WATERFALL MIST : FINAL VERSION
This week I'd like to discuss the dilemma of judging your own work. It seems obvious to me that my own opinion is the most important, but the pressures of trying to market my work for sale lead to a constant effort to try to understand what the public likes. Now I don't mean "the public" as a global groundswell that will lead to fame and a large bank account. I am only concerned here with trying to reach "my public", the people who actually have proven to be receptive to my work. Even for an "anti-marketer like me, it would be nice to know that I'm at least having a positive impact on the people who like my work. Readers of this blog, for instance. What directions of my work intrigue you? That doesn't mean that if you demand cats, I will deliver cats, because I won't, but the insights might be useful. I have been extremely lucky in the past ten years in that I have seen which examples of my work actually reach a receptive public, since I meet them each weekend in my booth. Not everyone will purchase my art -in fact, even most people who like it will not open their wallets. But it is interesting to be able to actually understand why people react well to some examples of my work more than others. When you sit in a booth all day, it's nice to exhibit work that promotes a discussion, if not a sale.
VANISHING POINT : FINAL VERSION
Now I'm not such a dimwit as to not understand that I am selling photographs at a craft market in Portland, Oregon. Saturday Market is the oldest craft market in the country, but it is not primarily an art market - two dimensional wall art is in fact the hardest thing to sell at the market, which is half jewelry, and mostly other craft staples that Fran calls "market crack" like pottery, which she just shakes her head when I wonder why I can't compete with them for sales. But mostly I feel that I just compete with the dozen or so other photographers who exhibit at the market. My work is my own, but it just so happens that i was an architect, and that I love Portland, and that I've lived here thirty years, so it stands to reason that my work might appeal to an audience that is visiting our fair city. What I take some pride in is that my Portland photographs actually appeal more to Portlanders than tourists per se, so that a print is usually a gift for the visitor rather than something the visitor might be expected to pick up on their own. People who live here can see and appreciate that my take on local subjects frequently is pretty unusual if not unique. So I naturally fell into a niche of "artistic" local photography that is actually a good fit for a market that is the second most popular tourist attraction in the entire state. While I understand that it would be nice to think that a fine image of Paris would sell as well, I'm not that naive. And since my coasters allow me to experiment with many images, it's usually pretty easy to at least respond to public demand, even if I've never been able to predict it with any accuracy.
REFLECTIONS ON BURNSIDE : FINAL VERSION
So I know how to sell coasters, but efforts to sell larger prints are still a constant struggle to find the images that people must have, despite the high prices I must charge to sell them in the beautiful, large versions they profess to want. Since the most popular of my images accounts for only 6% of my sales, it is not as easy to figure out which images to invest in as it is for some of my colleagues. I know that only a few of their images account for the vast majority of their sales; they could leave everything else at home. So they fill out their booths to look legitimate, while I fill my booth with a host of images that just might sell, maybe, someday. Yet these "billboards" are the things that attract most people into my booth in the first place. Frustration, anyone?
HUG POINT : FINAL VERSION
In an effort to acquire some useful marketing information, I finally joined a photographic community online this year that I had resisted in the past. I was not trying to sell anything, since this website, 500 Pixels, is marketed as by photographers for photographers. Since it is almost impossible to sell photography to other photographers, all marketing pressure was gone. I was just trying to see what might appeal to a different, "knowledgeable" audience. And 500 pixels is a space for mostly very good photography of a standard much higher than Instagram, although there is some overlap. It is basically still a place where people can go to see great imagery, even though I have discovered some serious quirks in the algorithm that rival Instagram's. I still believe that if you want to find very nice imagery on a certain topic, just type it in the search bar and you will find something to aspire to, whether it' s Paris, or football, or tulips. In an effort to further stack the deck, I invented a new persona on the site with my curation of my own work. 500 pixels doesn't really lend itself to comments as much as Instagram, but I decided to only show Black and White images. As far as 500 pixels was concerned, I might be still using my father's Leica film camera, since color has never appeared - or else I used a Hasselblad, since so many of my images were in the square format, and they don't know from coasters.
HIGH-KEY ARCH : FINAL VERSION
So how is the old codger doing on 500 Pixels? What has this new audience revealed, or obscured, or confused me in their taste for my imagery? I must say that is has been revealing, but mostly just another form of confusion. I usually have no clue on whether any particular image will "find" an audience, much less grow one, and am frequently surprised as heck as I review my feed. While the algorithm is no less obscure than Instagram's, it does have a certain "permanence" that can be insightful. I have put over 200 images on 500 Pixels, and they are all still there on my "Profile" for anyone to find. The thing is that they are all still on my feed as well, along with all of the images of everyone I have followed. They do not disappear, and you better like the imagery of anyone you follow, since unlike Instagram, it still appears every day they throw something out there. Like I soon learned on Instagram, be careful who you follow. But it is different than Instagram in that you can "like" anything you want without it affecting your feed. It is more like the "permanent record" your teachers threatened you with in Junior High. You will only see what you want to until you explore, and even if you like something, or even comment, you will not be followed around by that momentary opinion. 500 Pixels actually seems to function more as a sounding board. There is a lot of information on the public's reaction to your image, but not as much search for followers or even likes as there is on Instagram. Or maybe I'm just naive, since I couldn't even figure out how many followers I have until I started researching the site for this essay. It turns out I have only 21, which is less than any other person I have ever even checked out on the site, much less followed. These are just photographers, not celebrities, but some people have followers numbering in the thousands, so it's not like I'm catching on like wildfire.
MASONRY QUILT B&W : FINAL VERSION
But it has been interesting. Just like on Instagram, I'm not really concerned with followers, but more on seeing who has actually liked my work, and what they are like, since their profile is now readily available for my inspection. 500 pixel people are usually very fine photographers, and it is very endearing when someone from Uzbekistan, much less a fine photographer, finds one of my images even worthy of a "like." Of course this is a self-selected group with a penchant for black and white imagery, but at least I can be surprised at what that group will react to or what they will ignore. For you see on 500 Pixels each of my images is constantly tracked, forever, on its impact, long after even I have forgotten submitting it to the site. Or maybe I just don't know how to find that info, although I can get lost in my "statistics" which appear if I hit that button. And it's always changing, so that even with my paltry following, I can see that a certain image received another tow likes last week, months after I posted it.
TURBINE HALL : FINAL VERSION
This constant quantification is enough to make even a life-long baseball fan cry, except it applies to everyone else too. The easiest way to see new work each day is to hit the popular button, which takes you through a feed of thousands of photos rated every few seconds(!) by their "pulse" on the site, which is determined by that pesky algorithm, but which is most certainly determined by how many people have clicked on, liked , or even commented on that image today. You can even watch the order change while you are on the popular feed. The rating starts at 99.9 or so, and I have never wasted enough time to get below 95, and by then I've seen hundreds of photos. By the way, I've never hit higher than 94.6, and only higher than 90 a few times, so most people fortunately have much more time to waste than I do, since most of my images are rated "popular", even though they usually settle in the mid-80's. So I don't even know how my fans find me.
CRATER LAKE #3 B&W : FINAL VERSION
So what is popular? Exactly what you might think. These are photographers, but they are still human beings. Don't think cats, for heaven sakes, but don't think too hard either. If you want to see the most beautiful photographs of very beautiful women every day, there you go. And just like Instagram, it's a constant challenge to present the most provocative imagery without nudity, even though that option is available with a double click. These are beautiful images, and you begin to recognize the photographers as well as the models. I hope that Ivan from Moscow has a good relationship with his muse Anna, since I see another beautiful image of her everyday. Shockingly, at least for me, the second most popular form of imagery seems to be bird photos; if you can get a bird eating, whether it's an eagle or a chickadee, you will be rated above 95. My black and white imagery of the city has no chance whatsoever. It reminds me of the point in my evenings at Last Thursday when the "Fire Girls" came out to do flaming hula-hooping, and I knew it was time to start packing up my photography.
OREGON COAST SUNSET B&W : FINAL VERSION
While I can't compete with models or birds, it has been enlightening to see how this group of black and white purists respond to my imagery. Unfortunately it seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with what has been successful at the Market. What is even weirder is that certain images do not follow any fate I might have projected for them. While I could predict that Portland imagery might not get as big an audience in the wilder world, it has been hard top fathom what "my public" will find more or less interesting. All of the images above have gotten far more attention on line than in reality, especially when you consider that there color counterparts would get far more interest. The first image, Waterfall Mist, as Oregon an image as you could hope to find, is the most popular image in the year I have been on 500 Pixels; I have never sold a print of this at the Market. Some of the others, like Turbine Hall, or High-Key Arch, obviously will do better with a national or international audience.
MULTNOMAH FALLS BRIDGE PANORAMA : FINAL VERSION
Another big success on line, with no real sales at the Market. I know it doesn't make any sense. I think it might have something to do with a 500 Pixel prejudice in favor of panoramic images, which seem to do well in general.
TIES UP IN WILMINGTON : FINAL VERSION
Okay, so this was an anticipated fluke. This photographer's photograph, very popular on 500 Pixels has about as little chance of sales at the Market as just about anything I could think of putting up on the wall.
EDINBURGH PASSAGE : FINAL VERSION
Another image that wouldn't get a second glance by most dedicated customers, but almost broke 90 on 500 Pixels. It is evocative, but I don't think even most natives of Edinburgh would "get" it without close inspection. I can only figure that I should try to include more humans in my imagery, since several shots like this one have stirred some on-line interest.
INDUSTRIAL ARCHAEOLOGY : FINAL VERSION
Now I admit to being totally flummoxed. Of course I like this image - I don't exhibit anything I am not proud of. What shocked me about its online success was that neither the color version or this new black and white version has ever even provoked any response by anyone. How can I interpret this input, beyond wishing for a more "sophisticated" clientele? What does this mean?
FOUNTAIN FUN : FINAL VERSION
I have never had much success with this image, even though I display it more out of spite than anything else. It's one of my images that should sell, god-dammit, even though it doesn't. It is the second-most popular image of mine on 500 Pixels. Again, it contains human beings, and it is high contrast, which helps when you are competing with thousands of images, much less women and birds.
So what do I know? Not much. This experiment hasn't really led to any profound revelations. I have sold art all around the world, from my little booth under the Burnside Bridge, and still don't have much of an understanding of my public. I'm beginning to conclude that I need to have even more of the strength of my convictions. I need to show what I want to show, my public be damned, since I don't seem to understand them anyway. But I will say that it has been an awful amount of fun to adopt another photographic persona for awhile. The most important thing I've discovered is that some of my best images actually work much better as black and whites, as I have converted them to promote my monochromatic alter ego. That has kept me going, even when I contemplate rebellion, abandonment or heart attacks among my 500 Pixel fans if color should ever appear on my feed.
My lack of marketing skill, even when I'm marketing, has certainly kept me humble. To conclude, you might ask which image has received my lowest score on 500 Pixels since I started this experiment? It is only that image, albeit in color, that constitutes my biggest seller at 6% of my all-time revenues:
GO BY TRAIN B&W : FINAL VERSION
The public has spoken! A score of 40, approximately 25 points less than any other image! It's enough to make this grown man cry, or at least have a drink. Fran has been wondering why I don't take up Scotch like most of my troubled British detectives, although I know she would be aghast if I ever did.