Money and Art, Art and Money


General Photography

You might have already read this article on lenscratch about the high costs of photography (if you have not head right over). I’m currently on the road, so I can only post something brief, at least for the time being. (more)

This post being written on an incredibly cheap and unreliable netbook I’m no stranger to the issue of money. That said, yesterday, Michael Schmidt, a renowned German photographer (who, amongst other things, was instrumental in bringing a lot of US photographers to Germany), spoke to a group of students I am on the road with (as part of the Hartford Photo MFA program). Amongst the many things that he said he noted that today most photographers seemed to be thinking about their careers (gallery shows) first and about their photography second. He argued that was the wrong approach. Schmidt said that one’s career should merely be a by-product. What really mattered was the work. He recounted one day from the mid-1980s where his wife and he sat down to calculate how much money they were making from his 80-hour work week. It came down to 2 Deutsche Mark per hour (I think that was something like $1 back then).

Of course this might sound like a romantic tale by an elderly man. But I do think Schmidt has a point. Maybe the following is a good way to think about it. A gallery show might be incredibly nice, but those shows don’t last forever. After four weeks or so a show will come down. Take the unsold prints off the wall and store them somewhere. Then what? The same game again? Can that really be the goal of photography? To work hard, to spend all that money, for what essentially is a fleeting moment?

Make no mistake, I’m not saying photographers shouldn’t strive for a gallery show. But I’m with Schmidt, what truly matters are the images. Isn’t there something incredibly rewarding about producing a great image every now and then, out of one’s own, very personal engagement with this world? Why would one want to see that as less important than whether the results of those truly precious moments (that, let’s face it, also come with a lot of hard work) are packaged appropriately for commerce?

Here’s another way to think about it. Whenever I talk or listen to someone making photobooks, it’s inevitable that person will say that it’s very hard if not impossible to make money from photobooks. And it’s very expensive to make good photobooks. But none of the people I’ve listened to is in it for the money or for the career. People do it because they just love photobooks. (just as an aside, you can produce a fantastic photobook for way less than $30,000 - you can even do it yourself)

Somewhat related, I’ve often noted that people treat photography featured on this blog a year ago or so as, well, old. I think I’ve said this before: The fact that some photographers get listed before others does not say anything other than that that is how the software works.

When or how did we get photography into this culture where commerce and consumption matter that much? I know, a gallery show is exposure of the work to a larger audience. But it still is a very small audience, and that’s especially true in this day and age of the internet.

(I’ll have to get back to this later, when I’m back in the US.)