In 1987, Van Gogh’s painting of the sunflowers sold at auction in London for 22.5 million pounds (plus 2.25 million pounds commission). That’s nearly $40 million, 23 years ago! Not that I care: When art becomes a game which can only be played by mega-millionaires, you will excuse me if I don’t participate. Especially when I calculate that my total gross income for the whole of my working life would not be adequate to buy even a single petal of the sunflowers in the work. So, the deal has solved one of my life’s decisions: I am now resigned to never owning an original Van Gogh. Sometimes one must make sacrifices in order to keep oneself stocked up with Microphen… But what about photographs? My advice would be to buy an original print of the photograph made by Paul Caponigro in the late ’60s of Van Gogh’s masterpiece, and save a truckload of money. Color reproduction techniques have become so sophisticated that a top quality print of Caponigro’s “Sunflowers” makes you rub your fingers over the surface in order to tell that the brush strokes are not real. If that is true with a painting, think of the reproduction fidelity possible with a photograph… Eliot Porter was among the first ones to say that those laser-scanned color reproductions of his photographs were not only more convenient, cheaper and permanent than the originals, but also of higher quality. This could be taken as an exaggeration, but I don’t think it is. Where to draw the line between original and reproduction has always been a moot question in the history of photography. Early daguerreotypes were copied and issued as original albumen prints. Albumen prints were then re-photographed and the copy prints sold as originals. Photographers sold carbon, collotype, photogravure, and a host of other reproductions for precisely the same reason as Porter: Because they were cheaper and more permanent than the silver prints. Julia Margaret Cameron albumens were reissued as carbon prints (often hand-colored) long after her death. More recently, Ansel Adam’s first book, “Making a Photograph”, 1935, included lacquered, tipped-in halftones which most reviewers thought were original prints. There are many other examples. Often, the reproduction was made for aesthetic reasons, because the printed image looked better than the silver image and even today the difference between an original print, a copy print and a reproduction is a hazy area. When I was living in England, I visited a small college of photography and I was delighted and astounded to find on the corridor walls an amazing collection of prints, all carefully matted and framed. There were images by Cartier-Bresson, Weston, Adams, Strand, Stieglitz, Brandt and many more. A veritable cornucopia of goodies, all hanging for the students’ edification and inspiration. I congratulated the program’s director (a dear friend of my father’s) on the quality of work, and asked him how he had managed to obtain such great prints on what was obviously a meagre budget. He smiled and whispered in my ear. They were pages torn out of monographs! I rushed back to the exhibition and still could not tell that they were reproductions. With the constant improvement of modern techniques and also because of the very nature of photography, I doubt that any viewers could spot the difference between most originals and the best reproductions, especially when matted and under glass. For dealers and hustlers, this issue must be a matter of concern. Let them squirm. For most of us, it merely means that we have more access to fine images at minimal cost. The fact that thousands of other viewers are getting the same pleasure from a reproduction of the identical image only increases my satisfaction in the ubiquitous and democratic nature of photography.


About Mauro Metallo

A Writer and Photographer equally at home in Italy and in Canada.

3 responses to “Originals”

  1. 47whitebuffalo says :

    Interesting shot, M. Btw, do I dare inquire regarding the identity of this school of photography? hmm?

  2. davecandoit says :

    Great article. I really love this photo. Nice work again, Mauro.

  3. fadetoblackandwhite says :

    Interesting blog – I like your photos – haven’t had the nerve to take photos of people yet, but maybe someday… Good luck.

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