How do you make a living out of photography? Declining budgets in editorial and stock have seen many image-makers heading for fine art, selling editioned prints in a bid to recoup their costs and, hopefully, make a healthy profit. But it’s a market still dominated by the galleries, which bring the photographer kudos, collectors and advice, in exchange for a roughly 50 percent cut of the sales.
“Artists need guidance and support to promote their work,” says Isabella Brancolini, who co-founded Brancolini Grimaldi Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Rome and London. “An artist who is serious about their career needs to refer to a professional to help promote and market their work. There are good artists out there who don’t have the chance to fully present their work because it is a long process for a gallery to commit. I encourage artists to show their work and get visibility. But this is simply not the artist’s job; they should be able to spend time to conceive their work.”
“One of the first questions I am asked when I give a talk at a college is, ‘How do I get a gallery to look at my work?’” says Sean O’Hagan, photography critic at The Guardian. “If your ambition is to be an artist, a gallery is still integral to that journey. The role of the gallery – and specifically the curator – is so hugely important that we hardly question whether it is healthy or not.
“But who decides?” he continues. “What are the criteria – commercial, cultural and artistic? That’s a big question that the so-called democratisation of the digital age has yet to impact on.”
As O’Hagan points out, digital culture seems poised to chip at this long-established model, just as services like Spotify, YouTube and IMDb’s Starmeter have done in comparable markets – music, video and film. It’s almost a cliché to talk of the impact of online image-sharing, but the figures are worth repeating; of the more than 900 billion photographs taken last year, more than 200,000 were shared on Facebook every minute, while Instagram has now surpassed Twitter with more than 300 million active accounts.
For Mishka Henner, the Deutsche Börse-nominated artist who has self-published photobooks of images sourced from Google Earth and Street View, it’s a market ripe for exploitation. “If I were a young artist starting from scratch, I would set up a virtual gallery that looked and sounded exactly like an established gallery,” he laughs. “It would be a pure fiction, but it would play the game brilliantly. The art world is a game of smoke and mirrors, really, and there’s nothing stopping anyone from playing it.”
Henner has been playing the game for more than 10 years and is now represented by a gallery in New York, which helps to support him financially. But he says he still has to be proactive and advises others to do the same. “I see photographers walking round fairs with work that’s five years old, and they’re still hoping for a publisher or gallery,” he says. “I think, ‘What are you doing? Just do it yourself.’ Good artists don’t wait around.”
Now Shoreditch-based company The Print Space has pitched in with a way to help them do so – The Hub, a cloud-based service that allows image-makers to sell prints through their own websites via a bespoke link to its printing services. The Print Space fulfills the orders, including framing and delivery, taking a fixed cut of the sale price determined by the artist. And while this in itself is nothing new, it’s fair to say The Print Space has refined online print sales, with the technology offering a versatile, elegant and simple method of enabling transactions directly. It’s pitched as the 2.0 alternative to galleries – ‘The YouTube of photography’ – says its marketing.
It’s the brainchild of managing director Stuart Waplington, who says it’s motivated by his “frustration that more photography artists don’t get the recognition they deserve”. It’s also backed up by research, which looked at the power of online sharing – of the 1350 photographers he surveyed, Waplington found that only one in three was selling prints online, yet two out of three were posting new work online every week. Nine out of 10 wanted to sell their prints but thought it would be too time-consuming and too complicated to do it themselves. The Hub aims to plug that gap, giving photographers a secure way to store, order and sell work. And if it takes off, he plans to open more labs across the world.
And it seems to be working, getting an overwhelmingly positive response from photographers during its Beta phase. Dougie Wallace, the Glaswegian photographer behind the hit – and eminently clickable – projects Shoreditch Wild Life, Road Wallah and Stags, Hens & Bunnies, A Blackpool Story, is currently a top seller; he describes The Hub as “a great development”.
Others seem harder to convince, even those who use The Print Space, which established a new way of doing things back in 2008 by allowing photographers to print their own digital C types in a pro-lab for an affordable price. “I adore The Print Space and use it regularly, but I don’t agree with The Hub,” says Laura Pannack, a young photographer with awards from World Press Photo and the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize under her belt. “I think it devalues the idea of a print being precious, a piece of art. Photographic prints should be an indulgence, just as a painting would be. It has taken money, time, patience, effort and tenacity to create that print – and I think that should be rewarded.”
With more than 10,000 followers online, Pannack is far from a digital dinosaur, but she chooses to hand print her work, both personally and via the Artful Dodgers Imaging studio. “I think it adds value to the idea of owning a unique physical object,” she says. “When buyers invest in your work, it helps with the self-doubt we all feel. If prices are always low, there is little thought or sacrifice. It’s not that I value my own work at a high price; I value photographs at a high price, because they are art.”
For O’Hagan, meanwhile, the missing element is the support a gallery brings, particularly the kudos and seal of approval. “It’s still important for a photographer’s credibility to have gallery representation,” he says. “And for them to build a relationship with a gallery as they grow as an artist. Would an online hub do that?”
But Michael Hoppen, the eponymous owner of the prestigious Chelsea Gallery in London, is more sanguine. He’s in the process of relaunching his gallery’s website and will be including a new online sales portal, he says, because to him the medium is not the priority. What matters most is the talent, he says – both the talent of the image-maker and the talent of whoever handles his or her market.
“Quality work attracts quality buyers who are prepared to invest in someone,” he says. “True photography – whether it is seen on the wall or on the web, in print, book form or limited-edition digital licences – will always find an audience and, more often than not, a client. How you control that output, assuming the artist can maintain a quality over a long period of time, is an art in itself. Good galleries are good at that.”
And if The Hub can’t offer everything that a handcrafted print or a traditional gallery can, perhaps that’s because it’s not meant to. It is, as Waplington points out, just another possible route, “another way for photographers to make a living out of their work, spend more time on their work and control their destiny a bit more”. And in that, says Francis Hodgson, photography critic at the Financial Times and professor in the culture of photography at the University of Brighton, it couldn’t be more traditional.
“Photography remains a set of interlinked cottage industries, with no large monolithic control over the creation or distribution of imagery,” he says. “No camera company, no film company, no newspaper, no auction house, no gallery has anything like the control in photography that companies like Random House or Sony or even the Royal Opera House have in their own fields. That means photographers are constantly seeing new business models, supposedly well-suited to slotting into the interstices of the old ones. Some certainly work, others don’t. But you know what? They don’t seem to displace the old ones; they merely add another possible way of doing business.”
Visit The Hub for more information about how to use the technology.
This article can be found in our April 2015 edition of BJP, available to order as a back issue from The BJP shop.