Decoupling a photo’s intrinsic value from its economics

I watch as the evidence mounts that the concept of a photograph’s value is changing. First it was the billions of frames a day explosion from phone cameras and the internet, then NFTs, and now this story in L’Oeil on June 10th: Jean-Marie Periers Yesterday and Today.

In it he writes: “I am offering an exhibition of 41 photographs of my ’60s’ rights free paintings to be placed on the walls of all the nursing homes (EHPAD) in France that they wish to have indefinitely, with no rental fee, which they can keep for years if they wish.”

He continues: “I think it’s poetic that pictures that were pinned to the walls of teenagers 60 years ago can now be found in nursing homes.”

So here is a professional photographer, someone who has spent their life shooting for money and realized that their images have value when they are offered for free…! It’s an amazing idea.

I don’t know how many photographers I’ve spoken to over the years about how the value of their earlier work is changing. For those of us who grew up in a world where photography was scarce and technical photographic skills were hard won, it was taken for granted that old work would have commercial value long after it was made. I remember having a conversation with Phil Stern ten or fifteen years ago, where he told me how pictures he took in the 1950s made more money in the 21st century than they did when he made them. Now Phil has been shooting iconic images of James Dean and epic WWII battles so maybe it wasn’t that surprising but around the same time I was also talking to other friends who are photographers who make a good living photographing travel and landscapes had. They saw their income vanish from the proliferation of images sold for pennies by the burgeoning digital picture agencies.

All of this is to say that we live in interesting times and I see new ideas emerging in response to today’s flood of images. And I think an important idea is that a photo still has value even if you can’t buy lunch with it. Bravo Jean-Marie for recognizing that your paintings have real value even if it’s not directly in cash!

Something else happened recently that also inspired me to write this meditation. I produce far more work than I sell. It’s my nature and my pleasure, but once you’ve taken a picture, what do you do with it? My friend the painter Dan McCleary says when you make art you have to show it, and so do I. Looking back, I’ve had a dozen shows over the past ten years, but they don’t nearly cover all of the work I’ve done. Recently, Art Division, a nonprofit organization I’m associated with, pasted wheat-covered work by teachers and students to the walls of a shuttered hotel next to Art Division’s studio. I was invited to contribute, so I made a print and they put it on the wall. Then I photographed the opening and went home.

A few days later I drove by the wall and to my amazement my picture had been stolen. Someone wanted this picture enough to scrape it free and take it away! I can’t tell you how happy I was. After all, it was nothing but ink and paper, the product of a printer and easily interchangeable, but apparently it was more than that. The print represented something so desirable that someone took it off the wall and brought it home. I like to imagine them looking at their picture hanging on their wall because it’s their picture now. Hopefully it inspires them or brings them joy. That would make me happier than a few bucks I might have earned.

And this thinking gave rise to my next project. This fall I’m going to make 80 large motorcycle prints and put them on a wall somewhere. I will promote the location and invite the world to see and interact with them. Sticking the prints on the wall frees them while keeping the intellectual property, copyright, intact. Think of them as physical NFTs if you like. Then we’ll see what people do. Take her, photograph her, deface her, hug her, or just casually walk by, I have no idea. We will learn together.

Story and photos by Andy Romanoff

You can follow this story as it unfolds. Just click here: Fit to Print

The story of Jean-Marie Perier in L’oeil:

Andy Romanoff – Pictures below
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