PHOTOGRAPHY, STILLS & GNASH: Nuts to Art Photography

BY Chris Niedenthal

I haven’t yet met a Pole who’s willing to pay me even $1,000,000 dollars for one of my pix

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I have a problem. A very expensive problem. Not long ago a photograph created by Cindy Sherman reached a record price at auction. US$3,890,500 to be precise. Why the last $500 is there in that magic sum, I don’t know. I mean, at that level 500 bucks is peanuts. Maybe though, that’s exactly what it’s for. A few grand for champagne, the rest for peanuts. Or cashew nuts. Or the creme de la creme of nuts: macadamia nuts.

So what’s my problem? I’ll tell you. I’m a relatively well-known photographer in Poland (there’s the crunch, you’ll say). I’m happy if I can sell a print of mine at auction in Poland for 3000 PLN (zloties). It should be at least 5000 PLN, but does the price ever reach that dizzy height? I won’t answer that one. But I can tell you, there aren’t many nuts, any nuts in fact, in the price of one of my photographs. So how do I survive? I mean, selling a few prints at $3,000,000 is one thing, and selling one, maybe two prints for 3000 PLN is another. For $3,000,000 I can buy a couple of things, fly to a couple of places for a couple of months, pay the garbage collectors up front for a full year, fill up the car with 98 octane fuel a few times. You say it – I can do it.

For 3000 PLN though, I can do zilch. Ten tankfuls of petrol (95 octane) – and that’s about it. No exotic trips. Maybe a week in Jurata. No? OK, maybe five days. And is my photograph as good as Cindy Sherman’s? Hell, of course it is. To tell you the truth, I honestly think it’s better. My prints would show Poland’s past history (hold it – did I hear a yawn?). Or, if you have a problem with that, the history of most of our neighbours. I mean countries of course, not the Romanowski’s on the seventh floor.

But I haven’t yet met a Pole who’s willing to pay me even $1,000,000 dollars (in used $1 notes please) for one of my pix. I mean, what’s wrong with you guys? Think of the money you’d be saving: at least $2,000,000 a shot. Buy ten of my photographs and you have just saved yourself 20 million dollars. Maybe more, as I can do a quantity discount if there are more than 3 photos involved. The peanuts I can buy myself.

So where’s the problem, you may well ask. Or rather, what’s the problem? I think the problem lies with the Poles. They cannot even think of paying a million dollars, or even a million zloties, for a photograph. 500PLN, 1000, maybe 2000... and that’s about it.

How come we don’t appreciate the value of photography? Or worse: how come we don’t even appreciate the fact that photography can be considered to be an art form? We have only a few knowledgeable collectors of photography. They realise that they can buy up Polish photographs relatively cheaply, but that still doesn’t mean they are buying up everything they can find. They have their preferences. They like this photographer, but not that one. They might prefer pre-World War 2 photography, rather than today’s efforts. Or, post-World War 2, the 70s, rather than the 80s. Or better still, the 60s. But that is their prerogative. They are collectors, they know what they like, they know what they can afford. They have their little niche, and they stick to it. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that there are not that many Polish photographers who are all that well-known in Europe, or America. So, because such photographer’s works are rarely sold abroad, people here do not consider them to be worth all that much in Poland. I may be wrong, of course, but this could be an underlying reason. All the more credit then, to the Asymetria Gallery in Warsaw, who’s aim is to reach out to Europe and the world with Polish photography. They exhibit work in their own gallery, but they also show it abroad in respected galleries, at big international art or photography shows. The Association of Polish Art Photographers also tries to attract buyers to auctions that they organise, trying to make collectors out of the general public. These are worthy efforts, no doubt about it.

One gallery doing such good work may be just a drop in the ocean – but it is a big step forward. A Polish photographer showing his/her work in an art or photography gallery in London’s West End, or in central Paris - rather than in Polonia-run and Polonia-visited galleries in the same cities – is bound to get a better chance of  making the 2000 Euro price barrier. That is the sort of asking price we should be going for, or at least aiming for. From there, the sky’s the limit. I’m sorry if I’m a bit hard on the Polonia-run places, but I do think we should be trying to get on the world bandwagon, not just our own.

Another point I could be making, is that there are still few true photography auctions in Poland. I’m not saying there aren’t any – just that there are too few of them. In their place we have many charity auctions. We donate our photos for a worthy cause, and the starting price may well be a staggering 100 PLN or 200 PLN. The auctioneer bravely waves his little hammer at those prices, then goes up to 300, maybe 500 PLN. Then, if the photograph is really good, or the photographer is really well-known, the hammer starts flying at around 1000, maybe 2000 PLN. Then bang, and it’s sold. The buyer is getting something valuable in exchange for donating to an important cause. The crowd applauds the sale, applauds the buyer. The photographer gets nothing, but his imaginative, creative work has donated money to a charity. But the price is still way too low. That 2000 PLN should be, say, 5000 PLN or more. Yet who is going to pay that amount at the next, real, auction, if they know it only reached 2000 PLN at this particular one?

So, dear wealthy (or even the less wealthy) people of Poland, please buy good photography for a good price. Hold on a mo’, I still have 3 photographs I can let you have for the bargain-basement price of 500,000 PLN. Each? Hell, no – all three of them. And you’ll get a fourth free! Gift-wrapped of course. I’ll be off to Jurata for the summer.

Beside the Point

Repetition. Shadow. Raised foot while walking. These are the important factors in this photograph that I shot in the town of Shkoder in Albania, way back in 1991. There isn’t that much of interest in this photo, I know. But the sun forms a nice shadow on the left side, forming a bit of foreground interest that gives the photo more depth, while the multitude of windows in this rather run-down block of flats gives the brain a signal about repetition, giving us the impression that a lot of people live here; we can also see that they hang their washing out to dry because the sun does it quickly and effectively – and that they have nowhere else to hang it! The woman’s raised foot while walking is important, because it adds a bit of dynamic motion to the photograph. If her left leg was touching the ground, it could look as though she were standing – and that would probably kill the shot.