Fine Art ...And A Family-Size Pizza Page 2

In other words, fine art photography is not a career choice. If it were, we'd all do it, as being a lot easier than earning an honest living. Rather, it's something you do because you have to. Then you hope you can make enough money out of it to live. There is a joke that runs: "What is the difference between a fine art photographer and a family-size pizza? A family-size pizza can feed a family of four." Even the finest of fine art photographers usually have some other means of bringing in the daily bread, typically by teaching or lecturing or writing books or magazine articles. I've heard of those who make and sell jam at county fairs to supplement their income. At least one I know is kept by his lover.

Chair. Part of a "body of work" from our "1000 Motels" series. Frances and I chose digital imaging and a deliberately off-hand style to echo the boredom and sameness of so many of the cheap hotels and motels in which we stay in the course of our work. The picture on its own does not amount to much: look at the "U.S.A./1000 Motels" gallery and you'll see how a theme "builds."

At this point, it suddenly becomes very important indeed not to do pictures merely because you think they will sell. As soon as you allow this to control your thinking, you're doing a job. If you're very, very good, and not easily bored, you may be able to make money this way out of genre pictures, but if you're that good and that phlegmatic, you'd probably do better in some other branch of photography, be it advertising or high-end weddings.

In other words, we come straight back to fine art being something you do because you have no choice. Not "no choice" in the sense of "I have just lost my job and don't know what else to do" but "no choice" in the sense of "this is so important to me that I cannot see how else to behave." Whenever anyone says to me that they are considering throwing in their job to become a full-time fine art photographer, but aren't sure that they are ready yet, I know that they are not going to make it. There is no such thing as "not ready yet." Either you are ready now, or you will never be ready.

All right, what about being a part-time fine art photographer? Well, yes; another word for that, in most cases, is simply "amateur." We all take pictures for the love of it--that's what the word "amateur" comes from, after all--and we all hope that people will like our pictures enough to hang them on their walls or add them to their collections. The trick lies in getting money out of them.

I'll be honest. I've very seldom done this, but equally, I've very seldom tried, because I'm a photographer, not a businessman. What is more, I'm not a very good judge of what people are going to buy: I suspect that this is true, at least at the start of their selling careers, of most artists in most media. What I do know, though, from the pictures that I have sold, is that most buyers have fairly fixed and rather high expectations.

First of all, the pictures must be technically flawless, unless, perhaps, they are of that kind where a measure of chance enters into their creation: some kinds of "alternative" (semi-obsolete) silver halide processes meet this criterion.

Second, they must be on the finest materials and "archivally permanent." The exact meaning of "archival permanence" is open to considerable dispute, but it is seemingly far more of a concern to buyers of photography than to buyers of paintings: a photographer whose photographs crumbled in the same way as some of Jackson Pollock's "pure paint" paintings would soon find himself or herself short of clients, and fading would be no more welcome than crumbling.

Third, surprisingly many people seem to buy their fine art photography by the square yard: the bigger the picture, the more they are willing to pay. The more you think about this, the more curious it is. My own vision tends toward very small pictures: I don't really like to go much above whole plate, 61/2x81/2". To me, these pictures are tiny "magic windows" to another universe, and lose all their charm if they are too big.

Fourth, very few people are prepared to pay a realistic amount for fine art. My most valuable sale was an argyrotype still life for about $400. Not bad, until you consider that I took maybe half a day to set up, light, and photograph the series of which it was part; another couple of hours processing the 5x7" film; yet another couple of hours to coat the paper on which is was printed; and two hours more again to expose and process the contact print. Then there was another couple of hours of e-mailing, packing, going to the post office... Call it 12 hours, or about $30 an hour once you have deducted the cost of materials and postage. And I've done that precisely once. Most people lose interest when they hear a price above $100; quite a few lose interest before then.

Of course you can work more cheaply, but this brings us to the fifth point about selling fine art. Surprisingly, many people seem to prize technical difficulty at least as much as artistic prowess. An inkjet print, even if it is as permanent as possible and on the finest handmade paper, is "just another inkjet print" as far as the vast majority of people are concerned. Carbon prints, platinotypes, argyrotypes, even plain silver-gelatin fiber-based prints, all have a mystique that inkjets don't, regardless of whether you call them by their proper name or the rather pretentious giclée, which actually has slightly obscene connotations in its native French.

This brings us to the sixth point. It's often as important to talk a good picture as to shoot and print it. "Giclée" is only one example: in the fine art world, it often seems that words are used to obscure meaning, rather than revealing; coruscating multilayered tropes, wittily self-referential, may be more important than anything so trivial as actually making a good picture.

Seventh, you need a "body of work"; or, in non-artspeak, it helps if you're a one-trick pony. Regardless of how good you are, or how versatile and wide-ranging your work, you can be railroaded into a "body of work" by your customers. In a sense, Ansel Adams was only allowed to photograph pseudo-wilderness for the last few decades of his life, though a bit of hunting around in his work in the '30s will reveal brilliant commercial photography and even a certain amount of excellent reportage.

At the end of the day, therefore, my own belief is that fine art photography is something of a will-o'-the-wisp, or, if it exists, that it is a discipline which may take more than it gives. In one sense, it is the sort of photography to which we should all aspire, but in another, it is the sort of straitjacket that no one would volunteer to wear. Given that it is, in these terms, a zero-sum game, I am not sure it has any meaning at all. I'd rather just take the best photographs I can, and let others judge whether or not they are fine art. Then, if they really want my pictures, I'll let them buy them. But I can't see the fun in setting out as a traveling salesman in fine art, with my sample case under my arm and staying in that fine art equivalent of the commercial hotel, the fine art fair. I enjoy photography too much for that, and I'd rather fund it some other way.

Note: All illustrations may be found in the appropriate galleries at, where you can also find related pictures to give some idea of what I mean by a "body of work."


Abbass's picture

A gentle nod from the guard was the subtlest of green lights that the 17 pristine navy, gold and cream-roofed carriages before us were ready for boarding.
Oriental Express

merdeka04's picture

As for my point of view photography is art involving a deep longing of the images you want to create. It involves technique, right gadget, a subject and a photographer to create that perfect picture. - Mallory Fleming