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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81 Comments

Previous comments

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.

Alexander Yakimov's picture

And a relatively young art form... What if we perform comparison among new art forms such as, but not exclusively​: graffiti, light media installations, ​and others?

Iain Stanley's picture

Banksy doing quite well....

Alexander Yakimov's picture

Yes, indeed, Iain. He is quite notable. Correct me if I am wrong Most of his works sold are small in size, mere reproductions of originals. His trend is not quite consistent to others in the graffiti community in that regard. And his earnings overall are on par with photographs sold, you've mentioned. Anyways it's hard to argue a fair value for any art form, more so for new ones. Nevertheless,​ it is an exciting topic, because of this.

Jonathon Rusnak's picture

The simple fact that people put a value on art is the problem. It isn't worth a thing until it is.

Iain Stanley's picture

I agree. As someone earlier in these comments said, something is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it. But that then opens up the discussion of why people are willing to pay hundreds of millions for paintings and sculptures etc, but barely more than a million for photographs (all at the top end of course).

Then at the everyday level most of us exist in, why do we continually get laughable offers from potential clients, or even from print media?

Jonathon Rusnak's picture

There are a lot of things I don't understand about the cost of art. Or anything for that matter. But if supply and demand mean anything then it would make sense that a painting from any painter would be worth considerably more than any photo from any photographer.

I take photos for myself. To me they are priceless.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes sir I agree with that. The photos you (or anyone?) takes should be priceless to you. As for paintings....these classic and high-end pieces of art are one of a kind. Someone at some time somewhere deemed them extremely valuable. As such...the rich, exemplifying their richly traits, sought to gain the one of a kind pieces for themselves. I think you can see where I'm going with this. As for photos....you've already addressed that issue. And thank you.

Laughing Cow's picture

*creativity
noun [ U ] US ​ /ˌkri·eɪˈtɪv·ɪ·t̬i, ˌkri·ə-/
​the ability to produce original and unusual ideas, or to make something new or imaginative

Most photographers are not "creative".
Many are excellent technicians, but not creative.
Creativity is another thing*.
An example: if you are a landscape photographer, you know what to do to be in the right place, at the right time, and you know what to do with framing and exposure to get a perfect image. It's technique, not creativity.

Marcus Joyce's picture

Peter lick would be better to compare pricing as ghost went for quite a bit of money

Iain Stanley's picture

I’m not sure what you mean? Peter Lik is used in the article.....

Thomas H's picture

The problem which photography has, lies partly in the fact that a photograph can be reproduced identically at a negligible cost. Other art pieces cannot, and are often being used as a mean to a capital preservation.

Furthermore, if we have nowadays 2 billion images being taken daily(!), it is difficult to stand out above the "noise level." Clearly almost a 99.99(?)% majority of these images are snapshots, taken as a symbolic 0.5sec effort, and that also imprints on the minds of potential buyers of art or iconic images: Its "just a press on a shutter button," or so it seems.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yes, I think the ubiquity of “cameras” via smartphones probably/possibly devalues the image of photography

I agree with Ansel Adams, we are image modifiers. We record an image of an existing object, scene or person and modify it. Photography is a highly skilled craft and photographers are highly skilled craft people, but they are not artists in the true sense of the word. Remember, everyone is a 'professional' photographer now.
(Professional photographer for 50 years, now retired)

Sadly, the only way your images will be respected by society is when you'll be dead for 500 years or more.
Either that or you're already rich and famous beforehand (and not necessarily talented).

Ed Sanford's picture

Simply, people will not value objects made with a machine as highly as images and objects made with handwork. The average "Joe" with a cellphone believes that he can emulate any photograph. Hence, the familiar "where did you take that" question to photographers that is rarely asked of painters. Moreover, digital technology has made it even worse. Ansel Adams slaved in the darkroom for days, weeks, or years to get one image perfect. Photoshop artists can accomplish the same thing in minutes. We learn in economics that scarcity increases value. Conversely, abundance lowers it.

I've been wondering if the difference between the art world and the photography world is that of organisation and strength in numbers, with more galleries dedicated to art, it makes it more special, elevating it to higher costs. Although, low prices also breed contempt for something, and reduces its value.

Photography for me is quite a lonely experience, which undoubtedly doesn't help.

My thoughts also go back to reading about group f64, they organised their own galleries and exhibitions, they still struggled bit it seems like that action elevated photography into an art form.

We really need to sound more convincing when we say not anybody can do this, when everybody can do this, just not very well.

Maybe we need more artsy flamboyant language to come off as snobbery and cleverer than everybody else; making people feel a little out of their depth helps build the mystery and skill.

What annoys me a little bit though, more so with street photography is the galleries that exist for it are few and far between, and at the top of the game with the well known master artists, they're mostly by invitation only, there's nothing below them to get your name out there.

It's all a little circular really; maybe what we need to do is do the thing the general public cannot do, massive prints for example. These stock image photo websites don't really help with millions of images, for the valuation of photography.

Leigh Miller's picture

I remember that episode from the Sopranos...where Tony is telling his shrink "Lately I've been getting the feeling that I got here at the end"...like the best time of this thing is over...

Scott Mason's picture

The general public and art-lovers alike recognize the hard work, skill and time that go into a painting. We can spend years learning how to shoot, light an image, and edit or even composite it, but most people aren't aware of our process. That's where a lot of the problem lies.

Another issue is the fact that a photograph can vary wildly from an instant of creative time (snapshot with little-to-no editing) to a complex image that had a lot of time put into its composition, posing, lighting, and editing. Anyone can create the former, and get lucky in doing so. It takes away a lot of the mystery out of photography, and people start to assume it's "not that complicated." This is a great example of the Dunning-Kruger effect: the less experienced someone is in a particular field, the more capable or knowledgeable they assume they are.

It's easy to become disillusioned and complain, and I see a lot of that in these comments sections. It's even worse on our (Fstoppers') facebook post comments. But let me tell you from experience that you CAN make a decent living, it's just much harder work than most people are willing to put in. It could be years until you're comfortable, and even then you will constantly have to hustle.

Iain Stanley's picture

All good points. I'd say it's also rather close to an inverted Socratic paradox. On another note, and in relation to your last sentence, I wonder if photographers who dream of turning their creativity into a career really want to wait a few years and then continue to hustle.....it depends on current circumstances I suppose

The world is awash in cheap imagery and more than 300 million photos get uploaded every day.