Or for that matter how much is any piece of art worth. For this essay I’ll stick to photographs – because that’s what I do.
There was a rather well know photographer named Ansel Adams – perhaps you’ve heard of him. He mainly worked with large format cameras using black and white film to photograph landscapes. He spent many hours in the darkroom perfecting his prints. He’s been dead since 1984 but his heirs carry on running his original gallery. They offer reprints and posters of his work. They also buy and sell original Ansel Adams prints. The original prints go for $8,000 to $50,000. Their web site says, “Price is determined by a host of factors, including desirability or demand, scarcity, size, condition, provenance, and connoisseurship. We recommend perusing our section on Collecting Photography for a detailed explanation.”
Nathan Farb is a more contemporary landscape photographer. Nathan also works with a large format camera – but used color film. An unframed, unmatted 11 by 14 inch ultrachrome print starts at $475. For Cibachrome prints he says, “Please contact me for pricing information.” He sells posters starting at $100.
Carl Heilman is also a landscape photographer. Carl started out working with 35mm film camera and now does a lot of work with digital cameras. He has “Archival Quality Inkjet Prints” – a 12 by 18 inch print starts at $190. Framing and matting adds $225. Shipping depends on size and where it’s being shipped. Carl also has posters which start at $95 for an 18 by 24 inch poster. If you want Carl to frame and matt that poster – it’s the same add on as framing and matting the archival quality inkjet print.
If I put equal sized prints from all three side by side – well Ansels would stand out as they are black and white – but the uninformed viewer would be hard put to see substantial differences in quality. So what makes for the difference in price? In a word “Reputation.”
Well, I certainly am not so vain as to think that my work is in league with any of these fellows. They’ve each spent a lifetime working solely at photography while I worked at an office job to support my family and dabbled in photography. I have worked hard to improve the quality of my work. I have studied the work of the giants to learn what and how it works. I have spent not an inconsiderable amount on material and equipment to produce images that others may enjoy and that will last more than a few months hanging on your wall.
So, lacking an established reputation to drive my prices, how do I determine what is a fair price for my work.
Let’s take a trio of images I recently displayed at a juried art show. They were all captured during a weeklong trip to Acadia National Park. I was there to attend a photo workshop conducted by Carl Heilman. During that workshop we usually met in the parking lot some time before 4am so we could drive to a good location to capture sunrise shots. We returned to the college we were using as a base of operations for breakfast and classroom work until lunch. After lunch we were on our own until dinner. We dined together and then headed out for field work until a good hour after dark. By the time we got back to our rooms it was after 10pm. I quickly downloaded the days shooting to my computer so that I could have something for the next day’s critique session in the classroom. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for sleeping. I only point this out to say the trip wasn’t a “lay on the beach and take a few chance photos” vacation. It was work! I selected three images to enter and paid my $15 jury fee. I was lucky and all three images were selected for the show. I didn’t print them in advance as there was no guarantee that they would be selected. Once selected I made 12 by 18 inch prints on my archival quality inkjet printer. The paper they were printed on goes for $2 a sheet. The metal pigmented ink that the printer uses is $16 per cartridge and the printer has 8 cartridges. It’s difficult to exactly calculate the cost of ink as the amount of each color used varies from image to image. On average I estimate I use about $8 of ink per print. A sheet of 24 by 36 inch matt board from Michaels was $7.99. Half of the board was used as a backing and half for the surface matt. I found 18 by 24 inch frames at Michaels for $39.99 each. Luckily they were on sale – on a buy one get one free basis. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I unwrapped the frames to use them that I discovered that instead of glass they used Plexiglas in the frames. I printed the images. One had to be reprinted due to a printer hiccup during printing (there’s $10 in the trash can). I cut the mats and used 3M spray photo mount glue to attach the prints to their backing boards. I attached “D rings” and a hanging wire to the back as required by the show organizers. It was a full day’s worth of work to do the printing and framing.
When I had submitted my entry forms for the show I said the price for each was $150. Once framed and ready to hang I was willing to drop that price because of the use of Plexiglas in the frames. I got quite a few compliments on the work and one person that was very interested in one work – until he asked the price. Then it was, “Well, I have to talk to my wife.”
You could argue that the laws of supply and demand should set the price and that his walking away was an indication that there is insufficient demand for art priced at $150 in my local market. That may be true and I have little argument to counter that except – suppose I gave the gentleman a high resolution color corrected image file. If he wants the image to hang this on his wall – to be reminded of a moment of pleasure in a beautiful location, or to be inspired by natural beauty, or just to set a tone for a room where he might entertain guests. Well then he is not going to take the file to Walmart and get a cheap print that may not hold up or even be accurately printed. If he takes it to a professional photo printing business, say McGreevy Prolab in Albany. They offer what they call Giclée Prints – which is just a fancy French word for high-end inkjet prints and is the closest to what I print at home. The price for this type of print is charged by the square inch. A one off 12 by 18 inch print is $39.88. With print in hand he could drive over to Michaels and visit their custom framing shop. It will be around $400 for the cheapest frame and matt available. Suddenly my original $150 is starting to seem quite reasonable. The fact that both of these businesses exist and appear to be healthy in my local market also calls into question the assertion that there is insufficient demand. It would seem then that at the low end of the art market, there is a lack of understanding of the cost of producing the works of art. You’ll notice that I have not factored in the cost of equipment and software. To do so would require trying to figure out what a reasonable life expectancy for those tools is and how much of the tool life is used for purely personal images. I have also not tried to include my own labor. Some images do not consume much in the way of time – other images only come to life with hours of computer time spent on refining. Some images are quickly captured in the field. One image of a Heron capturing and eating a fish required my standing and staring through my view finder for nearly an hour as the bird waded in the shallows of a pond fishing. What is the time of a trained photographer worth – minimum wage, $30 per hour, $100 per hour, more?
I started by asking, “How much is that photograph worth?” Worth being a key word in the question. The discussion lead to a description of “cost.” So let’s talk for a moment about value versus cost. Truly, value is driven by market forces. Ansel Adams’ original works fetch between $8,000 and $50,000 not because of the cost of production but because of the value placed on them by upscale patrons of the arts. There are enough wealthy people desiring Ansel Adams works to inflate the price well above the cost. Nathan Farb also has enough of a following to support fair prices – more than likely prices that earn him enough to live comfortably, but that’s a question you’d have to ask him. There are no wealthy patrons seeking out works by Dave Koschnick – so my prices are driven mostly by material costs. If I sold that one image for $150 at the show, I would have gone home with the other two in hopes that I might sell them at another time. But in the short term would have not quite covered what was laid out to be in the show. Fellow artists tell me I sell too cheaply. That when I set my prices low I attract only customers who do not appreciate the value of my art. On the other side, I ask myself – if I can’t sell it for $150 in this market what makes me think I can suddenly sell it for the $250 they suggest.
In a final bit or irony, a few years back a co-worker saw a print that she loved and wanted to buy for her husband as an anniversary present. As it was printed at a size that didn’t fit over the counter mats and frames I ended up cutting a mat and framing it for her. She was a friend and I just charged the $75 I put into the project. When her husband opened the gift, the conservation went something like this:
“You spent too much.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did.”
“It wasn’t that much”
“I know what Nathan Farb goes for.”
I’m flattered that he mistook a Dave Koschnick for a Nathan Farb – but it doesn’t get me any closer to selling art at a fair price.