Jack and Beverly Wilgus discuss photograph and camera collecting, from daguerrotypes to contemporary photographs to their very own camera obscura. Based in Baltimore, Maryland, they can be reached through their website, Collection of Collections, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
We both come from families that had collections and we both had collections as children. Jack lost his when his grandmother threw them out at one point. His grandmother collected china and glass. My parents had collections. When we married, we had both studied photography. In Chicago, we hardly ever saw any photographs. We went to antique shops and we prowled around in flea markets and the malls, but we mostly bought Victorian furniture and decorative things – stained glass windows and craftwork and that sort of thing.
It wasn’t until we came to the East Coast and went to Pennsylvania that we began to see things like daguerreotypes and stereo cards, and we got real interested in them. That was in ’68, which was right at the beginning of the surge in photograph collecting. There were some big auctions that year and several catalogs started. We weren’t pioneers, we didn’t get in before the beginning of the modern photography collecting, but we were early in the process. First thing we bought was a daguerreotype in Pennsylvania. We still have it.
Jack: Our collection spans anything dealing with photography, but it’s primarily from pre-photography through contemporary. Our collection is generalist. We have prints by fine arts photographers today as well as from the past.
Collectors Weekly: Why didn’t you find anything until you went to the East Coast?
Jack: We did a lot of looking in Chicago at that time. It just wasn’t something that most people were collecting. It just wasn’t there. When we came here, because it was a hotbed of activity historically as far as the development of photography – Baltimore and Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. and New York, along that corridor – there was a ton of stuff. When we started going to antique shops and flea markets here, especially in Pennsylvania, we’d find incredible things. Of course, things have changed. Now you can find it in Chicago all you want, I’m sure.
Collectors Weekly: When did people really start collecting photographs?
Beverly: 1967, ’68, in that era. We later met and made friends with people who’d been collecting since the ’30s and ’40s. Somebody would get an interest in it and would just collect a lot of things like daguerreotypes or stereo cards, but there wasn’t a community. It wasn’t something that a lot of people did. Some photographs have historical value and some people collected for that reason – Civil War or presidential things, for example – but not just general photographic collecting. You don’t find much mention of it before the late ’60s.
Neither one of us really studied the history of photography formally before we got here, not as far as taking courses, so we began to look for examples. We would go to the outdoor markets and find things like photographer samplers, rolls of photographs on canvas, carbon photographs on glass and china, that sort of thing. They’re just really interesting objects that used photography, so we began to collect stereo cards, and now we have something like 10,000 stereo cards of different subjects. We bought them a few at a time over the last 30-something years.
There were some organizations about that same time. There was the New York group, and there’s one in Rochester that’s still going. There was one formed in Baltimore in the ’70s. Some of them are still active. There were mail orders. There were several journals put out by the societies. It’s not as active anymore because a lot of our contemporaries and people that we knew who were older aren’t as active now.
There’s an organization of people who collect daguerreotypes – The Daguerreian Society. There’s one of stereo collectors. There are a couple of people who do sales shows every year. There’s still some community, but not as active as it was in the ’70s maybe and ’80s.
Collectors Weekly: Why did people start becoming interested in collecting photography all of a sudden?
Beverly: There was a fairly important auction. One of the really early collectors sold these things in auctions, and a daguerreotype camera sold for a several thousand dollars, and that got everybody all excited. In fact, someone at the time said, “That’s ridiculous. No camera is worth that much money,” and of course now some cameras sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars if they’re really rare or unique. It just was the right time for it. Some people were writing books about it – Beaumont Newhall and Helmut Gernsheim. They started quite a bit earlier, writing books about the history of photography, so they certainly had some influence.
We’d go to the outdoor markets and find photographer samplers, rolls of photographs on canvas, carbon photographs on glass and china.
Jack: I think people got involved for different reasons. A lot of them were photographers involved with photography either professionally or as amateurs, and some people are more into the equipment. Collecting is like being a detective. When you deal with original material, whether it be images or objects, your perspective on it really changes. You see things and you understand things very subtly that most people never do because they only read about it or looked at pictures. We primarily collect images, although we do have some equipment. We have things that are related, like stereo and detective cameras. The Kodak was one of the first really major detective cameras in 1888.
Beverly: They just called it that because it didn’t look like an ordinary camera on a tripod would look. In other words, you could sneak around with one and it wouldn’t be so obvious that you were taking pictures. There’s a whole thing about the cultural aspects of photography, how photography changed and how people related to it, that’s another interest of ours.
Jack: I’ve been teaching the history of photography for a long time and I use our collection. I’ve been using it for years, so when we talk about various areas, people can actually see what things look like and how they were.
Beverly: It’s hard to describe a daguerreotype. If you’ve seen pictures, you really don’t know what it’s like. You need to see one; turn it in your hand and see the mirror surface to see how it changes when things reflect in it. It’s really a wonderful, intimate kind of thing to hold one.
Collectors Weekly: The different categories on your site, like costume and point of view… did you come up with those?
Beverly: Yes. We just started collecting photographs that interested us and you begin to see relationships. In a few cases, we collected an area, but it didn’t start out to be that. For example, two years ago we bought the spirit photographs by Mumler, who is one of the most important spirit photographers, but then we began to find more and eventually we ended up with a collection. So some of our photos were collected to be part of a subcategory and some of them we just found that we had enough to be a subcategory.
Jack: We have images of photographers. We have a large collection of pictures that deal with people taking pictures.
Beverly: And some things we said we weren’t going to collect, like Civil War. There were a lot of Civil War collectors even back when we started. Photographs of men in uniforms were already pretty pricey when we began to collect. We said, “Well, we’re not going to collect those,” but then we did find a few and we looked into some fairly good-sized collections of images and we ended up with more Civil War images than we expected to have. Sometimes it just happens.
Jack: That’s what I meant about learning things. The Civil War pictures really gave me a feeling for what the Civil War was like in a way that I never had before. You study it at school, but seeing those images and looking at things more intensely, it’s made it more real.
Beverly: Now with the Internet, the way you can research things is even better. You can find a photograph and say, “That’s interesting. I wonder what that’s about.” You look for the clues and you research it and you find out who the person was and what they were doing, and it really is interesting to trace down relationships and historical information. That’s one of my favorite things to do now, not so much to acquire more photographs but to learn more about them once we have them. We have a very large collection, and it could keep you really busy for a long time.
Collectors Weekly: How many photographs do you have in your collection?
Beverly: Many thousands. We have about 200 daguerreotypes, and I think probably not quite that many ambrotypes, and about 10,000 stereo cards. With the prints, definitely thousands because we have cartes-de-visites, photographic postcards, etc.
We have a large collection of postcards of photographers. Some are photographs and some are drawings, prints, comic animals with cameras, children with cameras. Then we also have a collection of real photo postcards, which are photographs made on postcard stock, and they’re not all necessarily of photographers. Some of them are just nice photographs, exaggerations like photomontages of people with large animals and large fruits and vegetables. There are photographic prints – cutout photographs that are collaged and then re-photographed. They’re real photographs, but they’re not real. They’re very much like this thing you do with Photoshop now where you can put things together, cut them together and retouch them so they look like they’re something they’re not.
Some people collect by subject. Some people collect by process. Some people collect everything. For example, we have a friend who has a large collection of tintypes, which are generally considered pretty ordinary, inexpensive photographs, but he has some absolutely extraordinary images. We have some extraordinary images with tintypes too – photographers and wonderful painted backgrounds. We have salted paper prints, daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, hand-colored photographs.…
Jack: …Collotype negatives, paper negatives, platinum prints, carbro prints, stuff like that.. Because I teach, I have collected things that illustrate the different areas. Also, I’ve done many lectures on the history of color photography, which is an area that I specialize in, and we also collect things like autochromes.
Beverly: There are all kinds of collectors. There are people who are very specific and there are people who are very general. There are people who just have an accumulation rather than a collection. We know people who only collect cameras and they aren’t interested in photographs at all. They come into our house and say, “Show me your cameras,” and they won’t even look at photographs. Then there are people who are the opposite.
We’ve been very lucky that we have studied with and known some of the great photographers. For example, Aaron Siskind, who both of us studied with. We have seven of his prints, and I’m sure we never would have bought seven of his prints or have been given seven of his prints if we hadn’t actually studied with him. I think we were lucky we started early, too, because we would never have afforded today’s prices back when we started collecting.
Jack: There’s been a tremendous change in the value. Some things have not gone up – cameras have stayed pretty much the same – but the images themselves have escalated.
Beverly: Well, the high-end stuff has. I would say that the more ordinary photographs have not gone up very much.
Jack: No, not the ordinary ones. But snapshots and vernacular photography at one point weren’t valued very much. I think it’s the quality of the image and what’s going on in the photograph that establishes the value there, and I think being able to recognize that is an important part of collecting. Know what you’re looking at. Understand the history. Understand the process.
Collectors Weekly: What is the value based on?
Beverly: Definitely the first thing is who made it.
Jack: If you can find it, but that’s not always important either. There was a big show for the anniversary of photography and they purposely included a lot of pictures that were anonymous. That was a good thing in a way. It’s nice to know who made a photograph and when it was made and all those kinds of things, but you should be able to recognize a really exciting image and something that’s really important without necessarily knowing.
Beverly: I agree, but I would say that you won’t pay a hundred thousand dollars for an anonymous photograph, but you would for something by one of the major photographers. There are different tiers of value.
Collectors Weekly: Are there some photographers in particular who are really sought after?
Beverly: People come in and out of fashion and get discovered and rediscovered, and then someone will have a big show for someone. Almost anything by Edward Weston, for example, is going to have some value, but the vintage prints and condition will determine it. There are always young photographers coming up, and I think the thing that’s the most different today is the way a young photographer who gets picked by the galleries can suddenly be worth an awful lot of money with very little time.
That didn’t happen to people like Weston and Wynn Bullock. They didn’t make a lot of money when they were young photographers working. You could buy their prints for $25 or $50 or $100. Now there’s something more corporate about some of the contemporary photographic selling that doesn’t appeal to me as much, maybe because we don’t have that much money to spend. I’d rather go out and find the things or even have a gallery owner bring them to me.
Jack: In the fine art world, a lot of the major artists working today are working with the medium of photography so you see some wonderful contemporary work being done, and it’s very expensive. It’s a lot different than it used to be.
Beverly: There are also people who buy art and photographs for investment. They buy them and they never even take possession of them. They stay in the gallery safe until they’re ready to sell them. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t appeal to me at all, thinking about photographs and seeing stocks and bonds and investment.
Jack: If we buy something, we really care about it. If we do purchase a print, we can’t do that casually. We have to love it and want to live with it. It’s nice to know if it would go up in value – that’s great – but most of the images we have, we live with and we enjoy it and it’s something that’s part of everyday experience. Actually we put a room in our house just for photographs because we didn’t have enough wall space and proper lighting and everything. We put up a lot of things so we can see them every day. Not that we don’t have things in boxes, too, but I think it’s nice to be able to enjoy what you collect. That’s the best reason to buy.
Beverly: They can be just like little sculptures. You can have a nice display of cameras, and I think that that’s a really good way to start. Just buy things you like and put them together. Some of my favorite things aren’t the most expensive or the most valuable things we have. They’re just things I like to enjoy.
The Collectors Weekly: When you get a photograph, how do you go about researching it?
Beverly: I put things on the Internet. I enjoy that. I put a lot of stuff up on Flickr. If there’s a photographer’s name on it, I Google him. I just follow clues. In fact, I have a couple of things on the Internet where I describe how I went about identifying them. There’s a certain amount of our collection on our camera obscura site, and I have one page on a stereoview of a camera obscura in a park that was unidentified; no name on it, no identification. It took me years to run down where it was and I finally discovered it.
I looked at all kinds of park architecture and I found one that was very similar. I began to look for maps of that park and finally was able to buy a sketch that had an aerial drawing of this park, and I was able to exactly pinpoint where the camera obscura was in relation to the other building. So it took me, what, 10 or 15 years to run that out. Once you make the discovery, it’s like “Eureka!” It’s really a great feeling.
I used to go to the library and spend hours looking through books. I still occasionally go to the library because everything isn’t on the internet, but it’s just so wonderful to have all the resources. And Google Books now, it’s just wonderful – the old 19th-century books are on Google Books – and Google has a site with all the patents now, which is great. If you’ve got a camera that has a patent number on it, you can plug that in and get drawings and descriptions and information. It has scans of the old drawings and the patents. It’s fantastic.
Collectors Weekly: Do you collect Kodak items?
Beverly: Just those that appeal to us. We have everything from the Kodak #1 all the way up to some contemporary metal signs. On our site, there’s a life-size Kodak racecar driver standup cardboard, a Kodak flag and all kinds of Kodak banners. When we started with Kodak film, Kodak was just synonymous with photography. The yellow and red color combination, which is striking, just became something connected with photography. Again, we’re small-time Kodak collectors. We know someone who has a house full of Kodak things. He has pretty close to every Kodak camera available and incredible advertising and memorabilia, all kinds of stuff. There’s always somebody with more than you have, which is fine.
Collectors Weekly: Do you collect other types of photographica?
Beverly: Yes. We have a section on optical toys on our site. We have zoetropes, praxinoscopes, thaumatropes and zograscopes. The zoetrope and praxinoscope will either use mirrors or slits and you’ll have a little set of drawings. It’s like strip animation. It’s the same the way cartoons are made today. It’s just pre-movie movies.
We don’t have a big collection of magic lanterns. Again we know people who have hundreds of them, but we have I guess five or six. The magic lanterns have been around since the Renaissance, really, but ours are mostly early 20th century.
Collectors Weekly: Do you use any the things that you collect?
Beverly: We have used some of the cameras. We did an exhibition where we made stereo cards with one of the old view cameras. We’ve used the toys for demonstrations because we’ve done lectures on optical toys, and Jack takes one of them when he talks about the origins of motion picture, about Muybridge and movements. A lot of our cameras use an obsolete film size, although you probably could make most of them work. There are people who actually spool odd sizes of old film, and then you can do things like cut paper or sheet film. One of our projects has always been to use some of the cameras, and maybe we’ll do it after my husband retires.
Collectors Weekly: Since photography is such a broad area, are there a lot of different age groups that collect it?
Jack: I have students who became collectors after they studied the history of photography, and they’ve found some pretty good things.
Beverly: In all of the groups we belong to, they’re always bemoaning the fact that there aren’t more young collectors, and we’re hoping that some of them will start. Young people are getting interested in maybe not the top end of the line, but I know on Flickr, I correspond with some people who seem fairly young. They do interesting images, not necessarily the really expensive stuff. eBay has done a lot to change the face of all kinds of collecting, including photography. The high-end stuff still goes really high on eBay, but you can gather an awful lot of interesting things that are not necessarily really expensive.
One young woman that I correspond with buys lots of photographs, and she’s very thorough going through and picking out photos that are going to have some interesting things in them. She’s gotten some remarkable photographs just by buying a lot of 15, 20, 30 photographs for not a lot of money and then finding in it some real gems. That’s one way to get started – flea markets or antique shops or retail shops. The hunt becomes almost more important than finding things sometimes. It gets you out and around and it’s entertaining. We go to a lot of antique shows now and buy nothing. Every so often we find a real gem, but usually we look at a lot of stuff and get some exercise.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you collect from?
Beverly: Initially it was photographic shows. There’s one in New York and there’s still one in Washington, D.C. There were quite a few mail-order catalogs at one time. Then, of course, with the Internet and eBay, we began to find things there, and we bought an awful lot of things on eBay over the years, more in the old days than we do now. It’s getting to be less.
All of the clubs used to have shows. There aren’t so many photo collecting clubs anymore, as I said. We used to have a show here in Baltimore. We actually sold in them for a while. It’s more the Internet now and there are still a few shows, but we’re not buying as much because we’ve got so much. What we like to do now is get our collection in order and do the research. We’re working on a book on the camera obscura, researching that.
Collectors Weekly: What is the Magic Mirror of Life?
Beverly: The term itself is from a sign. If you look at the site, you’ll see a picture of a camera obscura at the Fairmount Park in Philadelphia and the sign on the side said The Magic Mirror of Life. It was just the idea; you’re seeing real life on the table inside the camera obscura, and it’s magic, so that’s what we call our tent that we built.
Jack: It took me a couple of years to do it, but it’s on the website. It’s a portable tent camera obscura which you can set up on location. You can have about 10 people inside of it. The first time we showed it, it was at the George Eastman House for our photo history conference. We were doing the main speech lecture on the history of the camera obscura, so it seemed appropriate. So that’s where it debuted. It was interesting. Visiting them over the years and collecting them, and I made smaller ones, but actually taking on building a room-size one, I’ve learned a lot, a lot of engineering. I got more than I expected. It was challenging, it was fun, and it was two years of my life.
Beverly: If you look at the first page on the Magic Mirror of Life site, you’ll see a section that has pictures of it where we’ve set it up at conferences. We just did it at the Magic Lantern Society in Washington, D.C. during the summer. There are some pictures showing it being put up. In the middle of that page, it shows the sign from the Philadelphia Park from the Fairmount Park camera obscura and then there was one we made to go with it. You’ll see several pages that show it, even a little animation on the one at the Merrill Institute that shows it being put up.
Collectors Weekly: Do people ever try to sell fake photographs?
Beverly: Yes. It’s really hard to fake some things, and easy to fake others. There are a lot of people doing collodion now, which is what you use for ambrotypes and tintypes and modern daguerreotypes. Some of them use modern subjects. Some mark their work; some don’t. Every so often, I see something and I’m a little suspicious, just because you have a feeling for it. You can dress people in old costumes, but they just don’t look the same. This is not to say that we couldn’t be fooled, but you develop a feeling for it. You pick something up and it just doesn’t feel right. There have definitely been some fairly major scandals. People reprinted famous negatives and sold them to friends.
Jack: Photos do age. There are different kinds of materials. When I was a graduate student in the mid ’60s, the photographic printing papers that were available were quite different than what people use today for black and white printing. The older prints have a lot more silver in them. It’s just a totally different quality, so a vintage print will easily stand out if you compare it to something that was done more recently. Even if they were using the original negative, you could tell the difference.
Collectors Weekly: What are some good resources for people to look at?
Beverly: For cameras, there’s a sort of a bible.
Jack: It’s by McKeown. We’ve got every edition of it so far. It’s a big, fat book, and they keep changing all the time. A camera collector would enjoy looking at that because you can actually look up all the cameras that you’re collecting. They’ll give you all kinds of information about the designer, and not just prices. There’s also a little history. It’s fun.
Collectors Weekly: What kind of advice would you have for someone who is new to photography collecting?
Beverly: I would say look at a lot of things. Find out what appeals to you.
Jack: And learn something about the history of photography.
Beverly: If you can specialize, you’re probably better off, but if you love everything, then just start buying what you like and maybe you can narrow it down or specialize. As Jack said, read about the history of photography. Look at what you can.
Jack: A lot of it is knowing what you’re looking at. It also makes it more interesting, and you do learn new things from collecting. It’s like being in touch with the past.
(All images in this article courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus of Collection of Collections)