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An argument to say that a cheap photo print economy obscures the good and the bad.

This week’s discussion between Jörg Colberg at Conscientious and Paddy Johnson at ArtFagCity about the culture of “Cheap” relates directly to last weeks concerns (and rightful criticisms) about Chris Anderson’s futurescape ecology of the “Free”.

Anderson took the nature of our ever-connected world and (disposable) media, extrapolated it, stretched it some, and applied it to future practices of production, “Every industry that goes digital eventually becomes free”. This is quite an obnoxious notion as human creativity is not broadband, but let’s move on.

I trust none of us reading here would dispute the utility of product created on ones own time and dime to be dangled in front of an audience. Self-promotion will always be with us. But ‘Free’ production as practice is short-term tactic not long term strategy. ‘Free’ is a philosophy rooted in a culture of the intern and the society of high personal-risk. As one photographer noted, “My free assignments have only ever led to more free assignments.” [I’d be happy to find that source again, help? APE maybe?]

Lower priced prints present as many dangers as ‘free’ for the artist, particularly the emerging photographer. There is a legitimate worry that creators will suffer an infrastructure unable to support photography as a profession.

Jörg is worried about several things (correct me if I’m wrong, Jörg):
a) our collective acceptance of cheap prints
b) the reality of “Cheap”, now, that few of us have digested
c) the limited discussion of cheap and its obstruction to other (more pressing) discourse

I contend that some of the angles to tackle this discussion are not only undigested but unsaid.

I say that there’s a lot of bad photography masquerading as fine art today – and that our acceptance of low price economics for photography lays down the perfect conditions for bad art to skulk in and nest among finer company.

Are some echelons of the fine art photo industry polishing turds?

To leave photographers or organizations dealing in knockdown pricing unnamed is diplomatic but we shouldn’t assume it is necessary. I think we can still acknowledge these parties and still ask, as Jörg did, “Is this [low pricing] good for the artist?”

Paddy Johnson named 20×200. Personally, I think 20×200’s curatorial eye is disciplined and the work put into establishing the model for “art for everyone” is nothing short of miraculous. But what follows 20×200?

What pricing terrain is developing? Jörg asks, “What is good for the artist?” Firstly, awareness and readiness. The artist must be privy to the lay of the land to navigate it, right?

Photography, unenviably, dominates the turf of mass reproduction.

Whether we like it or not “art photography” takes many forms, many of which can be of poor quality, lazy and/or lacking purpose or message. So whilst, we can talk about Gurskys and Richters there are a billion framed and unframed prints at every price level between they and the box of photos at the local thrift store.

It is true low prices can call into question an artist’s status and consequently hinder his or her progression. What hasn’t been said is that sometimes low prices are an accurate reflection of the quality of work – or it’s worth as a material (reproducible/reproduced) object.

I think of shit digital photography as the cultural replacement for the wall coverage of the three ceramic ducks & painting of dogs playing cards. Everyday, photographic prints are more available than the day before.

When we say photography is democratic, we mean it is common.

In purely descriptive terms, photography as rare commodity is oxymoronic. In art terms, photography as rare commodity is much, much more than the mere product – it is a support network, a dance of semantics, limited edition runs, a strong backbone of theory packaged for the prevailing culture; it is an earned CV, patronage, mindshare and a lot of hard work.

Depressingly, few of these things are solely in the control of the photographer … and this is why I think Jörg began the discussion … because the price is should be in the control of the photographer.

Cheap prints should not be too much of a concern; all photographers have the prerogative to start at any price stratum. The treacherous route to career-supporting prices is more of a concern. Success on this route is, unfortunately, not solely based on the quality of work but also on the dance of self-promotion around it.

Photographers need to be objective to the point of outer body experience. More than being able to hear their photography is not working (selling), they need to be able to see it and be able to tell themselves.

This is coming from a belief that the world owes an artist naught. I personally believe a self-respecting artist/photographer should be ultimately responsible for their work and the issues (prices) surrounding (on) it.

Work that is priced low because it deserves to be, will remain so and the artist will need to find a new career. Work that is priced low because it’s the first time on the shelf – but is good – will not stay low priced for long.

In the same way I believe photographers should be responsible for their work, so too should buyers be for their purchases. I can’t imagine that $20 prints have affected the sales of Winnogrands at auction. I do suppose $20 prints have created a bottom tier market for photographers and buyers to thrash it out in.

When we say we are scared of low prices, are we in fact saying we are scared of a drop (perceived/real) in standards?

It is true that we should all live with good art, but it is our discernment that decides what is good or not. If enough buyers support an artist through purchases and both parties are happy then so be it. As Ian Aleksander Adams put it, The real question about cost should only be ‘Is it enough to support the artist?'”

Jörg openly admittedly to leaving something out of his first post, only to gratefully reconcile his contentions after Paddy Johnson’s post;

“I’m very glad that Johnson spelled out what I (on purpose) omitted from my post: “we tend to treat the cheaper objects we own with greater disregard”. There it is. If your photography is cheaper than those bad photos you can buy in Union Square or than those terrible photo posters they sell at IKEA – is that really a desirable goal for emerging fine-art photographers?”

We all know what we like, and we all know what we are willing to pay in time, words, cheer or cashmoney. The industry doesn’t impose itself entirely – it is a two way street and we create the conditions of the industry too.

Perhaps we should stop looking at price tags, and more the number of prints churned out? Have we simply filled the gap between rarefied fine art and ‘Free’ with sheer ‘Cheap’ quantity?

Quality, not quantity, abides.

Blake Andrews, as if on cue, offers this laudable example,

“I think this is a pretty exciting project which circumvents one of the major conundrums facing both music and photography. If anything digital is easily replicated, how does gain compensation for creating unique works? A limited edition LP with hand-printed photo is certainly one way to do it. There will never be more than 300, no two are quite the same, and they cannot be copied. Problem solved.”

Of course another issue here is the conflagration of art/documentary/editorial/press/enthusiast photography. We’d all make different arguments for the survival of certain proclivities within the photographic medium.

What I find irritating is the continuing bleating from photojournalists about the death of old (newsprint) media* when simultaneously they have dozens other new media avenues to explore and exploit.

We can’t have it both ways. Everything is quicker: production, promotion, sales and prices. In this breakneck atmosphere it makes perfect sense that photographers would (gamble) sell their prints at cheap prices – in order to rally support for their work long term.

Is it heresy to think of cheap prints as supplemental material to ones main art? This seems to be the way the discussion may be headed. Whether a print is framed or in a book is somewhat irrelevant if both (one presumes) are priced to sell – and hence – promote.

If we choose to take the other tack, bemoan any discussion on price and talk only of art as experiential then we return to issue of monetary privilege anyway. Not all art can be met/seen first hand. Leah Sandals challenges Paddy Johnson’s argument and asks us to think beyond the rarefied print hanging in a gallery;

Part of the delight of print (or web, or any other secondary source) is the way it democratizes information access for those of us who (a) cannot afford travel the globe to hear oral and experiential histories (or hey, even just plain ol’ see shows) firsthand and (b) can only afford to go to the library rather than the museum.

The digital manufacture of photographic stuff is embedded within a digital culture of 1s and 0s that has generally benefited art consumers. It should benefit art producers if they’re honest about the modes of photographic production, hold their work accountable and identify & outlast the turds.


*Assumptions that the loss of large papers will mean the loss of investigative (photo)journalism may be valid but by no means certain. I fear for the corporatization of media, but all other evidence suggests new media provides non-authoritarian comment. That said, we should worry about who controls the networks for new media and how malevolent they may become. But given that both old and new media are driven by advertisement revenue aren’t concerns of major media polluted by commercial interest likely to remain in status quo?


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