The $15 Art from IKEA

Via PetaPixel, there’s a video showing people evaluating a piece of art that you can purchase at IKEA in the midst of an art museum. It’s funny and nicely done. At the end, when they reveal that people have been punked, and that they could buy it for only 10 euros, most everyone laughs at themselves. One pair just walk away in quiet disgust (or shame).

Implicit in this video is the trope that people don’t know art. Or don’t know what art is worth. Or will believe anything given the right context. I’d like to look at it from another angle.

First off, lets call the piece art. Just because prints of it are sold by IKEA for almost nothing doesn’t diminish the value of the art to individual observers. In fact, you can buy prints (or tshirts or mugs or anything else) of pretty much every famous piece of art for which there is no current copyright.

And so that becomes an important distinction: print versus original versus copyright. What IKEA is selling for 10 euros is a print. It is not selling the original, nor is it selling the copyright. So the fact that you could buy the print for 10 euros means ultimately that you have nothing of value to the art world after you complete the transaction. You have a print, just like millions of others. Congratulations.

On the other hand, the original is still owned by someone else. Now we could argue about the value of that original now that every IKEA shopper with a keen eye for art has one. Perhaps it is more valuable now that homes across Europe and America have a copy. Perhaps it is less. I don’t know. But I’ll hazard a guess that the original cannot be purchased for 10 euros.

In the video, people attempt to hazard a guess at the value of the art. Remember, they are standing in a museum (not the gift shop), and so they are implicitly assuming that they are estimating the value of the original. Not the print. And by the way, these are museum visitors, not curators. Not experts. So they guess some wildly varying numbers, all way more than 10 euros, as they should be. The fact that people chortle at this video shows they didn’t understand the important distinction between print and original.

Does IKEA own the original? I have no idea. But IKEA owns a license to reproduce it from the copyright holder. That license has commercial value, and I’m sure IKEA paid the copyright holder more than 10 euros for it. Could you buy that license from IKEA? Depends on the terms of the contract and license to reproduce. But I’ll hazard a guess that you couldn’t buy that license for 10 euros.

So here are all the pieces: person A owns the original, and it is worth way more that 10 euros; person B (maybe the same as A, maybe not) owns the copyright, and sold a license to IKEA to reproduce it in a commercial setting; IKEA reproduces it and sells it for 10 euros; many people purchase a print for 10 euros and hang it in their homes.

So are we to guffaw at museum visitors who guess that the (ahem, original) might be worth millions of euros? Just because you could buy it in an IKEA (or the museum gift shop) for 10 euros doesn’t make them wrong. It could be worth that much. If I were the owner of the original, I’d be trying to find the guy who was willing to buy it for 2.5M euros.

As for the woman who comments that you couldn’t buy that art in a cheap store, I’ll assume she was referring to the print, and that its complexity and multiple layers could not appeal to a mass audience, therefore no cheap store could possibly sell enough of them. This reveals her ignorance of other humans, not her ignorance of art.  She has underestimated the demand for art like this, and IKEA’s ability to leverage that demand to sell prints at a price that anyone could afford.

What about the guys who walk away quietly at the end of the video? Well, perhaps we don’t know their real reaction because it has been edited out. Perhaps they realized that the premise of the video was to make fun of people, and that they’d just been made fun of. Perhaps they wanted to justify their assessment of the price with a “I thought you were talking about an original. Of course a print could be bought for 10 euros”. But rather than add fodder to the video, they just walked away. I can’t say as I blame them.

On Photo Contests

People Working
People Working


They say never write while you’re angry. Or emotional. Or something.

Well screw them. I’m gonna write to get it out. To let the emotions go. To write in a staccato style.

I almost never enter photo contests, primarily because I hate to lose. Its not so much that losing is so bad, its just that I beat myself up over how badly I suck, or how badly I missed the point, or how terribly trite and uncreative I am. For hours. Or days.

So I don’t bother because I really hate those feelings, and I know beating myself up isn’t productive and only hurts myself needlessly. But this post suckered me into trying again. I really like TOP as a photography forum because it isn’t needlessly mired in the minutiae of photography, except when they do it on purpose. And the commenters are almost always amazing. Knowing full well I was up against some amazing photographers, I sent in the image above with this caption:

Challenging. Rewarding. Appreciated. The trifecta of a job well done is difficult for most people to attain or do regularly. Some musicians are able to achieve a sort of working nirvana where they’ve honed their craft in such a way that they still enjoy it and their fans can compensate them accordingly. This image shows three-fifths of the band Scythian, and some of their appreciative fans, at the Dublin (Ohio) Irish Festival, 2013.

I was really proud of it. And I really like the image, thinking it fit the theme pretty well, stretching it somewhat creatively. I went through a couple hundred performance photos from recent months trying to find just the right one and decided on this one because the three performers demonstrate three different emotions (from left to right): pure enjoyment, hard work, mock work. After looking at a number of possible photos, I decided I had to show the crowd. I’ve got lots of great images of musicians ‘working’ but I felt that adding the crowd showing their appreciation added to it a lot.

So why am I upset? The organizer has posted some thoughts, and I’m already beating myself up. He doesn’t think musicians fit the bill. He thinks four people standing (ahem, NOT working) in front of a truck for a portrait fits the theme. As one commenter put it “If only the guitar player had been wearing a hard hat….”

And that then gets to the crux of why I shouldn’t bother with photo contests. The judges will always have some preconceived notion of what fits and what doesn’t. Street performer out, hard-hat wearing blokes in. Whether my idea and execution fits or not is awfully damn close to random noise. I know this. But still, I’ll be disappointed when my photo doesn’t even make the “generous handful” of finalists. I’m sure the finalists will be great photos. It isn’t so much that I’ll disagree with the judgment. Its simply that I’ll beat myself up, almost guaranteed, no matter what.


Unless I win. Then that will prove that I am amazing (TM).

I’ll finish with one of the comments on the ‘thoughts’ post, from Bill:

Irving Penn was once asked why he didn’t enter contests.
His comment was that the prizes were generally not worth the effort (in those days one had to submit prints), but the main reason was that if he didn’t win, the loss was damaging to his reputation and disastrous to his ego.

My reputation can take the hit (you can’t really damage ‘zero’). My ego, on the other hand is a very fragile beast indeed.

Would you like prints with that?

It has become the argument du jour: should photographers sell prints or not. One recent article argued emphatically in the affirmative. I don’t sell prints, for several reasons, and so I’m feeling the desire to respond to this article.

Even the article’s title almost seems to answer its own question: “When Did Selling Prints Become a Bad Thing?” The answer, I think, really comes down to basic economics. When a business sells something that someone else creates (photographers VERY RARELY make prints any more; they pay someone else to do it), the business must a) add convenience, b) must add value, or c) must do something the consumer cannot do or does not know how to do themselves.

Take, for example, a vendor at a sports arena selling bottles of soda for $3 each. The convenience factor is pretty easy to recognize by the fact that they are present in the venue, providing easily accessible refreshment. And spectators are never allowed to leave and re-enter and event, so the perceived convenience is amplified by the fact that you’re a captive customer. Adding value? Meh, not so much. At best, its a cold bottle of soda, but you could easily do that yourself at home. The only value-add is in the convenience. Doing something the consumer cannot do? Not really. We can buy the exact same soda 24x7x366. However, venues frequently prevent outside beverages from being brought to the event. Why is that? Ultimately, its an artificial barrier to competition for the vendor.

Prior to the digital revolution, print making filled some of these values. Convenience? Maybe, but not really. After the film was developed, and proofs made, you’d have to go back to the studio to make your selects. If they just mailed the negatives to you, it would be more convenient. Adding value? Yeah, probably because they knew how to do the necessary retouching, cropping, mounting, etc, that most consumers didn’t know how to do. Doing something the consumer couldn’t do? Absolutely. Getting 4×6 prints wasn’t too difficult 30 years ago, but getting anything larger could be challenging. The fact that the photographer likely made the enlargements themselves meant that they were done to their specifications.

But what about today? The convenience of digital files is unmatched, but you might be able to set up a nice selection and ordering process on the web that adds a touch of convenience over letting the client manage their own files. Adding value? I don’t think so. Once my JPGs are delivered, I really don’t add any value to the print-making process, other than, perhaps, making a recommendation on the vendor. Doing something the client cannot do? Only if they are computer-illiterate.

Now, onto some specifics in the article. The author makes up this quote:

“Marking up prints to sell to clients is selfish. They know an 8×10 doesn’t cost us what we charge them”

(which is pretty much how I feel about it) only to then criticize it thusly:

Since when did taking great pains to create beautiful photographs for your clients and then charging a fair price for them become “selfish?” Show me one thing that does NOT get marked up in this world? People, it’s called running a business.

Did you notice the BLATANT, even EGREGIOUS, bait and switch there? Ever since the digital revolution, prints ≠ photographs. One could even argue this was true before the digital revolution, but I’ll argue this in the present tense. Yes, I take “great pains to create beautiful photographs” AND I charge them a “fair price”. The photograph is the bits, the ones and zeros, the pixels, and are stored in files. The PRINT is the physical representation of said ones and zeros. The author is mocking someone (me, even) for rightly acknowledging that there is no longer an information asymmetry: it used to be that a photographer could charge $50 for an 8×10 because no one really knew how much it cost. Sure we all suspected it was less, but how much less was an unknown, and was hard to discover. But with 10 seconds of Google-fu today, you can learn that an 8×10 costs only $1.49 or $2.99 or even $1 ON SALE. That’s call information symmetry, and is a fundamental assumption of free markets, and the downward force on prices in a commodity market.

Yes, I said it: print making is a commodity marketplace now. And any photographer under the age of 60 who tries to charge more than $5 for an 8×10 is going to be viewed with suspicion. When was the last time you were happy with an airline charging $3 for a 25¢ can of soda? You might pay it for the convenience, but not for any other reason, and you’ll be pissed about it, and likely won’t do it again, unless someone else is paying for it.

Next the author attempts to draw a parallel between print-making (I think, though perhaps not) and a restaurant-made, $18 plate of lasagna. Upon inspecting the tasty dish, she surmises that she could make it at home. OK, lets assume, for a moment, that she’s every bit as good a cook as the chefs that this upscale restaurant. And lets assume that she knows how to get all of the ingredients and how to combine them. What would it cost her? Hell, I’ll even stack the deck in her favor, and say that the cost of the ingredients is $0. How long does the lasagna take to prepare? Let’s assume she can get all her ingredients as part of a normal single trip to a single grocery store, and that hunting for those ingredients takes only 15 extra minutes (Yes, I’m being very generous). She’ll spend easily 45 minutes in preparation, in which she’ll consume energy to boil the noodles, cook the sausage and sauce. Then it has to bake in a 350 oven for an hour or more (hope its not summer: that’ll kick in the AC for extra duty and cost). And then there’s the cleanup, cause lasagna is messy: you’ve got another 30 minutes of work, a ton of water, soap, more electricity, etc. Ignore all the electricity, gas, soap, water, etc, and just look at the time: 90 minutes of direct labor to create her $18 lasagne. I’ll head back to basic micro-economics: if she makes more than $12 per hour ($24k per year) she should not make that lasagna herself, because the restaurant is doing it cheaper than her opportunity cost.

But still, her comparison is all wrong. Print-making (not photograph making) is a commodity. It would be a better comparison if the server brought out a slice of Stoufers lasagna, and tried to charge $18 for it. Then, she would be rightly pissed at paying such a markup, because she knows that’s what the whole pan would cost at her local grocery store. And the restaurant would have provided very little value in the heating of the lasagne, and would quickly go out of business.

One last point–she ends with a comparison to Starbucks’ infamously high prices:

People will pay you to create beautiful prints for them, even though, technically, they could do it themselves. Provided, that is, that you make those prints exceptionally well. Don’t believe me? Well, why not go think about it at Starbucks as you sip that $4 coffee you could have made at home?

“Make those prints exceptionally well”. Seriously, what photographers make prints? Let the specialized pros do it. Or not. If the client can’t tell the difference between a $1 8×10 and a $3.50 8×10–nah, fuck it, lets say they CAN tell the difference. The real question is “how much is that difference worth to them?” Because I gotta tell you, I’ve done some print comparisons, and you have to see them side by side and pixel peep to see barely noticeable differences. I would laugh if some photographer tried to strong arm me, saying “Oh sure you could get your own crappy prints for only a dollar each. But mine are so much better and are totally worth $10 each.” Ten times better? No way in hell.

And when was the last time you paid $4 for a coffee? You’ll pay that much for the more complicated drinks, but not for a coffee you could make at home. Oh, and that’s right–you’re not at home. You’ll pay the upcharge for a good cup of coffee because its convenient.

No Photography Allowed. Not Suprised.


We recently saw the Kodo Drummers–it was a Christmas gift for the family, so we splurged on great seats. It was a wonderful performance, though the segment where they wailed on the big drum went on just a bit too long. I’m sure my perspective on the duration is tainted by the fact that the drummers were wearing sumo-wrestler style attire–call it a thick g-string–and nothing else. For American sensibilities, it was just a bit too much man-ass. Yes, I get that it is a cultural experience and all, but still.

Anyway, the attire of the drummers really isn’t the subject of this post. The subject is the common prohibition of photography. I’ve ranted about the before, and I still think event promoters are incredibly short-sighted in declaring that photography is 100% verboten. Allow me to demonstrate just how different the world is right now from what it was just a few years ago. Perhaps you’ve seen this picture:


This is a comparison between 2005 and 2013 papal introductions, and the difference is striking. Today, EVERYONE has a camera with them, all the time. And people LOVE to take pictures of the things that are important to them, and share those pictures with everyone they know.

Clearly, this kind of scene would be distracting at a performance like the Kodo Drummers. So I’m not arguing that people should be allowed to take pictures in any way they want. I’m suggesting that rather than having an announcement (and prominent signs) saying “Photography is not allowed” and “Cameras Prohibited” (which they didn’t attempt to enforce on cell phone holders), they should say something like “There will be an opportunity to take pictures at the end of the performance. As a courtesy to the performers and other audience members, please do not take pictures until that time.” Then, during the bows and the encore, let people take pictures, encourage it, and even suggest hash-tags. Then it won’t be a big deal what kind of camera someone uses, because EVERYONE will be taking pictures.

Yes, I broke all the rules by taking the picture that leads this post. But because I was doing it surreptitiously, with my phone, I got just one or two frames, and the result is pretty crappy. On the other hand, one of my coworkers, to whom I had attempted to describe the performance before we went, told me that he really appreciated this picture because it helped him understand what I was talking about.  Considering that the theater was only about 70% capacity, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have your audience do as much marketing as possible?

But, no. The prohibitions and policies are stuck in 2005 where “camera” was understood to be a stand-alone device, and few people carried one everywhere. Today is very different, and event promoters are foolish to ignore that difference.