Further Ruminations on Print Size
Several people have suggested to me that, if I have a print size preference, why not just sell that one print size?
The answer touches on why I’m getting ready to cut my print prices.
Here’s the skinny. I’ve been saying for some time now that I think that prints are, in general, priced higher than the optimum price point. It’s not an idea that’s new to me – Brooks Jensen has been saying much the same thing for years now. I’m not dependent on profit from print sales (and it’s a damn good thing, too, because if I did I’d be starving), and so I sort of let the issue float around in the back of my mind. But because I’ve started showing my work in the rural valley where I live, and the old print prices were set so high that most of my neighbors would never even consider buying a print, I started pondering exactly what my goals were.
One of the things I’d like is to move away from my prints being viewed as ‘extremely valuable art objects which must be treated with great care and deference’. Back when I was making gelatin silver prints in a wet darkroom, I was just like everyone else – prints were handled with gloves on (literally) and carefully mounted and protected in special boxes. When making a replacement for a print that gets damaged means hours in the darkroom, that’s a sensible view. But when I switched to digital printing, all those attitudes went out the window, because making a replacement print amounted to pressing a few buttons and waiting a few minutes. That attitude really solidified when I sent a print as a gift, just because a ten year old girl liked the photo, and I found myself encouraging the mother to let the ten year old girl do whatever she liked with the print – tape it to the wall, put it up with thumbtacks. I wanted this ten year old girl to be free to enjoy the print without all the ‘oh, this is valuable and fragile’ nonsense being loaded onto it. And about that time I realized that I’d like the same thing for adults, too. I’m less and less convinced that the whole ‘this piece of paper has been invested with the essence of my spirituality and thus you should pay a lot of money for it and henceforth treat it as a holy object’ business is a good thing for art in general.
So the net result of that line of thought is that I’m rethinking print prices, and I’m asking ‘How low can I go?’ We know a lot about what happens when we market art as ‘expensive sacred objects’, but we don’t actually know very much about marketing art as ‘inexpensive objects that delight’. We know a lot about marketing prints in expensive galleries to people who will have them archivally framed with UV blocking glass and hung with spectrally balanced halogen gallery lighting, but we know little about what happens when we sell the same sort of stuff to someone who will go home and put it on the wall with blu-tack or tape it to the refrigerator door.
All that just describes the evolution of my own attitude toward the print as an object. There’s a parallel change in my views about controlling how my work is presented. I started out wanting to rigidly control the presentation of my photographs. I wanted them matted a certain way, I wanted them framed a certain way, and I tried to control those variables when prints left my hands. I wanted to influence how people viewed my work, not only the physical appearance but their frame of mind when they looked. But in the end I realized that you can’t control those things – not really. More importantly, perhaps you don’t want to exercise that much control. Make the photograph, make the print, send it out into the world, and let it go. Once you send it out into the world, it has to sink or swim on its own merits, and you have to let people form their own view of it as good or bad, and you have to let them make their own interpretation of it.
The net result of all this is that I’d like to set the prices of my prints really low (but not lose money) and see what happens. I’m interested in how peoples attitudes about the work change with the change in price, and in how the change in price changes their relationship to the physical object. I’m also increasingly wary of trying to dictate too much detail about how my work is presented. If people want large prints, great. If they want small prints, that’s great too.
At the same time, I do want some constraints. I don’t want to sell lousy looking prints, even if it means the price can be lower. And I don’t want to sell prints that are so small that I think the image no longer works at that size (same thing for prints that are so large the don’t work). I’m just trying to work out the balance between giving people what they want and feeling good about what I sell.