Cheap is the new black? Not so fast!


Art, General Culture, General Photography

Paddy Johnson over at artfagcity certainly claims it is. I don’t see how I am putting an “awfully positive spin on the value of reproductions” given that most photography books - and this is a photography blog - are well, if not extremely well produced objects. Compared with a $2,000 or $10,000 print a $80 book is in fact not only very much affordable (as an aside, some photography might in fact actually work better in book form) but indeed “a valuable alternative aesthetic experience”, because we’re talking about photography here. If you don’t believe it, look at the photography books I have been reviewing on Fridays on this blog! Some of those books are so well produced and printed that you could cut out pages, frame them and hang them on the wall.

What is more, since photographs are produced in larger numbers (“editions”, usually with different sizes, too), it does not make too much sense to speak of an “original experience of the art work”. Unlike in the cases of painting or sculpture, say, there is no such things as an “original experience of the art work”. You can talk about the first time you saw some photo in a gallery or museum, but if you go to a different gallery or museum, and they own another copy of the photograph, the difference between seeing the two different copies is really just the difference between seeing different copies of the same negative (or digital file) for the first and second time. Nobody would want to see a copy of a famous painting. If you see a painting in one museum and then in another one, it’s because they moved the one painting. But in photography, there are no originals! There are only copies! (I might expand on this in a future post) And the photography book fits right into this continuum. That’s why photography books can be very valid “replacements” for seeing prints on a wall.

There is another problem with Johnson’s post right at its beginning: Johnson claims I’m talking about “how lower photography price points don’t facilitate increased experiential knowledge of the medium”. That is not the main concern of my post. Price does have an effect of the “experiential knowledge of the medium” (whatever that might actually mean). But in my post I am mostly concerned about how talking about price has become the dominant approach to dealing with a market that has contracted very significantly, how cheap prints have been introduced to photographers and the public alike as the solution to all market problems, and I am especially concerned about what problems the introduction of “cheap” might (actually will) pose for photographers.

In fact, I am asking whether starting out from the experience of photography might not be if not a better than at least an alternative approach to this problem. I’m very glad, though, that Johnson spelled out what I (on purpose) omitted from my post: “we tend to treat the cheaper objects we own with greater disregard”. There it is. If your photography is cheaper than those bad photos you can buy in Union Square or than those terrible photo posters they sell at IKEA - is that really a desirable goal for emerging fine-art photographers? As I indicated in my post, it’s up to each and every photographer to decide this for herself or himself - but they need to be very, very aware of the many different aspects of cheap.