Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What the print swap has in common with the credit crisis

A few months ago I initiated a print trading experiment through this blog. At the time I wasn't sure how it would work out. I only knew that I felt a nagging sense of frustration at the lack of willingness by photographers to barter prints, even as those same prints went largely unsold in the market. It made, and continues to make, no sense to me. We all have stacks of exhibition quality prints basically wasting away in closets, drawers, etc. Why not use them as currency? As a spur to trading, I imagined I could create a small group of serious photographers who would swap prints on a monthly basis. We would all acquire some great new photographs at the same time we raised a collective middle finger to the art market. Win win baby!

It has been four months since my initial proposal and I'm prepared to call the experiment a total bust. Of the 8 photographers who signed on originally, I don't think any followed through with the trade. The only person I'm sure sent off a print was myself. When I emailed a followup reminder a few weeks after the trade to make sure everyone had mailed and received their print ok, and to get feedback on the process, there was no reply from anyone. A clear bust.

I've been thinking about the swap and what went wrong, and how I might have structured it differently. I think two issues stymied the process.

The first issue, raised at the outset by several people, was quality control. I put no restrictions on who could join the swap. In effect it was totally unjuried because I was unwilling to play the role of judge, and because I thought less restrictions would encourage more entrants. But it worked the other way. Some photographers were unwilling to sign up for the trade without some quality filter in place.

One of many photographs of complete strangers by Saul Leiter

The second problem is that the trade relied on trust in strangers. Basically I needed folks to trust in the process enough to just send a print to a stranger on the assumption that some other stranger would do the same for them. There was no guarantee that this would work other than my optimistic promise. And to most readers of this blog I am basically a stranger myself without a strong enough record to back up the process. Although I suspected this might be an issue for some, I underestimated how little trust exists in cyberspace, and I think this mistrust ultimately hurt the print swap.

But don't worry. I still trust everyone (at the same time I trust no institutions), and I'm still willing to trade prints with any photographer out there.


Andres said...

Blake - as one of the 8, perhaps i can share my thoughts on the experiment. Of course you know that i was the last in the chain, with your contact info to which to send my print, which i haven't done.

i had never before gotten high quality prints made (i think i may have mentioned this at the start) and of course that means i don't have any lying about. This isn't an excuse just an explanation of why i didn't send a print on the day i got your address. as time went on, the thought that this was, in fact, a chain swelled. i saw the hypothetical progression as you would send something out and the recipient would be guilted enough to send to the next person, and eventually i might receive my "call to arms" or "guilt trip" and go through with finding out how to get a good print made. I'm embarrased and ashamed by the hesitation.

your email the following month only just cemented my intention to do something about sending a print, only, i couldn't respond because i was going to send a print! it would only be a couple of weeks! it'll go out and then i can respond with an "it's on its way!" Life intervened as it does and i never did receive my push from the person up the chain.

your emails are both sitting up at the top of my gmail inbox, starred. little consolation, i know. I still don't have any gallery quality prints. but i do intend to send some work. not as part of the print swap (as i don't expect to receive one from the person up the chain) but to balance myself karmically,to thank you for taking this chance with strangers, and also so i can remove those emails from my inbox without feeling too terrible.

Thanks for posting this follow-up on your blog. and feel free to either delete or publish this comment as you see fit.


Mel Trittin said...

Faulkner Short and I completed a trade within the allotted time. I can't speak for Faulkner, but I can say I am well pleased with the print I received.

Blake Andrews said...

That's great to hear, Mel. Thanks for participating.

Thanks for the feedback, Andres. It was interesting to see your decision process, and good luck balancing yourself karmically.