Fotograf Magazine

Survey: Yes to Photography

Institutions and (Collecting) Photography

The first issue of the Fotograf magazine included a survey that asked leading Czech theorists and curators about how established the medium of photography is on the contemporary art scene and what they believe could threaten it. Twenty years later, the editorial staff decided to return to the survey format once again, this time with the aim of mapping how photography has fared in both public and private collection institutions both in the Czech Republic and internationally in the past few decades, and what we can expect in the future.

1) Photography is establishing for itself an increasingly stronger position in the art market. What is your institution’s perspective on this (and how has it changed in twenty years) and how do you build your own collection?

2)  Where do you think collecting photography can develop over the course of the next twenty years?


Jaroslav Michna / Curator at the Gallery of Fine Arts in Ostrava

1: In these past twenty years, photography has undergone fundamental changes. Primarily, it has become a more universal medium, not only used by artists who are not photographers but also becoming massively disseminated across society as a new communication phenomenon. Photography is no longer a privilege for artistic circles and institutions – it is becoming an omnipresent visual communication channel. It often takes on a post-conceptual character, thematizing the everyday, the serial nature of photography or post-production processes. Photography has become a strong player in the field of contemporary art and we cannot overlook this fact from the perspective of the institutional dramaturgy of building a collection. The Gallery of Fine Arts in Ostrava focuses on established artists who fall into the stream of post-conceptual photographic rhetoric, and our vision is to broaden the circle of represented artists.

2: It is now abundantly clear that all collecting institutions should focus on photography as a fully fledged new-media means of communication. For a consistent view of photography, it is important to have the entire 20th century covered historically in order to make apparent the developmental transformations of the medium. As for the notions of the future, it is difficult to make any predictions as the field of digital visuality, or rather virtual reality, is constantly developing. It is already clear that the “frozen image” represented, among others, by photography, is – and will continue to be – a rather melancholic form of visual archaeology. Apropos, the movement of the film character (sequential imaging, seriality) has long been part of photography. The presence of the moving image and clip culture in public spaces is becoming hypertrophied and software manipulation can be dangerous for the authenticity of original artworks. It often turns them into a moving, spectacular show. What will be of more interest to children visiting an exhibition: Mucha’s original canvases or digital transcriptions artificially set in motion?!


Jakub Kodl / KODL Gallery, an auction and sales gallery specializing in contemporary art

1: Although the position of photography in the Czech art market is increasingly stable, it is not valued as much as it should be. It is a medium that bears an essential influence not only on art but also on the development of natural and social sciences or medicine. Even so, it is not common for photography in the Czech market to be valued as highly as other forms of contemporary art. The situation, however, is changing. This is confirmed by experiences in the international market. At the same time, the Czech Republic has several artists whose photographs have garnered great praise at the most prestigious international galleries. As for our own photography collection, we develop it the same as we would build up any other collection. We consider not only the quality of the images and the artist’s success but also our own aesthetic feelings and intuition.

2: We believe that Czech photography has enormous potential, both socially and in terms of collecting. This message is encoded in the mission of our two most recent Summer Salons, organized under the auspices of Kodl Contemporary – a section of the KODL Gallery that focuses on contemporary art. Images by significant artists, not only contemporary ones, are part of our auctions with increasing frequency. We, therefore, hope and believe that over the next twenty years, photography will receive the valuation it rightly deserves, and we at the KODL Gallery will continue in our efforts to this end.


Peter Coeln / Director of WestLicht Photography Museum, OstLicht Photo Auctions and OstLicht Gallery

1: Photography’s position in the art market has come a long way during the last 20 years. The early 2000s saw the final days of the time when you could still build a collection including major figures of 20th-century photography – people like Henri Cartier-Bresson, René Burri, Robert Frank or even Diane Arbus – with a relatively small budget. A lot of photographers who had shaped the past fifty years in photography were still alive and you could just contact them if you were interested in a particular print. The art market was just beginning to discover photography by the likes of Cindy Sherman, The Bechers or their students as a potential asset but the record-breaking auction results were still ten years ahead. There was no secondary market for photographs, and at least in continental Europe, only a few galleries and museum institutions had photography on their radar. This is why we founded WestLicht in Vienna in 2001 in the first place and started doing photo auctions in 2009, to close this gap. 

2: I think the market will continue to grow. In this age of fleeting digital imagery, I think there is a yearning for the object, the photographic print that has a unique history and tells a story. There is a great sensibility especially among young people for analogue photographic processes and they are the collectors of the future. 


Jan Mlčoch / Curator of the Photography Collection, Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague

1: Our museum began enriching the collection, which was established early in the 20th century, in 1970, under curator Anna Fárová. The paradox was that in the 70s and 80s, there was plenty of funding for acquisitions, and the prices were low. Artists considered it an honour for their work to be exhibited alongside František Drtikol, Josef Sudek, and other classics. The most famous and successful artists were also the most generous – they donated extensive collections of their work without any financial demands. More recently, Josef Koudelka did something similar. And he’s not alone. We generally exhibit these gifts in the smaller Josef Sudek Gallery, including collections by Antonín Tonder, Petr Balíček, Petr Tausk, and others.

Barring exceptions (R. Skopec, J. Bouček, Z. Wirth, and a few others), private collectors did not collect photography in Czechoslovakia until the late 1980s. The change began only with the first auctions of the Kniha national enterprise, organized by Václav Prošek. In the 1990s, many people bought photographs (and sold them abroad), then the trend disappeared. In the private sector, there are now more and more people buying both older and contemporary photographs. In many cases, however, they are not classical collectors but investors.

2: The interests and tastes of both collectors and institutions are gradually changing. In photography, the interest in the classics is still the strongest: F. Drtikol, J. Sudek, surrealism, Czech informel, and, in the last twenty years or so, also Jan Svoboda, Běla Kolářová, and several others. Interested parties, however, are not found within the photographic scene – they are usually art collectors in the broader context that includes experimental photography. We don’t know what will happen in twenty years. (And that’s good.) But interest in photography in all its forms will hopefully maintain itself, if only because it reflects our entire internal and external world.


Pavel Lagner / Curator at the Václav Špála Gallery and the PPF Art a.s. art collections

1: The PPF Art photography collection is developed independently of the position of photography in the art market. If this position is given by sales figures, this means that our collection’s financial value is growing. In the case of new acquisitions, we have to count on the fact that the expenses will also grow. Another factor that does not influence our collection is the objective growth of the number of photographs on offer. This is mostly connected to the rising number of private collectors who, following various recommendations, invest, at first, in “smaller” works – watercolours, graphic art, photographs, etc. For now, photography is still an order or two cheaper than paintings. We expand the collection within the limits of a previously agreed budget, in a vertical timeline ranging from 19th-century photographs to contemporary pieces by young artists. We also complement the collection as needed with photographs connected to a particular period or artist.

2: The development of collecting will certainly be connected to the development of technology and a change in our relationship to ownership. The focus on the virtual perception of the world can lead, increasingly, to digital proof not only of the ownership of monetary funds but also art. It is hard to predict how the feeling of aesthetic and value satisfaction will change in a world following a certain disintegration of uniqueness and the value of the original, and a shift to a perception of photographic or other works entirely through screens. Will collectors revere not only ownership but also working with the art object, e.g., seeing it in greater detail than with the naked eye?

In this regard, we also cannot underestimate the fact that a photograph itself can become a collectable object, just like other objects that time and technological developments turned into rarities.


Jitka Hlaváčková / Curator of the Photography and New Media Collection, Prague City Gallery

1: The Prague City Gallery has been working on its photography collection more or less systematically since 1996. At present, it contains some 1,400 photographs and digital prints and over 100 pieces of moving-image art. The very first works in this collection were monumental digital computer-generated prints (Bromová, Díaz, Svárovský) followed by a series of photographs by the then-young conceptualists (Othová, Jasanský and Polák, Humhal, Kintera, and others). Ten years later, the concept of the collection was broadened to include new media, and in 2010, the collection was fused with that of the Prague House of Photography. The collection thus came to include some 500 pieces of classical photography, largely artistic documentary photography. Since then, the Prague City Gallery has also attempted, to a smaller extent, to expand this legacy. The crux of the collection, however, remains in conceptual and post-conceptual approaches. In recent years, the gallery has attempted to develop all its collections as evenly as possible but acquisitions in photography and new media have played increasingly important roles.

2: The Prague City Gallery’s collection is conceived as a joint platform for photography and new media. This makes it much easier in this day and age to consider the scale of post-digital formats that are, in a sense, derivates of photographic methods. Since the moment when photography became, technically speaking, a mostly data-based file, it has become hard to define. The level of manipulation, artificial intelligence co-authorship, archival and appropriative approaches, text, photogrammetric and other interpretive forms or even 3D prints are all becoming relevant topics of interest. From an artistic (and thereby collecting) perspective, it is now less and less significant whether a photograph is part of an installation, a piece of moving-image art or a performance. From a collecting standpoint, it is interesting to follow these new, hard-to-define formats that say the most about our times. Paradoxically, they also include returns to classical photographic techniques. In parallel to what I have just described, we must, of course, also support and honour expertly directed collecting activities focused on all the historical phases of photography. Last but not least, we must also emphasize the social and economic dimension of acquisitional activity, i.e., the systematic support of the living cultural scene.


Nadine Wietlisbach / Director and curator of Fotomuseum Winterthur

1: The collection at Fotomuseum Winterthur consists of international artistic positions from the 1960s up to the immediate present. Through purchases that are closely linked to the museum’s contemporary exhibition programme as well as through generous gifts and permanent loans, around 9,000 photographic objects have joined the collection to date. Our collection is growing alongside our curatorial projects and we are strongly invested in supporting artists on their path. Not all of our acquisitions will substantially gain value over time – it’s a mix between high-valued works and emerging positions.

2: Photography changes its shapes and forms constantly and we’ll, therefore, be collecting different forms as well: classical prints, moving images like video works as well as contemporary works like screened Instagram feeds within an artistic practice.

Anežka Kořínková