Sunday, August 25, 2019

Going nowhere fast

Longhorn, Texas, David Michael Kennedy, 2016

Two weeks ago, Cris Pulos, Terry Thompson and I spent 2-1/2 amazing hours with renowned photographer David Michael Kennedy at his studio and home in the village of El Rito an hour or so southwest of Taos. I wish that Bill Davis, the other member of our monthly breakfast foursome, had been able to share the experience. He would have loved it. Our audience with the famed platinum-palladium printer was the result of Cris’s persistent efforts. I know there was a lot of back and forth to make it happen. It sure was worth the effort. Thanks, man.

Since I visited David’s studio in 2016, a visit during which I purchased a small framed platinum print of a longhorn steer, he has expanded his workplace and added one of the most impressive darkrooms any of us has seen. We had some serious studio envy.

The gallery space within his studio was as expansive as any in a major city and there were at least seventy framed photographs on the walls, each a masterpiece. If the test of great photographs made by a great photographer is that you know whose work it is from across the room, David Michael Kennedy passes with flying colors. Simply seeing that extraordinary display was worth the price of admission. That we sat in easy chairs and enjoyed two hours of wide-ranging talk about the state of photography today; David’s personal journey from the go-to rock and roll and album cover photographer in New York; his self-taught mastery of platinum-palladium printing; and a smattering of our long but modest careers was the bonus. He could not have been more engaging and open. He said we were always welcome and I intend to take him up on that.

Bob Dylan, 1985, David Michael Kennedy

Theories about the decline of fine art photography were an overarching theme as they always are when devoted photographers get together. In fact, no discussion among photographers is complete unless it eventually goes “there.” Name recognition notwithstanding each of the four of us were saddened by our star in the photographic galaxy, and that recognition and sales have been fleeting and heading toward nil.

On that subject David leaned in to say, “I’m confused.” He could have said “disappointed” or “disillusioned.”

David told us about recent shows in Los Angeles and Manhattan. These were big time affairs attended by A-Listers. The well-heeled gallery owners flew him to both cities, put him up in four-star hotels, bought $4,000 dinners for eight at Michelin starred restaurants and he came away with a case of indigestion. In LA he sold exactly zero and in NYC “two small prints.” How does that work and what does it say about the viability of a self-supporting life as a fine art photographer when David  Michael Kennedy’s work doesn’t sell? It says, as I wrote in a letter to a floundering writer-photographer friend, that “fine art photography as a business proposition is a fool’s errand” and that “financial success is damn near impossible.” My friend captains a pilot boat in the frigid waters off Rockland, Maine in the middle of the night to make ends meet. Good thing he loves it.

David suggested that the art business in general is in the tank, that it’s broader than just photography. Millennials don’t buy art. They buy experiences. They’ll safari in Kenya or trek to Machu Picchu but won’t buy a $500 photograph. At least that’s my theory, a theory supported by the fact that photography workshops are moving off-shore and are more about new places, cultures and cuisines than learning skills.

And everybody is a photographer. Most folks think they can do what we're doing after fifty years of practice. Everybody has a social media outlet for their work. Instant gratification is there for the taking. Even the compositionally impaired can grab a good image from time to time. It’s like golf. The occasional par keeps a hacker in the game.

David related a story. He was visiting his Taos gallery, since folded but that’s another story, and overheard a besotted young gentleman contemplating the purchase of one his prints. He knew that the youngster was in a new relationship with his girlfriend by the way he swaggered. David described the photograph as a classic Rio Grande Gorge vista. The dude debated whether to buy or not to buy until the girl told him, “You can do that, babe. You don’t have to buy it” Naturally, he decided that he could and another sale was buried in the graveyard of broken expectations. I asked DMK how he could hold his tongue. He shrugged.

On the plus side there was a modicum of comfort knowing we were in good company when a photographer of David’s stature was struggling to sell his work, too. I offered an analogy to the restaurant business and to the adage, “Misery loves company.” In my restaurant life I would commiserate with my competitors when sales were down. We’d complain to each other about how bad business was and I’d take heart. So, it isn’t just me.

But I countered the misery loves company excuse by saying that even when you and most of your peers are in a death spiral somebody else is kicking ass. Somebody is killing it when you're dying. You have to figure what does work. I’m giving that advice to myself more than anybody else. My good friend John Farnsworth suggested that you need to identify what everybody else is doing and do the opposite. I'm not entirely sure about that angle. Maybe you just have do it differently and better. If they like it enough, they’ll buy it. However, that premise leads to the abyss of self-doubt if you’re not selling.

Ultimately, we identified digital photography and social media as the assassins of our beloved art form. It’s been made too easy and this is from a person who usually has no problem with fast or easy. And a dope who doesn’t know an f-stop from a traffic stop can reach an instant audience. David Michael Kennedy told us, “I hate easy.” Or more accurately he has a love hate relationship with easy. He hates himself for secretly liking speed and ease. The man spent fifteen years learning and mastering the painstaking platinum-palladium process. He’s one of the best in THE WORLD. But being a tried and true process guy, he just might like the journey as much as the destination. I do not suffer that malady.

He showed us a recent portrait made with his Sony 7 series digital camera albeit equipped with a Leica lens from a film camera. He boasted, “I don’t think you can tell that this is Palladium from a digital camera.” We could not. It looked like rest of his incredible work to us.

Water Wagon, Taos, 2019, Steve Immel

That leaves us with the question of where to go from here? What will work and are we willing to do it? One answer is do what you do and do it for yourself. We’ve already stipulated that doing the same old thing will lead nowhere but if self-satisfaction is enough, go for it. I wish liking my own stuff was enough but it isn’t. Most of us need validation of some kind, be it recognition or recompense. I’ve been asked a hundred times if I want fame or money. I’ve always danced around that question by answering, “l'll take recognition. If I get that sales will follow.” I still kinda sorta think that. On the other hand, I’ve been in dozens of juried shows across the country and have a chest full of ribbons to show for it.  But I have yet to sell a photograph in any of those shows.

About ten years ago I set aside the goal of making money from fine art photography. Now I'd be happy to pay for my habit. I trimmed costs. I stopped advertising. I still can’t break even though I came close last year because I shot a wedding for $2,400 that works out to an average hourly wage of $10.

Is there commercial work I'm willing to do? It'd probably be portraits. Or does a person do it for her or his self? Get back to me on that.


Blacks Crossing said...

What a wonderful encounter and time you spent with David Michael Kennedy! Color me jealous but thrilled that you and Terry got to visit with him. And you put the photographer/artist/weaver/writer's dilemma in fluid and perfect terms. It is definitely a different world, and particularly with photography, "anyone can take a picture", que no? As the group of you discussed, there is something to the "slowness" of learning anything that gives an advantage to an artist, above people who do it occasionally. By the way, Fred feels the same way about selling a handmade solar house. Similar dilemma, different skills. In the end, artists do art because we must. And many end up working other jobs to pay the bills. That does not diminish the quality and passion of the art in the least. There you have it. A great cathartic blog and service to us all, Steve! Muchas gracias, Amigo!

Terry T. said...

Can't say it any better than Daryl did. Seeing DMK's studio and work was indeed a real eye-opener for me also. His "confusion" is perfectly understandable. Makes me think of:

There must be someway out of here, Said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion here, I can't get no relief
Bus'ness men they drink my wine, Ploughmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of this is worth

Good post Steve.