When looking back on my photographs, even as “recently” far as 2019, I feel an abstraction in what my role in these images ought to be. In the moment of pressing the shutter, I feel I am the photographer, I have taken this picture. Developing and holding the negative, seeing the result for the first time usually within a few weeks or months, and I am in that same place, I am the eye and mind which has either done justice to or let down a scene. I have made something.
However, even within the space of a few years, we change — hopefully, we improve — and in photography, that means our tastes and skill level move in whatever direction we encourage and nurture them towards.
In many ways, I am not the same person as I was even just two years ago, which means I am not presently the person who made that work
As a result of this change I find myself looking at previous work without that fresh feeling of “I made this” and instead feel more in line with a custodian. In many ways, I am not the same person as I was even just two years ago, which means I am not presently the person who made that work. If you asked me to approach the same situation as the photographer I am today it is deeply unlikely that I would produce the same thing, even if it was my goal to imitate, using that work as a template.
Instead of pride and motivation from these images, I feel responsibility. My archive is now a resource and a foundation, one which I can view objectively as my creative ego is detached from its creation. The personal value of that work is expired to me, my responsibility now is to make sure that it lives its best life in print, with an audience who resonate with some aspect of the content or aesthetic.
Social media has robbed many of the opportunity to experience work in the way the artist intended, simply due to the “convenience” of being able to access jpgs in fast-food style, bite-sized pieces. If I am to take the role of custodian, curator, and showman of my work then I must do it in a way that maintains the integrity of my vision. This means depriving many who are after that quick fix, but truly rewarding those who are willing to seek out the value I am doing my best to offer.
If you asked me to approach the same situation as the photographer I am today it is deeply unlikely that I would produce the same thing, even if it was my goal to imitate, using that work as a template.
Value and worth are deeply subjective, so in order to convince people that I am in fact offering something worthwhile, I must first invite them to the allure of print-based media in the first place. Presenting the value proposition of a print, zine, or book involves salesmanship on the idea that it’s even valuable to possess physically as opposed to observing digitally.
I have to sell not just the printed artifact but the idea that page, ink, resin, chemicals represent something valuable to me, to a customer, and to someone a customer may want to eventually resell to. It needs to become a literal object of desire. It’s not a fundamental necessity, it’s a fine art piece.
Some avoid this entirely, not wanting to seem like they are “selling out” and while that’s a perception I empathise with, ultimately I need to sell something — and to do that on my own terms is the best possible way to maintain my integrity. Limited work, experienced on-page not on-screen, not diluted by social media. If you think photography has value — some in time, some in cultural impact, some in literal financial investment — why offer it for free?
Zines and books at least have value in the narrative if well-executed, and books are a more common and justifiable purchase for most people than a single sheet, containing only one idea. The standalone prints I decide to make are rooted in this balance – storytelling content and aesthetic.
While multiple pages can rely less on aesthetic a frame, wall, or collection piece does tend to need that visual weight.
This still doesn’t bring us to the actual financial value that is assigned to such an artifact. The best starting point from this is in the tangible cost basis, which I will outline for my most common darkroom product — 8×10 Ilford RC Pearl Paper prints. I like 8×10 for its wide appeal; 11×14 is popular with collectors and 9.5×12 is good when I feel an image needs either a little more room to breathe, or needs that extra real estate to really hit home with details and scale.
I never print glossy, Satin is preferred and Pearl has a nice texture. I like my images to have texture and richness and depth, but not to glare light – I want the experience to be as far from a screen as possible, not producing light but reflecting it. Fibre-based papers are lovely, but logistically not something I would use for anything other than a specific, exclusive commission.
I have to sell not just the printed artifact but the idea that page, ink, resin, chemicals represent something valuable to me, to a customer, and to someone a customer may want to eventually resell to.
This all starts us off at maybe (currently) £55-60 for a box of 100 sheets of ILFORD 8×10 RC Pearl. 100 sheets are 100 chances for failure, or 100 chances of success. 10 editions of 10 perfect runs would exhaust this entire stock, but accounting for test strips, general stupidity, and dissatisfaction, let’s be generous and call it 30 wasted sheets, leaving us at 7 runs of 10, 70 perfect prints overall.
Let’s say that this takes me two darkroom sessions to produce, which at BW Basement who I am very happy with will cost £120 total. Two darkroom sessions are 16 hours of work, and (very ungenerously) at just over minimum wage I would be valuing this time at £144.
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So far we are at material, plus darkroom rental, plus time working in the darkroom, which brings us to £324. Now for perhaps the most intangible aspect of this cost basis — the value I need to assign to the physical labour that goes into exposing negatives that have any semblance of meaning to me; the photography itself. The simplest way to do this is to use the NUJ Freelance rate as my starting point, which is what I use to charge my clients — no photographer should work for less than £300 per day (linked source accurate as of August 2021).
We are looking at a run of 7 negatives, in editions of 10, and we can work with the broad and somewhat unfair assumption that each frame represents one day’s work. Of course, some of my frames represent weeks and months of investment, while others are fortuitous moments caught in an instant surprising even myself. For now, we’ll keep it simple by using the day rate as above.
£300 per negative works out at £2,100, plus the tangible £324, leaves us at an absolute minimum “value” of that final piece of resin-coated paper: £34.60 (£2,424/70). This is the absolute even-even price for one of my darkroom prints based on the above calculations, and selling one for any less than this would be giving them away, which I would rather do than devalue the process entirely.
Of course, some of my frames represent weeks and months of investment, while others are fortuitous moments caught in an instant surprising even myself.
This is a very optimistic calculation that accounts for being able to produce 7 perfect runs – for some this may be easily attainable or even an underestimation, for others they may have a greater failure rate which would bump up the cost average. Also, remember that this is all for RC regular prints – for FB, or once you start toning with other chemistry, you are looking at an even greater base expense, from material and labour costs.
Selling 70 prints at £34.60 may not seem too difficult, but in terms of running a business, it would not be one that survives very long. Keep in mind that this is still only the break-even price for an individual print — in order to break even across this print run I need to make that one sale seventy times over. How much more than this I choose to charge depends on the content of the frame, and on what I need to value it at not only to break even on the cost of the image itself, but in order to profit to the amount that I am able to subsidise the costs of the rest of my existence and continue to fund my ongoing projects – rent, food, and film are my primary outgoings, in that order.
Spending money with individual practitioners, whether that’s a darkroom printing photographer, potterer, fine art printmaker, painter, illustrator, tattoo artist, or piercer — that money is directly funding their ability to contribute to that practice. It isn’t going into a hedge fund or corporation, it is food, and rent: blue-collar art practice.
Selling 70 prints at £34.60 may not seem too difficult, but in terms of running a business, it would not be one that survives very long. Keep in mind that this is still only the break-even price for an individual print…
For some, this alone is reason enough to justify the value in supporting this work by owning the result. This investment is in culture, contributing directly towards ideas they want to see more of, propagating further visual storytelling efforts in the case of my own practice.
For the rest, I am left with the task to convince them that my prints are not only worth the break-even price, but instead represent something containing an intrinsic value, which will hopefully increase over time. In these cases, it can be less about the individual work resonating in some personal way, but in their belief in the worth of something “original”. Demonstrating the physical labour that goes into producing a darkroom print is as simple as offering BTS (Behind The Scenes) insights, which I try and do as often as I can remember; I’ve even made some short films showcasing those I share my space with.
The photos and video “walkthroughs” I make of my prints are very clearly not the definitive article, instead they hint at it, and represent it. Scans are more ambiguous, closer to a digital photograph — it is as ephemeral, and as far as the viewer knows it is the photograph when they see it on the screen — a depiction of what is clearly its own physical print ensures that the viewer knows there is more to it, what they’re seeing currently isn’t it.
…I am left with the task to convince them that my prints are not only worth the break-even price, but instead represent something containing an intrinsic value, which will hopefully increase over time.
The final hurdle I reach is the paradox found in not wanting to give away the image, as I want that first impression and impact to be from the print, however, I must reveal what it is I’m actually selling, otherwise there’s no chance for any kind of pre-impact so that the allure of the product is there for people to actually buy it. Sort of like not giving away the best moments of a film in its trailer, the photograph is both the product and its own advertisement. My solution has been those above-mentioned showcases of the print as a physical artifact, looking at details in the wider frame, or panning around it before revealing the thing itself.
Photography as a product rather than a service is where I feel film photography naturally leads, and has been my main focus over the last couple of years; still building up an archive of prints, but driven and motivated by that ultimate intention. All of the thought process above has been part of my considerations, and incorporated into my business plan — I thought it would be useful to write it all out in a space where newcomers looking to work in a similar direction may find it helpful.
If you’d like to see what I currently have in terms of darkroom prints and publications you can find them all listed here, and my collaborations with New Exit Group here. You can follow my Instagram here.
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I’d be happy is I sold any of my work at any price I’ve set. But what ends up happening, My work has been used by other photographers as a means to keep them creative and then they end up selling their work based on my ideas.
Hey Simon – nice piece and it’s something that visual artists in all fields deal with. I think what it comes down to is, “This is not sustainable as a business, because I can’t sell x prints a year for $x.” And if one were making decisions purely on that basis it would be a case of. “OK – forget this and sell real estate instead.”
But of course that’s not how it works because we love doing this, it defines who we are, and doing something we did not consider worthwhile purely for money would make life grim.
So it becomes a case of “OK – I’m going to do this; how can I make it work?” Which is another model. I guess traditionally people might have sought opportunities to increase the market value of their fine art and commercial work through the prestige of awards and recognition, which is a very uncertain path.
What I did was use my art practice to add value and profitability to my consultancy business through prestige and tax advantages. (I’m only analysing this now that I’ve retired from consultancy and moved to art full time BTW and now have time to think about these things)
So your photographic fine art practice might add value to your work as a teacher or commercial photographer I guess, which sounds a bit mercenary but there it is.
And the question of sale of prints or other works is interesting; I guess we need to in some ways follow, and in other ways lead our patrons into various areas.
Personally I’ve taken to buying zines and artist books as a way of supporting artists. I love the beauty and craft of a hand made book! (And you don’t need wall space)
All the best with your work.
Such a good read and one we often overlook – I think Photographers these days in either work space do not value their work highly enough – yes some are dire by comparison but the effort that goes into a project is huge if the photographer is committed – thank-you for posting