographer’s early work in black and white before he dazzled in colour. Small run and sure to be worth more than the cut-price £27.66 on Amazon in years to come, a good place to start and a unique introduction to the work of Eggleston.
Bruce Davidson – Subway £40, Aperture; £35, Amazon
Previous editions of Bruce Davidson’s study of the New York subway system and its passengers have shot up in price. Gritty yet human, the highly anticipated Aperture Foundation reprint due in September is sure to fly off the shelves.
Ones to covet
Ed Ruscha – Twentysix Gasoline Stations £23,800, signed first edition, abebooks.co.uk
Regarded by some as the first “modern artist’s book”, pop artist Ruscha’s self-published photobook consists of pictures of 26 gasoline stations taken on a trip from Los Angeles to Oklahoma. First editions in a run of 500 sold for $3.50 in 1962. At the time the minimalist imagery was shocking, but it is perhaps the price that raises eyebrows now – it can fetch between £6,000 and £12,000.
Alexey Brodovitch – Ballet £6,460, first edition, alibris.com
Legendary photobook by Harper’s Bazaar designer Brodovitch whose backstage pictures of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, taken with limited equipment, became famous for their radical challenging of technique and powerful depiction of movement. If you can’t afford the original, Errata Editions does a fantastic 2011 version for about £25.