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Curious Frame - Issue #8 - What is the Worth of a Photo?

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #8 - What is the Worth of a Photo?
By Leanne Staples • Issue #8 • View online
I’d like to begin this issue by stating that I am not a highbrow academic. I am on a journey to understand both how photography influences our culture and also to grow my own creative practice in photography.

I am leery of those people with readymade theories about what it all means as if there was a gospel truth that we can all agree on. Okay, so I grew up questioning everything and especially questioning authority. So, I ask a lot of questions. Yes, I am curious.

Actually, it’s possible that I’ll never grow up if it means sitting back and feeling smug that I hold some kind of enlightened truth on what it all means. What fun would that be?

I would, if it’s ever possible to attain that position, quickly quit photography and move on to something that has a little more nuance and mystery to it. It is a marvelous journey both in the making of photography and thinking and writing about it.

Too much of the art and photography world requires a special language and understanding of its theories and concepts. Most of it is rubbish. An insular bubble is created that gives them authority and job security all while closing off the rest of the world. It is as it were, an old boys club.

It is my belief that art should for the most part be affordable and accessible. You shouldn’t need a university degree to have an understanding of it. If art makes you feel intimidated then maybe we should rethink what gets the label art. Yes, it is always in the eye of the beholder.

What is defined as art is always a personal choice. You don’t need to take someone else’s word for the truth. So even though I read and think quite a bit about this, I am not of the group that has pretensions of its own self-worth be it as an academic or as an artist.

I speak of art and photography in the same breath. They are interchangeable. For whatever unknown reason they are often spoken of as two different genres. It is possible that the art world still hasn’t gotten over the disruption that photography created for them. Apparently, more than one artist was known to have said to a photographer in the early days that they were just too lazy to go to art school!

So as a method of taking some of the seriousness out of the topic of what is the worth of a photo? I am sprinkling some witty remarks by Duane Michals (Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity On The Way To The Bank,) and his take on the art world snobs. I recommend this book!

This book and others are mentioned in my Curious Frame bibliography which is a work in progress of the books that I am reading or have read and provide information into my research on what photography means. That will be available for you in the very near future. You’ll be the first to know.

Readers comments:
Many subscribers commented on the previous issue #7 about The Thrill is Gone. I had really thought of the title as a question rather than a statement as such. It lead to some interesting dialogue. Thank you for reading and responding.
In response to your “The Thrill is Gone” suggestion, I agree that watching an image materialize in its liquid bath was more magical than checking the screen of a digital camera (and not incidental was the necessary wait and hopeful anticipation), but for me the thrill is still there. Still there’s the hyper-aware hunt, still there’s the lose-oneself-in-the-zone moments, and still there’s the belief that the reality you have captured is relevant (on any level) and unique. It doesn’t matter how many other people have the ability and means to record the scene —- what matters is that only you have your eyes.
And another reader commented
I think it’s safe to say, at least for me, that the thrill comes and goes. When it’s gone I am uninspired, unmotivated to go out and walk the streets and wonder why I do this anyway. Several things will get me out of this funk. Looking back on my previous work I am often left wondering when did I have the ability to do that. The answer of course is I did that and still can. Rinse and repeat until it sticks. Looking at the work of photographers that I admire and respect. Honestly, it’s why I use Instagram. Once you get beyond the crap, the art always rises to the top. Lately, I have discovered that having my own work printed really reaffirms for me what it takes to make a good photograph. I find myself thinking about this when I’m composing a shot.
These are obviously tricks that I use on myself, for others the milege may vary. It’s important to remember that photography is more than a hashtag.
And a third comment
Generally, I don’t believe the thrill is gone; it’s just crowded with other thrills, so feels flattened. It’s so easy to consume pics like chips and forget to slow down and savor.

Thank you so much for joining in on the dialogue. I love how the community is growing and becoming involved in a conversation. It is my mission to create a platform for exchanging our ideas on what photography means to us as individuals and as a society. And feel free to share the newsletter.

It’s very easy to join in on the dialogue. You only need to hit the reply button in your email. And if you’re wanting to catch up and read previous issues you can find them at the link below.
Curious Frame | Revue
Warhol's Last Supper, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 2018
Warhol's Last Supper, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 2018
What is the Worth of a Photo?
Never trust any photograph so large that it can only fit inside a museum. - Duane Michals
A physical photo that you can hold in your hands is worth more to most people than a digital photo. We possess a photo and it possesses us and our attention. Often our memories appear as photos and photos recall our memories. (Yes, that is a topic for another issue.)

It doesn’t necessarily matter what they are of when you can touch them and put them in a photo album, frame them or even store them in a shoe box. They might be photos of family, ancestors, souvenirs of happier times, nostalgia, travel photos, sentimental keepsakes. Regardless, they signify something that you cherish.

When people talk about losing everything they own to a natural or manmade disaster, they often comment that they are happy that they were able to save their photos. Or, they regret that they couldn’t save them. Most everything else can be replaced. The worth of a photo can far exceed the cost of it and the paper it’s printed on.
a snapshot of me, a million years ago.
a snapshot of me, a million years ago.
These kind of photos hit people on an emotional level. It’s possible that that is the only real value of a photo. That is a photo that you have an emotional attachment to. It may not have meaning to anyone else but you.

We can call these snapshots. It isn’t even important if they are perfect photos. Whatever that means. We have a tendency to see beyond the flaws when we look at snapshots. And yet there is something genuine about them. Reality is full of imperfections and that’s what provides character.

Garry Winogrand was a snapshooter. A snapshooter is a voyeur who loves the act of taking pictures but doesn’t necessarily care about the photographs. He left seven thousand rolls of undeveloped film. - Duane Michals

Then there are photos that are produced for artistic purposes. I fall into that category. But that is not the same thing as those photos that hide behind the word art but really exist only for making money and appealing to those looking for investments. These are entirely different.

Though I caution not to belittle snapshots here. Snapshots are what street photography is and that is how Daidō Moriyama describes his photography and how Duane Michals describes the photography of Garry Winogrand. Not exactly bad company to be in. 
Daidō Moriyama
Daidō Moriyama
All art that is recognized by learned authorities is priced in a manner that only thinks about what the market can bare. So as soon as the world’s most expensive photo sells its an invitation to compete to be the next highest priced photo sold.

Have you ever watched bidding on art pieces through the major auction houses? You can watch them online. It’s like a poker game with the spectators silently watching the bidding going on. They are smartly dressed in very fine threads and with a very proper demeanor.

And then the bidding goes beyond what anyone expected with some of the bidders somewhere in the world anonymously bidding over a telephone line until we get to the climax when the hammer hits the table and there’s a polite gasp from those watching the whole process. It’s like the long shot horse winning the race at the Kentucky Derby. Or the ultimate poker bluff.

It can be breathtaking. and of course it can also be an arranged publicity stunt like when Banksy’s art piece self-destructed when the hammer came down to the shock of everyone.
Rhein II, 1999, 190 cm × 360 cm (73 in × 143 in.) Andreas Gursky - sold for $4,338,500 at Christies in 2011.
Rhein II, 1999, 190 cm × 360 cm (73 in × 143 in.) Andreas Gursky - sold for $4,338,500 at Christies in 2011.
An eight-by-ten inch photograph by Robert Frank can be heroic. An eight-by-ten foot Gursky is just a brilliant billboard with pretensions. - Duane Michals

Are we even still surprised about the art world and the inflation of the dollar value placed on those things that are endowed with the name art? I’m not certain what makes this photo worth over $4 million dollars. It is at this moment in time, the most expensive photo sold that can be confirmed.

And yes, these photos may have some kind of emotional value to those who purchase them. But this is an arena when big money and art for the sake of investments enters the worth of a photo. What am I missing here? If I had a spare $4.4 million dollars I doubt that I would be tempted by this photo.

There’s a list of the most expensive photos ever sold on Wikipedia. Within it there are a few photographers whose names keep appearing in the list. And clearly some of them are certainly considered to be art. (What is art and how it’s decided is a topic for a future issue of the newsletter. 
Gilbert & George, To Her Majesty. #4 highest priced photo at $3,765,276 in 2008
Gilbert & George, To Her Majesty. #4 highest priced photo at $3,765,276 in 2008
Peter Lik isn’t one of them in the list as it can’t be substantiated. I do not like his photography. (And I won’t be adding any of his photos in the newsletter.) But more importantly I think that he is someone who is playing with the concept of the value of a photograph and people who have money are deceived by his scam. 

He has claimed that he sold the most expensive photo ever at $6.5 million US dollars in 2014. There is no proof of this transaction. People in the art world are skeptical. Perhaps it’s just another publicity stunt. At any rate, taste is in the eye of the beholder or perhaps more precisely in the size of your credit line and personal worth.

If a photograph is labeled a mere photograph it is only worth $3,000; if a photograph is labeled a conceptual piece, it fetches $300,000 - semantic sleight of hand. - Duane Michals 

Herbert Bayer 'Lonely Metropolitan' 1932. Courtesy The Sir Elton John Photography Collection
Herbert Bayer 'Lonely Metropolitan' 1932. Courtesy The Sir Elton John Photography Collection
Not to be entirely cynical about people spending oodles of money on art, there is Sir Elton John to the rescue. He has an incredible collection of photography that spans the history of photography And he adores the images as well as the history and stories behind them.

The Elton John Collection has shown in museums around the world including Tate Modern in London. He admits early on in a video about his collection (see link below for further viewing) that he only discovered photography in later years in his life and loves photography.

Which brings me to the topic of how do you price your own photography? I’ve sold a number of photos and it’s never easy to come to a decision about what to charge for a photo. Photos always have the ability of being reproduced. They are prints rather than one-of-a-kind originals.
Future Fashion #14, photomontage, January 2020. A photomontage is an original though it doesn't discount the possibility of reproductions.
Future Fashion #14, photomontage, January 2020. A photomontage is an original though it doesn't discount the possibility of reproductions.
You can of course sell limited editions and Peter Lik’s limited editions are of 999 prints. Each photo sold becomes progressively more expensive. No one in the art world takes a limited edition of 999 seriously. And without an independent system to verify how many prints have actually sold it’s a moot point.

So we are back at the question, what is the worth of a photo? If you have an emotional attachment to a photo, it’s priceless. There isn’t a true dollar number that can be assigned to it. Add to that that in the digital age most photos never get printed AND most people never buy photos!
On Madison Avenue, New York City, November 2020
On Madison Avenue, New York City, November 2020
There’s an entire generation that thinks that music, photography and entertainment in general should be free. On a side note, on more than one occasion while out shooting street photography a person will tell me that I have to pay them to take their photo. I ask them when the last time was that they bought a photo? That pretty much ends the conversation because they don’t buy photos.

While the internet has made it possible to have your work seen and to see the work of others that you might not have seen otherwise, there is perhaps a contradiction. The more access that we have to see millions of photos, the less value that is attributed to the photos by people that don’t have a big name.
Be Loved, New York City, September 2017
Be Loved, New York City, September 2017
At the same time we can confuse the idea that there are those photographers with tens of thousands of followers and nearly as many likes and we are supposed to believe that there is something special about their photos as a result. Does this make their photos worth more??? I think not.

In the history of the world, including art and photography, there are those who gain a reputation and yet there will always be the hidden gems out there whose work is outstanding and perhaps they aren’t even on social media or at least they don’t make a point of becoming part of all that world of vying for attention.

Some of my favorite photography is nowhere to be found on the internet. I like to go the Strand Bookstore and shop the cheap bins of art books. I have found so many $5 books of amazing photographers and artists. I think, $5??? How could that be? Is that fair?

So while there isn’t a truly good method of determining the worth of a photo for everyone, you can always make that decision which photos you value the most. There will never be a universal method of calculating that and that is a good thing. That would be at best a method of homogenization.

As for how you determine how to price your photos, that’s a bit trickier. I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. But I would say that I’ve shifted towards selling photo zines, original art prints and mail art. These are formats that people can appreciate without trying to find wall space or spend large sums of money.

As always, I look forward to your opinions and continuing the dialogue.
Photography Is - Part Two
White Shoes, New York City, December 2019
White Shoes, New York City, December 2019
So I don’t know what a photo will be beforehand.
It is always subjective.
I choose to shoot some things.
And not others.
Even after pressing the shutter,
I don’t really know what I have.
Further viewing
Here’s a link to a page about an exhibit of Elton John’s photography collection that was at Tate Modern in London and a video of his live-in gallery collection of those photos that he has acquired over the years.
Indie shopping
If you are interested in affordable indie art for your holiday shopping, here are a few ideas and they ship internationally. In the That Other Space shop, I have 3 series of mail art and in my shop, I have 2 mini art packages as well.
That Other Space Shop – Art, Etcetera
Shop for Art, Zines & Publications - Leanne Staples
You can also find me at:
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
Did you enjoy this issue?
Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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