The Other eBay

January 13, 2009 ·

Mike Johnston

Good morning! I hope the Christians among you had a healthy and hearty Christmas full of fellowship and faith, and that others are enjoying their own holidays or a few days off.

In this time of giving and plenty, I’d like to mention a particular charity — the De La Salle Blackfeet School, in Browning, Montana, which I learned about through Brother Ray Bonderer, one of my newsletter subscribers. De La Salle schools feature small classes and subsidized tuition, and work to restore pride and hope for at-risk populations. Browning is at the heart of the Blackfeet Reservation. The school needs donations, especially monthly pledges, even small ones — it helps them budget to have a core of regular income to count on. If you can spare a one-time donation, or, better yet, a monthly one, please send them to De La Salle Blackfeet, P.O. Box 1489, Browning MT 59417 USA (make checks payable to De La Salle Blackfeet). Thanks! Now on to….

The Other eBay

I like analyzing enthusiast magazines, which is a good thing, as it was part of my profession for a time. When I took overDarkroom & Creative Camera Techniques, for example, it seemed to me that that magazine, as its longtime editor David Alan Jay had structured it, required that its readers own three things if they really wanted to participate fully in the "life" of the publication: a densitometer, a spot meter, and a view camera. Without that fundamental interest in the control of the techniques of black-and-white large-format photography, they would perforce remain, if not on the fringes, then at least not quite at the heart of the magazine’s mission.

There are a number of fundamental ways to be a photography enthusiast. You can be an observer, or part of the audience for the photography of your time; A.D. Coleman, for example, one of the most consistently engaged critics of his generation, is not a photographer himself. You can be a scholar, or interested in history. You can be a curator, figuring out simultaneously how to utilize a collection for the benefit of your public and how to structure for your public edifying exhibitions. You can be a typical "snapshooter," making pictures of your family’s life and travels as mementoes, or even heirlooms. You can be a professional, making pictures at the behest and direction of clients in return for money. You can practice some sort of professional photography as a "second vocation," to augment your income and/or give opportunity and direction to your photography: for instance, if you do weddings on weekends during the summer. You can be an aficionado of something apart from photography in which photography allows you to participate more fully: for instance, you might be a nature lover, or a bird-watcher, or a hiker, and use photography either as an adjunct to the pursuits, or as an excuse to do them. You can of course be interested in any number of technical areas, or a combination of them. Camera collectors and equipment enthusiasts qualify, as well as those who love alternative processes, or who want to be masters of one esoteric sort of printing technique or another — platinum/palladium, for example, or dye transfer, or hand-coloring. Maybe you have an encompassing interest in one company or marque; some Leicaphiles and Nikonphiles would to qualify here. Maybe you like analyzing and armchair-quarterbacking the photo industry. Maybe you like participating in online forums.

These are actually just a few of the many ways "into" the hobby.

This is one of those pictures I can just hear.
Oscar Peterson’s smile at the keyboard speaks volumes
about what he knows he can make the piano say, doesn’t it?
The photograph, byPaul Hoeffler, is available for purchase at

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of it. I personally love to learn to detect (with my eyes, not with measurements) what lenses do. I love lenses, almost to the level of a fetish. Why? I don’t really know, but I know that it appeals to me. In any event, for the most part, any of these idiosyncratic areas of enthusiasm are not dangerous (war photography would be one exception), non-criminal (intrusive surveillance photography might be an exception there), non-exploitative (making child pornography would be an exception), and (generally, since exceptions do exist) harmless and innocent. So I say, as long as you’re not hurting anybody or doing anything immoral, go for it — do whatever dang thing photographic you want to, however silly it might seem to "outsiders," and don’t worry about it.

My big three

Naturally, of course, I have some ideas of my own about ways to participate in the practice or hobby of photography.

Some of these you know about, if you’ve been reading this column for a while. I put a pretty high premium on shooting skills, for instance, and I appreciate photo books. While being a gearhead camera nut to some extent, I also tend to think of cameras as tools, not asobjets d’art. And I like black-and-white.

But if pressed to come up with basic "means of participation" that I think are central to any advanced amateur or serious enthusiast’s engagement with the art and craft of photography — just as a densitometer was a necessity for the core readers of David Alan Jay’sD&CCT— I think I’d pick these three things:

1. Building and having a portfolio of your best work;

2. Looking at lots of work, whether in books, in museums, at galleries, online, or some combination;

3. Collecting pictures.


I’ve just finished writing, forBlack & White Photographymagazine, a three-part article on the problems and rewards of building a portfolio. The last part was published this month. And I’ve consistently been an advocate of photography books — see for instance my columns "Readings for Practicing Photographers" (Sept. 8, 2002) and "Collecting Photography Books" (Feb. 2, 2003).

But we never really talk about collecting. A lot of amateur art, perhaps necessarily (by which I mean, this is part of what keeps it "amateur"), is narcissistic: here’s what I’ve done; here’s what camera I own; please tell how can I do it just like that; what do you think of my work? Collecting is not very narcissistic. It’s an expression of personal taste, of course, and very satisfying as such, but absolutely central to it is an engagement with other peoples’ art and accomplishments.

Also central to it, I think, are the subjects of your own interests, obsessions, or passions. You just can’t sustain an interest in collecting something you don’t truly care about. Speaking only for myself, I’m fond of pictures of photographers. I have a few, and I’d love to have the means to collect more. I also love jazz. I love the music, primarily, but I also love pictures of jazz musicians. Certain pictures are burned into my brain, like Ray de Carava’s blurred picture of Coltrane playing the soprano sax, or John Loengard’s "portrait" of Louis Armstrong’s scarred lips.

A bad scan of a picture from my collection: Fats Waller on the streets of Harlem, 1939.
Photograph by Charles Peterson; print by me.

You may think you need to have a lot of money to collect photographs, and that’s true, but it’s maybe not as serious a situation as you might think. Remember, most great collections were put together before the market value of the constituent parts went through the roof. What youreallyneed is a clear idea of what you’re up to, a solid sense of what you like, and some idea of where you might start hunting.

The other eBay

Contrary to some peoples’ assumptions, there are plenty of places to acquire photographs. One of the most obvious is eBay.

I’m assuming that everybody is aware of the "Cameras & Photo" area of eBay, in the "Computers & Electronics" section, where equipment is sold; but are you also aware of the "other" eBay, the "Photographic Images"area, in the "Art" section? Typical for eBay, you can find anything there from treasure to garbage — from original vintage prints of acknowledged masterpieces to pictures clipped from old magazines, and everything in between.

Two visions of womanhood: Seller "robertbjones" offered this Mary Ellen Mark portrait of Mother Theresa
(have you ever seen a better picture of her?) on eBay at $3,000, and got no bidders, but sold a 16×20 print
of Johnny Florea’s voluptuous picture of Marilyn Monroe for $850.

There are plenty of other sources online. For one thing, many photograhers will sell prints exhibited at their own websites, and even if they have an inflated value of their pictures’ worth, sometimes you can talk them down if you’re patient. If, like me, you like jazz, here’s a source for modern prints of pictures by the greatFrancis Wolff. (I always loved that particular picture of Blue Mitchell, hands woven into his trumpet but still expertly clutching a butt.) You can get pictures from archives and even from newspapers; tryThe New York TimesCompany Storefor hundreds of modern prints from archive negatives of every era. (Modern prints tend to be more reasonably priced that "vintage" ones; if you insist on vintage prints, you should buy through a reputable established dealer.) Students are always interested in selling their work, although if they’ve just taken a business course you may have to read through a seven-page contract. And of course you can get prints of famous FSA photographs through the Library on Congress, for a song. You might as well, if you’re a taxpayer — you own them, after all.

I’m not naïve enough to think that everybody’s going to rush right out and become a photography collector. Then again, you don’t have to be a collector to buy a nice print for the wall once in a while. Think about it; try it; you might find you enjoy it.

— Mike Johnston

NEXT WEEK: Leica Leica? Leica, Leica, Leica.

NEW!!! There’s now a brand spanking new Links page on my website, Lots of photo links, plus some idiosyncratic categories that might be new to you. You’re cordially invited to have a look.

See Mike Johnston’s website Also, check out his monthly column in the BritishBlack & White Photographymagazine! (Usually available at Barnes & Noble bookstores.)

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Mike Johnstonwrites and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine calledThe 37th Framefor people who are really "into" photography. His book,The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and findadditional articlesthat he has written for this site, as well as aSunday Morning Index.

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