SELLING PRINTS ON THE WEB: DON'T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB
BY NANCY MADLIN
With more people buying more stuff on the Web all the time, it would seem that selling fine‑art photography prints online might be a good bet. When we spoke to five photographers with Web sales experience, though, we found that sales have been quite slow: four out of the five have had zero or "very few" sales. All, however, report their sales picking up in the last three months, and believe the future will be rosier.
Photographer Al Camp's Okanogan, Washington, experience has been typical. He has been offering black‑and‑white prints for sale on the Web since April, 1996. He's had 3,722 hits in that time, but characterizes his sales overall as "not enough to mention. Certainly not enough to pay for the time put into it." The past three months, however, has seen business pick up, and he's feeling hopeful. "I'd say it has been pretty good," he reports. "Which translates into about six sales. For this part of the world, in the economy in my area, that’s pretty darn good." Camp pays nothing for his site (he gets up to 5 mb of server space free from his service provider), and charges $150 ‑$250 for prints, framed and matted. A newspaper photographer for 20 years, Camp's offerings emphasize classic subjects of the American West‑cowboys, Indians and landscapes. His site has received quite a bit of publicity: In the spring of 1997, it was featured at (now defunct) Netlook Photography Magazine on the Web. He was also one of ten photographers featured at Black and White World in May 1996 (this can still be viewed at (http://www.photogs.com/bwworld/index.htmD.) And in January 1997, he received a Gold Award from NetGuide (www.netguide. com/Site/Detail?siteld=31901), with a rating of four out of five stars.
Larry Chapman of Chapman Outdoor Photography in Ft. Collins, Colorado, has sold about $1,000 worth of prints, with prices ranging from $3 to $90, since December 1995. Before the Web, he was not selling prints at all, and since his costs are only $50 a month, he considers the site a success.
Of all the photographers we spoke to, the one with the greatest sales success is Ctein, of Daily City, California, a fine‑art photographer and printer who has set out to be the last person on earth committed to making dye‑transfer prints. Since he put up his Web site in April 1996, Ctein has made about “20 print sales, which certainly would not have happened without it." It only costs him $100 a month to maintain and update the site, so that makes it a profit center, he says. "A single average print sale provides enough profit to pay for the site for three or four months. Unless my sales drop below four a year, I don't lose money...even including the time it takes me to make a print, one sale every two months would pay off."
The Web has also greatly expanded his customer base. Ctein has never sold his prints through a gallery, he says, so "all my customers before were people I met face‑to‑face, who had seen my originals in my presence. My customer base is now anyone with Web access. I've got one who lives in Japan, another in Anchorage, a third in Michigan."
Cteins two best‑sellers are "Red and Green Auroral Rays" and "Patio With Trees and Puddles." The first is a striking, almost pointillistic, photograph of the aurora borealis, with long red, purple, green and white curtains shooting behind cumulus clouds, above the telephone lines of the Montana plains. The image area is 9 inches wide by 11 inches high; the price is $360 unframed, $475 framed. The second shows a red sandstone patio, muted down to a nearly neutral gray‑pink by the cold overcast sky, bits of which are reflected in the puddles; nearby tree leaves and blades of grass are a cool green‑blue. Image area is 19 inches wide by 15 inches high; price is $535 unframed, $695 framed.
Steven Hayes of Denver, Colorado, also likes the Web for its wider exposure. "It has enabled my work to be seen by thousands of people around the world," he says, "with an average of 800‑1,000 individuals visiting my site every month. That's more traffic than a lot of galleries get." He offers both silver and platinum prints on his site, with prices ranging from $385 to $520.
Though his site has been up since January 1994 (as a free test site from service provider Global Commerce Link), Hayes has made no sales through the Web. Having his work shown there, though, has helped him get representation in a Denver gallery, as well as leading to contacts and exhibitions in Russia, London and Herefordshire [on Welsh border].
Another photographer who believes her site is paying off without actually selling prints is Mary Ellen Mark, whose work has been on the Web since July 1997, and who pays $300 a month to keep it there. (Print prices range from $1800 to $10,000.) "It allows us to instantly drop photo researches down for clients," says Sandra Wong of Mark's studio. "That way, we are able to bypass messenger fees and wait time." Another factor in supporting Mark's Web site has been the fact that 11 years ago we started digitizing all my work," says Mark, who displays all her published books and editioned prints on the site. "It took three months to create the site. But that built on all of the prior work of digitizing and cataloging of my archives."
As for the future, many of the photographers are planning expansion. Mark, for instance, is going to expand her side to include a keyword search engine this summer, making available to photo researchers more than 22,000 images from her archives.
Steven Hayes hopes to include credit card sales as an option at his site at some point, and believes his sales will increase only at that time.
Al Camp is trying to create a 'third‑generation site, with features of interest for people to return to more often and find something new." Perhaps, he says, he’ll create a map of the county, showing where posted photos were taken. 'Users could click on a geographic site and see a picture." He also plans on posting some tips for tourists photographing in the area.
Though he hopes for improved sales at some point, Camp does not regret creating his site in light of its lack of profitability. "Since I do everything myself and don't charge for my time, it breaks even," he says. Besides, this is fun!"