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How to Sell Your Photos Professionally

How to Sell Your Photos Professionally

By Conor Risch

Shane Lavalette, Dominique at Sunset, Two Midnights
© Shane Lavalette
“Dominique at Sunset, 2010,” from Shane Lavalette’s series “Two Midnights.” Lavalette says that conversations with collectors and institutions that eventually result in print sales often start via e-mail. 

There are a few reasons a fine-art photographer might want to sell his or her prints directly to collectors or institutions. Maybe the photographer is newly established, or hasn’t found a gallery interested in representing his or her work.

Photographers who do sell their work independently face many of the challenges—marketing and presentation, framing and shipping, organization, documentation and relationship building—that gallerists face. They also deal with stigmas associated with selling one’s own photographs: that record keeping and pricing and edition standards are below what a gallery guarantees collectors, and that they may have diminished the perceived value of their work by selling too much of it or at too low a price. Whether or not a photographer manages to sell his or her work in a professional manner can affect potential relationships with galleries down the road.

If artists do establish relationships with collectors or institutions on their own, however, that can appeal to galleries. “A track record of selling work privately may be a perk for a gallery that is interested in working with an artist,” notes Shane Lavalette, a photographer and the associate director of Light Work, a nonprofit photography organization in Syracuse, New York. Dina Mitrani, who owns a gallery in Miami, says she understands that artists need to sell work privately “in order to get their work out there and in order to get people, whether it be collectors or even gallerists, aware that the work is out there, available, is progressing and interesting and collectible. I am happy to take on an artist who has sold independently.”

PDN spoke with a handful of artists who’ve placed their work with collectors and institutions without the aid of a dealer to find out how they did so. We also interviewed gallerists to find out what photographers who sell their work privately should keep in mind to make sure those sales don’t raise red flags when the right gallery does come calling.

Reach Out to Institutions

After a discouraging final critique during her MFA studies, artist Peggy Levison Nolan, who began working as a photographer while her children were teenagers, decided to take a chance and submit the handmade book she had created as her thesis to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She was inspired by her son, photographer and teacher Abner Nolan. “What have you got to lose?” she recalls him asking her. About a month after she submitted her 16 x 20-inch handmade book she received a call from Sandra S. Phillips, the museum’s photography curator. That call led to Nolan’s work being added to the museum’s collection.

Having work in museums or other institutional collections is a positive for an artist trying to land a gallery. “It’s always helpful to see that [an artist’s work has] already been placed in collections,” says Wall Space gallery founder and director, Crista Dix. “It makes it that much easier to reach out to clients and say, ‘They’re already at MoMA, they’re already at SFMOMA, they’re already at LACMA.’”

“If you’re working with institutions, keep in mind their budget cycle,” suggests artist Richard Benari, who collaborated with Lauren Henkin on a recent print portfolio project that they have sold to collectors and institutions. If a library or museum is at the end of their budget cycle when you meet with them, they may not have money to spend. (Fiscal years for institutions vary, and may end anywhere between January and July.)

Be Professional in Promoting Your Work

When artists sell work privately it’s up to them to promote it to collectors and institutions. To market their portfolio of prints, Henkin and Benari created a handmade brochure, which they sent out to institutional curators. “The piece was to get someone’s attention; it was to get them to return our calls; it was to get a conversation started,” says Henkin.

“For the institutions, we just started writing to curators,” adds Benari. “We knew that each of them had their own submission policy, and they had to go through a committee, so we knew that they weren’t going to accept the work off the bat, and we were very gratified when many of them asked for a presentation.”

To reach any collector or curator, Henkin says, personalizing your communication is important, as is “being respectful of their time and what their preferences are.” Henkin makes an effort to learn about each individual she contacts, “to know what kind of communication they prefer and what kind of information they’re looking for [about a work she is offering].

“Some people are more interested in the type of print, whereas other people might be interested in the cost per print in this portfolio or series,” Henkin adds. “You learn to listen to them and understand what they respond to, and then you’re better able to tailor the message that you need to get across to them in a way that will make them respond.”

Don’t Limit Yourself to the White Cube

For Henkin, creating handmade books, which were essentially bound collections of exhibition-quality prints, has allowed her to introduce her work to collectors, which has in turn led to print sales. “The books were a way to introduce a lot of people who weren’t familiar with my work, with my printmaking abilities and with the idea of buying prints,” she says. Many of the collectors of Henkin’s prints have seen her work in book format first, she adds.

Henkin has also worked successfully with rare books dealers, who have sold her books and introduced her to institutional collectors, she says. “Yale University found out about my work through a private dealer and they ended up buying all of the books, and now they’ve acquired two portfolios of prints,” she says.

Henkin was also able to place her books in galleries that were interested in having an object “at a different price point than individual prints [they] were selling,” she says.

After reading an article a couple of years ago in The Wall Street Journal about interior designers who create private libraries for clients, Henkin reached out to some designers to make them aware of her books. She and Benari have also met and presented their work to an association of architects who might be looking for prints for their building projects. “If you can begin to think of other professions, whether it’s people who build libraries for clients or people who act as art consultants,” you can find new ways of selling your work, Benari says.

Maintain a Solid Online Presence

“I think the main game changer is having a website that is really current and shows your work well,” says Letha Wilson, who recently began working with Higher Pictures in New York City after selling her work privately. Wilson estimates that the number of people who have bought her work after discovering it on her website is equal to the number who have discovered her work through physical exhibitions. Independent curator Jon Lutz found Wilson’s work online, she says. He included Wilson in a group show, and has offered small editions of her photographs on his site Daily Operation.

Henkin launched a publishing imprint, Vela Noche, for her book projects and the print portfolio she recently published. She is also “getting ready to launch a Vela Noche print section [on the Web] which would incorporate individual prints and small folios of prints,” she says. “Building [the Vela Noche] name has started to firm up my reputation and will eventually lead to a broader base [of collectors].”

Build Community

Artists don’t have to aim for major institutions or important collectors in order to start selling their work, Henkin notes. “I always encourage people to start locally. If they’re limited in funds and what they can spend marketing their work … just try to set up some meetings with people locally, whether it’s people who have an interest in art, or institutional curators, or anyone who would be willing to look.” Anyone can become a promoter of your work, Henkin notes. “Even if someone can’t afford to buy your work, if they get to know you and they get to admire the work they will become a spokesman for you, which can be equally as valuable as if they buy your work.” She adds, “People will promote your work if they believe in you. They will spread the word, they will talk about you and they often have an impact too.”

Henkin says she’s met collectors through teaching bookmaking and photography workshops. “It seems like almost every workshop I teach there is one or two people who end up either buying a print or a book,” she notes.

Shane Lavalette says he’s sold work to “other photographers, gallerists, curators, publishers, collectors—the whole gamut. These relationships often arise from either myself or the other person reaching out to connect and start a conversation. Exhibitions and events can spark [conversations], but I find a lot of these conversations arise by e-mail these days, somewhat out of the blue.” Lavalette adds, “Occasionally I reach out to collectors or institutions, purely out of admiration or interest in their collection.” Sometimes those communications result in selling prints to collectors or institutions, Lavalette says.

“Where I’ve had more luck at [selling my work] than maybe the average person, is that I put a lot of effort into showing my work to anyone who’s willing to look at it and helping people as much as I can with their own projects and research and need for contacts,” Henkin notes.

Be Consistent With Pricing and Edition Sizes

Keeping pricing consistent can be difficult when collectors approach artists who don’t have gallery representation. Often collectors will expect an artist to discount the price of the work by 50 percent, equal to the commission a gallery would earn on a sale. But that can make the transition to working with a gallery difficult for existing collectors. “My suggestion to artists is that when they are selling from their studio they should still sell things at retail prices so that the transition when they do work with galleries is easier for the collectors who already collect their work,” says Brian Paul Clamp, owner of ClampArt gallery in New York City. “Discounts can be negotiated,” says gallerist Dina Mitrani, “but it’s very important for the asking price—the retail price—to always be consistent.” (For more on pricing your work, see our article “A Guide to Pricing Your Prints”)

Keep Good Records

“It’s important for an artist to keep track of where the work is, where it sold, how much it sold for,” Mitrani says. “It’s really important to have records.”

“I think that you have to present yourself in as professional a way as possible in whatever you do,” says Henkin. “Whether it’s keeping track of your editions, what writing you put out into the world, how you present yourself in an artist’s talk—I think all of that combines into someone’s perception of you. And for me it’s just really simply an Excel spreadsheet that keeps track of every print, every book, how much it sold for, who it went to, when it was shipped, when it was printed—all of the details that any gallery would keep track of.”

Recognize That Group Shows Alone Aren’t Enough to Generate Sales

Group shows are an excellent way for artists to gain exposure for their work. However, while group shows at times lead directly to sales, artists suggest those sales are the exception, not the rule. Letha Wilson estimates that a small percentage of the sales she has made have come from group shows. “I do think [group shows are] more about exposure, but also just showing your work—and you never know who might be a future collector,” Wilson says. At times people who work at the galleries at which she’s exhibited as a part of group shows have bought her work. Henkin says that sales of her work through group exhibitions have been “pretty rare,” and adds that she’s been focusing more on getting her own work out than submitting to competitions or juried exhibitions. “I’m building a larger collector base on my own and I’m not sure that those shows are going to expand that base, which is really what I’m after,” she says.

Be Thoughtful About Selling Work Online

While offering works through third-party online print sales or selling prints through one’s own website, can be a good way for an artist to get their work out, gallerist Brian Paul Clamp advises that photographers be careful about the sites they sell with. “If I see [an artist’s] work is already available on whatever site, it can often dissuade me from even getting started and having a conversation [with them], unfortunately,” Clamp says. Even if an artist is offering only a couple of prints online, Clamp adds, “The truth is that there are a lot of collectors who aren’t interested in collecting artists who have editions on these low-cost, big-edition websites.” Clamp says he’s had collectors cancel sales when they saw an artist was selling his or her work online, and adds that he has chosen not to approach an artist he would like to work with because the artist is offering too much of his work online.

Understand the Commitment

Selling one’s own work is a big challenge, and some artists simply aren’t wired for it. “There’s been a couple of times when I’ve felt close to a breakdown,” says Henkin of the process of selling her work. She believes that most people aren’t able to do the same level of selling that she and Benari have “because of the time involved and the commitment that’s needed to follow up on all those calls and build the relationships.” Henkin says the process “has happened over years of time,” and that balancing selling one’s work with creating new work can be very difficult. “There are times when I get completely frustrated that I haven’t made anything and I just get fed up with it.”

Links referenced within this articlePhoto Gallery
Shane Lavalette
Light Work
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Wall Space gallery
Lauren Henkin
Letha Wilson
Higher Pictures
Daily Operation
Vela Noche
A Guide to Pricing Your Prints
A Guide to Pricing Your Prints
How to Land a Nonprofit Gallery Exhibition
Landing Galley Representation: Rachel Phillips
Landing Gallery Representation: Ina Jang
Landing Gallery Representation: Paola Ferrario
Landing Gallery Representation: Marta Soul
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How to Sell Your Photos Professionally.