The Shock of the Old

Some prints are old; some prints are good— they’re not always the same print

By David Vestal Back to

The shock of the new” is a popular cliché, but not too much of what is publicized as new and shocking lives up to its hype. I’m reminded of a night in the early 1950s when Dorothea Lange, on a visit to New York, came to Sid Grossman’s class. I was one of the students. We were awed by her presence, but she showed no interest in us. She had also visited Alexey Brodovitch’s more famous class, attended largely by leading fashion photographers, and here’s what she said about them: “They talk a lot about shock and impact, but their pictures just squeak.”

So much for the shock of the new. The shock of the old has just hit me, and it hurts more. One of the two photo art dealers who have handled my photos in recent years has left the business, and has therefore sent me a big box of “vintage prints” that I had not seen since some of them were chosen long ago for a show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. From that Corcoran show came a big picture book with the misleading title, The New York School, in which some of my pictures were treated more kindly than work by some others, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain. However, there never was a New York School of photographers, just a number of people, some of whom knew each other, who worked separately in the same city at about the same time, not as participants in a group or “school.”

No prints were returned to me from the Corcoran. Jane Livingston, who had invented the imaginary NY School and put together the show and the book, delivered my prints from that show to a photographic art dealer near D.C., and that was all right with me in 1993 or whenever it was. (I looked again at the book, trying to find the date, but found no copyright page. Jane Livingston’s comments in the book are dated 1992, presumably the year of the show). The prints that dealer Sandra Berler thus informally acquired, she sold now and then, and for increasing prices. Her last sales for me were of “vintage” prints (variously defined, but anyway old, not new). These went to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. at $4,500 each, and I was glad to get my half of that price and to have work in that collection. “Vintage” prints fetch higher prices than those that might or might not be better, but are definitely not as old, and “vintage” prints were Sandy’s specialty.

On deciding to retire from the business, she called me to arrange to return the prints she had. About a week before I wrote this, a beautifully packed, massively sealed box arrived. I was preparing for a trip to Montana and thought I’d open it when I got back, but a postcard from Sandy urged me to open the box, in which I would find some “paperwork.” Receipts or something, I thought, so I undid the outer wrappings and then unwrapped the interior box and found the paperwork, a nice note from Sandy asking me to let her know I had received the prints. She had packed them with extreme care, and prints of different sizes were fitted together to fill the inner box so that nothing could shift or be damaged in transit. So I wrote to her that the prints had arrived in good shape and thanked her for taking such excellent care of them.

The old prints are the shock

I’m still getting ready for that trip, so I haven’t yet looked through all the prints. In fact, I’ve seen only three or four of them. Bear in mind that it’s more than 17 years since I last saw any of them. The first ones I looked at now are such horrible, murky prints that I quickly put them back in their box and have decided to put off seeing the rest until I get back from the trip.

Mind you, I obviously thought they were good when I made them. Self- deception was at work. It is clear that at least some of these photos desperately need to be reprinted, because their “vintage” examples are just awful. I can hope for a few good prints among these, but I won’t try to judge them just yet. I may be less horrified later.

However, I have good inkjet prints of at least one of the photos from Sandy’s box, so now I have a clue about how to print it better in silver. The silver print of that photo that I scanned to make the inkjet is a later one, not quite as good as its inkjet child, but surely less bad than the “vintage” horror in the box.

Collectors’ folly

I’m sorry to say that some unwary collector or curator would be likely to pay extra for a “vintage” print just because it looks so old and badly made. That is what some people prize. If it looks really bad, so much the better, they think. They don’t know any better, and few seem willing to learn.

Ralph Steiner had a partial solution. When a collector insisted on buying an overpriced bad print just because it was old, Steiner insisted that he must accept a good recent print, too, at no extra charge. The collector might never learn the difference, but Steiner himself felt better about the deal. I can understand that.

We can’t make people see better than they’re ready to see. In my case, at least, I see how badly I have sometimes printed in the past; and making good new prints of any photo that’s worth printing will make me feel better about the shock of the old.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.