Anonymous Photographs: the Treasures in the Attic


posted Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 3:05 PM EST


Would you believe that there might be gold in those old silver photo prints tucked away in dusty family albums or stashed in half-decayed cartons in junkshops? Might some old photo of your great grandmother as a little girl might pay for that faux-antique Nikon Df you’ve been eyeing?

In the last decade, anonymous photos – pictures taken by amateurs and ‘unknowns’ – have become an increasingly valuable part of the fine art photography market, selling for thousands of dollars. One such example is a collection of mug shots from the San Francisco Police Department, Thir value was estimated at around $3,000, but actually sold for $31,200. Richard B. Woodward writes in Art+Auction:

the area of the market showing the most robust growth in the midrange may be the broad field of vernacular photography. This includes anonymous pictures that provoke historical curiosity…

Girl in Car, 1928. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses.

How does one justify these prices? Speaking of the high-end of the fine art photo market, gallery owner Michèle Chomette explained that for her, pricing is determined by several elements: size, print quality, condition, number of known copies, and the photographer’s fame, adding:

If (the photo) is important for the history of art and important in the career of the photographer. For me, this is the key to everything.

But ‘unknown’ photographs are often small and their condition and print quality may not be perfect. The number of copies is unknowable and the photographer’s fame nonexistent. What’s going on?

Firemen in training. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses.

Hans Kraus, a specialist in first-class 19th-century photography notes of high-end work from the period, “If it’s a compelling image and print, a name doesn’t really matter. Most daguerreotypes have always been sold that way. One is more likely to know the subject than the photographer.” The appeal of the subject and an element of historical interest are clearly important elements: both hold true of the San Francisco mug shots.

Orson Welles. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses.

The trend extends across the pond as well. As Francis Cheval of the Musée Niépce notes “…there are unknowns in all the big American museums now. The market’s moved in on the trend.” The Art Institute of Chicago featured an exhibition called ‘The Three Graces’ which focused on photographs of trios of women, all by unknown photographers. The MoMA in New York City recently celebrated the donation of 500 unknown photographs with a major exhibition. Over one-third of the photos at the Fraenkel Gallery’s exhibition, “The Unphotographable,’ were by unknown photographers.

At the recent Paris Photo exposition, both ends of the market were on display. Among the dozens of exhibits, workshops and the general brouhaha, art galleries of all stripes sold hundreds of prints. While the high-end galleries with rooms filled with the stars of photography held some appeal, to me, the most interesting images were the work of anonymous and unknown photographers. One example is a 1909 5x7” photo of a little girl holding a snake in her lap, which sold for some amount more than 4,500 euros, roughly US$ 5,800(1).

Photographes anonymes et amateurs, Ebba Lisa Steinheil, âgée de 5 ans 11 oct. 1909 Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses

This photo is offered for sale by the gallery Lumière des Roses, owned by Philippe and Marion Jacquier. The Jacquiers are major players in the niche world of unknown photography and have witnessed the rising tide of enthusiasm for the work. The couple began their careers as gallerists in 1989 when Philippe discovered the work of his great-grandfather, Gabriel Veyre. Veyre was a cameraman for the Lumière Brothers studios and later the official photographer for the Sultan of Morocco. So captivated were Philippe and Marion with Veyre’s photographs that they began to exhibit the work.

Flying Czech Boy, 1931. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses.

With a love of the strange as their guide, they eventually opened their own gallery in 2004 in an old carpentry shop, naming it after an unfinished film by Veyre. There was no mold to copy, so the couple simply followed their hearts. Lumière des Roses is a warm space, with walls covered with their treasured unknown images and shelves filled with ancient photo books and old cameras.

In 2005 they held their first exhibition at the gallery. It sold out completely. The Jacquiers were on their way, but not before learning an important lesson. As Philippe observed, “There really was a market and our prices were too low.”

Jumping Horse, 1880. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses.

Later that year, they set up a booth at Paris Photo and on the first day sold eighteen of the fifty pictures they brought. Today their photos typically sell for between $1,000 and $5,000. The trend has not escaped high-art galleries. Francis Cheval laments, “…over the last five or six years the handsomest collections and albums have gotten expensive. The days of a great amateur print for $25 are gone.”

Cart Racers, 1910. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses.

The Jacquiers have observed the same changes, but rely on their eyes and heart to lead them to long-lost treasures. While historical curiosity and an interesting subject might drive others’ decisions, Philippe points to something deeper: for him, the photos must “have an aura, something that makes your heart beat faster. I buy photos for myself...because, I love them.”  

Maybe that’s the real secret of anonymous photography: the pleasure of finding these wonderful and strange images that reach across time. It is the excitement of the hunt, of rummaging through thousands of fading photographs in out-of-the-way crannies. The joy of discovery is magnified by the difficulty of the hunt.

Elephants Bathing, 1898. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses

And that might be the best part of unknown and vernacular photography. You may not find a priceless Ansel Adams print in your great grand uncle’s estate, but you just might find a photo that transcends the ordinary to radiate an aura of its own and reach out to you across time.

The images in this post are examples of Philippe’s wonderful and weird finds for Lumière des Roses. As you look at them keep in mind that many of these are simple drugstore prints smaller than 5x7 inches.

Jumping horse, 1920. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses.

I have my own cherished unknown photograph produced around 1910. The ‘unknown’ photographer was quite skillful, posing his subjects in three-quarter profile and shooting with a moderate telephoto lens to throw the café background out of focus.

My own 'unknown' photograph

The seated man presents himself as a bon vivant, a man who spends his days on the streets and in cafés. Beside him, with a cocky stance and rakish spit curl, the waiter holds a large glass of wine at the ready.

I have no idea what value of this photograph might hold for the Jacquiers or ‘the market’ but for me it is priceless: the seated rogue is my great-uncle and the waiter is his brother, my grandfather.

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France, 1930. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses.
Le General, 1890. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses.
Yawn, 1930. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses.

(1) When asked for a specific figure, Philippe Jacquer declined to specify by how much more than his estimate the piece sold for.

You can see more images exhibitted by the Lumière des Roses catalogs at past Paris Photo shows

Quotes from Philippe Jacquier, Francis Cheval and Míchelle Chomette first appeared in the following Le Monde articles:

Reporting for this story was greatly informed by the following piece:

Dolls, 1931 Czech Postcard. Orson Welles. Photos courtesy of Galerie Lumière des Roses.