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Photographers Forage Through Old Negatives to Find More to Sell

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Having a long and successful career as an artist sounds pretty good to those who are young and struggling, but there can be downsides. For instance, well-established artists frequently find that there may be greater interest in their earlier work by collectors than more recent material, but that early work is now primarily on the secondary market... The newer work still sells and for more money than those earlier pieces did way back when, but there is less excitement about, and often fewer buyers at, exhibitions of current work. Ah, the vicissitudes of fame.

Italian artist Giorgio di Chirico resolved the problem in one way, intentionally misdating his 1940s paintings, because they were not nearly as sought-after as his work of the 1910s. Artists in Europe have come up with a different type of solution, with resale royalty laws guaranteeing them a percentage of the profits earned from subsequent sales of their older work.

For photographers, there may be a middle course between the fraudulent actions of di Chirico and the legal opportunities of European artists: They are likely to have kept all their old negatives, not only the ones that were printed at the time, and can produce new editions of older imagery. Galleries describe these kinds of images as "never before seen" or "never before printed" as a way to suggest their freshness to the market. "The early part of a career is always full of energy," Manhattan photography dealer Deborah Bell said. "It's going back to a period that everyone loves."

There are, for instance, two series of print editions that Cindy Sherman produced in 2000 from images she took in 1976 ("Bus Riders" and "Murder Mystery"), and they are marked "1976/2000," referring to the year in which the image was taken and the year in which the print was produced. Likewise, a number of photographs taken by Larry Clark in the 1960s and '70s were printed by him in editions in the 1980s and '90s. "As the older iconic works get bought up, finding their way onto the secondary market where they are more expensive, you see that collectors are foraging for images," Kevin Moore, a Manhattan art advisor and independent curator, said. "Photographers are combing through their old negatives for things to print, because of the demand. Some people just shake their heads and say, 'crass materialism,' but if artists and their galleries handle this properly it doesn't have to be so."

The span of time between taking a picture and printing it up can be long indeed. William Christenberry, a photographer who also creates paintings and sculptures, continues to generate new work but also produces between two and five editions per year of images that sometimes date back to the 1960s. "It scares me how many collectors want the older work," Christenberry said. "I could spend all my time on this."

The question may linger of why a photograph wasn't printed until much later. "I think there is an assumption that the artist didn't love it enough at the time," Deborah Bell said. Some of the early images that Cindy Sherman went back to print decades later "didn't really work for her," according to her dealer Janelle Reiring of Manhattan's Metro Pictures.

The concept of a vintage print developed in the 1970s and is associated with the photography dealer Harry Lunn, who sought to establish a basis for one print having a higher price than another. Prints made shortly after the image was taken presumably reflect a truer vision of the photographer's intention than one produced many years later, and, when Lunn began to represent Ansel Adams in the 1970s, the dealer pressured the artist to stop printing from his 1941 negative "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" in order to keep prices higher. However, with the work of contemporary photographers, in part because of the backlog of images that these artists have to go through and due to the more fragile nature of color prints (as opposed to black-and-whites), the issue of whether or not a print is "vintage" has become less significant.

Photographers may revisit their published older images in a somewhat different way, too. William Christenberry and Stephen Shore have created new editions of images that were previously produced as editions but re-released now in larger formats, at sizes comparable to some paintings, charging considerably more.