Musings on Photography


Posted in print pricing by Paul Butzi on January 7, 2010


Niels Henricksen comments:

If I were sell a print for $5.00 then I think most buyers only place a $5.00 or less value on it (don’t we all overcharge anyway) and therefore to them the print may seem more like a poster and somewhat disposable.

If I charge $300, then buyers would recognize, only by monetary standards, it as having greater value and they would treasure it more.

So, here’s a story from a photographer I greatly admire, Jay Dusard. He was photographing cowboys, and his practice was that he would work with the cowboys, and then during the rest times, he would photograph them, and then he would give them prints. These cowboys lived what might politely be described as a rustic lifestyle, and so Dusard would show up for another round, and he’d find his ‘Fine Art Archival Gelatin/Silver Prints” which he sold for hundreds of dollars stuck to the wall next to the stove with a thumbtack, coated with grease, but clearly placed for primo visibility and enjoyment.

I heard a similar story from John Sexton when I took a workshop from him, this time about his space shuttle photographs and the people who worked on them. Sexton would give them prints, and the engineers would tape them to file cabinets, tape them to walls, and so on.

And, I admit, I am enough of an egalitarian to think that everyone deserves to have nice in their life and surroundings. When I was selling prints in a booth at a local fair in the valley above which I live, I was dismayed when someone told me a woman had come by several times to look at one of my prints, clearly wanting to have it, but saying she was unable to afford it. This, after I had lowered my prices for the fair by about 50% hoping to make them more affordable.

Suppose our inkjet prints were, truly, disposable. Suppose people paid minimal prices for them, stuck them to the wall with thumbtacks or to the fridge door with tape, enjoyed them for a while, and then discarded them.

Why, exactly, do we think this would be bad?

14 Responses

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  1. Sean Galbraith said, on January 7, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    To some extent it comes down to “Is my time and effort to make this worth compensation?” or “Do I think what I’m creating has value?” or even “Do I want to further contribute to a have it now and yet disposable society?”

    In my own work, I think it has value and that my time to create it is worth something to me, so I charge for my prints (I have no problem with those who don’t. To each their own.). I, too, have had people comment that they couldn’t afford my work, and that’s unfortunate. I can’t afford a BMW right now… but if I think that has sufficient value to me to afford the cost, then I will put forth the effort to save up and buy one.

  2. Paul said, on January 7, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    I think it´s a bit like that chinese proverb,
    “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”
    My life with photography would be so much easier if I didn´t feel so attached to my images.

  3. Gordon McGregor said, on January 7, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    They really, truly are disposable. If all that is being done in the creation of the final reproduction is hitting the ‘print’ button, then there really isn’t any intrinsic value in the artifact. It isn’t created by hand, it doesn’t require darkroom care to craft, there isn’t a woodblock wearing out or some influence on the print that is going to vary much over time. Some days I think photographers should just get over themselves, when I see the ridiculous prices we try to obtain with artificially limited editions and overinflated senses of self worth.

    Certainly there is a value in the image making and finishing. Certainly there is a value beyond the basic paper and ink costs, but I place more value in someone enjoying the end result than in the money they might exchange with me for creating it.

    For businesses/ advertising use, I keep asking for more and more silly amounts of money, in the hope that they’ll stop asking. Still hasn’t worked. But for friends or people who just like the pictures and want to be able to enjoy them, I cover my costs and that’s about it.

  4. Sherman said, on January 7, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    I feel there is something wrong with the idea of disposal simply because you’re just “hitting a print button”. Let’s say that you’ve recovered the cost of the tangibles – printer, ink, paper, computer, harddrives, camera, camera accessories, lenses, filters, tripods, etc. And in whichever way, since you’re enjoying the time that you are spending photographing you don’t associate a cost to that either. Does that still make your work disposable? In a way I think that speaks more to how you value your work vs how others do. To me that idea of value is a slippery slope with the digital age piling on the grease.

    Personally, if others value my work enough to pay for it, not because it has a monetary value attached to it, but because they enjoy it that much, then that would encourage me to grow. It would instill a certain amount of pride in me that would encourage me to become better. To truly grow as an artist. Would photojournalist risk their lives to capture stories if they really believed that no-one cared? That their work was disposal (not just in the physical sense but in the sense of history)

    I think the idea of everything is cheap and disposal is destroying the worth of so much. Wedding photography is a classic example. So many photographers, charge very little for shooting a wedding. To them, it may be a chance to do something cool, or try out their newly bought Nikon/Canon-DSLR. Or just make a little scratch on the side. But since they’re charging so little, how much work are they really putting into the job? How much do they really value that once-in-a-lifetime day that their clients are experiencing? What are they doing to ensure that they deliver the best product/service/experience possible?

    just my 2c.


  5. Dennis Allshouse said, on January 7, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Gordon’s initial sentences could be applied to books as well. (Of course the collectibility of comic-books totally monkey-wrenches the argument. They started out as disposable media. ). Further the notion that that inkjet prints aren’t handmade is irrelevant. (how fast does an intaglio plate wear out?

  6. Martin Budden said, on January 7, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    I don’t think this would be bad. The value of a photograph is in its creation and in its enjoyment, not in its possession.

    Consider children’s toys: is it better they are played with til destruction, or that they are placed out of harm’s way and admired?

  7. Paul said, on January 7, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    I don’t think that it’s bad at all. Regardless of how much cost we’d like to recoup, the value of our prints, monetarily, is whatever the market will bear no matter how much you are impressed with your own art. Do you wish to sell more to make up your costs, or try to be ‘elite’ and sell for higher prices?

    Photographs, to me, seem to be disposable commodities. They’re easily reproduced, therefore making them worth less. I’m wholly in Gordon’s camp in this respect. I’d much rather have someone enjoy my work. That’s why I do it. Now, if I were making a living at this, I might have a slightly different opinion, but perhaps not.

  8. Eric Jeschke said, on January 8, 2010 at 2:10 am

    It’s an interesting question. We are so awash in a world full of images that it’s easy to see how they can be worth only the paper they are printed on (these days that’s not necessarily so cheap!). On the other hand, when an image speaks to you, the effect can be powerful. A lovingly photographed historical picture of someone’s child or spouse–could be priceless to the right person. And pricing photographs as fine art–??

    I think this question of how to value photographs is a really interesting one. To me, the process is mystifying–even more so than stock or airline ticket pricing. I look at someone who sells a picture for $800 like a kid looking at a magician and think: “how did they do that?”

  9. Martin Doonan said, on January 8, 2010 at 2:31 am

    It’s almost a basic economics argument. Paul B suggesting almost a return to a barter system, and then the whole idea of bill of exchnage (money) getting in the way.

    I think I side with Gordon on the costing argument. the problem with direct exchange is there has to be mutual appreciation (exchangers each like the other’s work) – both in content and quality, which then starts to bring back some element of determining objective value.

    I don’t know, it’s a big grey, philosophical area.

    And to put a lie to all I’ve said, I’ve paid some decent money to acquire prints from others.

  10. julie said, on January 8, 2010 at 4:27 am

    I’m uncomfortable with the concept of money=value/worth of something. How many people would describe their most precious possession as the same thing that they’ve paid the largest amount of money for? I suspect lots of people place value on things that are monetarily cheap – like a teddy they’ve had since childhood, or a cheap momento that they were given by a loved one.

    I’d rather hand out prints for free but only to the people that really appreciate them, than sell them at a high price to those who just bought them because it makes them think they are getting something of value because of the high price. I don’t think that the willingness to spend more money on something equates to how much you appreciate it. There’s way more to financial decisions than that!

    But then, I’d be photographing whether someone wanted my prints, free or not. People who are actually trying to make a living out of this will obviously see it differently.

  11. Hugh Alison said, on January 8, 2010 at 4:52 am

    How do you always manage to write about something when I’m struggling to decide what I think about it?

    Maybe we’re just old farts of the same age ;->.

    My photographic “end product” is an A2 black and white print – which i generally stick up on the office wall until I produce something I like better.

    When I’ve made that first inkjet print, the time and materials cost for the next one is very small. I’d like people to be able to buy prints at reasonable prices, yet the whole gallery system and art market revolves around artificially limited supply elevating prices.

    For the moment, I’ve decided to print two sizes:
    – A4, completely unlimited, for giving people or swapping with other photographers;
    – A2, limited to 25 prints, starting at £100 for the first five prints, and rising to silly amounts if people want to pay them. I figure I’ll have got bored with a picture after I’ve done 25 big prints.

    Referring to your last post – I tend to make sure I don’t make a profit on photography anyway – too much trouble with taxes.

  12. Kate said, on January 8, 2010 at 6:18 am

    The reflection in the grass is marvelous. This would be great blown up huge on the dining room wall.

  13. rynjhnsn said, on January 8, 2010 at 8:21 am

    Liked your post. Stumbled on your site while searching for other photo-journalist type blogs. I’ve found myself on both sides of the fence at times with the predicament touched on above.

    I find myself being idealistic at times, knowing that I’d rather sell to those who appreciate my photos, those who find a connection with them; I’d rather them purchase the photos unhindered by unrealistic costs. But other times I find myself being practical. Prints cost money, camera gear is not cheap. Talent, time, energy, passion: all things that should be compensated. So I’m torn between being idealistic and practical.

    Ultimately though, for me, its not the monetary value a photograph generates but the enjoyment. More often than not I end up siding with the idealistic side. Tack my canvas print up on a wall, duct tape it to your dash. As long as you appreciate it and have a connection to it, that means way more to me than a fat check.

    I had the opportunity to shoot in New Orleans not long after Katrina. I remember seeing a stack of family photographs, long lost memories, dyes stained blurry from flooding. Not trying to sound super deep here–but the impermanence of photos struck me. They are temporary things. A quick screen grab from life. For me, I realized a lot of the benefit of photographs is the adventure in taking them.

    The print is a piece of paper with ink. How it makes you feel means way more. And if someone “feels” my photograph, but can’t afford it, I may just sneak them a copy. Call me idealistic. But someday the photo will be destroyed, and the monetary value won’t have meant a thing.

  14. Hugh Alison said, on January 8, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Thinking further, I have had a standard “friend’s price” for a print for a long time – it’s been a bottle of wine for a print.

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