Sunday, July 4, 2010

Q & A with Craig Hickman

After my recent post about Craig Hickman's work, I caught up with him to chat about Facebook, his latest work, and how not to sell photographs.

Photobooth self-portraits, 1979, Craig Hickman

B: I'm curious about your distribution model. What gave you the idea of giving away prints? How is it working out?

C: It dawned on me that I was spending a great deal of my life working on photography and I had a very small, if any, audience. When things went digital it became much easier to make prints. It seemed much better to have my prints in somebody else's box in a drawer than in my box in a drawer. It also became clear to me that probably the fate of photography, because it was now digital, would be that of music with mp3 file sharing.

B: Do people ever refuse to take them on the grounds there must be a catch?

C: I think at first people do wonder what the catch is, but soon realize that I really mean it. A few months ago when I was doing a residency in Portland I was giving two pictures a week away. I had a number of extra prints and I told a couple of people they could have any they wanted. They were reluctant to take more than a couple. After I told them that any left over would go into the shredder, they took them all.

Colleen, 1967, Craig Hickman

B: I think a lot of photographers shoot themselves in the foot charging $500 for a print with very limited audience. But for me it's intriguing to wonder if that $500 price tag actually promotes distribution. The question is, if the same print was free would people take? Or is the $500 tag a sort of seal of official value? Along the same line of thought, maybe the thing to do is charge $10,000 to show the print is really desirable. Which of course some folks do.

I've tried all the strategies myself. I give many prints away through my blog, and in gallery shows I've charged anywhere from free to $12,000 with about the same results. You're the only other person I know doing the free route and I'm actually surprised more photographers don't, since most people —both photographers and potential buyers— realize that the marginal cost of producing a digital print now is virtually nothing.

C: The problem with charging $500 is that you then need some kind of distribution system, like a gallery. When you give them away you can do that in all sorts of way.

B: You can give them away free in galleries but the galleries don't like it much.

C: That is true, but from my experience most photographers don't have gallery representation. They always hope that one day they will so they leave the prints in the box in their drawer. If your prints do become valuable you can always stop giving them away and start charging.

B: It's ironic. Galleries are supposed to help facilitate the distribution of art but they can actually block it from being acquired by incubating inflated prices.

Marat and Ann, 1976, Craig Hickman

C: Yes, I think they mean well, and provide an important public service by making their shows generally free to the public, but there are other viable distribution methods available now.

B: Do you see galleries as obsolete then?

C: At the moment art photography is still a print based medium, though I believe most people see the vast majority of pictures online. Also galleries offer a social space that's different. Probably the most important thing, however is that galleries offer the opportunity to show work that wouldn't work online at all, like large prints, installation work and anything else that requires the physical presence of the work. Also, while work can look really good online if done properly, a print still has much more detail in pixels per inch terms. I do see galleries taking a secondary position in the future, however.

B: Getting back to the mp3 comparison, why give away the prints? Why not give away a digital file on a CD?

C: That's a good question. The logical extension of what I am saying is that one should just give the file away. I guess for me, at this point, that is where I draw the line. Also, I'm a little fussy about how they are printed and don't want anyone making crummy prints of them.

B: So Facebook is a good outlet. You can get the work out there but the files are small enough no one will actually try to print one.

C: It's been an interesting experiment. The best thing is to be able to make a picture and have people look at it immediately and sometimes offer comments. I guess I would have to say about Facebook distribution that it's fun. It came about because I had a Facebook account and just thought I would try it.

from Someplace Else, ca. 2000, Craig Hickman

B: I'm not sure if you saw this but after my initial post about you, someone commented with a link describing Facebook's control of images posted on its site. Is that a concern at all with your use of Facebook to distribute photos?

C: While I haven't read this specific material, it's about what I expected. If my work were selling like hotcakes, especially low res versions like I post on Facebook I might worry, but I can't imagine when this would be a problem.

B: I can see that point of view. I think it would be a different standard for someone like Gursky or Sherman who can sell their work for millions. Obviously they don't want to turn over rights to Facebook. But for most photographers any avenue which increases exposure is probably worth considering.

C: I've been trying any possibilities that come up. I also have a place in front of my office where I put a print that anyone can take. That seems to work quite well. This summer I'm not in my office very much so I haven't been able to put new prints up on a regular basis.

B: If you make your prints available for free, does that eliminate the future possibility of showing in galleries? You made reference earlier to putting work in a box until it's collectible but galleries are very price-savvy. If something is perceived to be free, can value ever be added later?

C: As long as I would stop giving the prints away, I think it would be ok. I think the important thing is that the price always goes up.

Mammoth, 2009, Craig Hickman

B: It can only go up from zero. Unless you pay folks to take them.

C: That's right.

B: What has been the general reaction to your free prints?

C: People asked for prints immediately after I posted the notice about giving them away, but no one has asked for one for a while. I guess I should post a notice again. People who get them seem to be very happy.

B: On the internet folks have very short memories. If it wasn't in a twitter feed five minutes ago it's ancient. Anyway, I like the fact that it's sort of underground knowledge available if you're paying attention, but not obvious. It's the same way a good photo should work.

So what are you doing lately with your photos? Your fictional series seems to be morphing into a more verbal/symbolic phase, if that's possible. Less messy scenes and more iconic stuff.

C: I am always trying to put a new wrinkle in my work. I have been going for the simpler. Also, when I started putting the work up on Facebook, I had a large backlog of unseen work so I was posting one or two a day. I have shown all those now, so if I am going to keep up I need to make one a day. Simple helps.

Temporal Apartments, 2009, Craig Hickman

B: You're still making one per day? That's brutal. Do you feel an obligation to keep that pace? What about settling down for a week on one piece?

C: I'm doing my best to keep up. It reminds me of when I was a photographer for the my college's daily newspaper.
At the moment I am going to try to keep up, thought I didn't post one on Saturday.

B: So the pace is actually influencing the art, which I guess it always does but in this case it's more direct.

C: That's right. I also am trying to not worry so much about every picture being really good (at least in my terms). Ultimately I will try to put them into some other form, like a physical or electronic book and I will have a lot to choose from.

B: A book? Do people still read those things?

C: I think the photo book is the highest form of book. Now that we have reached that pinnacle books don't have anywhere to go from there.

B: In a way you're replicating 35 mm shooting where not every shot is gonna be a keeper but to get good ones you need to shoot freely and often. Then go back later and edit.

C: These pictures are a little different because they are constructed. I choose the base picture in the usual way of shooting a lot and picking a few. I have a really hard time telling what my best pictures are until I have looked at them for months or even years. I often get excited about an idea and later see that it was't that interesting. It also works the other way around.

B: That's when it's best I think, when you realize you've shifted and can see things now you didn't. Have any one or two in particular hit a nerve with you or with people requesting?

C: There was one that seemed to reinforce gender stereotypes that some people commented on, though I think everyone knew that the picture was kind of playing a role of a character in the Randy Newman sense.

Home Economics, 2009, Craig Hickman

The ones people request seem to be, for the most part the ones I find strongest, though some of the ones I find strong no one requests or comments on. They tend to be the ones that are a little more puzzling, not that they aren't all a little puzzling.

B: Maybe that's the online influence. When someone sees something on Facebook they expect to understand it immediately. If it's puzzling or requires more thought it might be more easily passed over. This points to why you might want to put them into book form.

C: That's right. In a book I can sequence them in a way that they inform each other.

B: Do you ever buy photos from other photographers?

C: I mostly trade.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic work. Great humour and slyly clever compositions etc. Do you have to make him a friend on facebook to see his images there or something? I'm a facebook dummy I'm afraid. I still haven't 'got it' at all. . .