Thursday, September 13, 2007

Just Who Are Our Market?

I've talked about who buys photographs before, all be it as part of other discussions. I think it deserves it's own hearing.

The other day I was flipping through the latest Black and White magazine, thinking that there are a hell of a lot of fine art photographers out there, probably 100 - 1000 for every collector that exists, and these are the serious ones, who produce good work and actually market their wares and have real expectations of sales.

With ratios like that, it's no wonder many of these fine art photographers, myself included, aren't exactly making big bucks from photography, and that even very established photographers have to teach workshops and do other things to provide a half ways decent income from photography.

The implication of this dysproportion of photographers to collectors is that many photographers won't sell even one photograph and very few will sell a modest number of images and absolutely none are going to do well.

That is pretty much the current state of the market.

Photographers put a lot of effort into other photographers - boy is that a poor market. Getting cash out of the pocket of the average photographer makes safecracking look easy.

To be fair though, most of us tie up any free cash in travel or equipment, and if you do get a print, you have to turn round and frame it, which can cost a lot more than the print. Even wall space can be an issue.

So, who should we try to sell to? And How?

For every collector of photography, there are probably 100,000 people who like photographs and consider them art and are more than happy to have them on the wall as both art and decoration. There's an even bigger market for photographs of things - of grain elevators and trains and local beauty spots and famous locations.

I suspect that neither group are likely to happily drop $500 for an unframed print. Oh, there will be some, but not many. So price might well be important - but if the customer never knows we exist, price is the least of our problems.

In order for people to even consider our wares, they need to hear about us, even better, to see examples of our work. Truth is that we are going to have to become marketers. I suspect that a lot of you are like me and have neither the inclination or the time to become marketers. it might be best therefore if we didn't have unrealistic expectations of fortune, perhaps concentrating more on fame (if possible).

Should we decide that we really want or need to produce an income from our fine art photography, then we are going to have to become (at least to some degree) hard nosed businessmen.

It's no coincidence that one of the higher earning fine art photographers is Alain Briot - he puts more effort into marketing than just about anyone else - and it pays.
Even New York Fashion photographers spend a lot more time selling their ideas than they do making photographs. Read "On Being A Photographer" by Hurn and Jay (available from Lenswork).

Is it possible to find a middle ground? I think so. I think that a really good photographer can sell hundreds of prints, if at reasonable prices and if he spends several hours a week marketing them. It doesn't require giving up your day job, but it will take shoe leather, creativity, and just plain sweat equity. It means creating (and paying for) brochures. It means visiting dozens of restaurants and movie theatres, coffee shops and anywhere else you can think of that might just possibly hang your work. It means paying for framing and matting (so you do it yourself to keep costs down). It means following up with displays to be sure the prints look pristine and there are adequate business cards and brochures. It means having a good business sense and providing a good product - not just a pretty print, but the whole product, from packaging to included information.

None of this is trivial, and most of us aren't going to put the effort in, thus leaving the field all that much wider for those who are prepared to do so.

Oh, by the way, what does all this have to do with selling through galleries? Bugger all, that's what.

I'm going to tackle the issue of print prices next time, a very thorny issue.


Anita Jesse said...

Thank you for the good swift kick.
And, I am late, but I wanted to express my best wishes for your progress with health issues. This had to be a tough period and I hope you know you have a number of fans--many silent,like myself--who are wishing you well.

Stuarte said...

Provocative thoughts, George. For me they beg some questions, such as Why does a person take photos (or create images)? What is the "value" of the images? What does it mean if others (=the market) do or don't buy the images?

I had the good fortune to earn a few hundred dollars from some photos in the 1980s. I worked for Reuters (print) in Holland, then Italy, and the IHT was looking for some illustrative images. They were poor photos that I had taken for my own interest but I was in the right place at the right time, so they sold.

A photographer is far more likely to cover costs and even make a living from images that are commissioned than from hobby images - even if they are top quality. I make a very good living from writing to order, but I'm sure I wouldn't make a bean from writing for pleasure/art.

Commerce is full of images that have sold in huge numbers but don't have much "artistic" merit. Getting paid for non-commissioned images surely says a lot more about luck and marketing than about the quality of the images.

But all the same, hats off and good luck to you in pursuing your vision.

Anonymous said...

Hi George,

Good thoughts. My reaction today on this is that if you take into account the major effort in marketing you discuss and take account of the hours doing so and then take into account the costs you have to produce the saleable images and then look at your income, you may find that your real hourly wage for these business efforts is incredibly small. Therfore this way of making a living is a very inefficient use of life energy of which we have a very limited supply. Unless one is a true 100% dedicated professional, it may be much more efficient to remain an amatuer in the true sense of the word and do our work for love and sell at reasonable prices to the public when the chance presents itself.

The day job probably presents a much better and easier way of putting food on our tables and then we can spend our free time doing our art. Also if one makes a living through a more efficient means, then we can sell our work at a much lower price and thus actually share our work with more people which is the point anyway, isn't it?

The great paradox is that once you substantially lower your prices, you unit volume goes way up and sometimes you end up making more money. I sell my matted prints at $60 and have sold 27 prints from my last show. That is much more than I have ever sold at higher prices and so many people have told me how pleased they are to have pieces of my work hanging in their homes. At a higher price they never would have bought one. I feel so much more fulfilled this way which again seems the point of doing art (at least for me).

It will be interesting to see what your latest thoughts ar about pricing since our last discussion. Also how refreshing to be able to not have to deal with the galleries anymore. Unless you are really a hot shot in demand photographer, that really seems a fool's game.

Thanks George...