Selling prints, for love or money

I am just winding up a workshop in Italy, which was great fun (and equally great food.) A question that came up in this workshop, as it does in many, (and came in this week from a former student via e-mail) got me to thinking about selling photographs as fine art. The former student who raised the question is part of one of the ongoing critique groups that I lead, where I meet (on-line) with a few photographers every couple months to do a group critique of their ongoing projects. The question spurred an great dialogue within that group, which in turn spurred this blog entry. As I was laying out my thinking for the blog piece, I was thinking of titling it simply, the good, the bad and the ugly.

My e-mail correspondent’s question echoed the questions I have been asked in many workshops. To paraphrase:

• I have been invited to show my photographs at my alma mater for a craft-fair like event focused on alumni artists. It’s an opportunity to be part of a well-established event with a limited number of exhibitors (7 -10 or so). But I am hesitant about it. It would be a good opportunity to show my photographs. An exhibitor who paints and sells framed watercolors in my price range did quite well last year. (I plan to talk with her.)

• Do I want to get into the craft show business? On the one hand, there may be a way that I can just do this one, borrowing racks to hang my existing inventory of photographs (plus new ones taken over the summer). On the other hand, if I take this seriously, I need to invest the time and money to make smaller matted prints as well as cards, which I can produce, but because they are so labor intensive I do not like to do so. And if I do more than a minimal one-time effort, there is the equipment needed for hanging and showing, etc. To make this effective and do more than just present my existing 16 x 20 prints, I would be moving into a new and different arena.

• Am I being a snob here if I reject the craft fair concept, and only continue to show my photographs and sell only a few (about 5 from my show last fall and another 5 this spring) in other venues, places where people come to see the work based on the topic of my photographs?

• Would moving in this direction alter my work? Beyond the time commitment to do this, would it shift my perspective toward what I think will sell in those settings and away from what I perceive to be my creativity and artistry?

• Do I even want to be in business rather than as a serious hobbyist in which I sell a few photographs? If I do, I need to take seriously the business side in my book keeping, in my tax paying, in my personal tax filing, etc. I find that daunting and not too appealing.

One member of the critique group responded:

• My thoughts tend toward a compromise. If you can borrow some display racks, etc., you could try this one show and see how you feel about it afterwards – if it was too much hassle, or if you really enjoyed the experience; or if you enjoyed it, but not for the amount of hassle. If you don’t enjoy making the labor-intensive smaller pieces, can you find another way to produce those – perhaps through Adorama for small prints, or a similar place?

Another noted:

• Being a serious hobbyist is a luxury. Is that enough to keep you challenged and hungry to learn or will this opportunity spur your growth?

• Specifically is planning, preparing and showing your work at the fairs going to make you a better photographer? Is the response from people at these fairs important??? Do you need the income??? (If you answer no to these questions, why would you do something daunting and not too appealing?)

• It would be a big commitment, so it seems you would need to be compelled to get in to it. On the other hand, it is very flattering that you are being encouraged to show your creations.

I am tempted to step aside and have that dialogue stand as my blog entry. Much of what I would say is already in that dialogue so….

But I do have a bit more to add so here goes. Such misgivings are very reasonable and even wise. On the other hand, if it were possible to do a “test run” without too much effort, I would encourage it.

Almost twenty years ago, I briefly explored selling fine-art prints on the craft-fair circuit. Although there are many photographers who are quite successful selling work that way, I was not one of them. My first efforts failed miserably since I tried to sell my existing images of documentary subjects as well as my images of the play of light and shadow. After that, I carefully studied the work of other photographers who succeeded at selling fine-art prints on the craft-fair circuit. I then went out and made a series of landscapes of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, where I was living (and trying to sell work via craft fairs.) That worked no better.

I learned that a huge component of the craft-fair circuit is having a wide range of work in a lot of different sizes for buyers who are willing to only spend a certain amount of money. An equally important aspect of the craft-fair circuit is having the personality to sell your work to complete strangers. A bubbly, sales-person demeanor is not my strong suit so…..

Looking carefully, my correspondent’s questions can be roughly divided into a focus on the business/mechanics of selling prints as compared to the conceptual/artistic issues created by selling such prints. The former are relatively easy to define and even resolve. The latter issue are much more complex. I think the most important question he asked was “Would moving in this direction alter my work? …would it shift my perspective toward what I think will sell in those settings and away from what I perceive to be my creativity and artistry?”

The answer to that is absolutely! Every market for photography does that, whether overtly commercial or supposedly fine-art! Any artist who sells their work on the contemporary market is subject to the subtle (and sometimes overt) pressures of the market. Artists who say otherwise are simply deluding themselves! Some artists are able to push back more than others in terms of keeping market forces at a distance but all answer to that market (me included.) Doing what I do, stock photography, is the ultimate example of responding to market forces so I am comfortable in that situation.

The sole exception to this is an artist like Atget, who worked on his own, shared his work with no larger market when he was alive (and died in poverty.) His work only became “art” with substantive commercial value, after he was dead. The photographer Berenice Abbott was the one who rescued his work (and artistic reputation) bringing it to the attention of curators and the fine-art print market.

I would not think about one market being “better” than another in terms of snob value (though rest assured many people do just that.) I would look at the various markets in terms of their respective strengths and weaknesses. Whichever one works best for a given artist is the one to gravitate towards.

The fine-art gallery market appears to be more attractive at the outset but, it is viciously competitive, incredibly temperamental and ever in flux. A lot of success in that market is based on networking and connections. The social undercurrent of the fine-art photography world bears a shocking resemblance to the worst aspects of high school, cliques and groups of “in people.” (This comes from someone who was always on the “out.”)

I am aware this comment is self-serving, but if you look at the history of photography you will see that what I call the “contemporary anointing mechanism” is dreadfully inaccurate. What is deemed important at any one moment in the history of any given creative pursuit is rarely what stands the test of time.

The museum market is even tougher since the time cycles that museums use are much greater, the money involved is less and the artist’s who are “anointed“ as important are fewer. Success in the museum market is often a function of repeated success in the fine-art market as well as a patience, networking (and dumb luck.)

So for me, personally, I occasionally exhibit in museums and even more rarely show my work in galleries. Craft fairs are not on my radar at all. That is what I have chosen to do, based on personal experience, and many failed attempts.

So, when it comes to selling prints, for love or money, it all depends on the personality of the photographer. Each venue has it strengths and weaknesses. Whether craft-fairs, fine art galleries or museums, depending on who you are, each and everyone one of them can be thought of as the good, the bad and the ugly.

One response to “Selling prints, for love or money”

  1. Good counsel, David. Thanks for the input on arts/crafts venues and the issues, from marketing to personality. And on the bigger issues of ‘love or money.’

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