It has been a busy week of moving heavy things. That’s not great for photography but it did give me some time to think about an article I read earlier this week and I thought the topic was worth revisiting. A few weeks ago I wrote about photography as art and specifically in relation to Peter Lik’s landscape photography. In that post I wrote that Mr. Lik has worked hard to establish himself as a master photographer and that, in addition to his technical abilities, he is a master at marketing and selling his work.
Last Saturday, The New York Times published an article about Mr. Lik and while I think author David Segal provided a fairly balanced story, I think Mr. Lik comes across as, well, not the kind of guy I’d like to meet. Two quotes in particular jumped out at me in the article.
I’m God. Nailed it.
-Peter Lik regarding his success as defined by having a gallery in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas
Just a nice shot of Yosemite. Right place at the right time.
-Peter Lik in response to master photographer Ansel Adam’s work in Yosemite National Park
So clearly there is some ego involved – but let’s face it, every artist has an ego. I have one, I’ve seen it in my least adept photography students, and I’ve witnessed it in each of the artist interviews I’ve done for my intro to art classes. I think that might be an essential characteristic for artists to have if they have the desire to share the product of their creation with the world and I don’t think that is necessarily bad. The hope is, of course, that we can temper that ego with some humility – balance in life is good.
But this post isn’t really about how much ego Mr. Lik has but rather that he has been called out by the art establishment for, essentially, ‘doing it wrong’.
Before I continue, I’ll admit that in a way I am a part of the art establishment – I am a working artist and I teach art courses at the university level but I’m really the proverbial small fish in the big pond here. When I write about the art establishment, I’m really referring more to the art critics, art dealers, galleries, museum curators, and big art auction houses (think Christie’s or Sotheby’s).
Peter Lik owns fifteen galleries and those galleries sell his prints in over a dozen major cities. According to the article, he’s sold more than 100,000 of his photographs totaling more than $440 million in sales which puts him pretty much in a class of his own. You might think that with those kinds of numbers the art establishment would be eager to embrace him but it is clear that just isn’t the case. It seems that they don’t like his sales methods.
I’ve come to know a number of successful working artists over the years and one thing that has struck me is that, as a whole, we are really bad at marketing ourselves and our work. In order to achieve any sort of major success, artists tend to need a bit of luck, a bit of help, and sometimes even to die. Basically, we need the support of the art establishment if we are to have any hope of making it big. I think the issue that the art establishment has with Mr. Lik’s work is that he’s found a way to make it on his own by using a sales formula that is highly successful.
It is almost comical in the way that they are discounting his $6.5 million dollar print sale because it did not go through ‘the proper channels’. In fact, they didn’t even know the print existed until the PR media release announced the sale, but because it was brokered through an attorney and the buyer remains private, some have even gone so far as to hint that the buyer might not be a legitimate third party. (Hmm, I wonder if I ‘privately’ buy one of my prints for big bucks if that will raise the price that ‘legitimate buyers’ will spend on my work.) Mostly it has the feel of sour grapes to me.
One thing that I can say with some certainty is that Mr. Lik’s works will never achieve the same historical standing as that of artists who have been embraced by the art establishment and that’s not just because they are snubbing his work. The real issue here is that his marketing is geared exclusively toward everyday (well off) buyers. These buyers see that each print is sold as a limited edition of 995 prints and as the line sells out, prints become increasingly expensive. According to the article, early prints in the edition sell for $4000 while the last print can sell for $195,000. To the uninitiated, that implies that his work appreciates in value. To those in the know, that means that he is FLOODING the market with identical prints and there are too many prints in the market for buyers to even recoup their initial investment in most cases.
So then, what’s the bottom line? By all means, purchase one of his prints if you like his work and can afford it. I’m sure that it will look beautiful on your wall. Just don’t call it an investment. In that regard, Mr. Lik himself offers the perfect analogy:
It’s like a Mercedes-Benz. You drive it off the lot, it loses half its value.
-Peter Lik on the poor resale value of his prints.