Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Buying In

As well as buying more photo-books than most people would probably consider sane, last year I also bought some limited-run bookworks and other pieces from photographer Raymond Meeks. This was mainly, obviously, because I like his work. I confess it is also because I have a shrewd idea his reputation is destined to rise much higher in the long term, and his unique, hand-made books are -- for now -- relatively affordable. More magnanimously, you could say I'm doing my small bit to support him and encourage him to keep on going. As his stock rises, I may switch my photo-tithe to someone else more in need of it, who knows?

But this unnecessary expenditure is not so much an investment as the price of entry into a game in which I want to be a player. In crude terms, I don't see why I should expect anyone to buy my work, if I never buy anything myself. It's a curious thing, but buying other people's work, whether as original prints or in book form, does not seem to come naturally to many self-styled "artists", not least photographers. Sometimes this seems to be due to a cult of amateurism reminiscent of the old "gentlemen and players" distinction in sport, and sometimes to an emphasis on process ("My art is what I do, not what I produce").

I have no problem with either attitude, but an unwillingness to buy in often goes along with a narrowness of perspective. I'm always coming across photographers offering pictures for sale whose work is not just derivative, but derivative of the same few, frequently-imitated models. It seems that their exposure to contemporary photography (and their ambition) is limited to the glossy images shown in Amateur Photographer, British Journal of Photography, and the like.

I saw a craft-market stall just this week where a hopeful guy was peddling his wares. They were merely the "same old same old" you see in every little gallery and in the racks of holiday-town art shops: romantic landscapes in flattering light and photogenic weather conditions, rendered slightly hyper-real with graduated filters and some tepid post-processing, printed on watercolour paper and signed with a flourish. The sort of thing that ends up on the greetings cards that are sent to me on my birthday because I'm "into" photography. "It's what people want", he claimed, but I didn't see any evidence of a queue, and I certainly wasn't buying any.

Probably the most important thing I had to offer to the Arena Group last Sunday was this, my Declaration of Independence, important because it is true whether you like my work or not:
Most of my work is done in my lunch-hour, or at weekends, repeatedly visiting the same few local sites. I'm not a professional photographer or artist i.e. I don't earn a living that way. Most people work like this: even professionals have to squeeze time for "personal" work which won't pay any bills.

On balance, I think of this as a Good Thing. It's like writing poetry: if you're after fame and fortune, you're in the wrong game. You do it for its own sake, and the appreciation of a small, dedicated, statistically insignificant audience, most of whom will be practitioners themselves.

Even fame within such a small circle is effective invisibility -- Martin Parr is about as well known to the wider world as Paul Muldoon. But invisibility does have benefits: you're free from the expectations of paying audiences -- so there's no excuse for your work not to be As Serious As Your Life (or Daft As A Brush, if that's what you prefer).
I have already gone on about this, two years ago in the post Free As A Brush. It would be easy to misinterpret my words as not so much as a Declaration of Independence, as an airy dismissal of any grubby urge to buy and sell one's work. That would be dead wrong. My point is that -- with extremely rare exceptions -- no-one can make a living from art. So you might as well make a virtue of this and do what you really want, rather than try to second-guess the taste of a mythical buying public. We are our own audience, and we owe it to each other to buy in, whenever possible.

To return to Raymond Meeks, though. Ray is a great example of a category of artist that blogging professional photographer Kirk Tuck identified in a recent post, talking about the way professionals are facing a time of massive change, when the same old same old simply won't earn them a living any more:
The pathways to profit have changed and now we need to act like pioneers instead of map readers. It will take re-invention and exploration to find new ways to keep doing what you love. Ask any working professional in the arts if he or she is still doing it the way they did it ten or even five years ago and I'm sure you'll quickly find that the successful ones have learned to tack into the headwind and keep moving forward. They might be adding stuff they never thought they'd do before but that's part of the deal.

And the ones who are still doing their art exactly the way they did it ten or twenty years ago fall into two camps: 1. People who support themselves outside the construct of the working artist. Or, 2. Those whose work is so individual and so beautiful that it falls outside the run of the mill and is coveted by clients. Regardless of how anachronistic the delivery or approach. What a great spot to be in!

Kirk Tuck, The Visual Science Lab blog, 30/12/2011
That's Raymond Meeks, right there in category 2. What a great spot to be in, indeed.


LRD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

Good posts, Mike.

Personally, I think "creative originality" is an overvalued currency, leading to some of the excesses of "The Cult of Genius".

You have a distinctive style, about the ordinary, subtlety portrayed; I'm responsive because my own work is often about the everyday.

I do understand the distinction of "hobbyist" and shall we say "serious artist", but as a serious artist, in a variety of mediums: paint, sculpture, pen and ink, even some photos, and frames, I think you credit the "pro" too much; sometimes "creative originality" is just a substitute for a mature style. Only one of my mediums sells. 8-)


Mike C. said...


Hard to overvalue the Real Thing, I think, when it comes to "creative originality" -- but easy to overvalue the various substitutes, I agree.

Not sure what you mean when you say I "credit the 'pro' too much" -- I'd have thought that was the opposite of what I was doing (for example, I don't rate Kirk Tuck's own photography at all). I think I'm saying that anyone who doesn't need to make a living from their camera should stop behaving like a "pro", and please him or herself first.

I have nothing against hobbyists -- that is, after all, what I am. The important thing is our choice of models and the seriousness of our aspirations.


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...


I think I was using "pro" in the sense of someone who makes his living from their art, and that they might have more "creativity".

Yes, we do need to please ourselves, and definitions are often hard; hobbyist indicates to me someone who does "art", but could just as easily have taken up model trains. I don't think you fit that, though in another sense unless we are a highly paid member of the "cult" we're all hobbyists.

Mike C. said...


Exactly so, and I think it does us all good to recognise that. I couldn't pay the phone bill on what I earn from photo sales... (mind, we do have a HUGE phone bill).

Like the new double-barrelled name, btw...


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...


A colleague recently published a book that takes place in a frame shop, The Very Littlest Dragon, and those of us who kicked in on Kickstarter were acknowledged, and he referred to me as "Framewright", and I've embraced it.

The true patron of the arts in the 20-21st century has been the teaching profession.