Musings on Photography

Low Print Prices, the History

Posted in business, print pricing, the art world by Paul Butzi on March 14, 2008

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There are a fair number of comments on yesterday’s post on Size and Price which comment, not on the the strange relationship between size and price, but instead on the whole idea of low prices.

To simplify things I’ve added a ‘Print Pricing” category. You can read every post I’ve written on the subject (including, along the way, responses to most of the arguments advanced against very low print prices) by reading the entire series of posts.

Here are a couple more thoughts on low print prices which so far have not drawn much comment:

1. What about the idea that even folks without much disposable income deserve to have a bit of nice in their lives? I’ve been rather startled at the degree to which photographers, many of whom seem to tilt toward the liberal end of the political spectrum, 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 lower price and who never sold a print for more than $15 in his life. Was Bennett crazy?

2. There are aspects to selling artwork at a low price that can be appealing. Diversification is one – if your prints are priced low enough that the average Joe can afford to buy not just one but several, your potential customer pool is larger. There’s less invested, risk wise, in a single patron. On the other hand, if you sell your work into a pool of a dozen wealthy art collectors, the risk that you’ll do something to alienate a substantial fraction of that pool of patrons becomes significant. When your artwork changes a bit, you risk stepping outside the zone where your current patrons will buy. That’s bad. If you have thousands of patrons, the risk that you’ll leave them all behind in one fell swoop is substantially lower. To what extent do the folks who sell just into the wealthy crowd limit the work they do to match the upscale wealthy market? If you make ‘edgy’ work, would you find a much deeper market if your work was priced one or two orders of magnitude lower?

17 Responses

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  1. Rosie Perera said, on March 14, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Pricing art such that “folks without much disposable income” can afford it seems to me a luxury that only people who are comfortably off from some other means of income can afford. Of course there are your price-volume trade-off arguments, which still stand. But as for the altrusim of wanting to help the general public be able to enjoy your art, I’m afraid few real starving artists have that luxury. They are the very “folks without much disposable income” whom you would like to see be able to afford to buy art. What if they would like to be able to buy some art themselves from time to time?

  2. Derek said, on March 14, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Auction them on ebay, let the market decide the true value!

  3. Mike Mundy said, on March 14, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    It’s my understanding that very few, if any, photographers ever made their living solely by the sale of prints. A realistic business plan should probably include at least one other income stream (hopefully having to do with photography.) Teaching/tutoring is an obvious choice.
    Of course there is always the web. Dave Beckerman has an article on the subject here: http://beckermanphoto.com/selling-photography/

  4. Paul Butzi said, on March 14, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    But as for the altrusim of wanting to help the general public be able to enjoy your art, I’m afraid few real starving artists have that luxury. They are the very “folks without much disposable income” whom you would like to see be able to afford to buy art. What if they would like to be able to buy some art themselves from time to time?

    Leaving aside, for the moment, the unsupported assertion that lowering prices means lowering profits, and the so far unargued presumption that artists should support themselves entirely through selling their art…

    There would seem to be two possible scenarios:

    1. The current system, where art is priced high but artists are selling so few works that they are just barely getting by. How many artists, supported only by their art, can buy an artwork that costs $600 without making sacrifices somewhere else in their finances.

    2. The system where many works are are are sold for much less than the current prices. In that scenario, even someone who is just getting by can afford to buy art – in fact, they already buy inexpensive musical recordings, as an example.

    Which seems most equitable? The one where the artists cannot afford to buy the work of their colleagues, or the one where they can?

  5. John Driscoll said, on March 14, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    I believe Atget sold his prints at a reasonable price and made a living. I am sure his prints, if available, are now at a price I can not pay.

  6. Gordon Coale said, on March 14, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    I remember seeing the printmaker Elton Bennett at the Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair in Bellevue Square before it was covered. That would be back in the 1960s. He always had prints that he would give away for a kiss from a pretty girl.

  7. Ed Richards said, on March 14, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    4 Minutes a print, packed and out the door? I think that if you accounted for all the time involved, you would be doing great to get 4 done in an hour. You have to get boxes, inventory boxes, pack the boxes, load the printer, handle the prints – including stacking them to dry – get the accounting info for the print, print the label, pack the print, put postage on the print, and then shlep them to the post office.

    This is not an argument against selling prints cheap – I think there are lots of reasons to do that. But I do not think there is a strong financial case for doing it if you do not need the money. I like the approach that the guy who does the Black and White photography blog uses – higher prices than you are proposing, but he adds a bit more value by matting the prints. He seems to be making a living at it, which really impresses me.

  8. TuesdayNight said, on March 15, 2008 at 8:26 am

    $15 in 1950 is ~ $130 today.

  9. Paul Butzi said, on March 15, 2008 at 8:36 am

    $15 in 1950 is ~ $130 today.

    Actually, I’d suggest that the date to use is 1974, not 1950, since that’s the time in Bennett’s career when the value of $15 was lowest. 15 bucks in 1974 is roughly equivalent to $64 today.

    But you have a good point. 15 bucks now is not the same as 15 bucks then.

    The other thing to remember is that Bennett was selling serigraphs, not inkjet prints. There’s quite a bit of different in time investment in cranking out another serigraph compared to firing up the inkjet printer.

  10. Joe Reifer said, on March 15, 2008 at 10:12 am

    1. As a fine art photographer, I can’t sell enough volume to make low priced prints. Factoring in even a modest cost for my time for all parts of the process, I shouldn’t be pricing anything at less than $150 except postcards.

    2. The assumption here is that the “average Joe” wants to buy fine art photographs. That just isn’t true. The “average Joe” wants photos of his kid, favorite sports team, a car he can’t afford, or a beautiful woman.

    Cheers,

    Joe

  11. Paul Butzi said, on March 15, 2008 at 10:54 am

    As a fine art photographer, I can’t sell enough volume to make low priced prints.

    Have you tried it?

    The assumption here is that the “average Joe” wants to buy fine art photographs. That just isn’t true.

    That’s certainly one of the arguments against low pricing – that it’s an attempt to capture a market that doesn’t exist at the expense of giving up a market that does exist.

    Do you have evidence that the ‘average joe’ doesn’t want to buy fine art photographs?

    Just a couple of weeks ago I was in NYC and visited MOMA. We arrived about an hour and a half before ‘free night’ started, and there was huge line of people waiting to get in for free. HUGE line. And when they let those folks in, the place was absolutely freakin’ packed with people.

    Most of them looked like average Joes and Janes to me. The fact that someone would stand in line, in the really nasty cold, with a really brisk wind whipping down the street, for an HOUR AND A HALF, just to get into the museum to see some art – that tells me that maybe the average Joe has, perhaps, more than a passing interest but not a lot of disposable income to direct to art purchases.

    So I am skeptical of the assertion that there are no ‘Average Joes’ who want to buy art. It might be hard to market to them. It might be hard to tailor your printing/packing/shipping to hit a low price point to capture that market. It might be hard to lure them to your website so that they will buy. It might be hard to overcome their perception that a print sold for $25 cannot possibly be something they want when everyone else is selling prints for ten times as much. But I am guessing they are out there.

  12. Joe Reifer said, on March 15, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Hi Paul,

    Two of the top selling items for me at past art shows have been postcard sets and matted 4×6 prints because they’re in the $20-40 range and that’s what people have in their pocket. At a few shows, sales of these items has added up to a few hundred dollars. However, the cost to put on an art show, and the work required to produce and sell all this small stuff should not be underestimated.

    Every day at work I see empirical evidence that supports my statement about what type photographs average customers purchase (at least online). Just because MOMA in New York is crowded doesn’t mean average people will buy a print from you or me.

    Cheers,

    Joe

  13. Martin Doonan said, on March 17, 2008 at 8:06 am

    A couple more points to chip in, from the buyer end of things:

    1. I’d like to buy prints, I’d like to have quite a few, that mean prices quite low. I do like the folio idea (and have bought one). It’s not about wall space (I can hang several large prints) but I’d like to be able to rotate the displays from time to time & give myself access to a range of work.

    2. There is another way to make art available (at least locally) – it strikes a balance between consuption motives & production motives: rental. There are schemes in town here whereby a number of people pay a fixed monthly rate to have art from a collection on their wall for a given period of time. After that time, they get to chose something else from the collection. It means access to otherwise unaffordable stuff, consuming in the “art as disposable” mode. comsume cheap, produce expensive.

    On the queues at MOMA – you should try getting into the Louvre in Paris on free Sunday.

  14. Charlie H said, on March 17, 2008 at 9:07 am

    Paul, I don’t think there is any question that your paradigm is absolutely correct. Look at what Henry Ford did. The concept has an exponential potential to it as well. Assuming that there is an initial positive reaction, I can’t imagine that your business will not grow at an alarming rate. I say lets stop talking about it and get this thing rolling. Be sure to offer advice and links on how to frame the photographs for a reasonable price. ch

  15. Rick said, on March 18, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    I only purchased four prints last year. They were the only ones that I liked and were being offered at a “reasonable” price. I have seen lots of other pictures that I wanted, but the price made me feel like I was providing the photographer with a week or more of income. If I have to save for weeks/months to purchase your print then you are making me justify the purchase of the print over something else. Besides, I have not seen a correlation between price and quality.

  16. Bryan Willman said, on March 22, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    People buy a LOT of posters. Art Wolf sells quite a bit of stuff, whether it’s “fine art” is a question I’ll leave for others (I like some of it a lot.)

    The Average Joe maybe doesn’t buy semi-abstract photos of wilting grapefruit. They may never buy street photography. That doesn’t mean they don’t LOOK at them or value them, just that they may not buy them.

    So maybe a certain, er, “edgy” class of photo can only be sold at a highish price, if at all, because only unaverage Sam’s and Sarah’s will ever buy it. While more accessible work can indeed sell to the average Jane or Joe.

  17. mcananeya said, on March 31, 2008 at 3:21 am

    Paul,

    You might also be interested in reading Nitsa’s thoughts on this subject:

    http://nonphotography.com/blog/?p=188

    Best regards,
    Adam


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