Musings on Photography

Further Ruminations on Print Size

Posted in business, digital printing, print pricing, process, the art world by Paul Butzi on March 11, 2008

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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.

16 Responses

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  1. Ed Richards said, on March 11, 2008 at 11:37 am

    Will you be selling naked prints? At least for me, it is a bigger hassle to deal with matting a print than printing the print, and the mat probably will cost more than the print for all but the most expensive papers.

    I ordered a couple of Jensen’s prints to see what I would get. They were well, but cheaply packaged, and were excellent prints. What was interesting is that he prints a lot of info and brand stuff on the lower border of the print. I am not sure I like it, but it got me to thinking about how a digital print might be done differently from a silver print.

  2. mcananeya said, on March 11, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Paul,

    I’ve been thinking about this, too, and I think it might be even better if digitally reproducable art were taken a step further. Artists that are able to produce works of art at low marginal cost would probably be best served if such art were considered semi-disposable. That sounds contrary to how every artist views their work, but bear with me.

    Consider music and CDs. Many people probably buy a CD a week. Others buy at least a CD a month. At one point in my life, I probably bought 10 CDs a week (though only during those summer months when I had a job). The point is that people generally buy a steady stream of art (music and movies) on CDs and DVDs at a price of $15-20 each. What happens to most of those CDs and DVDs? The CDs get listened to repeatedly for a few weeks, then fade in favor of the latest hit. Most DVDs probably only get played once or twice, then get retired to the ever-so-impressive DVD collection on the living room bookshelf. This is largely because most music and most movies aren’t that memorable. But everyone has a few CDs and a few DVDs that they treasure, that they play again and again or come back to even if it is years between playings. These are the albums and movies that people consider masterpieces or comfort-food, so to speak.

    What if art were like that? What if people were to buy one, two or three photo prints a month at, say, $25-50 each? Assume for the moment that they are small prints. The buyers hang the prints in their office with a thumb tack. When they get bored, they take them down, put them in a box, and hang their latest acquisitions. But some prints they love. Those stay up for years. Maybe they even decide to buy another, larger print of the same photo and have it hung in their living room.

    Is that such a bad thing? Wouldn’t artists and photographers be better off if 80% of the population bought a cheap print regularly, rather than 0.5% of the population buying an expensive print occassionally? Why not treat art as renewable, something you practically subscribe to by paying some sum each month to replenish it and satisfy your craving for something new? This way artists would have higher, and more steady income. I also think it would serve to better distribute sales, so that a few supposed superstars don’t get 95% of the pie.

    Note that the fact that most such prints would wind up in a dusty shoebox in the attic needn’t be a source of concern. For example, you put up a picture every day. But I’m sure you like some better than others. And I’m sure you would be thrilled if you could sell all of your pictures, rather than just the few that you (or your buyers) consider the best. If you sold a print of each of these pictures, would you be offended if some didn’t make a lasting impression? Does all art that is sold have to be ETERNAL ART that is to be preserved for generations to come? The bigger issue, as you have pointed out, is that your art would get into more hands and that a few people (hopefully a lot of people) would hold onto some of your pictures and treasure them forever.

    Best,
    Adam

  3. My Camera World said, on March 11, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    To all:

    Some great views discussed here. I wonder if every photographer, unless you are a ‘named photographer’ doesn’t grapple with these very thoughts.

    I know my own views fluctuate back and forth and as such there is a little swinging to extremes in view. One day I may settle down to really understanding who I am and how this fits with my photographic art.

    I am also quite fortunate in now having adequate resouces to pursue my artist drives that I gave up so many years ago when real income was needed to raise a family.

    This very fact most likely is the biggest force in how I sell prints.

    Mow I wake up with the burning passion to create and it feels really great. I have been for the last 8 years taking my creative side from the odd watercolour or sketch to drinking in everyhting I can about photography. It has been only in the last few years that I actually think that I do create art in some of my images.

    Some things I do with prints.

    I do offer a lifetime (mine) guarantee to print another image if the original was damaged at cost. These are only for the signed versions and I need the damages copy back.

    It is easy to reprint and image.

    I do charge more for a singed print and most are fully framed and I do limit the quantity.

    Niels Henriksen

  4. mcananeya said, on March 11, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Paul,

    You also might want to check out the 20×200 project: http://www.20×200.com/our-story/

    Best regards,
    Adam

  5. Gordon McGregor said, on March 11, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    I wonder why I like this idea for art but dislike it for stock ?

  6. mcananeya said, on March 11, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Gordon,

    I suspect you are reacting to the fact that it is difficult for most photographers to live off stock sales. There is also that fact that with stock, most of the proceeds don’t go to the artist.

    If Paul can pull this off, then he will still get his fixed profit per print, regardless of the actual sale price, even if it is relatively low. I’m not sure what cut 20×200 takes, but at least it offers good exposure.

    Best,
    Adam

  7. Dennis Buckman said, on March 11, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    I’ve know many people who took photography at the local tech college thinkng that their degree and brief time spent, would afford them the big bucks at the end of thier education. It takes more than a degree to have ones work desirable and marketable, regardless of the print size,,,

  8. Robert Hoehne said, on March 11, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    The disposable art idea is a good one, I’d love to sell my pictures and have repeat sales because people want my latest hit single or album (picture or portfolio).
    The problem is not with the artists here I think it is more the attitude of buyers of our work. They do not think to stick our work on a fridge, oh no, it must be matted and framed. As in Paul’s example of the mother having to be convinced that the picture can go anywhere, fridge or wall, it does not have to be framed.
    Maybe give away a complimentary fridge magnet with each purchase would help as a hint.

  9. Oren Grad said, on March 11, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    >> inexpensive objects that delight <<

    More power to you, Paul – that’s a wonderful way of looking at it.

    Don’t worry about balancing your taste against what you imagine your audience’s to be. Be true to yourself; send out into the world only those pictures that you feel are right. I don’t doubt that your work will find its way to people who will take great pleasure in it, just the way it is.

  10. Mike Mundy said, on March 12, 2008 at 6:41 am

    The well-known Pacific Northwest silkscreen artist Elton Bennett had this philosophy (as expressed by Archie Satterfield in his biography): “He preferred selling 1000 prints for $5 each to selling one for $5000 even though he had to work 1000 times harder. . . . Bennett was always interested in making affordable art for the man in the street, not in fame or money, and he never lost sight of that goal.”

  11. […] Mar 12 Does print size matter? By HutchAdd commentsGeneral, Printing Interesting post from Paul Butzi on his “Musings on Photography” blog about print size and attitudes to […]

  12. Paul Butzi said, on March 12, 2008 at 11:50 am

    Thanks to everyone who’s commented on this post. Your comments are really helpful to me as I try to figure this stuff out.

    -Paul

  13. […] For an illuminating example, take a look at the very interesting website http://www.20×200.com [hat tip: Adam’s very interesting comments on this post]. […]

  14. Alyice Edrich said, on March 13, 2008 at 9:08 am

    Very interesting topic. I thoroughly enjoyed the various viewpoints. I like the idea of offering prints at a lower cost, too. And still making a nice profit. With so many people owning their own digital camera, what’s to stop them from thinking, “I can get that same shot?” Of course we all know that photography isn’t always that simple, but I am finding that with the digital age, people are expecting more for less.

  15. […] seem absolutely determined to price all their art at a level where only the wealthy can own it. In this comment, Mike Mundy points out printmaker Elton Bennett, who apparently preferred selling more prints at a […]

  16. […] by Archie Satterfield) I got a copy of this book from the library after MIke Mundy mentioned him in this comment. From reading the book, Bennett sounds like quite the individualist, steadfastly swimming against […]


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