For many children of the 1970s, baseball trading cards were a playground currency. These young collectors aspired to own cards of their sports heroes, often negotiating trades and bribes like expert brokers. In the art world, photographers are rarely included among the ranks of superstar artists. “Photography was always seen as this reproducible medium where you could make tens of thousands of photographs off the same negative,” photographer Mike Mandel told the Smithsonian, “so it didn’t have that same aura of the original.” In an effort to give the medium more recognition, Mandel traveled across the United States in 1974 to photograph 134 photographers and curators. What better way to embrace the medium’s reproducibility than to create collectable, low-cost prints of the medium’s icons. And what better collectible in the 1970s than baseball cards?
The 14,000-mile road trip resulted in Mandel’s baseball-style Photographer Trading Cards and included photography legends such as Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Minor White, Imogen Cunningham, and top curators like John Szarkowski posed as baseball players. Each card displayed their names, weight, height, place of birth and current hometown. In lieu of stats, Mandel listed their favorite cameras, paper, film, and a personal statement from each.
At the time of Mandel’s project, photography was seen as utilitarian—a practical medium as opposed to one for artistic expression. But as social change swept the country, photography became the desirable tool for documenting, and commentating on the cultural shifts. By repurposing the ultimate symbol of Americana commercialism—the baseball card—Mandel’s tongue-in-cheek reference to the rising status of photographers is a perfect blend of concept and execution.
He printed 3,000 copies of each card and packed them in random sets of 10 alongside a stick of bubble gum. While they couldn’t be purchased at the local drug store, the card packs were sold for $1 each at museums and galleries across the country. These days, the cards have become a rare collector’s item and an original complete set can fetch over $4,000. No longer attainable for budding collectors, it seems that photography’s status in the fine art world has risen after all.