Fine art photographs are an expression of the artist’s creative vision, perceptions and emotions more than a realistic rendering of a subject. Peers may admire such work and judges may occasionally award a dollar prize, but in most cases such images are not deemed to have commercial value. Actually profiting from the creative effort is rare for most photographers who produce such images. They produce them because they feel compelled to do so, not for the money. However, John Math
is proving that it is possible to profit from selling fine art images if you take a business approach and develop a marketing strategy.
While always interested in art and design, Math’s profession until four years ago was real estate. Through high school and college, he did a lot of photography. His father-in-law was an art rep in New York City who worked with top professional photographers, and through him Math had the opportunity to observe some of these photographers on shoots. He saw their frustrations as they tried to get the shot that would satisfy their clients. One day he asked his father-in-law, “Why do they do this?” and was told, “So they can take the pictures they want on the weekends or at night when they are not earning a living. It’s a means to an end and better than a desk job.”
After college, Math moved to Florida and worked as a photographer’s assistant. But within six months, realized he didn’t want to be a commercial photographer and have clients telling him what to do. Instead, he moved into real estate, first as a salesman and later he built a company that took over failing real estate developments from banks and through re-design and re-development turned them around. For about 35 years, he didn’t pick up a camera. But, four or five years ago he decided he no longer enjoyed what he was doing and it was time to start doing something he did enjoy. He turned the day-to-day operations of his company over to trusted employees (and later sold the company) and set out to create photographs that interested and excited him.
Of course, the business of photography had changed a little in 35 years: no more film, no darkroom, all-digital. From a technical point of view, Math needed to start from scratch. He still had his Nikon from college, but he bought a Nikon D200 and started learning digital photography. While there was a tremendous learning curve in figuring out how to operate the camera, he loved the immediacy of the results and being able to make adjustments as needed. It wasn’t long before he learned how to appreciate how easy it was to capture the images he wanted.
Math believes, “You either have a good eye or you don’t.” He decided not to make his own prints nor learn Photoshop. Whatever came out of the camera would be the final result. He developed an abstract, impressionistic style which he calls “Focus Images”. These depict the essence of a natural object or place which may be a distinguishable element of an object or an overall feeling that one would derive from being subjected to that particular focus. Overall, his images focus and interpret an identifying element of a natural object or scene.
Getting recognized, earning revenue
The next problem was how to get his work seen. Math approached this business challenge exactly as he approached a real estate re-development project by doing market research, promotion and publicity, and through trial and error.
He hired an art consultant, sent her digital files of his best work and told her his goal was to be a “gallery artist.” They had a two hour phone conference and she said, “I like your work, but you don’t have the education, the experience or the pedigree.” His answer was, “So what. You know what I want to do so how do I do it.” Then she added, “It is a matter of building your resume—getting into as many galleries and competitions as you can. Your work is perfect for the corporate art market. I know you want to do gallery work, but the corporate art market is where you will make your money.”
He believed in himself and his artistic abilities. All he needed was a plan to follow to build his brand. He also had the tremendous advantage of business experience and a willingness to approach the art world as a business, not just producing art. He understood that if your work is good and you consistently market people will eventually come to know your work.
Math said, “If you want to be successful, it is more about business than creativity. I approached it from a business point of view. Dealing with some gallery owners and creative people who have a whole different mañana attitude toward time drives me nuts. They are in a different world and they are not the successful ones, or they are not going to be successful.”
Math came to understand that the fine art business is divided into three segments—art shows and competitions, galleries and corporate art. To begin building his brand, he put together an easy to navigate, attractive Web site that showed his work in a way that his target customers, the corporate art reps, would find appealing. That’s where most photographers stop. The art consultant had him doing a printed portfolio, postcards and suggested a picture book. However, Math has found that it is all Internet and email now; it is rare for anyone to even want to see a CD.
Art shows and competitions
To enhance his brand, Math needed to demonstrate to potential customers that others admired his work. To do this, he aggressively entered every art competition that accepted photography. He focused particularly on shows in New York and on West Coast, because these tend to have greater prestige. But he entered everywhere. When his work is accepted, that information goes on his Web site.
It used to be that in order to enter such competitions it was necessary to send prints, but now many competitions will accept digital files for judging, either emailed or on CD, and only require prints once something is accepted for exhibit.
When Math started out, he was making prints of different sizes, but he standardized for shows, exhibitions and competitions. He settled on a 10x15” format with a 1” white border and 4.5” on the mat. Then he could reuse frames and mats when they came back. Most shows will want one to three prints. His costs per print entered in a competition tend to run $50 for printing, $50 for framing and $50 for shipping. He works with a local company that does all the printing, framing and shipping, so all he has to do is sign the prints.
He gets something hung in about 75% of the art competitions he enters, but he is careful to only apply to shows that seem to accept his type of work. He is choosy when entering open competitions where they take any type of two-dimensional art. In those cases, judges tend to choose mostly paintings. When they only take work from one or two photographers, the odds of being selected are so low that Math finds it not worth his time or money. The request for entries never indicates the number of images they will choose, but when the show is held annually he tries to learn the number that applied and the number accepted the previous year. This usually requires a telephone call or email, but he usually gets information that helps decide whether or not to enter. Given the number of times his work has been shown in various competitions he now occasionally gets invitations to show in exhibitions, without the time or cost of applying and competing.
There are still a few competitions that want to see printed materials for judging, but most are making it easier and easier to enter. There are also companies like Juried Art Services, which assists artists in locating and applying to art shows. The only bad thing about these companies is that they send information on every potential art competition, even those you may not qualify to enter.
Math has found that when he reads the rules and prospectus requirements for each competition carefully and follows them to the letter, it greatly improves his acceptance rate. He says that at least 30% of those who apply to competitions fail to do this, and in most cases their work is not considered or ignored entirely.
While everything exhibited in most shows is priced for sale (see pricing on Math’s Web site), very seldom does an image sell from a show.
When Math first started looking for galleries to represent his work he bought a mailing list, but it turned out not to be worth much. One thing he discovered is that the economy has forced many galleries to close their operations. Over time he has developed his own list principally by using the Internet.
John is careful to only contact galleries that accept photography. He also looks for those that are selling images in a certain price range. For some his prices are too low and in other cases the gallery’s prices are so high that they would not consider taking him on. A lot has to do with finding out which artists they represent and the kind of work those individuals do. He also wants to know if the gallery has competitions or open calls. Once he has identified a gallery and made an initial contact he sends them a reminder email about once a quarter, always with an image showing some new work. His aim is not to bug them, but to keep his brand and work in front of them.
“Once a gallery decides to accept your work they may want anything from 1 to 35 prints and these may vary in size,” Math says. Rather than making each print as needed John will often order 5 or 6 prints of an image to take advantage of volume discounts. When there is an order for an unusual size he builds that cost into the price he will charge. Currently a gallery in Georgia is deciding whether they want 20x30s or 30x40s.
His work has been well received by galleries, but getting accepted by a gallery doesn’t insure sales. In Math’s experience, about the best you can hope for in gallery sales is to break even. Only occasionally does something sell.
While, in theory Math could make direct sales to individuals through his web site, he doesn’t pursue that market despite the fact that he has pricing on his site. On those rare occasions when he receives a call from someone who wants to purchase a print he refers them to one of his galleries. He doesn’t want to deal with individual consumers. While in such cases he splits the fee with the gallery, he feels the good will he develops with the gallery is more than worth the lost share of the fee. The principle value of gallery representation is the credibility it gives him with interior designers.
The majority of Math’s sales come through corporate art reps. Over time he has developed a list of about 300 reps. Timing is everything, so once again, after he has identified someone that might be interested in his style of work he sends them a reminder email about once a quarter.
Such emails always emphasize the visual, not text. John believes that if someone opens an email and immediately sees a picture they will look at the picture. If it is just text they may not read it right away, or put it at the bottom of their “to read” list and never get back to it. Most people will not ignore the picture.
Some reps choose the images they want by looking at his site and John simply uploads a file. The rep handles all the printing and framing. These buyers are just looking for something that looks nice on a wall and fits into their overall design. They don’t need signed prints. In such cases he is not giving up rights. While the reps may be tacking a markup onto his fee, Math is happy with his price.
By now you’ve noticed that Math spends a lot of his time NOT taking pictures, the thing that he loves to do. The purpose of creating the images in the first place is to have them seen by someone other than your family, and to have the additional satisfaction of knowing that someone appreciates the art enough, to pay money for the art, then the marketing work is necessary. Math estimates that he spends no more than 20% of time taking pictures (the other 80% in administrative and marketing activities). For some that would be disappointing, but fortunately John enjoys the business challenges as well as the photography. While there are some significant up front costs (all the prints, frames and shipping for those art shows and galleries) his business is profitable after only four years.
Another thing his experience has certainly demonstrated is that if you only do the art show, competition and gallery part of the business it will undoubtedly be a money losing proposition. It will cost you more than you will ever get out of it. If you have money to through away in such an endeavor, fine. But, if it is important to you to realize a profit you’ve got to find a way to produce the kind of work that will appeal to Interior Designers and make them aware of its existence.
Math offers individual consultations for photographers who want to earn more from their fine art images. He recently launched lightspacetime.com, which conducts monthly competitions on various themes. Entry fees are minimal, and the principle advantage is the winners get to toot their horn on their own Web site about the contest they have won.