Is cheap the new black?


General Culture, General Photography

These days, barely a week goes by without yet another announcement of some photography now on sale for cheap somewhere. You will never see the word “cheap”, of course - you might see “affordable”. But regardless, prices seem to be coming down; or maybe the range of prices now extends to numbers, which the art world has not seen in many years. I’d be the first to admit that part of me welcomes this trend, because given that photography has such a wide appeal it should be affordable for large numbers of people.

As always, things aren’t quite so simple, though. One of the reasons why photography used to be so expensive is because the way the commercial gallery system worked/works, with the market fully oriented towards wealthy collectors. In such a context, small editions and high prices work best, because the number of such collectors is fairly small: This kind of photography market is thus simply just a part of the larger art market, where some people don’t think too much about paying millions of dollars for a badly preserved shark in formaldehyde.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way: Why not sell larger (or open) editions, with lower prices, right? Why not sell photography right through your own photography website? In principle, there is nothing wrong with it, even though there are many questions that need to be asked (and answered). The other day, a (photographer) friend said to me that it simply didn’t feel right if a fine-art photograph was sold for less money than what you would pay for a photo at one of those many stands in Union Square.

But what has really given me an feeling of discomfort about all these recent developments (and just for the record, I’m not speaking about any artist, website, gallery, or whatever else in particular) is that for the most part, everything is centered on the price - as if high prices were the only problem. I don’t think that’s a particularly good way to treat this problem. If you disagree, start looking at everything from the point of view of an artist. After all, what we are talking about here are photographers trying to, well, if not make a living then at least to support their work.

I know this is going to sound like what the Lumberg character in the movie Office Space would say, but anyway: Any kind of change in the way the photography market works should really be centered on the question “Is this good for the artist(s)?”

For example, if you are an emerging photographer (whatever that might actually mean) if you sell prints at a very low price, will you be able to raise the price later? Or will you be stuck at selling at those low prices? What is more, regardless of whether you will be able to change the price, will you able to consistently sell work? If you are not represented by a gallery, but you are looking for one, will selling your photos very cheaply make you more or less attractive for a gallerist? If you are represented by a gallery, what signal does selling cheap prints send to collectors who either might have paid or would have to pay way more at the gallery?

And these are just questions that arise from within the standard gallery model. Here’s another way to look at prices. A while ago, I read an interview with British art duo Gilbert and George, and the issue of pricing came up. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but the interviewer asked them about the fact that the high prices of their art works made them unaffordable for many people. George’s reply: You could always buy a book. I’ve read and/or listened to many of their interviews, and I know he wasn’t trying to be facetious or cynical. I think he has a very valid point (of course, given that a) I love photo books, b) my wall space doesn’t allow the hanging of one of their pieces, and c) I don’t have the spare change for any of their pieces you could argue I have no other choice).

But when one replaces a(n affordable) book for a(n unaffordable) photograph there is no kind of cheating involved. You’re not being cheated out of the experience of having a photo on the wall. Instead, you are being offered a different way to experience the photography - and art is about experiencing, isn’t it? Or at least it should be?

So what has surprised me a bit is that so few efforts in the direction of expanding the experience of art have been made. And by experience I am not talking about the experience of shopping, I am talking about the experience of interacting with photography, with an artist… Because, for most serious artists, that is what their art is about: It’s not about some commodity they have created, it’s about the experience.

Just to make this clear, this post is not intended to criticize the various ways photography is now being sold outside of what used to be the very strictly limited gallery system (and it is especially not intended to criticize benefit auctions, for which there has always been a very good reason). If you’re selling photography in some new way and you think it’s not just about the low price, that’s great. What this post is about is my impression that things have centered too much on the price, as if the pricing of photography was the problem to be solved. I don’t think it is.