The Value of Feeling
"Whether he is an artist or not, a photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not thoughts"
- Walker Evans
"Art" is a funny thing. How and when does something become known as art? When (and to whom) does it acquire "value"? And how is that value defined?
When I launched the beachradish images® website in April, 2013, I was unnerved by the notion of selling my photography. It is personal, meditative, where I find my peace and quiet. Ansel Adams once said that the single most important component of the camera is the 12 inches behind it. I'm not sure of my head circumference these days, or how I measure in an anterior/posterior dimension, but it is true that what ends up in the viewfinder is very much an external manifestation of an internal feeling. An interior designer asked me the other day if I wouldn't mind going out to take some pictures that might be a good fit for a client's home. I struggled a little to explain that I take a picture when something catches my eye ... and my heart. Her client is apparently a big fan of "Happy Hour". But wants it in a vertical orientation. Big. Captured moments don't often repeat themselves - certainly not in the same way; and while I have dozens of images in the same spot with the same general subject matter, the feeling is either there, or it's not.
There is an article in today's Business Section of the New York Times on Peter Lik. I once worked at a non-profit that hung three of his images in every person's office, and had massive pieces of his in every public area. According to the article, Peter Lik holds the record for the highest price paid for a single photograph ($6.5 million), has sold $440 million in photographs, and sells $1.6 million a week from his factory in Las Vegas. The numbers suggest a business success, though the article is less flattering to Lik as a person and artist. Reading between the lines, there is a clear sense that "art as a business" is anathematic to art as craft, and that economic value and personal value do not necessarily have a 1:1 relationship. I can't speak to the relationship that Mr. Lik has to his subject matter - whether he is still a joyous sensualist trafficking his feelings - but he has clearly created a market for his work, and a brand - one where someone is willing to pay an increasingly higher amount to have a such a branded piece in his/her home.
Last November, I went back to work - full time. It was always part of the plan. My professional background is a quirky mix of science, medicine, and business, and I'd been in the midst of a soul-driven career crisis. Between jobs, I ruminated, planted a vegetable garden, took up cello lessons, got a new puppy, learned to surf (sort of) and make marmalade, and launched beachradish images®. It started as a website - without commerce - mostly so that I would be considered "legitimate" enough to donate to San Diego Surfrider's 13th Annual Art Gala. In the last two years, it's grown to three stores, and a show a month from April thru November. beachradish images® have made their way into houses across the United States, a flat in England, and even a college dorm room in Belgium. Whether it's a 10 foot piece, or an 8"x12" matted print, I'm constantly surprised, and a little shocked ... honored and grateful that something spoke to someone enough to bring it home and make it part of their life.
And this is the part that I think gets missed the longer one is in the "business" of art - that the contribution of the artist to the artwork makes up only part of the finished piece. The viewer not only receives, but contributes value - that reaction and feeling; that thing that strikes a chord that makes him or her want to bring that feeling into their personal space. For the couple who wants "Happy Hour" - the perceived value to them is clearly more than any one of a number of images I've taken in the same place. I love that. But I also don't feel pressured to run out and re-create that, either. My eye is able to continue to traffic my feelings - leaving the thoughts in some other place. Like work.
Which I guess is a good place for them.