WorthPoint CEO and HIP founder Will Seippel has been collecting photographs and photographic negatives for almost four decades. After years of sniffing out estate sales and sifting through discarded photo albums, Will has created a priceless collection that contains tens of thousands of images and is now the foundation of History in Photographs. It’s not just the sheer volume that makes his collection so impressive. HIP is as personal as it is historical, a reflection of various eras and moments as well as the collector himself.
Who better to offer advice about how to build a collection that’s both valuable and personally fulfilling? Last week, I sat down with Will to discuss the kernels of wisdom that helped him create his pride and joy:
You’re allowed to be picky.
As collectors, we often get caught up in our regrets. Every collector has their stories about the ones that got away: the deals they didn’t seize, the amazing pieces they didn’t win. When you’re searching for that perfect, one-of-a-kind item, the slightest hesitation can have serious consequences. But after decades of collecting, Will has developed a different perspective on letting a good photograph go.
“Photographs are literally a dime a dozen,” he explains. “Everyone takes them, and everyone holds onto them.”
Simply put, the vast majority of photographs that are floating around estate sales and eBay were probably taken by amateurs who didn’t prioritize artistry or composition. (And if you don’t believe me, just scroll through the glut of average photos that you’ve accumulated on your smartphone.) Since most photographs are taken by amateurs, it’s safe to assume that not every photograph is worth your money. You don’t need to purchase the first exciting photographs you find, especially when you’re still learning about the process.
“I thought I had a pretty good eye when I started out,” Will adds. “But the more I got into it, the better my taste became.” If the perfect photograph slips through your fingers, cheer up. There will always be other photographs, and by the time you find them, your taste will probably be better than it is now. You’re allowed to hold out for images that are truly special. The hunt may be a long one, but it’ll give your eye some extra time to improve.
Pay attention and ask questions.
When you’re buying any kind of collectible, knowing the history of the piece is essential for determining its value. But for photographs and negatives, there are certain questions that are especially important. Don’t settle for a first-glance introduction to an image. Take your time and ask lots of questions.
“Make sure to ask the seller about the camera that was used,” Will explains. “Ask about the film and the lenses. If a photographer used good film and a good camera, you’re more likely to have good negatives.” Whatever tools the photographer used will have a big impact on the quality of a print or negative. Knowing about those tools will help you create a better assessment of an image’s value.
Camera choices aren’t the only variables to consider. You should also inquire about the storage conditions of your potential purchase. Different temperatures and environments influence the aging process, especially with negatives. Cool, dry climates are optimal for film preservation, while heat and humidity can produce warping and other distortions.
“Oftentimes, an online seller will say that a negative is perfect,” Will explains. “Usually that’s because they’re not sure of what they have, or they just don’t know what to look for.”
Before you buy, make sure you ask about storage details. Closely inspect a print or negative for oily fingerprints, peeling emulsion, and other signs of damage. If a seller can’t offer any information about storage conditions or camera specs, your purchase could include some amount of risk. Then again, if an item is too gorgeous to pass up, then it just might be worth it. In any case, learn about the variables that could might you print or your negative before you decide to buy.
Focus on the photograph, not the photographer.
“When I was putting HIP together, I was looking for a certain type of perspective,” Will explains. “To me, good perspective and composition matter a lot more than whether the photographer was a professional or not.”
As you build your collection, consider your priorities as a collector. Think about the images, subjects, and perspectives you’re hoping to own, and if you see something that suits your standards, buy it, even if it was made by a no-name photographer.
“Honestly, I’ve seen lots of bad photographs taken by professionals,” Will adds. “To me, it doesn’t matter if the photographer is an amateur. What matters is if they have a good eye.”
Another bonus of buying from an unknown photographer? You just might be the one to discover the next big name in photography.
Develop an eye for interesting details.
In a market that’s swamped with photographs, be on the lookout for interesting details that might set an image apart. “I know some collectors who are really into portraits of men with beards,” Will explains. “Others people get really into pictures of pets. Others collect images of old buildings, especially if they’re from the 19th century when people were taking mostly portraits.”
When you find yourself feeling drawn to a particular photograph or negative, ask yourself about which specific elements are catching your eye. “Let’s say you have a picture of a little kid,” Will explains. “Well, is it just a picture of a kid, or there something special? Is she carrying a sand bucket? Is she wearing a certain type of dress?” These kinds of details create hints about a photograph’s specific context and provide evidence about the history of the image. Because it’s the little things that truly tell the story of an image, keep your eyes peeled for good details.
Focusing on a specific set of details can also give more cohesion to your collection. If something like wallpaper patterns or clothing styles are interesting to you, they’re probably interesting to someone else too, which can increase your chances of reselling items and turning a profit.
Get close to the source, even if you have to get a little dirty.
“I believe that the best finds are still in peoples’ homes,” Will explains. “Auction houses and flea markets are only a fraction of what’s really out there.” In your search for photos and negatives, get as close to the source as you can. While estate sales are always a good place to start, Will admits there are other tactics for finding the gems that people often throw away. After a loved one passes away, it’s common for family members to try to deal with an estate as quickly as possible. Since loved ones often don’t know the real value of a collection or even their old family photo albums, excellent photographs can wind up in the trash. “I’m definitely not above dumpster diving,” Will says with a grin. “It’s a sport for me.”
Buy the best items you can afford.
“A photograph has to be extremely valuable if it’s going to be worth something despite any wear and tear,” Will explains. “Most prints and negatives just aren’t special enough to offset any damage.” Whenever you come across warped negatives or torn photographs, think twice before you spend too much money on them. Restoring images is a costly process, and it probably outweighs the value of the item. Then again, it’s hard to say no to pieces that stir your soul and get stuck in your head, which leads us to our next point.
Buy what you love.
Here at HIP, we’ve said this piece of advice before, but we’ll say it again for good measure. “I think people need to get back to what they love,” Will explains. “That’s what makes the process enjoyable.” No matter what you’re purchasing, your collection is just that: your collection. The practice of collecting will become a true joy if you devote yourself to the items you love.
Go ahead. Get started.
Losing a little money will help you learn a lesson that you won’t forget. “There’s no better way to learn than to buy something and make a mistake,” Will laughs. “As soon as I buy something, I try to figure out if I bought smart or if I bought stupid. And if I bought stupid, I try to figure out how to do better in the future.”
Still curious? Check out interview with Will to learn more about becoming a joyful collector.
This article was originally published by WorthPoint on WorthPoint.com