Modern-Day Collectors Snap Up Vintage Travel Photographs

By Meyers, Laura | Art Business News, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Modern-Day Collectors Snap Up Vintage Travel Photographs


Meyers, Laura, Art Business News


SPECIAL REPORT--A new trend is emerging among modern-day collectors--a love affair with the photographs taken from Victorian-age world explorations. These century-old ethnographic photographs are emerging more strongly now in the marketplace, both at auction and at art, antique and photography fairs. They depict diverse cultures in such historically romantic places as China, Japan, Egypt, Australia, India, South America and an equally-foreign American West.

"There was always an aspect of adventure and heroism to travel and exploration photographs," said Daile Kaplan, photography specialist and vice president at Swarm Galleries auctioneers in New York. "Making photographs in tropical conditions, or jungle conditions, or desert Conditions are very difficult circumstance. The desert may have been 120 degrees. You look at these period photographs, and they are so beautiful, and then you have to realize how heroic it all was."

A Historical Perspective

The period commencing with Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne in 1837 and continuing until the beginning of the World War I in 1914 was marked by a fundamental materialism. The Victorians were captivated by the vast new territories and colonies being explored by brave heroes, by the objects and exotic flora and extraordinary peoples they were discovering. History, nature, symbolism and romantic sentiment were the thematic threads woven into the fabric of Victorian society.

The Victorian era has also been nicknamed the "Age of the Collector." Along with art works, it was considered desirable to maintain and document a collection of rare and unusual plants--often imported or brought home from their own travels to exotic places in the world. Photography in particular became the passion of the masses. In 1888, former bank clerk George Eastman developed the Kodak box camera, pre-loaded with a 100-exposure film roll, and untrained amateur photographers began to take snapshots of their own families and adventures. But for years before that and after, professional photographers traveled the world, often accompanying exploration and government survey teams, to document the indigenous people and places they encountered.

Frances Frith photographed the Middle East and Egypt during the Age of Exploration. Timothy O'Sullivan helped survey Panama and the southwestern U.S., and Edward Muybridge traveled to Guatemala. Herbert Ponting aimed his camera in Japan, creating an album of work that sold at a Swann auction in February for $130,000. And of course there's Edward Curtis, who famously photographed the American West and also traveled to Alaska where he captured images of the Inuits. Kaplan observed, "These were professional photographers who were lured by exotic adventure."

Today's Market

The period ethnographic and travel photographs available to dealers and collectors today cover a broad range of places. Some are stark, others romantic.

For instance, Alison Holland, a photography dealer in Sydney, Australia, has been licensed by her government's historical archives to market selected photographs depicting Australian Aborigines. …

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