JWSmith Photography | Fine Art and the Philosophy of the Producer

Fine Art and the Philosophy of the Producer

July 18, 2018  •  5 Comments

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. 



JWSmith Photography
Response to Cedric Canard via e-mail (because stupid Zenfolio doesn't do threaded comments!)

Regarding Jensen’s points: Price does tie into demand in that higher prices drive down demand (or distribution in Jensen’s words). Unless you are purposely restricting it then demand certainly will drive supply. I believe Jensen’s point here is that the art world creates artificially high prices based on nothing but that collective illusion that it be so. He argues that making new and lasting connections can be equally important to earning prestige thru high sales prices. In a nutshell - Is it better, as an artist, to connect with more people by using sales price as a mechanism? If your philosophical bent is to acquire prestige, money and notoriety then probably selling prints for $10,000 is the way to go (he injects a Lik stab in his essay). But, if what you value is connecting with more and more people through your art then pricing it so those people can afford it has the advantage. Of course you’d have to price it to support a living wage but not some mystically arrived at price that has no relation to production.

You’re correct that in the real world the value of an item is exactly what someone will pay for it and like I said in my original piece I’m sure someone will buy those $6,000 photographs. The artist may achieve a level of prestige and notoriety. My internal debate is whether I’d rather have those 1-2 big sales or have 20 people with my work on their walls (and hopefully, 20 new connections).

From Cedric Canard via e-mail

Thank you for your equally thoughtful response as it has helped me understand the points Jensen was making but with this new understanding, I am now somewhat bemused.

Having little artistic talents myself, I have had to satisfy myself with being an appreciator of art rather than a creator; and I am but an amateur at appreciation for sure. In any case, my bemusement could stem from my ignorance, or at least my naivety, but to imagine that an artist’s philosophical drive is money and prestige related, then I would say that they are in the wrong occupation. The artists I’ve met, those I’ve read about, across many of the creative fields that exist, tend to be driven by the art itself. I have heard of many artists talk in terms of the work demanding to be created, or talk of themselves as the instrument chosen by art, but it has been exceptionally rare for me to hear of an artist talk in terms of acquiring money or prestige. Notoriety, yes, perhaps, but even on those occasions, they talk of the art seeking notoriety, rather than wanting it for themselves. Anyway, like I said, I may simply be naïve and overly sentimental

As for connection, yes, art connects but once again, I do not see it in terms of connecting the artist to the viewer, especially through the medium of money. The idea of connections in the context of art is, as I see it, about connecting the viewer to herself, to new understandings, old memories, suppressed emotions. It is that kind of connection that will make someone buy an artwork. I know of someone, who, on the meagre income of a full-time wait staff, somehow manages to save enough to buy paintings priced in the thousands. Granted, this is only an anecdotal example, but it does provide an example of the kind of connection there must be for someone to go without so much for the sake of being able to connect daily with something. Having said all this, there will also be those who spend huge sums on artworks for other, perhaps less edifying reasons. Anyway, I really should stop writing as I am certainly not qualified.

I found your site only recently. I think I was looking for something related to Chambord and your “return” post came up. I liked your composition of this chateau (a favourite of mine in the Loire Valley), and on that alone, decided to, well, connect I guess. I promise I will not always be so wordy in my comments.

Kind Regards,

JWSmith Photography
Hey Alex,
I agree that his analogy with regard to singers, dancers etc is weak and my first reaction was “well of course music is affordable, look at mass production!” Maybe I shouldn’t have included his analogies since they take away from his main point, that being the fictional pricing for “fine art” photography by relatively unknown artists which is so high that other photographers (like me) can’t afford to buy it. What attracted me to the article is his idea of connecting with other artists through my photography and how pricing affects that negatively when it’s too high and (hopefully) positively when priced more reasonably. The article dealt more from the POV of the producer than the consumer and I’m sure all consumers have been conditioned to expect a higher price for a larger print, it just seems logical. WRT FAA they would see a price increase as size increases, it just wouldn’t be because of me.

I don’t have enough customers to do a real statistical study of how price affects my own sales so perhaps I’ll never know what would happen if I flatten the price. I just found it an interesting mental exercise.
Alexander S. Kunz(non-registered)
Do you not think that your photos, when printed large, have a larger impact than a small print? Perhaps that's not valuable to you, but it is very much to the buyer. So much that they have no problem to pay $100 just for the paper or canvas (hint: FAA's markup on the paper is quite high), plus matte, frame, shipping cost. Why would they skimp when a large print is priced higher than a small print?

The comparison with singers, writers, dancers doesn't make sense. Once you're able to PURCHASE the work of a singer or writer, they most likely already have made a "deal" with a record label or publisher (not sure about dancers). And that's not how selling individually produced photo prints works...
Todd Henson(non-registered)
Pricing is certainly complicated. And it can affect how some people look at the artwork. If you price your work “too low” there will be a certain portion of the population who pass you by thinking your work can’t be that good if the price is that low. But if you price it “too high” there’s another portion of the population that will never be able to afford it. Pricing high, especially if it’s a limited edition can create a sense of value based on scarcity. Granted, that applies much easier to one-offs, such as paintings or film prints, versus digital photographs that can be perfectly reproduced in quantity.

Pricing is also difficult because some people are trying to make a living from their art, so they naturally need to make enough to survive. Others do it purely out of enjoyment, so pricing may not be nearly as important for them. For those making a living it’s more of a business, where they raise prices as long as people continue buying, letting the market tell them how it values their work.

I’ve heard another photographer (don’t recall who) say they sell all their prints for the same price because the value of the print is not based on the size of the materials that go into printing it, the value is in the image, in all the life experiences that went into the photographer being able to create that image. I can see that perspective, but I still find it hard to picture paying as much for an 8x10 as I would for a 20x30 of the same image.

I haven’t yet put anything of mine up for sale, so I don’t have any first hand experience in pricing. But I do hope to tackle that issue one day.
Cedric Canard(non-registered)
I believe the sculpture in the photo is the personification of 1871 by Paul Cabet.

The price of art is always going to be a divisive topic. And it goes much further than just the asking price for the first sale. I've been told (but never verified) that there is a movement to place a kind of royalty on artworks that are one-offs. The way this is envisaged is that once an artists sells an artwork, every time it is sold thereafter for any amount greater than the original price, a percentage of the subsequent sales would go to the artist. An interesting idea, for sure though I don't know how likely it is to ever materialise. Though blockchain technology could help I guess.

I've always thought that art, like real-estate, is worth exactly what people are willing to pay for it. No more, no less. I admit that I do not understand the first point that price limits distribution. I always thought that supply was what limited distribution and that supply versus demand was what determined the price. Of course, there are galleries who will inflate prices to not only maintain their prestige but do so in the knowledge that if it sells, they stand to make a huge profit and if it doesn't they won't lose much. Especially where photographs are concerned.

I also fail to understand the second point stating that price is a measure of the producer's philosophy. That I do not understand this point could just be a reflection on me but to measure philosophy in terms of dollars seems inane. And perhaps, pretentious. But as I said, that could just be me.

But I do agree that the general belief around fine art is indeed, based on the collective illusion of value. Which is a shame. There is a lot of inspired art out there that can easily be had for a small fee.

As for your dilemma, I am sorry to say that I cannot help as I have never considered selling photographs in any serious manner, which is perhaps more a reflection on my abilities as a photographer than anything else :)
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