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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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Previous comments
Iain Stanley's picture

Ah got it. Thanks.

Aleksandar Stajic's picture

We live in 'good enough' times. Bottom-line is god. Every industry is affected. 'Good enough' is always cheaper. Cellphone journalism is one example.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yes I think that the ubiquity of ‘cameras’ in so many people’s hands probably serves to devalue photography somewhat

Timothy Gasper's picture

Well you can't devalue photography (the study of light) but it has devalued photographers in general.

Deleted Account's picture

The only people I know who do this job, do it because they loving doing it, not to get rich.

Iain Stanley's picture

I would qualify that by saying most people who start doing photography as a job do it for the passion. Most have to move into wedding/studio/portrait photography because sunrises don’t pay the bills.

I can only speak anecdotally, but most of my wedding/studio/portrait photography friends certainly don’t love their jobs. They prefer it to a 9-5 in an office but “love”....? Not so much

Deleted Account's picture

For me, it was a means to an end. I needed work, I enjoyed making photos as a hobby.
So, like many, I Made my hobby into my work. Saying that, it doesn't feel like 'work' as such, it's enjoyable, I live from it, I don't get that Monday morning feel. I have freedom.
Problem is, my hobby has gone, so I'm getting back into what I used to do before I started my company, making things in wood. As a hobby. :)

Iain Stanley's picture

When money becomes involved different types of pressures and stress also get introduced. No longer is it simply just a creative pursuit that you enjoy, it’s also something you need to do provide for yourself/your family. If you can maintain the love and the ability to do the type if photography you love, then you’re in a happy place.

Not many photographers can find that but if you can, well done!

blessing x's picture

No, they're far from the lowest paid, least respected creative a/Art form. Photographers, especially when on the safe ground, and at times echo chamber, of photography/photo gear-centric sites, like Fstoppers or DPReview, can seem the biggest complainers though. And it takes a particularly narrow view of Art for that position. Also the comparisons in this article are ridiculous. I mean the whole premise is flawed, but why not continue the flaw? Look at Fiber Arts. The most expensive quilt ever sold was $264,000. The most expensive photograph was $6.5 million. Conclusion: Respect for photographers is over-exaggerated and they're obviously severely overpaid.

Mike Kelley's picture

Agreed. Also, Betteridge's law of headlines, as usual, applies here.

Deleted Account's picture

The speculation is that Lik purchased his own photo.

Simon Patterson's picture

Yeah, I don't believe for a minute that Lik sold his photo for $6.5 million. It was a very effective publicity stunt, though.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yes, I’ve read such things too. If true, it would serve to bring the price of the most expensive photograph down further.

EL PIC's picture

Lik thinks highly of himself if you have never had the displeasure of meeting him in person.
Before Ghost was claimed to be a 6.5 Million $$ purchase by an unconfirmed source and non identifiable customer .. there was Reeds that was reported to be a 1 Million $$ purchase. Reeds was also non confirmed and non identifiable purchaser. But advertised at that time as the most expensive since Adams.
Don’t forget about his Tree of Life either.

Sue G's picture

I took one of Ansel Adams Zone System classes.
He said “ I do not respect Photographers like real artists “.
He said he would rather be known as an image modifier and creator of the Zone System.

Deleted Account's picture

I see decent 24 mega pixel kit cameras going for about 400 bucks today. Not hard to start practicing the craft of photography. Sermons are not commanding much money except within the mega churches. Wonderfully delicious meals are being served up for a few bucks wherever you go. Pick something that is fun and easy to do, something you love. But don't expect to be paid well for it. If you do, you are deceiving yourself. Good luck and enjoy what you do.

EL PIC's picture

“ Photo Art “ prices are correct for the mass amount of photographers today and the ease of taking photos.

liliumva's picture

Apples and oranges... One also has to consider how the artist moved/shaped art at that time, and how it affects art today. You cannot compare Lik to Picasso or Rembrandt; it's just not the same. I imagine that Da Vinci's work at the time of conception was greatly undervalued than it is today. He'd probably gawk at the exorbitant price for his work. What's the phrase people say about artists... it's worth more when you're dead? Also, another thing to consider is how many painters there were then that did not get a big break like these masters. Same with photographers that are well known. This really is a moot point.

Iain Stanley's picture

I'm not comparing Lik to Picasso or Rembrandt in any way except for what their works have been sold for. You could insert any name you want really, it's the value/prices that I'm looking at more than any individual's name. And in that sense, photography values pale in comparison with other artforms. Perhaps in time an Ansel Adams will be worth more. But Picasso died in 1973, and Adams passed in 1984. Not much difference, but a huge difference in the value of their works. Then you have someone like William de Kooning, who died as recently as 1997...

liliumva's picture

But you still are though, regardless of their work. It's a different medium entirely, and they are going to be priced differently. There's an over saturation of photographers in this world. but how many would be comparable to Picasso or Rembrandt? I would say very few, and most would be unknown in the current world we live in. Yes, Adams was a badass landscape photographer, but then again he SHAPED this artform ...much like the others. Perhaps his work will be valued at a higher rate in the next 100 years or so, who knows. I think one thing to also consider is that prints are so readily available(aside from limited edition ones at a higher cost), so there is more value put into the actual one of a kind art piece.

Elliot Sander's picture

It probably has to do with the difficulty of creating the artwork itself. Even with today's technologies, not everyone can create a decent sculpture or painting. The same is true for other forms, like dancing, singing/ composition, playing of musical instruments. Those take years of practice.

For photography, sure, a lot of the photographers that became really successful has also spent years perfecting their craft. The thing is though, if we're striclty just talking about an image, almost anyone can get a great shot with a simple recipe - go to a great location, have a top of the line camera phone, and hope you're lucky with the weather/lighting. Add to that the fact that majority of images are viewed in phones or tablets where it's not big enough too see the flaws.

Daniel Jackson's picture

Painting is worse especially if you aren't at the top of the art world, visit a gallery and if the prices are $1000. a painting that might seem like good money. But then consider the costs, the gallery commission is half ($500) a frame is easily another $100, you might need to ship the work to the gallery for another $50. And lets say you spend a week making the painting 40 hours for $350. that is roughly 9 dollars an hour. 9 bucks an hour is pretty bad but that assumes that the work sells, it is rare to sell out an entire show. What if you do fairly well and sell half of the work you produce, you are somewhere under 5 dollars an hour.

Tom Reichner's picture

The photographs that photographers create are reprodceable. We take a photo and it exists on the medium of capture, but is then reproduced in order to make a print. We can make an infinite number of prints from one original 'negative'.

You are comparing prices of one-of-a-kind originals like sculptures and original paintings to photographic prints. This is not a viable comparison. To be a viable comparison, you should compare the price of photographic prints to reproduced artwork, such as lithographs.

Iain Stanley's picture

This is a good point - the lack of rarity....

Alex Yakimov's picture

Banksy uses stencils and that does not impede his value...

Alex Yakimov's picture

It is possible to sell an original negative, even digitally, if you use blockchain...

Timothy Gasper's picture

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

Marcelo Valente's picture

Is there a sculpture or a painting that was created in around 2014 that was sold for more than perter Lik’s Phantom?

Alex Yakimov's picture

was there an open auction for Lik's creation? P.S. was it merely stated that such work was sold for a certain price?

David Art's picture

Please keep printing this nonsense as it drives lukewarm competition out of the market and allows me and my peers to make a very comfortable living shooting portraits, ads, editorials and social content for individuals and companies. FYI none of us are only photographers. We are visual creators that count photography as just one of our skill sets, guess that part of this antiquated analysis was overlooked.

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