A house is only worth what someone will pay for it. The owner may have a hope of what it will achieve, but the market will always decide the actual worth. This is true of whatever is bought and sold including photographic prints.
You may buy a house to live in or to add to your property portfolio, a print will either hang on your wall or live in the dark protected from the light existing as part of a collection, rarely seen, but much prized. Either way the value of that print will have been decided by its purchaser. Of course the seller can attempt to manipulate that value through a perceived sense of rarity by issuing special and limited editions, varying in size, paper stock and printing process. However, the purchaser will still decide the true value of such collections.
The iconic image can usually be relied upon to perform well when it comes to sales. An image that comes with a history and place within popular culture will always find an audience, but few of us have been fortunate enough to have created one of these let alone a portfolio of such images. Iconic images are in demand.
A friend of mine who is a photographer lives in a very large house, so large that he not only has room for a sumptuous and large office, he also has his own print room and enough wall space to display much of his collection featuring his own work and the work of others. I do not. My office is my shed and display opportunities in my house are limited. I therefore do not buy prints. He does. I think this is relevant for the photographer hoping to sell prints, not only must the purchaser agree on the value of an image, but also have enough space to keep and show them. This leads to an inevitable conclusion that repeat purchasers of prints are financially comfortable.
If you have ever visited Paris Photo or Photo London you will be well aware of the type of person I am referring to. Huge prints with vast price tags abound, promoted by sharp dressed men and women representing galleries from around the world. Galleries with contacts and databases filled with hedge fund managers, city boys and girls, company CEOs and those looking to decorate homes for others with funds, but no time. This is the photo art market at play, where impact is the key ingredient, size is important, and cost of little issue. The same could be said of the auction market, although the opportunity to beat market expectation in the open forum of bidding is clearer and more possible.
Archival prints are truly rare and for the collectors who wish to meet a desire to own something the now dead/aged photographer once printed, touched or signed; contemporary prints are more abundant varying in quality and/or life span. The gallery sales people are little more than photographic estate agents, the owners of the galleries recognised experts or sharp minded entrepreneurs, either way they are not the photographers who have created the work that is being sold. This is a marketplace and the selling of photographic prints exists here and in the direct to market option.
It is the direct to market option that you are mostly likely to engage with or be part of. Selling prints from your website is easy to set up and marketing those prints via your social media channels is not difficult. What is difficult is deciding on which images to sell and at what price point. The idea of populism can be an anathema to many photographers particularly those who wish to be perceived as artists.
Populism is popular and feeds off the wants of the populace. If you want to sell prints and not engage with this sense of audience then your sales expectations must be realistic, as must your pricing structure. Of course there are specialist collectors and specialist markets that are looking for the non-obvious, but those markets can be hard to find and engage with. I often see work for sale that is difficult to understand or boringly generic with high price tags attached to them, which is fine if there is little expectation or need for sales. However, I have to question if these are informed decisions or evidence of a lack of understanding of market and pricing.
As with all areas of retail and let’s not get confused at this point, selling prints is a commercial retail transaction. Market research, market trends, marketing and competition pricing analysis are all essential to a successful retail operation. Selling photographic prints is not a question of making prints of images you like, pulling a price out of the air and hoping someone will buy them. You might get lucky, but the chances are slim. I can suggest who buys photographic prints and why they do so, I can provide evidence of who pays what and where they make their purchases, but only you know where you sit in that environment and where you want to be. My suggestion is simple, make sure that you are honest with yourself before you add the role of dealer to your photographic practice.
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2022
Yes, I’ve come to realize what “success” for me personally as a photographer means – prints the “average” person wants to put up on their walls to enhance their homes/offices etc. Images they want to live with. So I’ve decided to go with a third party seller from my website that handles all that for me. It’s such a relief!
The most valuable prints I have are gifts from other’s and therefore will never be sold, in my time. Some of my favourite prints cost little more than a coffee …collected in junk shops. old fairs or eBay, their value is the enjoyment i get each day passing by them. I don’t collect prints anymore as I neither have the room nor, if being honest, the desire. I’ve witnessed too many selling what in effect is ordinary work under guise of it being from a ‘special edition’. Photographers, galleries and many of the foundations are as you say …estate agents in terms of prints. Limited Edition used to mean something where research and experience has highlighted often these days, the terms really means even less than little..