worthy work

Paolo Woods

I’m incredibly impressed with all of Paolo Woods’ photos, especially his (presumably more recent) color work on Chinafrica, Iran and the Russian nouveau riche. Take a look at his digital contact sheets for easier navigation through his Flash site.

A friend said to me: “Photography is cheap, right? You must have very few costs.”

If you don’t factor in the initial outlay for equipment or film costs, and if you assume that I should not be compensated for time spent on research or studying other photographers, then yes, photography is very cheap. Fine art prints seem expensive to the layman. I was of this opinion until I sat down to consider how much I’d sell a print for. Given that I’m not paid an hourly wage for my work, nor do I produce prints in bulk, and that, theorectically at least, my ideas and creativity have some added value, a couple hundred dollars now seems pretty cheap considering film, printing and framing materials, transportation, darkroom time and man hours spent shooting and printing (assuming, ugh, minimum wage). And I think we can assume, at least within the safety of photographers’ circles, that good photography is not a minimum wage practice in which you can get the same results by indiscriminately replacing one photographer with another. Maybe this is also the consequence of involvement in anything that’s governed largely by subjective taste.

But still, the popular expectation seems to be that since it doesn’t cost you anything in addition to what you’ve already paid to shoot digital, it is reasonable for digital copies to be cheap or free. Forget about recouping gear costs. Forget about possessing skills you acquired over years of practice. Shooting photos is equated with pushing a button, and hot damn, it’s easy and cheap to push a button! We have an annoying habit of ignoring external costs, of anything that isn’t right front of our faces (and sometimes not even then), in photography and with, oh, carbon emissions.

Paolo Woods

In one way or another, I get the impression that for some aspiring art photographers, it’s a point of pride that they can pay the bills with advertising and editorial work, or with a day job, temp work, manual labor. I respect these people, but there’s always a tinge of uneasiness, and it wasn’t until the economy imploded that I knew where this uneasiness came from.

I experience a bit of mental dissonance every time I go to a photographer’s website and beside the portfolios of people in need, of rampant consumerism, there are portfolios of ad work that helps sell product or depict fashionable lifestyles. Quite bluntly, it is depressing that most photographers interested in social documentary work or fine art work with a bent toward social commentary need to support themselves with work that’s not at all consonant with their personal vision. Something tells me that, despite the hard work, there’s really no point of pride in this sort of compromise. Aside from teaching positions and a few grants, for both of which there is fierce competition, ad/ed seems to be the only realistic way a young photographer can support himself. (aside from wedding photography?)

I understand that of course, one’s work has to be judged to be of value to others, that rarely can anyone pursue a personal project with any success without consideration of how it will ultimately be viewed or used by others, but it’s telling about our priorities that inherent value has become almost synonymous with monetary value. I’m not one to get on the “art is high above all else” wagon, but for god’s sake, we’re not talking narcissistic projects with no socially redeeming angle. We’re not talking the sorrows of sentimental young Werthers!

Essentially the message that I get is that the work I want to eventually do is worthless to almost everyone. Until someone pays money for my work, it has no acknowledged value. At this point, I begin to understand why people in social work and the non-profit world burn out or “sell out,” for lack of a better term. Why struggle under the delusion of making a difference in the world, with only the prospects of being poorly paid while having to deal with heavy, soul-crushing issues on a daily basis, when you can go corporate and happily stop shaking in your boots? Maybe all this just means that there are very few projects that are truly socially relevent, but it seems rather inane that there are significant financial disincentives to pursuing such work.

I’m not at all sure who’s to blame for this state of affairs. I’m not sure what the alternative is. Is the market our way of guaranteeing only the most dedicated and talented (and least risk averse?) succeed?


~ by Jin on April 16, 2009.

One Response to “worthy work”

  1. Well said. It always depends where you are on the value curve. Creating prints from your photography gives consumers/collectors a tangible experience. This increases their “perceived” value, and as you said it’s only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. I am the founder of a giclee printing company of 10 years, working with thousands of artists and photographer, and I witness this value struggle every day.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: