(excerpted from a recent newsletter)
Selling photography is a weird thing. Well, selling street photography is a weird thing. Well, that’s a subset of being an artist and trying to sell art being a weird thing. For most of my life I’ve maintained an emotionally safe distance from anything I was doing for money. Even things I cared deeply and passionately about, it was still a project that many people were working on or someone else’s art or music that I was trying to help sell. So something selling or not, or getting funding or not, or seeing widespread adoption or not was a reflection of a collective effort and not of me personally. I’m sure at some base level thats why I spent so much of my life denying that I was an artist because then I would have to take ownership and responsibility for that art. Even when everyone around me was saying “why are you being such an idiot, of course you are an artist” and I would say “No I’m not, I’m just a guy who makes some stuff which sometimes hangs on walls in art galleries and is bought by art collectors” because that gave me distance.
As most of you know a while back I gave up on that facade and admitted that fine, ok, I am an artist. I think many people on this list have actually bought some of my photos and I’m eternally grateful for that, as it’s those kinds of “voting with your dollars” which is encouraging and helpful in realizing “ok, maybe this thing that means a lot to me also holds value to others.” Anyway, that’s a tangent. I was talking about street photography. Back when I used to have an art gallery the whispered secret was that photography wasn’t “real art.” I didn’t feel that way and I think the number of photographers I showed demonstrates that, but when talking to other gallerists and even some collectors it would often get to “well anyone could do that” which is such utter bullshit, but it’s interesting to pick apart why people feel that way. There’s a skill in painting that everyone understands – can you paint a photorealistic portrait? No? But someone else can? Ah, ok that’s a skill. But get into something more abstract or street feeling and you start getting that “anyone could do this” argument from detractors. Talk to someone who “doesn’t get art” about Pollock or Basquiat and inevitably they will go there. The difference between could do it and did do it is hard for some people to understand. It gets worse with photography because everyone has a camera, and while most can understand that just because they own a paintbrush doesn’t make them a painter that same courtesy isn’t often extended to photographers. Especially with mobile phones and filters, the skill of photography is easily written off as “right place, right time” luck and not attributed to skill as it should be.
But I’m rambling again. Selling photography. When I had an art gallery and would show photographers, often people would come in and be taken aback and ask “oh, is this a photogallery?” which they differentiated from an art gallery. Because they didn’t see photography as art, they saw it as fantasy. Which is really one of the major selling points for photography. The best selling photography is landscape work, followed by celebrity portraiture and maybe a bit of historical documentary work. This is all driven by daydreams and fantasy. Which are good things, I’m not knocking them at all. If you think of buying art because you are going to hang it on your wall and look at it all the time, then you think about how it’s going to make you feel. Landscape work just begs for daydreams. You can stare at a good landscape photo and marvel at the beauty of the place and think about what it smells like or feels like to be there, you can hope to see it one day with your own eyes. It’s a launchpad for a million dreams. Especially if your normal life is boring or stressful, having an incredible landscape photo to look at is endless mental escapes. Because it’s real. Someone stood there and took the photo, so conceivably you could go there too. You can’t get that with a painting, where just by the very nature of the thing you are getting the artist’s interpretation. But a photograph, that’s real! Celebrity work is similar in that it’s an instant reminder of someone you might look up to, or aspire to be like. A really good portrait conveys some intimacy and you can feel like you know that person by looking at it better than you would just seeing them playing some character in a movie or playing in the big game. You can look into their eyes and and imagine what they are thinking about, or imagine they are looking back at you. Historical work reminds you of a time and place that isn’t there anymore, maybe nostalgia or fantasy about “the good old days” or even just a chance to marvel at how far we’ve come since then. These are all elements that drive people to purchase photography.
Street photography doesn’t benefit from any of that. It’s often gritty. The feelings and emotions it evokes are not things most people want to be reminded of. The subjects are most likely strangers, and if you can look into their eyes and imagine what they are thinking it’s frequently not something you want to experience first hand. It’s voyeurism, letting the viewer experience a reality that is foriegn from them – usually for a reason. It lets them see and feel what another part of the world lives. This can be entertaining but also gripping. This is why street photography books do well, because you can look at it and then put it away where you don’t have to look at it. There’s a beautiful ugliness in it. Not all the time, but often. I was talking about this on twitter and I noted that even with my own work, the work without people sells far better than the work with people – though I get many more comments about the work with people. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
I think NFTs actually have the potential to change that up a bit because they sit somewhere between something on your wall and a book you can put away. You can make a virtual gallery to see things big and on the wall, but you can also just leave them tucked away in your wallet and support artists you like without thinking about where to put the art in your home. This is going to continue to evolve especially as photography is only just now starting to find a following in the NFT collector world, but we’ll see. I still have some 1 of 1 editions listed on Foundation, Known Origin and MakersPlace and I also just made a lower priced edition of 20 on Rarible, and still have a very few of the first edition I minted back at the beginning of the year.