Photo of Taliban soldiers in Kabul by Robert Nickelsberg

Images of the 20th Century

A nonprofit helps preserve photo archives for generations to come.

By Penelope Dixon

Through the years we have been privileged to be the appraisers behind the placement of such major collections as the Magnum Agency to the Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin, and the Barbara and Willard Morgan Archives donated to the University of California in Los Angeles. The publicity generated by these sales and placements eventually caused other photographers to take notice and approach us to work with their collections.

Image above: Taliban soldiers fire a rocket at retreating forces north of Kabul. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg, September 1996. Originally published in “A Distant War,” 2013, by Robert Nickelsberg, Prestel Publishing. Photo courtesy of Robert Nickelsberg.

A new kind of appraisal evolved to establish fair market value for sale and/or donation purposes. Yet there were many collections we could not help for a variety of reasons: Perhaps the photographer had no means to pay for an appraisal of this magnitude, or the work was disorganized, requiring further expense; sometimes the eventual placement of the work was uncertain, as museums often have little money for acquisitions and even less storage space. If the photographer was not an “A” artist, the market for his or her work would likely be insufficient to stimulate dealer interest.

Thus was born the idea of a not-for-profit organization to work with these underappreciated archives and estates. But first, a little history to help understand how we reached this point.

"A" artists, like Barbara Morgan, whose 1940 portrait of Martha Graham, “Letter to the World (kick)” above, have less trouble placing their work in institutions. Barbara and Willard Morgan photographs and papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. Photo courtesy of Barbara Morgan.


Since the early 1980s, when I became the first appraiser to be certified solely in the photographic arts, I have been concerned with archives. As the photography market grew from a few auctions and galleries to the major art-world player it has become, more and more work began to surface. Initially I was called upon to value collections for insurance purposes, and that is still a mainstay of my primary, for-profit business. Then, these collectors began donating their photographs to museums, so we became adept at creating well-researched and documented donation appraisals. And when photographers passed away, we handled estate appraisals. In the early days, most of the estates that were deemed valuable enough to need an appraisal for IRS purposes were those of well-known photographers that were not passing directly to a spouse. In most cases, they were already earmarked for a particular institution and the estate appraisal served as the conduit for that transfer.

Throughout most of the last two decades of the 20th century and the first two of the 21st, art has been donated for tax savings, a practice particular to North America. As the years went on, the concept became more popular, especially with wealthy collectors who needed tax deductions. As a result, well-known photographers became actively involved, looking to sell their entire archives, at the same time ensuring a permanent placement in a major institution.

Our appraisal methodologies developed to work with these large collections, taking into consideration the large numbers of prints, as well as materials such as negatives and transparencies, contact sheets, films, papers and related ephemera. When we reached the stage where so many of our appraisals were to establish fair market value for sale or donation purposes, we began to see that the important work of an entire group of photographers was being left behind.

Artists who are not "A" list often have a harder time finding placement for their work. Untitled, 1963 by Harry Adams. Copyrighted to Lorraine Adams as contributed by A. Lorraine Adams Family.


It took me many years, perhaps over a decade, to see a nonprofit photography-preservation organization become a reality. Timing is everything. Two years ago I was introduced to Karen Gaines, whose background with Time magazine and photojournalism was a perfect complement to my own background in fine art photography. Karen was just finishing a master’s program at Pratt Institute in New York and was very interested in archives. At the same time, the number of enquiries by archives that my for-profit business was fielding every year was growing exponentially; many of these continued to fall into the "we cannot help" category.

This unfortunate situation has now changed. With the help of another Pratt graduate and a fundraising professional, Karen and I have created the New York-based, nationally oriented Photography Collections Preservation Project (PCPP), and we are applying for grants to work with smaller photographers and their heirs who need help with organization and placement. In 2016 PCPP officially became a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to the urgent task of preserving the work of photographers for future generations. Director Peter Mustardo of The Better Image, a studio for the conservation and preservation of historic photographs, sums up the enthusiasm for the endeavor. “The prospects for PCPP are thrilling to consider and the work only slightly daunting,” he says. “I look forward to continued contact and steady progress."

Recognizing photographers’ archives as irreplaceable cultural, historical and educational assets, PCPP serves the crucial function of connecting photographers and institutions, providing information and services that ensure the preservation of important photographic collections, including facilitating proper archiving and accessibility to scholars as well as the general public. The central premise is to provide a nonprofit resource for lesser-known, individually held photographic archives whose owners are interested in having them placed within an institutional context that will provide preservation and possibly exhibition and publication opportunities.

An Afghan soldier hands a flag to a departing Soviet soldier in Kabul on the first day of the army's withdrawal from Afghanistan. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg, May 1988. Originally published in “A Distant War, 2013,” by Robert Nickelsberg, Prestel Publishing. Image courtesy of Robert Nickelsberg.


Whether it is a museum, arts organization, historical society, research institute or other educational facility, all have an interest in acquiring materials relevant to their missions and specialties. Our role is to create professional and institutional relationships between the creators and custodians of important collections and institutions committed to historic preservation and to related professionals, from curators, gallerists and appraisers to archivists, collectors and experts in fine art photography and photojournalism.

Often, the whereabouts of lesser-known archives (and who is in charge) are unknown. Conversely, artists and archives may have no experience emphasizing the focus of their materials or how to seek out and approach compatible institutions. Word is getting out quickly due to our own individual and exceptional board members’ contacts, and we hear from photographers or their representatives on a weekly basis. We plan to keep in touch with the field so we can also directly approach artists we think will benefit from our services, as well as form relationships with institutions across the country.

We are already working with some of these artists — in California, Tennessee and Florida as well as New York — and the reaction has been encouraging. Diane Adams, daughter of the late Harry Adams, a California photographer whose archive PCPP is currently helping, says, "PCPP has the whole package: knowledge of who's who in the industry, appraisal and legalities pertaining to large archives. More importantly, they work until the job is accomplished."

Our primary focus at this early stage is getting funding for the organization. As our funding goals for our first full year are almost met, we can turn our attention fully to outreach, and PCPP's process is a simple one. A short assessment letter is sent out, followed by a pro-bono consultation after which both parties decide if an ongoing working relationship will be helpful and appropriate.

It is our belief that a liaison between the artists' representatives and appropriate institutions will ultimately contribute to the conservation, preservation and public accessibility of photographic collections important to American history and culture. Finding institutional interest and support for lesser-known photographic archives not only assists artists in their stewardship goals, it is a humanist initiative, emphasizing the value of human capital and the importance of growing archives into legacy endowments to the public.