Proof Prints in DetailCollecting Photography
We at The Ansel Adams Gallery regularly field inquiries about Ansel Adams photographs stamped “Proof / Not To Be Used For / Reproduction or Display”. There are variations of the stamp, with a consistency of labeling as “Proof”, and a consistency of intent.
First of all, “Proof” Print is not the same as “Artist Proof”, which is a finished work reserved by the Artist over and above a numbered edition. “Proof Print”, as Ansel used the term and stamped the photographs, were work prints. For a number of reasons elaborated below, we do not believe “Proof Prints” can or should be considered, marketed, or sold as fine art prints.
It may make more sense, using today’s lexicon, to think of them as “Work Prints”. We use Ansel’s term here for historical accuracy.
Ansel Adams and/or his assistants made “Proof Prints” for a variety of reasons:
- in process work prints, a rough draft of the positive to identify tones, composition, potential. A basic working print to see what information exists and composition can be created;
- a rough draft of an image to decide whether or how to proceed or include in a publication, either artistic, commercial, or documentary;
• an early stage piece of commercial work, provided to a client to see what direction that client preferred to go, followed up by either a reproduction print or other commercial purpose work;
- a photograph against which to compare to while on press.
In general, the purpose was to grasp what the image could be without spending the lengthy amount of time to create a fine finished exhibition print when it wasn’t needed. After all, in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, you had to create a photograph on paper and could not email or “Dropbox” a digital photo file.
What is clear, as evident through his procedure of stamping, is that for whatever reason, he did not consider the example to be an exhibition print and did not intend for it to be representative of his body of work as an artist.
WHO MADE IT?
Ansel had assistants printing his negatives for various purposes from the mid 1930s to when he passed in 1984. One of those purposes would have been creating proofs for various reasons. It is possible that Ansel created any specific “Proof Print”, but it is just as possible that it was created by an assistant.
Below are examples of Proof and Exhibition Prints of the same image. The qualitative differences are evident, although muted in these scans relative to the actual photographs.
We don’t think about it much now, but Ansel made his livelihood as a commercial photographer, and proof prints were an important part of his work. Not as aesthetic objects, but as an amount of paper, chemicals, and, most importantly, time: costs that could not be regained. Unless the proof was a part of “work for hire”, the physical object belonged to him, was supposed to be returned to him, and when he passed away, title transferred to his archive at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP). A small percentage of clients over a lifetime were not very good about returning them, and while he made a strong effort to get them back, he was not always successful.
Each one that was not returned represented yet another cost to the artist. It is not a profession that can generally afford many extra costs, even for someone as famous as Ansel Adams.
It is therefore our belief that legal title for “Proof Prints”, unless shown otherwise, should be assumed to be held by his archive at the CCP. He didn’t sell them, and to the best of our (inclusive of Ansel’s family, employees, assistants, and associates) knowledge, he didn’t give them away.
It is our position that any value in Proof Prints is limited to historic or educational value. Some collectors have an interest and appreciation for the creative process that went into the fine art photograph, and view work prints as an interesting step in that process. We recognize that and applaud it. We unfortunately don’t have the ability [at least legally] to discriminate to whom or for what purpose we sell certain works.
As demonstrated and discussed above, the intrinsic artistic value of “Proof Prints” is low to non-existent:
1. The purpose is specifically unknown, but known NOT to be an exhibition print.
2. The printer is unknown, whether it was Ansel or an assistant.
3. The ownership is presumed to be held by Ansel’s archive at the CCP.
4. Historic value exists, but there is no pure historic market upon which to base prices, nor pure historic market for collectors of that purpose.
The fact of their existence in the fine art market creates a perception of value when none exists. It is antithetical to Ansel’s intent, and it serves only to confuse market participants. The end result of confusion is dissatisfaction, initially with the sellers, but eventually with the artist.
It is, therefore, our policy not to offer these types of work. We encourage all parties who respect Ansel Adams’ work and legacy to take the same position. We may be the voice crying in the desert, but we remain true to Ansel’s intent and creative fine art.
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Last Updated on February 16, 2021