Jean-Luc Pons Interviews Alex Novak Of I Photo Central On The Photo Market


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An edited version of this interview first appeared in the September-October-November, 2002 issue of Photographie International. My thanks to its publisher, Jean-Luc Pons, for allowing me to reproduce it here on the I Photo Central site in its uncut form.

Alex Novak
Alex Novak

1 - Vous êtes apparu tardivement dans le marché de la photographie. Comment avez-vous été attiré par ce medium?

1 - You appeared quite late on the photography market. What attracted you to this medium?

Actually I have been involved in the photography market for over 30 years now: first as a collector, than later as a private dealer. For various reasons, I just did not come to Europe regularly until about five years ago, although I've been actively buying European photography for over 20 years.

Before becoming involved in photography collecting, I was a photographer myself, so I have always been attracted to the medium. Photography's strength seems to be its direct visceral impact: photography initially attracts me on a raw emotional level. Most photography that takes a purely intellectual approach does not appear--to me at least--to be as successful. That may be why I do not care for some contemporary work.

2 - Comment définiriez-vous l'expérience qui vous a conduit de vos débuts à aujourd'hui?

2 - How would you define the experience that led you from when you began up to now?

It seemed to be a natural progression, or at least my experience has all finally come together: editor/writer, photographer, publisher, collector, and then private photography dealer and creator of a multi-dealer website.

3 - De part votre expérience, pensez-vous qu'il est encore temps pour de jeunes marchands de tenter l'expérience?

3 - With your experience, do you think it is still a time for young dealers to start in photography?

Of course! There is always opportunity in any area of endeavor, but you must find your unique position in the market. It is more difficult for a new young dealer to take on the entire market. It also takes much more money to start a photography business today than 10 or 20 years ago, unless you can be creative.

4 - Quels conseils donneriez-vous à un jeune marchand?

4 - What advice would you give a young dealer?

As I said, they probably should consider specializing, perhaps in contemporary work where you do not have to pay for the work upfront. If a dealer insists on going into the vintage area, they might want to build a relationship with an established dealer or dealers and then try to act more like what we call a "picker", who is someone who finds photographs and brings them to dealers rather than to a customer. This way they do not have to put as much of their own money at risk, and they can begin to build many of the contacts that will allow them to grow later.

5 - Vous êtes en quelque sorte un boulimique de l'image. On peut presque dire que vous avez ou que vous avez eu en tout cas tendance à acheter tout azimut. Comment l'expliquez-vous?

5 - In a way, you are a compulsive image collector. One could practically say that you tend, or at least tended, to buy all over the place. How do you explain this?

I would prefer to say that I am emotionally involved with the work that I buy, rather than to say that I am "a compulsive image collector." I will only buy a piece if I really like it myself. I find that it is easier to sell an image if I love it too. It is the only way that I know to sell: I have to honestly believe in the material if I am to get the buyer excited about it.

I am buying for thousands of different collectors and institutions with different needs and experience levels (not to mention different financial considerations), so indeed I do buy broadly, but there are some general parameters. I only buy quality vintage material, and I focus primarily on two areas: early 19th century paper and daguerreotypes (prior to 1860) and Between-the-Wars experimental photography, although we have material from every period and school of photographic history. Because I feel that a photograph is an object first, any image that I buy has to have "presence". Usually condition is an important part of this sense of presence, although not in every instance.

6 - Vous êtes un des rares marchands privés à avoir consacré un site consacré à la vente de photographie sur le Net. Pourriez-vous nous en faire un bref historique?

6 - You are one of the rare private dealers to have set up a site dedicated to the sale of photography on the Net. Could you briefly outline this?

Actually, I have two separate websites: and Vintage Works is my own photography dealer web site. However, IPhotoCentral, which I also own, is a larger multi-dealer site and has a great deal more content relating to photography collecting.

There are articles on IPhotoCentral to help an experienced or beginning collector or curator, such as buying or selling, appraising and insuring photographs, building a photography library, conservation issues, etc. The E-Photo Newsletter is also archived there, and you can even search the archive. An extensive international calendar of photography events and a links page to other photography sites are also on the website. A collector or a curator could also view numerous Special Exhibits that spotlight certain photographers or areas. For example, there are exhibits up now on Atget, paper negatives, the Middle East, the Photo-Secession and Camera Work, and 19th Century Masterworks by Master Photographers.

But, of course, the most important part of the site is the huge gallery of photographs for sale, which is completely searchable. It is currently the largest on the web. Over 3,000 images are now available from several important photography dealers, although ultimately we expect to have well over 50,000 quality images up on the site. We are also planning to add photography books and book dealers to the site.

7 - Vous semblez connaître une certaine réussite mais ne pensez-vous pas que ce genre de pratique a quelque chose d'incompatible avec le marché. le collectionneur, l'acheteur quel qu'il soit n'a-t-il pas besoin de voir, de toucher etc.?

7 - You seem to be quite successful. Don't you think however that this kind of practice is somewhat incompatible with the market? Collectors/buyers need to see, to touch, don't they?

Of course, a buyer needs to see the actual photograph. The sense of presence that I spoke of earlier just does not exist in a digital or even a printed representation. A photograph is ultimately an object, and so you must see it to make a final decision. But you can certainly get a good idea of whether an image is appealing or not--even if it is in a magazine, such as this one, or on a website, such as IPhotoCentral.

Our website dealer agreement requires that all our dealers allow at least a five-day period for a buyer to look over the items that were purchased and be able to return them for any reason whatsoever. The buyer does have to pay for shipping and insurance back to the dealer, and the item has to be returned in the same condition that it was sent; but this ability to return images freely allows a collector or curator to buy with complete confidence. While it is very rare that a buyer ever makes use of this policy, it helps their confidence in our site to know that they can return an image if they ever need to. We also require any major flaws to be pointed out to the buyer before the item is actually sent, preferably in the description of the item on the website itself.

My own photography company, Vintage Works, also tries to scan all our images to look exactly like the original without "improving" it. Most of the time buyers tell us that the image was much better than they thought it would be after they receive it. I would rather have a buyer be pleasantly surprised by how much better the photograph actually is than be disappointed when they got an image. We tell all our dealers that they should try to do the same on their scans.

8 - Le fait de vendre sur Internet, c'est-à-dire de ne pas avoir de contact physique avec l'acheteur n'est-il pas frustrant?

8 - Isn't the fact of selling on Internet, i.e., having no physical contact with the buyer, frustrating?

While we often sell in person by appointment and at photography shows, we have developed a great rapport with many of our clients that we have only spoken with by phone or communicated with by email. They have become great friends, as well as customers. Of course, we always enjoy meeting with these clients later at shows or events. I am also often stopped by readers of the E-Photo Newsletter, who want to thank me for the information, which is free to those who sign up on our IPhotoCentral website. As you know, the newsletter reports on auction results, market trends, and news relating to photography collecting.

9 - Comment expliquez-vous le fait qu'il y ait aussi peu de sites consacrés à la vente de photographie?

9 - How do you explain the fact that there are so few sites dedicated to the sale of photography?

While there are actually many more than you probably think, the primary problem comes down to money and computer code. Most photography sites are simple web sites that have been built only in HTML code. Taking this approach makes it difficult to change anything on the site or to put up and maintain larger groups of images. If you sell an image on such a site, you really must redesign the whole site to accommodate the change. Imagine trying to do that every day. Even making simple adjustments like price changes requires someone to rewrite the code for the page. How most photo dealers react to this situation is to allow their site to get out of date very quickly, or to simply use the site as a bit of advertising for their gallery, rather than to make sales.

We have taken a different but much more expensive approach which involves building a website that is database-driven. Our dealers have their own password-protected areas where they can search, add, change and delete information and images with just a few keystrokes and clicks of the mouse. They do not have to learn how to code or program. So the IPhotoCentral website stays current because changes can be made in seconds, not days or weeks. And it is easily searchable despite having thousands of images available for sale.

The other major expense that most photography dealers forget when putting up a website is advertising for the site. They seem to think that if they build it, people will just find it somehow. IPhotoCentral advertises regularly in this magazine and a dozen other photography and art publications, plus we spend thousands of dollars advertising on-line. In addition, the E-Photo Newsletter, which now goes directly to over 3,700 people (with a pass-along audience of another 3,700), helps us to drive continuous traffic to the IPhotoCentral website. A single dealer can rarely do all of this and make it work economically.

10 - Quel pourcentage de petites images vendez-vous pa rapport à ce qu'on pourrait appeler certaines grandes images?

10 - What percentage of small images do you sell compared with what one could call great images?

All the images that I sell are "great" images. But from a financial point of view, images $10,000 and up made up approximately two-thirds of Vintage Works total sales dollar volume over the last 12 months. We also always sell a number of six-figure images each year. Most of this type of business comes from private sales, although we recently had one $25,000 image sell over the Internet. By quantity of items sold, these five and six-figure sales made up only 5.5% of our total sales, but they were clearly the part of our business to have the most impact on us. Because of our strong relationship with some of the world's top collectors and curators, we have sold annually well into seven-figures for the last several years. Sales from $1,000-$9,999 make up another 28% of the total dollar volume on 24% of the total items sold. In another words, if we total these two groups together, images that are over a thousand dollars each represent less than a third of our sales by number of items, but make up 95% of our total sales dollar volume. Most of the rest of the items sold are between $100 and $999. Most of the images under $10,000 were sold through a combination of website, photography shows and private sales. The two websites represent about 17-20% of our total business and now provide a good cash flow of regular business each month.

While the profit margins are usually, but not always, a bit higher on lower-priced items, our administration costs are really not any different than for higher-priced images. Because of this and other reasons, we have been attempting to gradually reduce the inventory items that are under $2,000, which is the reason that we have recently reduced the prices on so many at this level. However, lower-priced items help bring in new collectors and clients; and we sell these "smaller" items even to experienced collectors and institutions because of the high quality and strength of these images, even though they have a low price. After all, the history of photography is not only about Gustave Le Gray and Edward Weston. In addition, collectors usually make multiple purchases of such items, so the total invoice is often in high four or five-figures.

11 - Connaissez-vous le pourcentage de collectionneurs privés et de marchands qui achètent sur votre site?

11 - Do you know the percentage of private collectors versus dealers that buy on your site?

We have never tracked these percentages, but both are certainly good customers on our site. Dealers often use our excellent search engine to search for clients' specific requests and to find bargains for their own inventory. And we try to keep prices attractive enough that dealers can still make a profit on the resale. But we still sell mostly to collectors and to museum and institutional curators. In fact, museum and institutional buyers are increasingly representing a higher portion of our Internet business. More and more institutions have added Internet connections for their curators, and these curators are taking advantage of the Internet for research and now for actual purchases.

After 9/11, people--especially in the U.S.--were more reluctant to travel, but not to use the Internet. While I do not believe that the Internet will ever replace photography galleries and shows, I do feel that the Internet has become another very important medium to sell photography, but only if you do it correctly.

12 - Pourriez-vous définir un portrait type de votre clientèle?

12 - Could you define your typical clientèle?

Truthfully, there is no such thing as "typical clientele". Our clients come from nearly every country, although the majority is still from the U.S.A. We sell to the world's largest and most experienced collectors and institutions, and to collectors just starting out. We sell to other photo and art dealers, as well as retail clients. We sell one image or help build whole collections. Most of our buyers come back time and time again. That is what I find the most gratifying: that we can build important long-term relationships with all different types of clientele.

13 - Que pensez-vous de la notion de vintage?

13 - What do you understand by the term vintage?

It can be a difficult word, especially since so many people have abused it. Today AIPAD suggests that its members use two dates--one for the image creation date and one for the print date--instead of using the word "vintage." But that method also depends on the honesty and knowledge of the dealer. Obviously vintage refers to a print that was made close to the time that the image was created. The only question that remains is: How close? I would suggest that something less than five years difference for a print made before 1960 might be considered to be vintage, and more than five years probably should be qualified as "printed later or an "early print." That is when AIPAD's dating system makes good sense, but only if the dating is accurate.

You have to ask what collecting vintage prints does for a collector. Good reasons why vintage prints are usually sought after include:

  • There is often--but not always--a beautiful patina and presence to the print that only comes with age.
  • Prints before 1956 are usually scarce if not rare, so vintage prints are usually associated with rarity and late-printed prints with larger quantities. Prints before 1956 are also usually more easily recognizable for being a vintage print.
  • The earlier papers were often manufactured with a higher metal content in the coating, and due to this often have better tonality than later prints, which usually have less metal (silver, platinum, etc.) in order to save money for the photo paper manufacturer.
  • Vintage prints exhibit the original intent of photographers and are usually printed by the artists themselves.

If these reasons exist, then buying a vintage print or even an early print makes sense, and a few years difference between image creation and print will have little to no impact on the value of that print.

14 - À une époque où certaines images du XlXe se raréfient, comment voyez-vous l'évolution du marché?

14 - At a time when some 19th-century images are becoming rare, how do you think the market will evolve?

Such images are becoming rare because they are being bought and are going into major collections and institutions where they are not likely to be available on the market again. And they are becoming increasingly more expensive, as a greater number of collectors and institutions expand into 19th-century photography. It is a simple matter of the demand outstripping the supply. So far, I have been able to find important 19th-century pieces for my clients at prices that are reasonable for what they are. However, each year it gets more difficult and expensive to accomplish this goal.

You will see certain photographers' images increase dramatically in price when they come on the market now, particularly for good images from artists that have not had quality work at auction recently. In my opinion, very early English photography is an area that is largely underpriced. Paper negatives have also been going up in price each auction. So are fine daguerreotypes. The market is slowly waking up to the uniqueness and beauty of both of these early photographic media.

If institutions get a little more courage and start buying based on the image instead of big names, we could start to see prices of fine anonymous work go up dramatically. Collectors have already made this move. At the Jammes sale, an anonymous 19th-century piece--although attributed to Baldus or Bisson--sold for a record 335,000 euros. I myself have sold several fine 19th-century anonymous pieces for over $50,000, and I think they were actually bargains considering how strong they were.

15 - Quelles différences y a-t-il, si différences il y a, entre la photographie américaine et la photographie européenne de même qu¹entre le marché de la photographie américain et le marché de la photographie en Europe?

15 - What are the differences, if any, between American and European photography and between the American and European photography market?

I think that photography, as other art media, reflects its culture. That is the primary difference between American and European photography: the cultural difference.

In early 19th-century work, French photography is distinctly different than English or American images of the same period. There is a more polished and artistic quality to the work, even when it is ostensively documentation, as in the case of the Mission Heliographique or later work by Baldus and Marville. In France, the photographers largely came from an art background. In America and Britain, photographers came primarily from a scientific background. The differences clearly show.

I do feel that 20th and 21st-century European photography has usually been more daring and experimental, but often darker; American photography has usually played it safer. Perhaps it is notable that what I think is the most important and exciting movement in American photography--the Chicago School of Design--was the brainchild of an Eastern European, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

In general, I do not think that there is much difference in what people collect in the U.S. versus Europe. Certainly the American market pays closer attention to the condition of a photograph. The market there is also more developed than the European market. But the European market is beginning to grow quickly. In the U.S.A., most major collectors focus on American, British, German and French photography. In Europe, there is more interest in the Middle East, Italy and Asia than in the American markets. There is more interest in daguerreotypes in the U.S. and Germany than in the rest of Europe or England, although I have seen more French interest recently, perhaps in anticipation of the Musee d'Orsay's show next year on French daguerreotypes.

Actually what we are calling the European market is really several very different markets. In France, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain and Italy, until recently, there have been few major collectors, but the public is very interested in photography in these countries. They attend photography exhibits in record numbers: they just don't buy much yet, although I expect this to change.

In Germany and Switzerland, there are more serious collectors. Dealers at Paris Photo have certainly seen all of this. But now with Paris Photo and recent Sotheby's photo auctions in Paris, the Netherlands and Italy, we may see some market changes here in Europe.

But in a way all of what I have said is mere generalities. I have collectors in Europe who buy American photographers like Edward Weston or Eduard Steichen from me; in America collectors will buy European artists like Le Gray or Kertesz. It is more and more a world market.

16 - Pensez-vous que sans l'histoire de la photographie européenne, la photographie aurait réussi à s'imposer aux USA?

16 - Do you think that, without the history of European photography, photography would have caught on in the U.S.?

I am not sure I understand the question. Are you referring to the invention and distribution of photography, which, of course, had its roots in Europe? Or to the development of photography collecting itself? Photography collecting in the U.S. was focused at first on the images made in its own country by its own photographers, as such collecting usually starts in most countries. Actually I think that there was more early interest in photography in the U.S. than in Europe by collectors and museums. This growing interest broadened quickly in the U.S. to include the entire history of photography and a worldview, which perhaps made the collecting movement stronger and more passionate there. Our museums' early willingness to often include European work helped to stoke this interest.

17 - Quels conseils donneriez-vous à un jeune collectionneur quel que soit son âge?

17 - What advice would you give to a young collector whatever their age?

Buy quality instead of quantity. It is advice that I always give that is almost always ignored, because a new collector in their enthusiasm wants to collect it all, and quickly too. If you save up your money and buy the very best image, instead of a lot of images, you will almost always do better--both from an economic point of view and from the perspective of your own personal growth. Today, a new collector should probably try to focus on a specific area, rather than try to collect the entire history of photography. I say this from a perspective of having done exactly the opposite of what I am now preaching.

Of course--whenever possible--buy an image with a sense of presence, which I define as the "Oh, my God!" factor. In other words, when you see it, your jaws drops and you mutter something like "Oh, my God!" That is a photograph that you should never let get away.

I would also suggest that a collector spend their money first on photography books before they buy images. Go to seminars, museums and gallery shows and look before you begin to build a collection. Learning about photography is more important than acquiring images without thought.

18 - Pensez-vous que l'erreur, c'est-à-dire qu'on apprend en se trompant, est necessaire voire inéluctable?

18 - Do you think that mistakes, because one learns from them, are necessary, even inescapable?

As I just said, when you start out collecting you often buy things that you may regret later as your tastes mature, but perhaps this is, as you say, a necessary growth process so that the collector can learn what makes a print great. But after you outgrow an image, do not be afraid to sell it or donate it. Too many collectors hold on to their mistakes, and I think this actually stunts their growth and hurts the development of their collection.

19 - Quels seraient vos photographes favoris?

19 - Which would be your favorite photographers?

I think it is the image that is important and not the maker. I have favorite images, not photographers. However, I judge a photographer by their complete body of work--not just one fortuitous image--and their influence on the medium and their contemporaries. With that in mind, I would have to say that Edward Weston is perhaps the most important photographer of the 20th century, and Gustave Le Gray or Charles Negre, the most important of the 19th century. However, as I said before, the history of photography is not only about these photographers--no matter how important their contributions.

As for a favorite image, I have a unique variant of the Holy Family by Julia M. Cameron on the wall above my bed. It has been the favorite image of my collection for nearly 20 years now.

20 - Comment concevez-vous une collection?

20 - What is your vision of a collection?

Something that inspires people and gets them excited to see the images.

21 - Êtes-vous collectionneur ?

21 - Are you a collector?

When I became a full-time photography dealer, I moved some of my collection into inventory and then sealed off the rest. I now only add one image a year to the collection, and it is never the most expensive one that I find either. I feel strongly that I cannot actively collect and deal at the same time. There are many dealers that feel they can. I do not feel that this would be fair to my clients: I do not want them to ever feel that I was taking the best items for myself. Now my pleasure is in helping build my clients' collections.

22 - Que pensez-vous de la remarque de Heinz Berggruen "J'étais mon meilleur client"?

22 - What do you think of the remark of Heinz Berggruen "I was my best customer"?

As I just said, I do not feel it is appropriate to compete with my clients. I do feel though that I have to fall in love with images before I buy them, so that my own real excitement will be evident to my clients. In that way, I am always the first customer in the transaction.

23 - Pensez-vous que les ventes aux enchères ont contribué pour une grande part à l'évolution du marché ou pour poser la question autrement, sans les ventes le marché serait-il ce qu'il est?

23 - Do you feel that auctions sales have contributed significantly to the evolution of the market or, to put the question differently, do you feel that without them the market would exist in its present form?

In the past, auctions played a very important role in the marketplace, building in liquidity and providing a gateway to original source material for dealers and a few sophisticated collectors. And they still provide some much needed liquidity to the market. But I think that today's auction houses in their zeal for more and more revenues are competing directly with photography dealers and galleries (their traditional allies), and are putting too many mediocre auction sales on the market. They are now undisguised retail shops on a large scale, but with no guarantee of the work they offer for sale except the name of the artist. The auctions don't even have to back up their own condition reports. Their catalogues and rate cards all have disclaimers to this effect. This cannot be good for any business in the long term. It will eventually turn off too many new true collectors, and build a speculator-based market for the auctions. The traditional roles are forgotten in the haste for auction houses to pay for legal bills and to improve profitability. It is sometimes easy to think of photography auctions as the market, but fortunately they are not.

24 - Que peut-on vous souhaiter?

24 - What can we wish you?

Good health and the ability to learn French quickly. And maybe let me find a daguerreotype by Daguerre in the flea market some day, or at least a vintage Kertesz. But perhaps that last wish is pushing the limit.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak with you and your readers.