If you’re creatively talented and you dream of turning your passion into a lucrative career full of fame and riches, you might want to give photography a rather wide berth, because it’s underpaid and, well, quite looked down upon.
They might seem like like rather harsh, discouraging words, but I’ve come across several things in this last week that have reaffirmed my belief that, unfortunately, photographers and the creative art form of photography are pretty much smack bang at the bottom of the totem pole. The first was news from my hometown of Sydney that one beach-side council in the north of the city plans to adorn a new 36 kilometer public coastal walkway with two million dollars worth of art. Up to 30 artworks will be displayed to add to what is already an amazing stretch of land, and each piece is estimated to cost between $150,000 to $200,000. The problem for us photographers? The mayor of the council says that indigenous artworks (paintings) and sculptures will be used. Not a mention of photography. And $150,000 to $200,000? Wow, great work if you can get it, huh? It should also be noted that along other gorgeous walkways across Sydney’s coastal stretch, sculptures, and indigenous artworks are already commonplace. Photography? Er, no.
Commemorating Famous People
The talk of beautifying and memorializing Sydney’s coastal walkways with expensive statues then got me thinking about how famous people are celebrated and remembered. As a sports lover, I started to ponder different stadiums I’ve been to across the world, and it dawned on me that, yet again, it’s typically statues that are used to create an eternal memory of a particularly special sports star. At the United Center in Chicago, you have “The Spirit” statue of Michael Jordan, as seen below.
In London, at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, there’s a statue of the all-time leading goalscorer, Thierry Henry, outside the ground in his iconic knee-slide pose. And outside Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, in Australia, you have a statue of the might King Wally Lewis, arguably Queensland’s greatest ever rugby league player.
Indeed, across the world, you can find statues of sporting heroes outside many stadiums, all of which cost a pretty penny to create, install, and maintain. But what about photography? Does it have its place alongside these statues inside the famed walls of huge, globally recognized stadiums? For the most part, that would be a no.
The Price of Art
The second thing that caught my attention this week and got me thinking about how undervalued photography is was the news that James Stunt has just been declared bankrupt, despite trying to repay massive, spiraling debts by selling off his art. Stunt is the ex-husband of Petra Ecclestone, who is the daughter of billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, the former owner and overlord of Formula 1 car racing. What was interesting in all of this was that Stunt was trying to stave off bankruptcy by flogging off his most expensive artworks. These included a $2.5 million painting by Monet, a $2 million painting by Marc Chagall, and two paintings by Camile Pisarro, valued at $500,000 each. Painting, painting, painting, painting. Photography? Er, no mention of that.
So, this got me thinking about the price of different forms of art and how photography rates among them. Sadly, it doesn’t make very pretty or lucrative reading. If we look at the most expensive paintings ever sold (at auction or privately) the prices are rather eye-watering, to say the least. The most expensive painting ever sold is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvatore Mundi,” which went for $450 million in 2017. Next on the list is William de Kooning’s “Interchange,” which sold for a nice, even $300 million. Even if we go way down to number 25 on the list, it’s a Picasso that comes in at $106 million.
What about sculptures? Well, the most expensive sculpture ever sold is Alberto Giacometti’s “L’Homme au doight,” which was bought for a nice $141 million. At number 10 on the list is Henri Matisse’s “Nu de dos, 4 état,” which was snapped for $48.8 million.
The Value of Photography
So, where does photography fit in and how do its sales prices compare with these astronomical figures? Sadly, but perhaps somewhat expectedly, they pale in comparison. The most expensive photograph sold to date is Peter Lik’s “Phantom,” which went for $6.5 million in 2014. Down at number seven is Andreas Gursky’s “99 Cent II Diptychon,” which sold for almost half that of Lik’s at $3.35 million.
So just to recap, the most expensive painting ever sold went for $450 million, and the most expensive sculpture cost $141 million. The most expensive photo was bought for $6.5 million. So, the most expensive photograph sold in history was 69 times less than the most expensive painting and 21 times less expensive than the most expensive sculpture. That’s staggering to me, but I guess it lends considerable weight to the notion that photography and photographers are grossly undervalued.
Ansel Adams Versus Others
What I also found interesting was the price of Ansel Adams’ most expensive work. Considered by many to be the father or champion of modern photography and quoted by people ad-nauseam when asked who inspires them, you’d think such an illustrious figure would have some pretty expensive sales under his belt. You’d be wrong. The most expensive print ever sold by Adams went at a Sotheby’s auction for $722,000. Think about that for a moment. We’re talking about quite arguably the greatest, most influential photographer in history here. Yet his most expensive photograph sold for less than a million dollars.
Compare that with some other famous artists.
- Leonardo da Vinci: $450 million
- Alberto Giacometti: $161 million
- Rembrandt: $180 million
- Picasso: $179 million
- Dali: $5.6 million
- Ansel Adams: $722,000
It’s a rather stunning sight isn’t it?
Photography Undervalued Today
If you work in the photography industry, these prices at the high end of the scale might surprise you or perhaps not. Even today, photographers are continually being chronically and embarrassingly undervalued. We’ve all had experiences where companies or potential clients try to lowball us with ridiculous offers in return for “exposure.” It even happens with print magazines or other forms of media wanting free access to our photos and in return offer “lots of free eyes on your work.”
Do you think this happens to sculptors? Or other creative artists in different genres? The fact that the Sydney council I referred to earlier has allocated up to $2 million (AUD) to fund the coastal walks and estimated each piece to cost in the vicinity of $150,000-200,000 would suggest not. So, why do photographers and people working in the photography industry continually get overlooked, undervalued, and underpaid? And as the record sales of artists in different genres show, it’s from top to bottom.