Is Photography the Lowest Paid, Least Respected Creative Art Form?

Is Photography the Lowest Paid, Least Respected Creative Art Form?

If you're creatively talented and you dream of turning your passion into a lucrative career full of fame and riches, you might want to give photography a rather wide berth, because it's underpaid and, well, quite looked down upon.

They might seem like like rather harsh, discouraging words, but I've come across several things in this last week that have reaffirmed my belief that, unfortunately, photographers and the creative art form of photography are pretty much smack bang at the bottom of the totem pole. The first was news from my hometown of Sydney that one beach-side council in the north of the city plans to adorn a new 36 kilometer public coastal walkway with two million dollars worth of art. Up to 30 artworks will be displayed to add to what is already an amazing stretch of land, and each piece is estimated to cost between $150,000 to $200,000. The problem for us photographers? The mayor of the council says that indigenous artworks (paintings) and sculptures will be used. Not a mention of photography. And $150,000 to $200,000? Wow, great work if you can get it, huh? It should also be noted that along other gorgeous walkways across Sydney's coastal stretch, sculptures, and indigenous artworks are already commonplace. Photography? Er, no.

Commemorating Famous People

The talk of beautifying and memorializing Sydney's coastal walkways with expensive statues then got me thinking about how famous people are celebrated and remembered. As a sports lover, I started to ponder different stadiums I've been to across the world, and it dawned on me that, yet again, it's typically statues that are used to create an eternal memory of a particularly special sports star. At the United Center in Chicago, you have "The Spirit" statue of Michael Jordan, as seen below.

In London, at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, there's a statue of the all-time leading goalscorer, Thierry Henry, outside the ground in his iconic knee-slide pose. And outside Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium, in Australia, you have a statue of the might King Wally Lewis, arguably Queensland's greatest ever rugby league player.

Indeed, across the world, you can find statues of sporting heroes outside many stadiums, all of which cost a pretty penny to create, install, and maintain. But what about photography? Does it have its place alongside these statues inside the famed walls of huge, globally recognized stadiums? For the most part, that would be a no.

The Price of Art

The second thing that caught my attention this week and got me thinking about how undervalued photography is was the news that James Stunt has just been declared bankrupt, despite trying to repay massive, spiraling debts by selling off his art. Stunt is the ex-husband of Petra Ecclestone, who is the daughter of billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, the former owner and overlord of Formula 1 car racing. What was interesting in all of this was that Stunt was trying to stave off bankruptcy by flogging off his most expensive artworks. These included a $2.5 million painting by Monet, a $2 million painting by Marc Chagall, and two paintings by Camile Pisarro, valued at $500,000 each. Painting, painting, painting, painting. Photography? Er, no mention of that.

So, this got me thinking about the price of different forms of art and how photography rates among them. Sadly, it doesn't make very pretty or lucrative reading. If we look at the most expensive paintings ever sold (at auction or privately) the prices are rather eye-watering, to say the least. The most expensive painting ever sold is Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvatore Mundi," which went for $450 million in 2017. Next on the list is William de Kooning's "Interchange," which sold for a nice, even $300 million. Even if we go way down to number 25 on the list, it's a Picasso that comes in at $106 million.  

What about sculptures? Well, the most expensive sculpture ever sold is Alberto Giacometti's "L’Homme au doight," which was bought for a nice $141 million. At number 10 on the list is Henri Matisse's "Nu de dos, 4 état," which was snapped for $48.8 million.

The Value of Photography

So, where does photography fit in and how do its sales prices compare with these astronomical figures? Sadly, but perhaps somewhat expectedly, they pale in comparison. The most expensive photograph sold to date is Peter Lik's "Phantom," which went for $6.5 million in 2014. Down at number seven is Andreas Gursky's "99 Cent II Diptychon," which sold for almost half that of Lik's at $3.35 million.

So just to recap, the most expensive painting ever sold went for $450 million, and the most expensive sculpture cost $141 million. The most expensive photo was bought for $6.5 million. So, the most expensive photograph sold in history was 69 times less than the most expensive painting and 21 times less expensive than the most expensive sculpture. That's staggering to me, but I guess it lends considerable weight to the notion that photography and photographers are grossly undervalued.

Ansel Adams Versus Others

What I also found interesting was the price of Ansel Adams' most expensive work. Considered by many to be the father or champion of modern photography and quoted by people ad-nauseam when asked who inspires them, you'd think such an illustrious figure would have some pretty expensive sales under his belt. You'd be wrong. The most expensive print ever sold by Adams went at a Sotheby's auction for $722,000. Think about that for a moment. We're talking about quite arguably the greatest, most influential photographer in history here. Yet his most expensive photograph sold for less than a million dollars. 

Compare that with some other famous artists.

  • Leonardo da Vinci: $450 million
  • Alberto Giacometti: $161 million
  • Rembrandt: $180 million
  • Picasso: $179 million
  • Dali: $5.6 million
  • Ansel Adams: $722,000

It's a rather stunning sight isn't it? 

Photography Undervalued Today

If you work in the photography industry, these prices at the high end of the scale might surprise you or perhaps not. Even today, photographers are continually being chronically and embarrassingly undervalued. We've all had experiences where companies or potential clients try to lowball us with ridiculous offers in return for "exposure." It even happens with print magazines or other forms of media wanting free access to our photos and in return offer "lots of free eyes on your work."

Do you think this happens to sculptors? Or other creative artists in different genres? The fact that the Sydney council I referred to earlier has allocated up to $2 million (AUD) to fund the coastal walks and estimated each piece to cost in the vicinity of $150,000-200,000 would suggest not. So, why do photographers and people working in the photography industry continually get overlooked, undervalued, and underpaid? And as the record sales of artists in different genres show, it's from top to bottom.

As I said at the beginning, if you're looking for fame and riches from a creative pursuit, it might behoove you to look somewhere other than photography. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments below.

Images courtesy of Pixabay users Chronomarchie, Skitterphoto, and TPHeinz.

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All art is generally low paid and earns little respect. Look at painters, unless you have a magic mouth and great knee pads you won’t be getting into any established galleries.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yes and no. As I tried to point out with evidence here, art in the form of paintings and sculptures can be very handsomely paid. I used the top end of town as well Sydney council plans to show this. But from top to bottom, it seems photographers/photography is consistently underpaid and, arguably, undervalued.

Of course, “the struggling artist” is a well-used phrase but do photographers struggle more than other strugglers....?

michaeljin's picture

It's rarely the artist that is "getting paid" for the art, but mostly dealers and collectors in the secondary market who essentially use it as a tool to launder money.

Iain Stanley's picture

I don't know well enough the ins and outs of the art world dealings but you'd have to imagine that the artist would get some of the proceeds, however filtered down. And if you're talking about a $100 million sale, that'd be nothing to scoff at.

michaeljin's picture

You would think that because it would be completely logical. You would also be wrong because the fine art world is anything BUT logical.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Any piece of art is only as valuable as someone is willing to pay for it.

Iain Stanley's picture

Absolutely, which arguably lends weight to the idea that photography/photographers is/are undervalued and underpaid. Why are people/foundations willing to pay $450 million for a painting, or $160 million for a sculpture, but nowhere near that for a photograph?

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes sir...correct. There are more than a plethora of photographers world-wide with high-tech cameras in their hands making and/or creating/manipulating eye pleasing images. But works like DaVinci, Van Gough, etc are pieces of art unique due to the extreme talent, passion, etc from their hands and hearts. Such talent, in combination with them being long absent from this planet, has increased their value exponentially. In photography, todays works can be made and imitated as the same via computer manipulation and the such. How, if ever, will photography come to see people the likes of Adams, Cartier-Bresson and many others in these times? I believe what will be seen now is just more images being doctored in ways to grab peoples eye and to hell with purity. But...I've been wrong before.

Iain Stanley's picture

yes that much is definitely true - photography is becoming more and more a "digital artform". We could go back and forth forever with equally compelling, valid viewpoints and probably cross over along the way......

Painting is an artform created and expressed through the hands - via tools such as paintbrushes and various types of paint. Photography is also created and expressed through the hands - via a machine that one might argue is more difficult to master than a paintbrush (for argument's sake). Whether one or the other is created more out of love is open to debate and I daresay some of Dali's or Picasso's pieces were created in a state of mind far from the realms of "love"....:)

It could be an endless, and interesting discussion but the fact remains that on the scale of pure remuneration, photography is not exactly at the top of the pecking order.

Timothy Gasper's picture

It certainly isn't at the top of the pecking order. I wouldn't call working with digital - "digital artform" either. Using a computer to 'create' something is a far cry from using ones' hands...guided by their heart and express a masterpiece. Anyone can learn to use a computer and, given time, can become quite proficient at it. I, on the other hand, can only draw stick figures whereas my grandmother was a skilled artist. It's like painting with oils compared to painting by numbers.

michaeljin's picture

If you saw more photographers burn their negatives (or somehow shred their RAW file in a verifiable manner) after making a single print, I would imagine that you'd see similar valuations.

michaeljin's picture

I don't think that many photographers practice this even in the fine arts, but I do think that they should as doing so would give anyone purchasing your work assurance of the scarcity of what they are spending their money on. Obviously, this is easier done with negatives (in terms of proof to the buyer) than a digital file, but barring the destruction of the RAW file or negative, one could argue that the art object should actually be the RAW file or negative rather than the print since the print is simply a reproduction from the RAW file or negative.

Iain Stanley's picture

classic case of chicken and egg though isn't it? You'd have to be big enough and famous enough for anyone to even care that you were destroying your RAW files etc....

michaeljin's picture

True, but it's no different from you having to be big enough for someone to care that you're painting whatever subject. The main difference between photography and other arts such as painting or sculpture is that the medium itself is designed around reproduction whereas any painting or sculpture is a unique object. Destroying your negative or RAW file after creating a one-off print would create the same level of scarcity (there's only one physical art object in the world) as a painting or sculpture, but in all cases, someone would have to care enough about you as an artist to attribute any value to your work.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

photo is not art, it is trade, like carpenter, electritian!

Will Murray's picture

It certainly *can* be art.

Broadly, if you create a print, which is intended to be hung or displayed, then you have made art. Someone with a better art education than I would probably also talk about intentionality and pre-visualisation.

Kirk Darling's picture

But then you have photographers who deride creating prints--and they appear now to be the majority of serious photographers. You have photographers who dispute that it's an art. You have photographers who refuse to put their own names on their work. Why should anyone else respect photography as an art when photographers don't?

Iain Stanley's picture

Are they representative of the artform of photography though? I don't dispute in any way what you say, but surely such people are a massive minority...? Point taken though

Kirk Darling's picture

I think they are currently the majority.

Iain Stanley's picture

The majority of serious photographers deride creating prints?

I don't seem to find a signature here...

Kirk Darling's picture

Does daVinci represent all artists and the universe of art? And yet, you didn't address my point.

Well, there is one more artist without amazing watermark across his work...

Motti Bembaron's picture

And people who treat it as such (a trade like carpentry) are usually way more successful. For example, School photographers generally make way more money than a wedding or portraits photographer.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I am surprised. I only met two professional school photographers from the US, one from Florida and the other from the Chicago area. Both used to do weddings and both made the switch to school photography and never looked back.

I was under the impression that school photography in the US is even more lucrative in the than it is in Canada.

Iain Stanley's picture

What do you mean by school photography?

Motti Bembaron's picture

The standard student portraits and class photos. Parents buy packages after viewing a few proofs.

Kirk Darling's picture

That gets split between corporations like Life Touch that have indentured servants as photographers and a very few photographers who are willing to pay kickbacks to schools and administrators.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I guess things have changed. In Quebec (and probably other provinces), big corporations have their share of the business but the more lucrative are the small daycares and schools that the big guys don't bother with.

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