5.20.2013

On the Money, Part III

Part I of this post considered how money affects both the production and distribution of contemporary photography. Part II went on to look at why we have ended up in this predicament, arguing in part that our ability as photographers to create more income than other types of artists also prepares us to be consumers of the new photography secondary services sector. This third and final post will explore both countertrends and evolutions already addressing the problem, includes some ideas for creating a healthier financial environment, and also makes practical suggestions for navigating the current waters aimed particularly at students and younger photographers.

First, let me dampen your hopes. This post will work within the realities of the landscape described in the first two posts. Despite the massive power I wield from my small cramped office Command Center, I cannot cause reality to shapeshift. Tackling the costs of higher education and facilitating the rise of the world’s lower class to an economic position that would allow their full participation in the medium have perplexed Nobel Prize winners. Regretfully, this post will not solve those issues. While I agree conversation can create change, we have to be realistic about what degree we can expect within the contemporary realities in which we live.

Still, if Part I was a bit gloomy and Part II somewhat cynical, I’d like to end the series with some optimism. In order to do so, let’s use the production / distribution structure of the first post and begin with the production side.
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I’ll start the conversation by shamelessly stealing a term. Jennifer Schwartz of "Crusade for Art" fame wrote a post about creating a sustainable arts ecology a couple of months back. In it, she discusses creating a healthy relationship between collector, gallery and artist. I’d like to borrow her term, but I’d like to repurpose it to stress the interconnection of our roles and responsibilities in relationship to each other as we address the problems affecting us collectively by the impact of money on our field.

Mirroring the sequence of issues discussed in Part I, let’s start with a look at the problem of equipment costs. Having dampened your hopes above, now let me disappoint you. I would like to suggest that the majority of readers of this post can help the equipment problem in photography distribution by giving, not getting.

The issue of equipment prices affects all of us. Who doesn’t have an extensive wish list? What photographer with a 45 MP digital back doesn't want the 60 MP back? When I talk about an equipment barrier in contemporary photography (as discussed on this site in previous posts), however, I’m referring to the most acute impact of equipment prices: the limitation of much of the world from participation in the medium.

An easy way to begin to work on the equipment gap – beyond (cough) contributing to our microgrant (ahem) program that was created with this issue in mind – is to unpack your closet, dig out that 1 GB flash card and instead of selling it for $5 dollars on eBay, donating it. And if you’re able and feeling generous, you could do the same thing with that Nikon d70 that's been on your shelf unused since 2010. There are a lot of photographers around the world whose development is currently limited by the inability to purchase even semi-professional equipment that goes far beyond the issue as it applies to most professional commercial and art photographers in North America and Western Europe.

If you see yourself as part of a connected ecology, you can consider equipment donations a symbiotic relationship. If you give away your unused, unneeded equipment, in return you are deepening and expanding the collective voice of the medium. At the same time you are increasing what you have seen - and therefore what you know - by helping photographers historically excluded from participating in the medium by its costs to create local depictions of themselves and their landscape. It also helps address the issue of a small, narrow group of people from a particular demographic spectrum creating a collective definition of beauty and value in contemporary aesthetics by socially negotiating a definition between each other based in a singular cultural context.

As an aside, fototazo does accept used equipment (email fototazo@gmail.com for information on how to do so), but local donations of working, decent quality equipment can be made to high school photography groups or to community college photography departments, especially useful in rural and inner city areas prone to high levels of poverty.

A conversation on practical suggestions for navigating equipment costs for individual photographers would largely be one of consolidating ideas already in general practice, but just in case: refurbished equipment is a smart buy, eBay, waiting a year to buy the newest camera body will save you hundreds, buying expensive large-format printers and other equipment between friends won't end your friendships, and there are variations of the equipment library idea available through community photography projects giving access to scanners, printers, and sometimes lighting and high-end cameras at decent prices; the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center is just one such example. If such a center doesn't exist locally where you live, start one and contribute to the construction a stronger economic ecology.

Moving on to another problem of production discussed in part one, let's examine higher education. Interestingly, this is the part of the first post I got the most emails about – there seems to be a high level of frustration with the current arrangement.

Again aiming to work within realities, graduate-level education as a standard part of art photography training isn't going away. The contemporary equivalent of the apprenticeship - assistant work - frequently means running groceries for famous photographers and, additionally, the education industry has become too important to the economics of arts universities to envision a return to pre-MFA days. In fact, universities are increasingly adding post-bac programs and I hear more rumblings about fine art PhDs as universities look to expand the role of higher (cost) education in the formation of today's photographer.

Thinking again in terms of the overall photographic environment, I should add that the education business also plays a positive economic role for photographers, providing one of the few steady streams of income for us, albeit changing the structure in the academic labor model towards short-term hires and non-tenure track positions to limit institutional expenses is now very established.

Related to the issue of economics of MFAs - as discussed in an email back and forth with photographer John King - are the problems of credentialism and, I’ll add, institutionalism. How much do we want to create a system in which economic factors will greatly limit who is able to receive the credentials to teach and be taken seriously as photographers? What visions and styles do we lose by doing so? How much should photography be institutionalized? Are we funneling ourselves into a more restricted idea of photography by requiring a singular pathway towards being considered qualified for many positions in the field? Those questions – pursued hard – would lead this post beyond its economic scope. For now, those questions should be considered by anyone looking at an overall evaluation of the impact of the MFA system on the economic health of photography.

As for proactive steps, we should be pressing for heavier investment in public university programs, looking to maintain need blind admissions where they still exist (do they still exist?), and pushing for the creation of scholarships. Famous, wealthy photographers who might be read…no, they’re not reading this…you people should be funding scholarships for the next you and donating heavily to your alma maters. Nikon, Cannon, Epson, B&H, et al.: you should be helping to fund the education of the future buyers of your equipment through scholarships at a much higher level than you do.

Looking at advice for navigating the MFA question on a personal level, if you decide to attend a program, if you're not able to get into one of the very few top flight private programs that will result in enough post graduation attention that you will recoup the investment, go to a public program. There are plenty of solid public programs including MassArt, Hunter, Arizona State, VCU, New Mexico, and others. Do not shackle yourself with higher education debt; it will compromise your decisions upon graduation. Part of creating a healthy ecology as a community is making wise decisions personally.

Continuing in that vein, if you plan to include doing commercial work as a part of a plan to support yourself, it's also important to consider the wider ecology. If you're going to do commercial work, charge for it and charge appropriately. Don't do weddings for $75. Don't photograph product in exchange for lunch. This is contributing to the end of a last way of making a living through photography, eliminating a last sliver of leverage photographers have and contributing to the problem of dropping commercial prices discussed in Part II.

Realistically, few of us are pulling in enough from commercial work to be in a healthy financial situation and many who are are doing so at the expense of attention and time for the art work that they are supposedly doing the commercial work to support.

Given the new commercial market reality, I have three real life suggestions on making a living: consider living in a smaller pond, learn a second skill, and look to create a source of passive income. Living in NYC with grad school debt at 28 and scrapping part time jobs is brutal and will make you irritable and cause you to create angsty Joel-Peter Witkin knock-offs if you have time to make any work at all. There’s an incredible amount of competition. Last time I was in NYC, I walked through SoHO and there was someone on every corner with a professional camera. Move elsewhere, get your traction with your work and a stronger CV, reduce debts, create connections online, and then look to move back into a bigger pond.

You will regain your leverage and be able to make decisions not out of necessity or desperation, but by choice if you have other ways to make money beyond photography. Learn to build cabinets or skin a deer. Another option is to save up a little money, buy photography equipment, and look to rent out time with it – a top-shelf scanner or a large format printer as a friend in Philadelphia does, for an example. Another strategy is passive income. Build up capital and invest in a house or property, fix it up and bring in rental income. This is what a number of my friends have done. It’s a proven survival model.

Lastly on the production side, a philosophic suggestion on navigating today's economics that doesn’t seem economic at a glance, but can be read that way: do not make work to fit what you see in galleries. The art world will evolve and come back around to black-and-white and have another romance with smaller formats. You do not need to create megaprints or shoot 8x10. Make images with what you can afford, make them according to your vision, and be smart about how you use the aesthetic limitations of the format you work with - all formats have strengths and weaknesses - in relationship to your themes. Cell phones, 80s Olympus point and shoots, pinholes…photography can be made on a dime (or maybe a quarter). The barrier price to enter in some ways, then, is a question of expectation and education on the ways of producing images. While you may not be able to make work on the scale and of the type that command higher market prices, it’s infinitely more important to be practicing your discipline and increasing your experience.
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Moving over to the distribution side, I said in Part I that the issues seem to be deepening more quickly here than on the production side. I also think, however, that there are more concrete ways we can act as a community to improve our lot, not just look for suggestions on how to navigate the issue as I have largely done on the production side.

That being said, however, with a couple of pragmatic suggestions around the idea of connections. While financial factors limit our access to spaces where connections are created – from universities to festivals – there are many spaces where this is not the case. Going to openings, museum shows, talks, and generally getting yourself involved can be a great way to start to participate in the ecologic architecture of photography without paying at the gate. Start a site; write about photography and send it to other people's sites. Do things beyond yourself, get involved, and suddenly you will find the connections others have paid for.

The Internet is also - obviously - a way to form honest connections with people of like-mindedness, although – to repeat what I said in the previous post - it can also be self-defeating in terms of your time and people taking you seriously if it's abused. Reach out to people and strike up conversations, but don’t replace time for your work with it. I asked a fairly well-known photography friend who has published a number of books and is a member of a major photography agency if he ever thought about going to festivals or reviews when he was getting started and he said he'd skipped that stage simply by being kind to people, being social, being honest in his interactions (i.e. not just trying to meet people for what they could get him), and working hard; a good lesson proving the secondary services industry isn't necessary for successful distribution of your images.

I would suggest looking for ways to increase your breadth of relationships out to the sides. Don't just look up. Find photographers from South America or Africa or elsewhere whose work interests you and strike up a conversation (start here, here, and here). Help photographers less connected and pass their work on to people you might know who would be interested. Those of you in charge of distribution channels, take a minute for people you might not think you have a minute for, especially if they come from a context of limited connections. The willingness to pursue connections with other photographers from other areas of the world might also help with the problems inherent in new trends in alternative funding for Kickstarter and similar sites that currently reproduce existing networks of privilege in order to participate as discussed in Part I and in a post last year.

As a brief aside, the least popular thing I've ever said on this site is that online distributors have responsibilities that come with their membership in a community. I argued bloggers and online magazine editors have an obligation to show photography from photographers from less distributed communities and areas of the world. I’d like to remake that suggestion here, in the context of the financial ecology of photography. Part of creating a healthy environment is ensuring balanced and competitive market access; not being proactive about providing access means a negative impact on the overall health of the community by weakening the distribution process through a reduction in the types of photography distributed and where it's being distributed from. Maybe my choice of the word "obligation" put some people off in my first post on the idea, so let me change that to say its a way to voluntarily be a progressive member of a community by working towards the broadening and strengthening of it.

Turning to the problem of access, a handful of photographers working together could effectively change the way access works in photography today. Access does not have to be expensive. How about photographer-run pop-up reviews? Rent a cheap space in Brooklyn or North Philly or Dorchester and invite interesting people and names to the event to sit for a day or two meeting photographers in exchange for nothing more than lunch. I bet a lot of potential locally based reviewers - editors, gallerists, experienced veteran photographers, curators, bloggers - would be up for it. Reviews don’t need to cost $1000 if there’s no overhead, no entity to support, no reviewers to fly over, no hotel rooms, and no marketing beyond the internet.

On the practical advice side, if you are going to go to an existing review, go when you have a concrete goal and target a few particular people to present your work to that can help you fulfill your goals. Otherwise, I don't think the costs can be justified unless you get a scholarship. It's a very small circle of gatekeepers at pay-to-enter spaces – a lot of people are at the same events. That's generally a problem in terms of distribution, but on the positive side it means even if you financially could, there's no need to get to Santa Fe, Paris, LA, AND FotoFest. In regards to good things already happening, congratulations to Critical Mass for their recent scholarships for Guatemalan photographers and to Review Santa Fe for their increased scholarships this year.

When it comes to the rise of the pseudo-vanity press era where almost all publishers now require photographers to pony up, the option remains the same as it has been since the 70s and the rise of cheaper printing processes. Do it yourself, plus we now have the advantage of being able to promote and sell online. Do some research to see if self-publishing options can help bring down that $10,000 requested by Kehrer or Damiani while distributing widely enough by Internet to make the finances work. Definitely investigate presses thoroughly. I received a self-published book from a veteran photographer recently and the whole book is more than a few shades cyan. Another way to improve our ecology for those among you with entrepreneurial spirit: the market still exists for a small, quality presses that require a more limited photographer investment (or no investment!). There could also be a market for designers to help photographers navigate self-publication using MagCloud or Blurb, symbiotically helping photographers save thousands to produce well-designed publications and avoiding presses that charge to publish. This is an argument for some degree of tertiary photography services – businesses helping photographers get around secondary services for less money.

As for galleries and other formats for showing work, let's point to a number of good things already happening. If a gallery is paying Chelsea rent, how much experimentation can they really do with who and what they show? Is it any wonder the same pantheon is repeatedly shown? Distribution overall needs to – and will – continue to find temporary, cheap, quick, and dislocated methods of distribution. The brutality of the limited market has already forced change. Pop up galleries and art fairs have provided alternative exhibition formulas that have grown participation possibilities by pulling down costs. Slideluck Potshow and Photoville are good examples of photographers working together to improve distribution flow. Crusade for Art – to return to Schwartz – is another great project advancing photographer distribution needs and so are online sales and projects like collectdotgive and David Bram’s annual Fraction Magazine sale. By providing alternative meeting spaces and shifting the dynamics of access, photographers may be able to avoid almost entirely the secondary services market of access providers. This type of forward thinking in exhibiting and selling work is exactly what is needed to help address a number of the other points discussed in this post.

To again offer practical advice for navigating the current waters, I would, personally, draw a line on helping to pay for any gallery space. It starts to overlap with pay-to-play galleries; if we collectively refuse to pay for showing, this practice can be curtailed before it starts to become more common. NEVER use pay-to-play galleries – here’s a list. Under no circumstances. It does a negative return on your career - you won't be taken seriously in the future by people who you'll eventually want to be connected with if you have a CV featuring these spaces.

Contest fees is another area where change is possible, although I have yet to see many contests of quality with a low or no fee or the type of thinking that is evolving exhibition ideas. A couple notable online exceptions are Joerg Colberg's Portfolio Competition and Andy Adam's recent calls, "Looking at the Land" and his new portrait project with the Nelson-Atkins Museum, free and open calls of wide distribution that require not much more than having photographs. There is room for and need for competitions – artificial deadlines do wonders for my production, at least, and exposure helps provide more opportunities and experiences - and with the right jurors and venue, recognition actually means something. That being said, of the many yearly or periodic contests with fees out there, roughly a half dozen to a dozen are really worth considering sending your money to unless you are just beginning and might want an experience or two sending in work for the experience. Think about how much money these contests are asking for and what the potential benefits are: you don't have to take part in multiple-hundred dollar contests; there are other competitions that charge less and are equal in stature. The environment will be become better by supporting only quality competitions with reasonable or no fees. And how about photographer-run awards? A yearly recognition of work by our own. Just as photographer-run reviews suggested above and spaces like Photoville prove the viability of pop-up galleries, photographers can improve contests themselves.

In Part II, I also talked about how the institutions involved in the distribution of photography - the gallery-museum industry – have a vested interest in granting a limited circle of photographers entry to that world and also in protecting the art photography market largely at the expense of photographers not inside the circle. While my inner revolutionary would love to advocate stopping the practice of editioning and challenging the market directly, I can't find it in myself to recommend doing so. The issues are multiple – first it would need to be a mass movement, otherwise you're simply throwing one of your few economic levers out the window with no return besides having made an ideological point. Second, you're working to undercut a market that helps sustain a number of photographers. To be a good citizen, you need to think about how working to destroy a market will affect others as well.

A couple more paragraphs of philosophy from me to wrap up conversation on the distribution side, grab your pens: all pressure is self-applied. You have a choice of how and when to participate with the industry. You also have the choice to work to create alternatives. The recently increased financial burden on photographers – pseudo-vanity presses, galleries demanding you pay for postcards, flyers, and rent, festival prices, increased contest fees, consultants, festivals, retreats...the entire secondary services division recently introduced into our ecology - is optional. It should not be simply a question of how can we take part in this system, but a question to what degree does it benefit us, to what degree do we want to take part, and to what degree do we want to enable this system. Part of changing the dynamics of power as it relates to photographic economics is making smart decisions for the right reasons.

Look, history will remember a handful of our names, a half dozen or so, and since one will surely be me, that means only five potential slots left for all of you among the 10,000 daily readers of fototazo*. So forget about making your mark; we'll almost all be forgotten. Don't pay your way forward with the agenda of "making it." Instead, ask yourself honestly what the quality of your life and the quality of your work means in relationship to the investment of time and money to try to take part in this industry. This isn’t a message of "Turn on, tune in, drop out," but rather a suggestion to work against creating an environment where "brand" and "career" cause us to forget why we wanted to do this in the first place and to make a recommitment to the medium, not to the machine. The industry can benefit us, but only if we do things for the right reasons, on our terms, and with a sense of humility about our odds.

To move towards a conclusion and to plagiarize myself by repeating a few lines of Part I, I do believe that these new economic models and trends in photography – particularly in distribution - have reduced our medium. They have had a homogenizing effect, limiting participation and putting a premium on access to the limited number of faces at the gates of entry and to publishing and exhibiting. These trends have eliminated views from photographers not able to surpass the equipment gap, get an MFA, survive post-graduation, and pay for networking. They have had the result of a more simplified collective vision: less can make work, a narrower range of work is distributed.

This is why we need to consider our response as photographers, think of ourselves as interconnected in order to improve our situation, give as well as take, and create alternative forms to help photographers produce and distribute in a financially healthy system. To put on my Che T-Shirt for a moment: if we have become so many photographers we have no leverage, perhaps we can turn that to our advantage. We must also surely be enough to develop a non-profit shadow system – reviews, contests, awards, pop up galleries, online sales, equipment donations - operated by ourselves to complement the dominant structure and expand our opportunities for ourselves.

To make a finishing statement for this series, let me dust off Theodor Adorno and recall his belief that one has to confront the role of industry in the commodification of art in order for aesthetics to advance. I believe him. We need to understand and discuss how money is affecting the medium we are dedicating our lives to. If we don’t, aesthetics will not advance, our medium will stiffen, and photography itself will be simplified and reduced.
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*number of daily visitors understated for humility