March 08, 2024  •  Leave a Comment


This week I've got another few images to show you that I have saved from the obscure reaches of my archives. But my real subject is the lengths I go through each week to prepare my very temporary gallery at Saturday Market, where I attempt to actually sell the fruits of my photographic labor. The Market opened last week, and even though I was smart enough not to go sit there in the rain, I probably will succumb to the pull of the Market this week. The Market is fifty years old this year, and even though I am a "raw rookie" in my fifteenth year, I still participate in a craft market that is pretty much unique in this country. Its existence has basically allowed me to be an artist, something which I could only dream of more than a decade ago. I make more money selling my art than probably 90% of artists in the country, even though I have never come close to "making a living." Fran's understanding and support are the real reason any of this has been possible.


Saturday Market vendors are notorious for our never ending complaining. The Market is a lot like democracy - the worst form of government except for all of the others. Trying to sell art at the Market is also a never-ending struggle, except that it is clearly the best way to sell art that I have ever been able to come close to figuring out. While the web is continually about to "explode", the only people who make money are the very early adopters and the web itself. One photographer that I respect has a theory that the web itself is designed to reduce any art on any platform to a value of zero - it's just a function of time. Even though my website is now eminently "respectable", it is really only a place to prove that I have actually have produced some art - as a market, it has almost no value whatsoever. It's real "raison d'etre" is to provide a place to post these essays for the past three years. As for the gallery system, I finally realized long ago that even if I became a "real artist" with gallery shows, there was almost no chance to make real money in that environment either. Every time I have contemplated opening my own brick and mortar gallery, other gallery owners have reacted by admitting the reality that I would be much more "legitimate" but that  I would make no more money than if I stayed at the Market.

                                                                  WHAT IF THIS NONSENSE IS ALL THAT REMAINS WHEN WE'RE GONE?

So I have, and I have run a "successful" gallery at the market for almost fifteen years. The only trouble is that my gallery's success is due to taking advantage of the artist (me) whose art is on exhibit. As for the minimum wage worker (me) who sits there all day, well, if I made minimum wage the gallery would go out of business. An interesting economic dilemma.

So I thought I would briefly discuss what goes into creating my little gallery under the Burnside Bridge. A few years ago my wife walked by one of the junk shops in our neighborhood and remarked that she couldn't believe that they had to bring everything back into the store at the end of the day. I looked at her in horror while I wondered what she thought I did every week. It is a similar feeling that I get when yet another customer wonders in June if this was the first week the Market has been open, three months into the season. Or when other customers wonder out loud if the Market pays for and erects our booths each week. In my dreams.


Every Saturday at 6:45 in the morning I arrive at my bare 10 x 10 piece of concrete under the bridge. For the next three hours I will create something that actually looks like an art gallery - as long as you ignore the idea of real walls, floors, heat, or a front door to lock. Each vendor endeavors to create an environment that will encourage the public to enjoy our art and fork over some money to take it home. There are very different levels of elaboration, and we all "suggest" ways to enhance these little galleries. After resisting entreaties to spend even more time and money on my booth, I created the somewhat bitter acronym "IAFT" (It's a Fucking Tent!)  to try to shut up my fellow vendors. In any case the average booth ends up costing several thousand dollars after you add up the tent, the walls, the tables, and all the other stuff that tries to hide the fact that it is just a tent under the bridge.

Of course you have to fill that tent with some art to sell. No matter how you figure it, that art usually represents another few thousand dollars investment, which doesn't include all of the art in your basement that you have given up trying to sell. I probably could fill another two booths with all of the art that I have created that has not found a home beyond my own. I have been struggling for over ten years with the mantra of "bring less, sell more" without much success, since the public want to see an art gallery with evidence that you are creative and successful before they will even consider buying something from you. People have so little faith in their own taste that they will not buy from a new vendor until they have seen them for a few years and figure that everyone else has bought enough to keep them in business. Most vendors, and especially photographers and potters, soon realize that their stuff has to be "perfect", it is very fragile, and that you can have a great day at the Market and bring back home almost all of the stuff that you came with. And god forbid that you leave something at home, because that's the first thing that a customer will request. At the end of the day, the only vendors who are the last to pack up are usually the potters and the photographers.

                                                                  THE TANNER SPRINGS SCULPTURE ON THE STREET, THROWING SOME SHADE

It took working in a Hardware store for a few years for me to realize that all of the stuff we use to outfit our booths has a real purpose in the world besides allowing me to create an art gallery out of nothing each week. When I go to the Market for the first time this year I fully expect to stare at half of this stuff and wonder just what it is for. I am not alone in realizing that the distance from a genius to a doofus is very short indeed. The instant you congratulate yourself for coming up with a brilliant new way to make your life easier is only a few seconds before you wonder why in the hell it took years for you to finally wise up. Let's just say that some of the stuff we use to set up our booths is really used by carpenters, plumbers, electricians and kidnappers - and is not usually available in arts supply stores.

My theory of inflation is that we each have our own personal inflation index. I do not care if McDonald's raises their prices; you certainly shouldn't care if the small masonite panels that I use for my coasters have quadrupled in price over the last few years. As a photographer, what is actually wonderful is that the market for our stuff has gotten so narrow and expensive that the few manufacturers left almost know that the market will probably not bear that many more price increases before we all just hang it up. Of course that assumes that you have enough brains to realize that your sixteen-year-old camera is much more than adequate; the professional photographers leave the latest and greatest to the hobbyists once we realize that we are actually talented enough to stop worrying about the gear. We have enough to worry about , like the printer that I'm starring at that cost $1200 dollars, and who cares, since each color ink cartridge (there are twelve) costs sixty dollars apiece. In fact, since my ink cartridges are bigger than yours (!) the price I pay for ink has gone down to merely domestic champagne. As near as I can figure, and why should you care, it costs me .015 cents per square inch for the ink on a photo print. This is the razor blade pricing model par excellence, since I have spent multiple thousands of dollars on ink since I purchased my current printer years ago. I tried to explain to the Epson guy that he was forgoing something like $5000 dollars in ink over a few years when he refused to meet Canon's price for a replacement printer, but what do I know? These printers are near miracles until they decide to not work on a random Tuesday, and waste hundreds of dollars in ink before they end their job action.

                                                                  SOMETIMES I AM JUST SO AMUSED THAT I REALLY DON'T CARE IF YOU OR I REALLY UNDERSTAND                                         WHAT'S GOING ON - I JUST WANT YOU TO NOTICE THESE MAGICAL MOMENTS TOO

Most of the other supplies I buy suffers from fact that I know that almost all of my customers that are not photographers will never even begin to see the difference between mere expensive papers and ridiculously expensive papers, and my prices will never justify these costs. What's funny is that even Pre-Covid, the panoply of photo papers at the only real photography store left in Portland included only a few that my customers could appreciate and afford. I would stare at the packages and realize that the "small" price differential was really more than four times since the more expensive papers came in packages with half the sheets, and were printable on only one side. Thus my pile of sheets that are available for coasters once the damn printer messes up the print the first time would be only good for the trash bin. While I know that the more expensive papers will show more detail in my deepest blacks, I also know that you won't see it and certainly wouldn't accept the increased cost of my prints.

And don't get me started on frames. After many years I have almost abandoned the idea of selling a beautiful print in a beautiful frame. if you talk about a terrible economic position for an artist, then framing your work is the worst thing you can get into. Customers "know" that we are ripping them off, when in fact we are literally giving the frames away. it can drive you to utter frustration, and that's before the damn frame breaks before it even gets sold. The worst sound in the Market is the sound of breaking glass - we all look around in horror to make sure it's not one of our pieces, and then we feel thankful and guilty the rest of the day when thank God that it wasn't.

You know what's the difference between a Saturday Market vendor and a whining dog? The whining dog eventually stops. Enough for today. I hope you have enjoyed these images amid my gripes, and that maybe you can have gotten an inkling of how much we enjoy showing our work each weekend, despite the problems I've only begun to outline. And lo and behold, when I leave the empty concrete slab under the bridge, maybe another group of people have some of my art to exhibit in their homes, and that makes me feel very good, if not rich.