As the guinea hens, wild turkey’s and even the snakes run for cover from the parched earth that I used to call a lawn, I am reminded about how abandoned and worthless I felt after my father’s death in the summer of 1972. Ever since I started at age 23 to be a photographer, I have struggled to find myself worthy and significant, yet at the same time desperate for people not to think me too expensive, elitist, out of reach, or even totally ridiculous. This particular affliction, to find the right emotional location where my bravado and fears balance each other has always been a constant struggle. The one place where I seem to be secure, where all systems are a go, even from day one, was in valuing my photographs. I am not talking about commercial usage or licensing agreements, I am referring to the purchasing of my prints for personal display or exhibitions.
I have always cared about the print. I became a photographer to make a beautiful and lasting artifact, and it is with this artifact for some unknown reason I seem to be able to draw a line, even when the earth is totally parched.
What I am talking about is how I value my photographs. This recalls two stories, one about Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz and one about me.
Firstly about Adams, I can’t remember where I first heard this story, it may have been directly from him, but it has remained with me for at least 30 years. During The Depression, Ansel Adams was selling his prints for $25.00 to anyone who cared to buy one. This was a fairly significant sum, but far from out of reach for many. He made a pilgrimage to New York City to meet Alfred Stieglitz and during the conversation; the price charged for a print came up. Adams asked Stieglitz what he charged for one of his prints. Stieglitz answered $2,000. Adams was totally flabbergasted. He said, “How can you charge such an exorbitant amount. No one is going to pay that!” Stieglitz’s response was, “I don’t care if no one wants it, it’s worth it.”
Wow, what strength of character, or what stupidity, depending on your point of view.
Now forgetting that Stieglitz was independently wealthy, I always loved this story. In the end, he was right. They were worth it, and much more than that. In fact, they were worth millions.
How do you know whether you’re worth it? Where do you draw the line, and if you should be like Adams and attempt at being responsible and available, or can one feel knowledgeable about your sense of worth and fight for what you believe? This is not an easy question.
Well this leaves me with my own little story. In my very early 20′s when I was just starting out, completely broke and alone with almost no support for choosing to be a photographer, my in-laws had many, many famous and wealthy friends.
Over a few years, I came to know and respect Richard Widmark the actor and his wife Jean. They had a house in Connecticut and a ranch in Los Angeles, but Dick Widmark was far from your usual Hollywood actor. He and Jean were actually quite friendly to me and my first wife, and on occasion would visit our house and take us to dinner in New Haven. Dick and a few others were actually quite taken with photography, and at the time in 1973 when almost no one was buying photographs, Dick and Jean came to the house one afternoon and looked at some of my work and said they would like to buy a few photographs.
Boy, this could not have come at a better time. I was totally broke and any financial help was very much needed. They were the first people (I think) to ever express interest in buying my work, and I was very excited.
So Dick and Jean picked out four prints and asked me how much the photographs were. I said they were $75.00 each ($300 for four). To put this all in perspective, my mortgage was $135 a month, which for me at the time was a lot of money. So, $300.00 would help pay the mortgage for a few months.
Dick said he would pay $50.00 a print or $200.00 for the four. With this, my heart sank. Still $200.00 would help this young troubled soul, but despite honestly wanting to let go, I couldn’t. I felt in my heart they were worth the $75.00 and I said graciously to them that I could not lower the price, even though they were friends and my first supporters.
Dick said to me to think about this for a while. He knew how much I needed the money. When my in-laws heard what I had done, they were terribly disappointed in me. They told me he would hang the pictures in his house and many well-known people would see them, and this would lead to more sales. I think this was all true, but I still said no.
Was this the right decision, probably not, but today I would do the same. I can only say they’re worth it!