“The object is not to make art. It is to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable”
I approach photography as art and I consider collecting art to be an essential aspect of being an artist. For these reasons, I decided to write a series of four essays in which I look at the process of collecting art. I will start by explaining why collecting art became important to me. I will continue by writing about visiting museums and galleries. Finally, I will end this series by giving you tips about building your own art collection.
I remember the first time I purchased a work of art: it was an Ansel Adams photograph printed by Alan Ross, one of Adam’s assistants. I mail ordered it from the Ansel Adams gallery in 1986 when I moved to the USA to study at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. An ad in a photography magazine had attracted my attention towards this print, even though the reason why I read the magazine was to improve my photography, not to find artwork to purchase.
What attracted me was the print. I was in love, the term is exact, with Ansel Adam’s work and the idea of owning an original print, even if it was not printed by Adams, fascinated me. On top of that the price was right. I could afford the print because it was priced below $100. Finally, I saw this purchase as part of my learning process. I had read Fred Picker’s book, The Zone VI Workshop in which he writes that having master prints at his elbow when working in the darkroom was a key factor in learning to create better prints. I wanted to do the same.
I am not sure if owning this print helped me make better black and white prints. In fact, to be honest, I don’t think it did. For one I did not have my own darkroom. I was using the Associated Students of NAU darkroom in the student building. Because it was a shared darkroom I had to make an appointment each time I wanted to make prints or develop film. I also had to carry my own chemicals because not being an ASNAU member I was not allowed to keep anything in the darkroom. I suppose I could have become a member but for whatever reason I never did.
Black and white printing was not my cup of tea. I know it sounds weird to say this given the effort, the time and the money I put into it. Fact is I loved making black and white prints but somehow I lacked the ability to create subtle grey tones. Black and white tones were ok but of course, those are just a beginning, the first step towards a fine art print. What truly matters are the grey tones that come in between pure black and pure white. Those are the hard ones to get.
In making this first fine art purchase my judgment had been influenced by seeing original Ansel Adams prints at the University of Arizona Center for Creative Photography in 1983. I had to make a viewing appointment, choose a specific box of prints identified by catalog number (not contents) and on the appointed date and time I was presented with the prints. No glass, no frame and no mat stood between me and the prints. It was just me and the prints, unframed and un-matted, only dry mounted the way Adams curated his final prints.
What I saw that day influenced my understanding of black and white printing to this day. One of the prints in my randomly selected box was from Joshua Tree National Park and showed the shadow of a Joshua tree on a granite boulder. The main interest of this image I suppose was the shape the spiny Joshua Tree leaves projected onto the texture of the boulder. However what fascinated me was being able to see details in what I expected to be a solid black area. If I had printed this negative my print would have shown a solid black shadow. What Adams’s print showed was the pretense of solid black.
The print fooled me at first by making me assume that the shadow was pure black. However, upon close inspection, my eyes started seeing detail. This detail was just faint enough to make me doubt. In reality, it was the perfect shadow. The detail in it did not prevent it from being a shadow. A shadow is dark, it is its nature. The print let it keep its dark shadowy nature while revealing just enough of the boulder texture underneath it. It was a printing tour de force.
I have never been satisfied with my black and white prints. I liked working in the darkroom to some extent, even though being in a cramped space while breathing chemical fumes under red lighting was not something I enjoyed. The main problem, as I mentioned before, was my inability to create the fine grey tones I was looking for. I tried everything: I bought a cold light head and I used a timer that took into account the warming time of the enlarger bulb as well as the dry-down effect of the print, a phenomenon that causes a wet print to look brighter than a dry print. I controlled the temperature of my chemical baths. I dodged and burned religiously. I paid close attention to development times and I washed and I dried my prints carefully. However, no matter how precise my technique became I was unable to generate the tones I desired.
I tried everything. At some point, I started using different grades of paper, from high to low contrast, and this brought a promise of success. It was short lived. If I used a high contrast paper I got great blacks and whites but unsatisfying grey tones. If I used a low contrast paper I got great grey tones but disappointing blacks and whites. If I use a medium contrast grade of paper I got neither good blacks, good whites nor good grey tones. Somehow I could not get all the tonalities I wanted onto the same piece of paper.
I eventually sold all my darkroom equipment in 1996 when I made the commitment to switch 100% to digital. I got $2000 for it, far less than it had cost me, but it was $2000 I could re-invest in digital equipment. My goal was to put this money where it mattered.
I did not look at my black and white darkroom prints for years. They stayed where they were stored; the unmounted ones in blue Oriental paper boxes and the dry mounted ones in beige Light impression boxes with metal corners. I only looked at them again a couple years ago when I decided to explore my body of work and tally up where my journey through photography had taken me. The thing that jumped at me then was that most of my black and white prints had too much contrast. I would have printed them softer today. But then I remembered that I tried that and it did not work.
So maybe the problem was elsewhere. Maybe black and white just isn’t for me, at least not for landscapes. My favorite black and white prints are those of people and scenes of Paris at night, subjects where the subtlety of tones was not what I was after. Maybe I am a colorist. After all the vast majority of my work is in color and I only use black and white occasionally, usually for images that make no sense in color and that ask to be black and white. Maybe this is the real problem: wanting to make all images black and white while most of my photographs ask to be in color. Or maybe there is nothing wrong with the prints. They are what I made them at the time. High in contrast but dynamic, representative of the energy I felt at the time. After looking at them I put them back in their boxes and concluded that they should stay that way.
3. About Collecting
Collecting art starts with loving art. It also starts with realizing that one cannot recreate another artist’s work himself. This is what prevented me from buying art for years. My problem was not finding art that I liked and wanted to purchase. I found plenty of art I wanted to acquire. My problem was the belief that I could make the art I liked myself. So instead of collecting art, I learned techniques to make art. I learned, or rather I tried to learn, how to make the art I desired to own. I am not sure if that saved me money because learning gets expensive when one adds up tools, supplies and time. Of the three-time is the priciest because while I can make more money I cannot make more time. This misguided approach made me spend my time recreating art and prevented me from creating my own art.
In any case learning to make, or re-make, other people’s art was not motivated by the desire to save money. It was motivated by the desire to make work similar to the work of artists I admired, work that was as good as theirs. Instead of understanding that art starts with the perfect inspiration, I erroneously believed that art starts with perfect technique. Instead of making technique the servant of inspiration I made inspiration the servant of technique. Technique was my goal back then. Inspiration was recreating the work of other artists. To do so I tried to find the same subjects or locations, wait for the same light conditions and use the same compositions they used. I then tried to develop the film and print the negatives the same way they did. And voila. If I succeeded I would have achieved artistic expression. The problem was I did not succeed and this is where the frustration began.
4. Don’t just make art, collect art.
I am always surprised at the number of fine art photographers who do not collect art. Art for me is a lifestyle. I love beautiful things; it is part of who I am. As an artist, I know that collecting art is indistinguishable from the act of creating art. Owning art by different artists in different mediums is inspirational. Their vision is expressed and shared in their work. To be able to see it everyday nourishes my soul. Being an artist is not just making art; it is also living with art. No one can create in a vacuum.
For me, art is a lifestyle. As such it is not limited to paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures and other traditional art mediums. It extends to everything that brings beauty or creates emotions: perfumes, fabrics, the feel of leather and the construction of a well-made garment, the roar of a Ferrari engine; the beautiful curves of a sculpture; the look and feel of wooden flooring under your feet. One may say that all these can be grouped under the heading of luxury and they would be right because, just like art, luxury addresses all the senses: feel, touch, smell, sight, sound and the sixth sense, emotion, that for which we have no name and have a difficult time putting into words.
All these also qualify as luxuries because they are “wants” rather than needs. However dedicating your life to the creation of fine art photographs is a luxury, being just as much of a want and just as less of a need. To not be a luxury my occupation would have to be need related, such as building houses, growing vegetables or making clothes for example. And still these would have to be mundane and without thrills, without any concern for taste, organic qualities, fashion, décor or comfort because anything that goes beyond “need providing” is a luxury.
Fact is that luxury may be both a need and a want. I recently read a book in which the author lists 24 characteristics of creative people and asks the reader to check the ones that apply to him or her. These included the ability to appreciate perfumes, knowing how to create order among chaos and being able to differentiate subtle color variations. I checked 22 of them. The two I did not check were about being unable to tune out distractions, a common affliction among artists and hypersensitive people. I would have said yes to all 24 but experience has taught me how to tune out distractions, especially when I work in a public place or in front of a crowd.
Regardless, the fact is that these 24 characteristics are needs and not wants. One can exist without being able to notice subtle color differences, or without being able to appreciate delicate perfumes or without knowing how to organize order from chaos. Lacking those refinements does not affect your ability to live. However, for an artist, these refinements are prerequisites to being able to work creatively because working creatively requires that you notice subtle things that many do not see.
This forced me to rethink needs and wants in the context of fine art. While these characteristics may be a want or a luxury to some, they are a necessity to creative individuals because we need to have them to be able to work.
5. Collecting art is just as important as creating art
The decision to collect art was a pivotal point in my life as an artist. Before I took this decision I focused on my own work. I wore blinders and was oblivious to the world of art in many ways. I am not alone in this situation. Many artists work in isolation, surrounded by their work with little or no external artistic input. They create art but rarely take time to study the work of other artists in person. Only a few visit museums and galleries. Even fewer collect art.
Collecting art is important. The ownership and the resulting study of other artist’s work invites external inspiration into my life and into your life if you collect art too. By collecting art we join the community of art connoisseurs and artists. We develop a love of art and photography, not just a love for our work. We open a window onto the world other artists live or lived in.
A collection is not something we acquire all at once. It is something we build over time by selecting pieces we like, works that are meaningful to us and that represents the artists and the art movements we like and admire. We should collect what we like and inspires us because the goal is to create a collection that inspires us to create art.
6. To be continued
In the next essay, I will write about how visiting museums is important in regards to learning, appreciating art and in regards to collecting art. Until then this series is a suivre.
7. Workshops with Alain and Natalie Briot
If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie during which we visit the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon and many others. Our workshops listing is available here.
8. About Alain and Natalie Briot
You can find more information about our workshops, photographs, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to our Free Monthly Newsletter on our website here. You will receive 40 free eBooks when you subscribe to my newsletter.
Natalie and I create fine art photographs, teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website here. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.