Wednesday, 15 June 2016

It’s Just a Photo

There is no doubt that digital cameras have put a lot of imaging power in the hands of the masses for very little money and in the main this has to be a good thing, for photography is now the great communicator and has developed an incredible array of new uses in the digital age.

We are however, as a result of the digital cameras penetration, awash with photographic images, and pretty much anyone can now at least take a correctly exposed image that is in focus. This was not always the case, in the film days most folk struggled to even get the exposure half right, only the latitude of film made things at least recoverable in many cases.

But there is a downside to this for those of us who rely upon the art of photography to make a living, whether it be photo artists, portrait shooters, industrial shooters or any other type of professional photographer. Fundamentally the value of good photos has been somewhat diluted. 

People may go to exhibitions and look at photographers’ work and then decide to go and try to recreate the same image with the gear they have because they believe that all that is needed, simply is a good camera. It is all understandable of course as the marketing of photographic gear is generally designed to convince folks that all they need is the latest and greatest equipment to get brilliant results and the idea of plagiarism seems to have got lost somewhere along the way.

There are two travesties being committed here, first the talented photographic artist is being denied due credit and probably potential income and secondly the camera user is being mislead to believe a lie.

Now please don’t think this article is a personal rant, it’s not, I make my living mainly from commissioned jobs and teaching photography, my art is what I do for me and if I sell some of it along the way that is a nice bonus.

I don’t want to dwell on the later issue but rather look at the former for the sake of photographers and artists who labour long and hard over many years to refine their skills and techniques to incredible levels only to be met with the ridiculous comments at their exhibitions such as “its just a photo (or its just paint) and that old chestnut “I could do that”.

Now for abstract paint artists this sort of statement rings with an amazing similarity, it is the same type of comments levelled at their work over the past decades by casual exhibition attendees.  Of course the number of gallery visitors who were likely to pop down to the local art supply shop and grab some gear then go home and attempt to whip up a DIY “Blue Poles “ was pretty small, but it didn’t stop them thinking they actually could do so. (By the way if you have never seen Blue Poles in the flesh at the AustralianNational Art gallery you really should, it is a fabulous piece of art)

The problem I think with photography is that the gear manufacturers have almost convinced the public that armed with minimal talent, very little skill and no hard work anyone can be their own “Ansel Adams”.  This is of course simply not realistic, but just in case you’re reading this and are wondering why, lets take the time to explore the concept. Along the way I hope budding photographers with serious intent can get some idea of what is required to actually mount an exhibition and maybe casual observers can get a truer perspective on why the work of photographic artists should be given due credit.

If you take a look at most of the photographic exhibitions that are mounted, you will no doubt find that outside those mounted as joint projects by TAFE colleges etc the great majority are by photographers who are often not exactly young.  The reason is simple, to develop real skill, technique and a large body of work takes a long time, but additionally most young photographers go through a long period of trying to emulate the work of others and only eventually reach a point of maturity after many years, a point where finally they can fly with their own creative wings.

The biggest assumption that is often made is that the images were simply snaps; the photographer just clicked and then had it printed, but for pretty much any serious image-maker that I know, this is totally incorrect.  Most photographic artists plan their images, they place themselves where they need to be for the capture, they test and re-shoot and really go out of their way to make the final capture, the pressing of the shutter release is just the most minor part of the process.

But once the capture is made the real work then starts, decisions are made such as how will this be presented, how big, colour or monochrome, what will it be printed on and much more.  It is never as simple as whipping down to the lab and asking for a bunch of 8 by 10’s.

Once basic decisions are made the editing begins, and it would not be unusual to find a darkroom print or digital file that is printed many times before satisfaction is achieved.  I take Ansel Adams view and liken digital files to musical scores, which can be played in many ways, often over several performances and long practice sessions are needed over a long period before the image is finally ready for prime time.

Even once the editing is finished the artist still tends to cull, in my case I have culled right up until 5 mins before I was ready to print the exhibition catalogue.

I had an interesting comment from someone at one of my exhibitions a few years back, basically he couldn’t see why he should pay just $200.00 or so for a mounted photographic print, it is after all just a photograph he said.  Now being polite I said very little, though I could feel my blood pressure rising.

Think about this, this guy was a “trades person” earns about $75.00 per hour, often cash and with many other little perks thrown on top for building materials that he charges out etc. So basically that print he was looking at, which he said he liked “a lot”, represented just under three hours of his work, but what you may ask did it represent to me as the artist?

Well let’s forget about 32 years of experience (at the time) and all the gear I own and all the failed images and experiments, lets just look at the cost of that one image.

Now I need to say up front, I am pretty efficient at this stuff, experience gives you that, so my costs are probably far less than a lot of other artists.

First it had to be shot, so that involved fuel and time, in this case probably an hours time and $20.00 of fuel.  But next it had to be loaded and pre-edited, so there is about 15 mins more.  Next the file had to be edited for real, which in this case took about 2 1/2 hrs, (these are not just straight images).  

Once edited the image had to be printed, which costs me about $10.00 in materials, then mounted, which is about another $10.00 and of course another 1/2 hour at least in labour.

So even just on this one print, disregarding skill, talent, experience etc the print cost me  @ $50.00 per hour (well I have to put some figure on it) about 4.5 hrs ($225.00) plus $20.00 in materials.  So basically that print owes me $245.00 and I am wanting $200.00, out of which comes the galleries 25% commission, the exhibition costs, the promotional costs and a few other things.  Yet this guy would have no problem charging me double that on even a small household repair job.  

I don’t mind if he doesn’t have the money to buy a work, of course many folk don’t, but what I do mind is folk trying to devalue ones art, when they even admit that they love it, simply on the basis it's “a photograph” or photographically derived and therefore not worth the marked price.

Of course the tables would be turned if I sold several copies of that one image and that is what one hopes for, but all the same I imagine you can see the frustration, the artist can go through.

Probably the most annoying statement is “I could do that”, my response (beneath my breath) is typically but “did you ever think of doing that?”.  You see the value of an artwork is not just the materials used to create it, the value is in the eye of its creator, the way they see the world and express it, the concept behind the work, the pathway trodden to get to that point.  When someone says “I could do that” they are really devaluing the whole artistic process, sure some folk might be able to “do that” but normally only after the artist has sweated the blood and tears of the creative process and hence shown them the pathway.  Surely an artist’s integrity and creative abilities are worth more than a simple derogatory statement.

Probably even more annoying for me at least was a fellow who pulled me up in a coffee shop and told me he went to one of my exhibitions and how great and inspiring it was to him, how impressed he was with the way it was put together and then he proceeded to tell me that he went out and copied one of the photos by taking the same subject etc, from the same angle.  He admitted it wasn’t as good as mine but he was pretty chuffed that he had created his own “Brad Nichol” without paying anything for it.  Of course he didn’t take into account the time, processing, printing, mounting etc.  Anyhow I smiled and congratulated him on his effort, I guess copying is the sincerest form of flattery! Doesn’t pay the exhibition bills though.

An interesting fact I have noticed many years ago is that photographers and artists in general are more likely to purchase the works of other artists than the general public. Perhaps it is because as artists they better appreciate the value of another’s work and see the need to support a creative community.  

Meanwhile I remain perplexed as to why people would go to a chain store and buy a print of a totally manufactured artwork created in a Chinese sweatshop and printed on cheap stock, without any run limit, then mounted in a dodgy frame, and not at all complain about the fact that they just paid more than they would have for a local or known artists’ work, that in all likelihood is probably superior in almost all respects.....weird eh.

Anyhow in the end photographers and artists do what they do because they are passionate about their art and appreciation for ones effort is often enough, so next time you go to an exhibition and you see something you like, take the time to inform the artist or leave a comment in the Gallery book.  

Even better if you can afford to buy a print or artwork, consider doing so because that way you will help keep your local arts community thriving.

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