Back to the Future (of Photography): An Interview with Stephen Perloff
Updated: Apr 25
Stephen Perloff is the founder and editor of The Photo Review, an important chronicle of the international photography scene, and editor of The Photograph Collector, the leading source of timely information on the photography art market. He is a teacher, lecturer, and author about photography and the history of photography, and he has been the recipient of two grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for arts criticism. Stephen has been recognized for his many contributions to photographic education, including the Sol Mednick Award from the Mid-Atlantic region of the Society for Photographic Education, the Vanguard Award from the Philadelphia Center for the Photographic Image, and the Colin Ford Award from Britain’s Royal Photographic Society.
I spoke with Stephen about his long career and his insights into the contemporary photography market.
Tim Greyhavens: You keep extensive track of the auctions and the marketplace. Are there major collectors who influence the marketplace? And perhaps more importantly, who influences the influencers? Who are the collectors listening to?
Stephen Perloff: Many collectors, when they are starting out, are just interested in the medium and start buying things. Then they realize that perhaps they didn’t really understand the difference between later and vintage prints. Or maybe what they bought is really not the best example of a particular photographer’s work. Since the ’80s a lot of galleries have been very influential in educating new collectors. There are some people, however, who just think the auction house is the place to be, and the major houses have all added at least one person who specializes in photography.
It used to be if you went to Sotheby’s or Christie’s or Phillips there could easily be a hundred people in the room. Now, they’re lucky to have thirty or forty people there.
The marketplace has shifted, though, from the auction room to online. It used to be if you went to Sotheby’s or Christie’s or Phillips there could easily be a hundred people in the room. Now, they’re lucky to have thirty or forty people there. So much is done on the Internet or by phone because people no longer think they need to be in the room.
Overall, though, I think people have become more sophisticated. Not that long ago you would see people come in and pay more at an auction for work that they could walk down to a gallery in Soho or Chelsea and buy for less. Because they just didn’t know the market. Now people find prices online, they find other examples of the same work, and they compare.
We’ve seen an enormous rise in the photography market, at least for bigger names. It was just eight years ago that the first million-dollar photo sold. Now, you have three or four million dollar photos. How is that shift in the upper stratosphere of prices affecting the overall marketplace, especially for mid-level or even beginning collectors?
It certainly has affected it some. Before I took over The Photograph Collector, I went to an auction at Sotheby’s and was in the room when the first photograph sold for more than one hundred thousand dollars. It was a Weston shell. The room broke out in huge applause for that. You would get applause when things sold for over a million dollars or some other new record. If you look up the top twenty-five most valuable photographs that have sold, about twenty of those are contemporary works―Gursky, Cindy Sherman. But that’s a whole different market from the regular collectors.
There is a definite market mania for big photos. The most famous prints by Gursky, Struth, and several others are wall size.
The whole idea of the scale of a photograph is changing, sometimes surpassing the scale of painting. Right now, the market is really in an interesting phase. Both at auction and privately the market has slowed down quite a bit for vintage material. A lot of the people who collected that material are slowing down their collecting and several have died.
It seems that many of the younger collectors are gravitating toward contemporary work rather than the classics. We will see if that trend continues for a while. I do think that there will be a cycle. As far as collectors are concerned, the big three auction houses just had their fall auctions. Sotheby’s and Christie’s both did around $3 million, which was a very mediocre total, and Phillip’s did almost $5 million.
Altogether they brought in about $11 million. In some good years, it has been $20 million. So for the price of one not-so-great Warhol you could buy every picture in every photography auction. The markets have always viewed photography as a print medium, with multiple copies available of almost everything, but these giant prints might be starting to change that.
How do you see the shift in the global availability of extremely high-quality photography affecting the collecting sphere? Is there a measurable impact due to the massive quantity of images that are now produced?
What we’re seeing now is not unique. It’s happened numerous times throughout the history of photography. It happened with the invention of the Kodak, at the end of the nineteenth century when all of a sudden millions of people were able to make photographs at an affordable price point.
It happened with the advent of 35mm cameras, which almost anyone with a job could afford. Then there were Polaroids, and then Instamatics. It is quantitatively different now because almost everyone has a camera in their pocket. But remember, they’re not making prints. Very few people make prints.
The idea of the photographic object as something collectible is not going away anytime soon, though we may need to rethink what defines an object. I recently heard about a photographer who was invited to a middle school to talk about his work and what it means to be a photographer.
That’s not a photograph…it’s just a printout.
He goes in with a small portfolio, and he takes out a print. He says something about, “This photograph.” A kid raises his hand, and says, “That’s not a photograph.” The guy says, “What do you mean?” The kid said, “It’s just a printout.” Meaning, a photograph is something on a device, but a print is like a poor imitation. The idea that a print of a photograph had any meaning or value was not in this boy’s consciousness. The definition of a photograph is something very different to young people today, and we don’t know what that means for the market of tomorrow.
How did you become involved in photography?
I grew up in Kingston, Pennsylvania, which was in coal mining country in northeast Pennsylvania. When I was eight years old I received a Davy Crockett camera, which was like a Brownie camera, and I made some interesting pictures even at that age. One of those pictures I included in a retrospective of my photographs.
My father, though, had a 35mm Agfa rangefinder camera, and when I was in high school I started borrowing it and shooting more things. I was interested enough that I asked for a camera for a high school graduation present. Then when I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, I saw a little sign up for someone who was teaching a class in his apartment, just off-campus. I signed up, and that class was taught by Michael A. Smith, who is now a very well-known landscape photographer.
When I was in graduate school, Michael moved to a farm in New Jersey and began teaching from his home. I took that class as well, and it turned out that one of the other people in the class, Ron Gladis, lived a block away from me. We became friends, and later he moved into my apartment. We started teaching beginning classes and then started a little gallery, called Gallery 3619. That was the address of the house in West Philadelphia. We showed our work and work of friends. Just before that, in November of 1974, Photopia, the first full-time photography gallery opened in Philadelphia, started by David Mancini.
I would spend as much time as I could in New York, which was the center of photography at that time, especially at the Witkin Gallery and Light Gallery. In Philadelphia, there was zero coverage of photography in any of the newspapers―no reviews, no listings of the shows, nothing. But after Photopia opened there started to be more and more photography shows in the area. I started writing reviews and taking them around to different newspapers. At the time, one of the major newspapers was the Philadelphia Bulletin. The other, which still exists, was the Philadelphia Inquirer. At the Inquirer, they said, “Well, who cares about photography? No one is going to buy a newspaper because there’s a review of a photography show.”
But at the Bulletin, they said, “This is really interesting. We’d like to include this, but we just don’t have any more room on our Arts page.” They had one page on the back of a section that covered all the arts, both visual and performing, in the whole city. Once a week. One page. That was the state of arts reporting in Philadelphia in 1975.
While I was still in graduate school, I started working at Philadelphia Resistance Print Shop, which was the major social-change movement print shop. It was your typical nonprofit, nonsexist, nonracist print shop. We had a union label, so we could print for organizations that needed that.
After I’d worked there for a while my friends said, “Well, now that you know how to print something why don’t you just start your own publication?” So I sent out a postcard to everyone I knew, and said, “I am going to start a journal called The Philadelphia Photo Review. We’re going to review shows and books, and we’ll list all the exhibitions in Philadelphia.” (A few years later we dropped “Philadelphia” as we expanded to cover the wider mid-Atlantic region.) Within a short time, I had a few hundred subscribers, at five dollars a year.
For the first two to three years, it cost me between $200 and $400 out-of-pocket over the course of each year. Then we incorporated as nonprofit and continued to grow.
That was the beginning. Of course, I was making my own photographs all through that period as well.
You were in grad school at the same time, but it doesn’t sound like your classes were directly related to photography.
No, I have the famous ABD (all-but-dissertation) degree in Modern European History. I actually started The Photo Review before I officially left grad school. Basically I said, “Okay. Now I am a photographer.”
The first issue came out in January 1976. The next year, some people I knew asked me to teach the history of photography at Bucks County Community College. At that time, I believe Bucks had more people through their photography program than any other school in the country. There were people like Emmet Gowin, and George Krause, Nancy Hellebrand, Catherine Jansen; they and many others all taught there. It was quite a dynamic department, under the chairmanship of Bruce Katsiff, who later went on to become the director of the James A. Michener Art Museum.
Was there a photographer who gave you inspiration during this time?
The first show at Photopia was George Krause, who was originally from Philadelphia and was still living in Philadelphia at the time. We all knew of George because he had a book. I mean, having a book was an incredible thing in the 1970s. I think many of us had the idea that he must be an older man with a very distinguished career. Then we went to the gallery and met him, and he might have been no more than ten years older than us. And we all went, “Wait a minute.” It was just inspiring, to see that someone could become known at a relatively young age. It was certainly worthy of discussion, worthy of letting other people know.
Of course, the scene was growing even more in New York City. Also, in Washington, with Harry Lunn’s gallery. There was just a lot of positive energy and a lot of potential stories that were just begging to be told.
The 1970s were a seminal decade for photography because of the rapid expansion of both awareness of photography and of the interest in the medium among younger people. Were there any particular shows that seem to capture that period in your mind?
One that stands out is Robert Mapplethorpe’s Perfect Moment show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 1988. I think I was one of the first people to write about that show. I gave some plaudits but also had some criticism of it. Looking back, I would say that I am proud to have just treated it as serious art — art that meant something, that had a purpose, had a statement to it. Amazingly, in Philadelphia, which has a staid reputation, there was not a whisper about the content. Once it hit Cincinnati, it blew up. Of course, when it was scheduled for the Corcoran, and Jesse Helms got involved, the museum cravenly canceled the show.
I probably saw almost all of Szarkowski’s shows in the ’70s and beyond. Many great photographers, from Evans to Arbus to Atget. Mark Cohen, whose younger brother was one of my best friends, had a show at the Modern. Larry Fink, of course. Light Gallery was where the younger, contemporary photographers showed. So many people who worked at Light went on to start their own galleries.
The more you wrote the more people began to recognize your name as someone who had both knowledge of and expertise in the field. Was there a point where you began to realize that what you were writing about had shifted from mere reporting on photography to having an influence on photography?
I would totally agree with A.D. Coleman, who says critics really don’t have enough influence to affect any individual photographer’s career. There is a whole, vast market out there that does that. For those of us who were writing about photography, Allan Coleman is the key figure in this period. He got people to take photography seriously.
Hilton Kramer and Gene Thornton were writing in The New York Times, though they both had their own issues. Then when Susan Sontag’s book On Photography came out, photography became part of the wider culture of serious art.
Was there ever a moment when you felt like you needed to say, “Okay. I have to either make photographs or write about photographs, but I just can’t handle both.”?
Yeah, I think it really happened in 1996 when I took over The Photograph Collector Newsletter. I mentioned I started teaching in 1977. I taught part-time at many institutions―Haverford College, the University of Delaware, Tyler School of Art, Moore College of Art, The University of the Arts, and other places. I taught for twenty years. Of course, doing the adjunct professor biz does not pay a lot. I really enjoyed it, and it helped with the bills, but I just couldn’t afford to take the time anymore. Doing two publications is almost the same as two full-time jobs.
I have continued to shoot sporadically, slowly working on some things when I had a few extra hours. Sometimes, the photo gods smile at you and make things happen if you are prepared. I am having an exhibition in November of some aerial pictures I took in North Dakota in February of this year, and they all came from a single visit. I grabbed chances when I could, and I think this work holds up well.
When you were developing The Photo Review it was before there was an Internet. That meant you or someone had to go to most of these galleries and shows in person. Did you have a network of photo colleagues who were out working the streets?
No. Mostly I went to see shows several times a week. I still do in the Philadelphia area. It varies month-to-month, but I make it a point to still see maybe two-thirds of the shows. It was a lot easier to go to shows in the ’70s and even in the ’80s, but at the same time publishing was much more time-consuming. People don’t remember what it was like.
At Philadelphia Resistance Print Shop in the ’70s, we had an $8,000 IBM typesetting machine, which was state-of-the-art back then. You could use different fonts by changing a mechanical wheel. If you got to something in italic, you would stop, change the font wheel, and it then would type italic. Then, you would take the wheel out, and put back in Roman. It would double strike for bolds. You might have had a half a dozen different fonts. It also had a memory with a 20 character display, so you could read what was about to print, and maybe you could correct some typos before you printed it out. But you only saw 20 characters at a time. When you printed it out, then you had what was called a hot waxer, which had little cubes of wax embedded in it. You plugged it in, and it melted the wax. Then you rolled it on the back of your type, and you put that on graph paper.
Then the fun stuff happened. You put all that in the big copy camera, which had a bed about as long as a bowling alley, and you photographed all of it in the darkroom. The back of the camera had a vacuum back. If you wanted to reproduce photographs, you put a piece of film down on the vacuum back, and over that you put a halftone screen. You’d expose and develop the film in a wet darkroom.
You would cut that into this other kind of graph paper, which was then exposed to an aluminum plate. Then you developed that and put it on the press. At that point, the press person took it over and printed from there. It was a very long and complicated process. Of course, if you wanted a headline, you used press type―letter by letter, all by hand.
The advent of the computer and software such as Photoshop, PageMaker, and InDesign was a great boon. It allowed for so much creativity and control. But printing was only part of the process. When we started the magazine, in order to mail anything bulk rate you had to have it in zip code order.
At the beginning of the year, you would type names and addresses on a sheet of paper that was gridded so that it fit a sheet of labels, and you’d have to make sure they were in zip code order. Then, when it came time to mail, you would Xerox that onto labels. If someone was added to or fell off the subscription list, you had to hand-integrate those changes into zip code order. Then, once the year was up and I’d gotten a whole bunch of new subscribers, I would just type the list again from scratch.
When I got a computer — with two 5–1/4" floppy disks that held 1.4 MB of information — I’d print the labels on a dot matrix printer, and that took so long I’d go to lunch. When I came back, I’d put the labels on the magazines by hand and take them to the post office.
Let’s talk more about your interest in The Photograph Collector.
It was started by Robert Persky in New York in 1980. In ’96 he was ready to retire and looking for someone to take it over, and I guess he decided that he could probably come out ahead more if he donated it to a nonprofit. Basically what he had was a format and a mailing list, but he was taking his brain with him. I really had to start over, with only some general idea of where to begin.
In the twenty years since that has happened, the market has shifted seismically. The number of collectors has increased, and photography itself has changed significantly. I’m curious about how the change in both collectors and the markets have either been influenced by philanthropy or have themselves influenced philanthropy related to photography.
There are certainly people who love photography and who maybe only buy photographs at a benefit auction. Because that is the price point they can afford. For the most part, they are buying because they just enjoy the image. Probably, unless they are buying someone really better known, they are not looking for a market to increase for that work. They are buying it totally for the value of enjoying the image.
I think in some ways that is true of the best collectors. They are buying things they love. They may have researched, decided who is really important to them, and even, over time, formulated a focus for their collection. They are astute enough to think that the work will appreciate in value, but that is not the main reason for their collecting.
In terms of philanthropy, I think it is a dual-edged. On the one hand, most collectors love the medium, but they also love the idea that they have a collection that is unique to them. The breakpoint is when they go beyond their personal interests. There are a number of collectors who support specific museums, and that has a multiplier effect of benefiting the medium, the museums, the collectors, and the public who gets to see the work.
There are the very largest collectors who, like Albert Barnes of the Barnes Foundation, see their collection as an integrated whole. They would say their collection means more as a whole than it does of its parts. They like to see it kept together because that way they hope people can see what they saw as they put the collection together. The collector’s vision is often more important than the individual images in their collection. They have something to say, just like the photographers they collect have something to say.
Do you pay any attention to the collecting of photo books?
There are some extraordinary books, throughout the history of photography, really beautifully designed and well-thought-out books. Not that long ago people thought printed books were a dying medium, but now new photography books are being made every week.
There is a very active market for photo books, with specific niches doing quite well. Japanese books continue to be very hot in the market. Ed Ruscha’s books are very hot. There is a very active trade, but where all the thousands and thousands of books being published now will end up in ten or twenty or fifty years, who knows.
I’ve spoken with a number of curators about the challenges of getting people to actually come into museums at a time when many museums are digitizing their collections and putting them online. Have we entered a “post-photographic” era, and, if so, what do you think is the purpose of photography now?
Certainly, photography in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has been the most influential medium of any of the arts. I think part of the explosion of photography, and the coming of post-modernism was the integration of photography into contemporary art in all its forms.
Some of the great photographers of the second half of the 20th century began a shift toward photography as a multimedia art, elevated by Szarkowski’s Photography into Sculpture show in 1970. The cross-fusion of ideas that started back then has intensified and multiplied as new technologies emerged. But photography’s purpose hasn’t changed; only our ways of thinking about photography have.