Personification of 1871 by Paul Cabet - Musee d'Orsay, Paris
Recently I read an editorial in Lenswork Magazine by its editor/publisher Brooks Jensen. In it he gently rants about how many unknown and new photographic artists ("some new MFA graduate no one's ever heard of" is how he describes them) set prices for their work far above their worth. He's seeing gallery prices of $3,500 for work from these nobodies as if they were a Weston, Kenna or some other established master. He goes on using some analogies (weak in my opinion due to mass production) to singers, writers, dancers and how the art produced by those mediums is much easier to purchase than that of a "fine art" print in a gallery. Then the big question, Why? His answer: a collective desire for it to be true by so many newcomers, combined with the occasional historic luminary's price-splash in the press. Okay, I'll go with that.
But then he gets to, for me, the more interesting points: 1) Price is a means of limiting distribution. It's obvious of course. In the gallery world of photographic art the prices reach 1,000 times the cost of production (especially in the digital realm). This is great for the galleries but is it great for the photographer? He asks how selling fewer prints helps support a photographer's ability to purchase the next camera or do the travel necessary to make images. 2) Price is not only a measure of a buyer's value of a commodity but also a measure of the philosophy of the producer. The idea being that if, as a photographer, you value connection (with your audience, current and future) then price accordingly, so it connects with the many rather than the few.
This brings me to my recent visit to a photographic arts gallery in La Jolla, CA, a tony, oceanside community north of San Diego. As we walked through the clean, white spaces with walls neatly lined with modern fine art photographs I couldn't help but think of Jensen's essay and whether it would ring true when actually in a gallery and facing the full visual impact of well-framed, beautifully lit, perfectly printed images in a place where hushed voices seemed to be as respectfully obligatory as in a church. It is impressive, as it's no doubt designed to be, in order to support the illusion of elevated artworks. Next to each print was a small pin with a number rather than a price or artist/image info. It wasn't until later that I found the folder of price sheets: numerical order, artist, title, price; nothing below $3,800, topping at $6,000. Oh my.
I'm reasonably familiar with the current photographic heroes but I don't make a point of tracking the up and coming artists so the fact that I'd never heard of any of the artists whose work was so elegantly hung on those arctic white walls can be taken with a large grain of salt. Nonetheless, there was nothing hanging that I would pay $1,000 for, much less the asking price. Someone will I'm sure, but I doubt it will be another photographer, which goes back to Jensen's essay. Most or all singers, writers, dancers, can afford the work of other singers, writers, dancers. Why not photographers? There was one print in the gallery that I liked very much but would never buy at that price. In fact I imagined that I could pick a half-dozen of my prints and they'd be quite comfortable hanging next to these multi-thousand dollar prints (feel free to disagree :-) ).
So, what's the point? Other than I can't afford to buy fine art photography and that I empathize somewhat with Jensen's argument that it's all based on the collective illusion of value, it's this: I've fallen into this exact temptation with my work on Fine Art America. I've raised my prices a few times to come within the neighborhood of others whose work I feel I parallel. Also, my prices are aligned to the size of the print which seems logical, but is it? My cost for each image is sunk. Once the image is uploaded I have no appreciable expenditure in money, energy, or time. So regardless of the size of the image the cost of production for me is nil. For FAA it increases with size (printing, ink, shipping etc.) and they account for that in their share of the sale price. For me, an 20x30 is no more costly than a 8x10, just the profit increases. Pricing by size is an accepted practice as the logic appears irrefutable (and it works) but I'm debating with myself as to whether I want to increase distribution of my work by leveling prices at an acceptable profit margin (say, a 20"x16" price point) which may increase overall sales (and thus connections) or remain status quo and stop reading Brooks Jensen.