Pennies for the guy…

Pennies for the guy who took the picture is the offer to photographers from  National Geographic Fine Art Galleries (NGFA) revealed in the article  Is National Geographic Fine Art a Ripoff for Photographers?  published on PetaPixel. In it Ken Bower writes of how his initial reaction to having one of his landscape images selected to be sold by the NGFA turned sour when he found out more about how the NGFA sales programme works.

The NGFA explained it to him, and you can read their explanation in the Petapixel post. If NGFA sell the print for $1800, 10% of that amount goes to the National Geographic Creative agency – so in this case a miserly $180. That agency then gives half of their cut to the photographer, who ends up with $90 – just 5% of the price the buyer has paid.

Simple maths shows us that the NGFA itself takes 90% of the purchase price – in this case $1620. That’s 18 times as much as the photographer. And although NGFA increases the price of the prints as the edition – of 200 prints – sells, that ratio remains the same. If they sell the whole edition of 200, those pennies for the photographer would however add up to a substantial amount – if nothing like as substantial as that made by the NGFA.

Now I appreciate galleries have costs. In this case they are making the prints, running a web site, conducting the sales etc. I’ve sold a few prints through galleries, and their commissions have ranged from 20% to 35%, and a 50:50 split is not unusual. Some I’m told even take a little more – but even the worst deals I’ve heard of leave the photographer with 40%, eight times what NGFA are offering.

As Bower points out, the NGFA seems to be “targeting photographers who have placed well in Nat Geo photo competitions or who are popular on the Your Shot community” for their sales, rather than the extremely professional and talented professionals whose work is published by National Geographic – who would have a much better idea of the worth of their images.

I’m not a great fan of commercial photo galleries, as regular readers will have noticed. With few exceptions I don’t feel they have the best interests of photographers or photography at the base of their activities. I still think and have often argued that the concept of limited editions is inimical to our medium and am unhappy at the fetishisation of the photographic print and in particular of the ‘original print’ that they foster. Overall I think they are parasitical on photographers and photography, though there are a few I respect for how they have genuinely contributed to our knowledge and understanding of the medium’s history.

But while buying prints from a commercial gallery, or better, from a photographer may at least sometimes be a sound investment as well as a pleasure to be enjoyed, it seems to me that the NGFA is essentially selling high price decor. I’m not dismissing Bower and those who have signed up with them as photographers – his is certainly a decent landscape image – but those with cash to spare will buy it or images like it because it goes with their colour scheme – and the next time they have new interior decorators in, that picture will go out with the trash – or if they try to sell it they will almost certainly find its resale value is far less than they paid, possibly little if any more than the worth of the frame.

As Bower hints, essentially what is being sold are high-price posters. Not printed by the photographer, the printing not overseen by the photographer, decisions about paper etc. not made by the photographer. An edition of 200 might almost as well be labelled unlimited, and the prints are not signed by the photograph but machine-signed with a ‘digital signature’.

There is a poll at the bottom of the Petapixel page asking for readers to rate the deal. When I looked at it, to my astonishment there were 15 people out of a little over a thousand who thought NGFA were offering a great or good deal. It made me wonder if they worked for the company, though on any poll you can get a few random drunken clicks. At the other end of the scale almost 96% thought it a bad or horrible deal. I think you can guess how I voted.

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