Stephen Bulger’s 10 tips on collecting photographs

Stephen Bulger is the owner of Stephen Bulger Gallery and is among Canada’s foremost experts on photography. While he was training in photography at Ryerson University, Bulger began his curating career as the founding director of the Ryerson Gallery (now I.M.A. Gallery on Spadina), where he managed over 30 exhibitions. Shortly afterward he founded his own gallery, which hosts around 10 exhibitions each year and maintains a large inventory of photographs (15,000 at last count). Bulger is also the originator and co-founder of Toronto’s CONTACT photography festival, which is now the world’s largest photography event. In 2008, he was elected President of the Board for the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Here he offers first-time buyers his advice on collecting photographs.

  1. Understand your goal. Are you buying one photograph for a specific place, or building a collection over the next five to 10 years?
  2. Set your budget. You can buy quality at any price, but there are different levels of quality. Always search for the best quality that you can afford, and keep in mind that a great photograph by an unknown photographer can be a better purchase than a mediocre photograph by someone famous. Experienced collectors get just as much satisfaction from a $50 “find” as they do from a $50,000 “masterwork” and they will buy in all price categories because of this.
  3. Choose a dealer who has a good inventory within your budget. Here is a snapshot of typical prices for typically sized works: Emerging artists: $300 to $800; More-established artists: $800 to $2,000; Mid-career artists: $2,000 to $10,000; Senior artists: $10,000 to $25,000; Blue-chip artists: $25,000 to $3,000,000
  4. Do your homework. Buy a book on the general history of photography; ask a dealer you feel comfortable with to recommend a good starter.
  5. Look at and compare as much original work as you can. Buy with your eyes, not your ears (i.e. trust your own taste; don’t buy based on hype).
  6. If you are becoming overwhelmed by choices, take a step back. Two to three days after you were in a gallery, see if you can recall any of the photographs you saw. If you can, then return to that gallery and look at them again. If you still like a photo and you can afford it, buy it. If it is slightly out of your budget, but it absolutely thrills you and you must have it, ask the gallery if they can extend a “lay-away” plan.
  7. Have fun. Buying art should be enjoyable. If you have identified several pieces you would like to own but are scared to make the commitment, look instead for something priced a quarter to half your initial budget. Find something you like and buy it.
  8. Check the prices. Visiting galleries and looking at auction results is a good way to keep current with prices. Then, when you read artist resumés, you will know whether the prices match the exhibition history.
  9. Keep it intuitive. Know that if you are building a collection, it is not fixed and will evolve as you evolve. 
  10. Choose a dealer whose eye you appreciate and develop a rapport with him or her. Dealers have devoted their lives to their artists and are well equipped to answer your questions.