Tuesday, June 18, 2013

the work of art

The function of your organs is not dependant upon a Picasso centered above the sofa. You will, indeed, breathe without a bound set of pages filled with well-constructed lines of words about a wheelbarrow and chickens.  Your heart will beat, albeit more slowly and evenly, without having ever heard the greatest rock and roll song of all time—whether that song is Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" or Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" or Springsteen's "Born to Run." You certainly don't need movies to make your blood flow.

But try living without art. You can't. I am willing to bet that not a single room in your house, including the bathroom, is devoid of it in some form.

In my small bedroom, I have eight original paintings, a mosaic, a silkscreen, a print, a photo, two lithographics, and a blown-glass vase made by an artisan. Some were gifts; some were purchases; some are the work of my daughter or me.

These are the things I value not only because they bring me joy when I look at them, but because I know how much heart went into them, how much work. When we buy something from an artist, sometimes what we pay for is the time spent on that single piece, but most often we pay for education, experience, practice, tools, materials, inspiration, and all the things that led to the creation of that piece of art.

It's the same thing with accounting. You pay not only for someone to prepare your taxes; you pay for the education that taught the preparer. You pay for a roof and walls and materials and utilities.

So a photograph, simple as it seems, is not just a quick capture of a moment in time.

The other day, I took a walk down the street with a friend to shoot some of the pretty flowers we saw on the way home from dinner.  I grabbed my camera and two lenses—about $3,500 worth of equipment—and we spent about 30 minutes walking, examining the flowers, composing our shots, and pressing the button that seems to determine the photo's value in the minds of some. 

My card had more than 60 images when I returned. I previewed each, selected the ones I thought had potential to be beautiful, and went to work.  While flowers are pretty without makeup, my goal is to convey something more than an exact two-dimensional replica of a three-dimensional flower. I want to show you a world, a place you don't often notice. I want that picture to swallow one of your breaths.

The beautiful zinnia you see at the top of the page didn't look exactly like that in my camera. It was planted in a box in front of a neighbor's house, and you could see a blurred-out background of mortar and brick, but it was a little too pronounced for my liking. When you're looking at a flower, you're looking at the flower; the background shouldn't detract.  So I blew up the bloom. 

Next, I adjusted the color, clicked the Auto Tone button, adjusted the color again, clicked the HDR button and fiddled with those adjustments, pasted the previous version on top of the HDR version and erased the parts I wanted crispier before merging those two images.

Finally, I add a watermark in an inconspicuous place—not because I want to protect the image from theft (anyone with an iota of initiative can blot or crop out my watermark) but because it's mine.  I sign my work.  It's a pride thing.  I didn't spend thirty minutes editing a single photograph so that my picture could be another of the millions of anonymous images floating around without attribution.

Sometimes I'll post that photo on my Flickr or Facebook page. If you like it, you will leave me a comment saying it's beautiful. But the truth is that I want you to buy it. I want you to hire me to shoot your kid's senior portrait or the headshot for your new book or your party. 

And when I tell you that I charge $250 to $350 for a one-hour photo shoot, which includes 25 to 50 images on a DVD, you should understand that I took eight times that number and that each of those 400 images was scrutinized, that the final images were each opened and tweaked, that zits were blotted out, that skin was smoothed, that, ladies, your mustache was softened, your eyes were made to sparkle more, your tie, gentlemen, was enhanced.  What you get is hours of work that's hard on the eyes and the hands and the neck. 

I want you to find the exchange of art for money a valuable, mutually beneficial one that will bring you joy for years to come.

So even though I have that photograph lying around, collecting pixels, taking up disk space, it's not free. My name and a link to my website are not a fair exchange for the work that makes a work of art.

I don't work for free. Period.

Monday, June 10, 2013

the magnitude

My father would have been 76 today.

One of the biggest challenges about my father, second only to being a passenger in the car he was driving, was buying him presents.

Usually, we'd combine his birthday gift with his Father's Day gift to save ourselves the stress. Because he was so thoughtful with ours (he'd call a month before our birthdays, when we were cooking dinner or doing homework, expecting an immediate answer to the question of what we'd like him to buy us), we always wanted to get him something special, memorable, useful—more out of love than obligation.

Every so often, we'd get a good idea, and we'd milk that for as long as we could. Because my dad owned a paving company, and because alligatoring was a thing that happened to asphalt, we started an alligator collection for him.  He'd smile at the inside joke and set the paving stone or paperweight or bottle opener or sculpture or mosaic down on the table, and my mom would find a place for it.

The rest of it—bathrobes, sweaters, ties, socks, wallets, money clips—stayed in their boxes for years because he didn't need anything.  There was a good shot he'd wear it if it had a horse on it, though, so we'd bought him a rainbow of Polo shirts, beach towels, shorts, and enough cologne to drown a polo pony.

Sometimes we'd buy him gift certificates that he'd lose under the seat of his car or CDs he wanted but which still had the shrink wrap on them when he died.  The things he treasured the most were the XXL sleep shirts with his grandchildren's photos ironed on them. In fact, Beth would pay for the shirts and transfers, and I'd take the pictures and do the ironing.  

The last few were a large. We took them to the rehab center on Christmas, and he cried.  I'd only seen him cry maybe one other time in my life, and that was when his father died.  I'm wearing one of those shirts now, a photo of Serena kissing Marcus. My dad never got to wear it.

Today is like the last mile of firsts: first birthday without him, first Father's Day without him, and, in 25 days, it will be the end of the first year without him. 

I have been in a bad mood for eleven months. If I ever had patience, it left with my father. I'm easily frustrated, often angry, moody, pensive, and very lonely.  It would be easier to count the days I didn't cry on my way to work.  I am like a gurgling volcano. It's very hard to tell when it's safe to come near me.

On July 5th, the anniversary of his death, I expect to ooze hot lava for three days, until the headstone unveiling on the 7th, when I will be done erupting and will begin to cool down.  I might have a little residual steam, but I'll probably be safe for the tourists.

Yeah. It's going to happen just like that.  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

don't work for free. period.

Your toilet is clogged, and you've called a plumber. "Is this Bob the Plumber?  Yes, I have a clogged toilet. I want you to come and fix it. In exchange, I will put a sign out on my lawn for the whole time you're here that says you are upstairs fixing my toilet. The sign will have your phone number on it. When you're finished, the sign will stay around, but it'll probably go behind the tree-trimmer's sign."

The plumber is delighted. He needs the 30 minutes of free publicity on your low-traffic street.

Can't imagine that scenario?  Substitute photographer (or writer or artist) and link to your website for plumber and sign.  Not so far-fetched anymore, is it?  

In fact, you can substitute just about any kind of artistic endeavor for any kind of service or product; the analogy is perfect.

I am not the only one to say elegantly that you shouldn't work for free.  But until you commit to the mantra that should be of every artist—regardless of medium, regardless of patron—your work will continue to be devalued by society.  Is cheapening an entire industry worth not being worth a dime a dozen to have your name on some blog somewhere, with a usually misspelled attribution and a broken link to a website you sporadically maintain? 

Artists are not rich. Our art is relegated to hobby status because we can't afford to pay our children's school tuition and our car payments with all the generous links to our websites.

A few years ago, I was asked to donate a large mosaic sculpture for an auction benefitting cancer patients. The woman who solicited the request was being paid to organize the event. The winning bidder was getting my art. And I? I would not be getting paid. The entire charity event was on the backs of the artists, the people who could least afford to donate to charity.

What about artists requesting art from each other? A friend once asked me to do some design work. If this project took off, he told me, then he'd have a lot of money to hire me for the big design jobs later.  And when that time came, he said he went with a professional designer, one who would never give away her work. Since that day 25 years ago, my policy is this:

I will trade something of value to you for something of value (usually money) to me.
 I bring this up because I received a request for a photo. I get maybe a dozen each year, but each is irksome. I want to share this exchange with you. 

Hello. My name is [Name] and I work for [Website.com]. First of all, your work is incredible. I was wondering if we could use this photo (see link below) for one of our blog posts. We will give you credit for the image and link back to your page. Please email me with your answer. 
Here's my reply:
First of all, thank you for the compliment on my work.  I have been taking photographs since I was a little girl.  I developed my own film and printed photos in high school, and I grew up to take professional portraits and other artistic shots. 
My first self-portrait, ca 1977,
shot, developed, and printed by me.
Here's my thought: I want ten bucks for the photo, and it's not the money; it's the principle.  I know you can get a free photograph from the next person—someone who wants to self-promote or add publishing credits to his or her résumé.  But I don't need either of those. 
Art takes time and costs the artist money. (My camera and one lens were more than three grand.)  So why shouldn't it cost the patron money?   
Look: you will pay someone to fix the toilet, massage your feet, and shampoo your hair. Would you ever expect someone—a stranger, no less!—to do those services for free?  Would the plumber unclog your sink for a sign on your lawn that says he's working on your bathroom?  What about shopping: could you walk into a grocery store and get free bananas? Or get a free shirt from Macy*s?  
If I got a link back to my website, would the next person ask me for a free photo, too? 
So ten bucks, my name (Leslie F. Miller), and a link to my photo site (www.lesliefmiller.com).  If you think that's a fair deal, you can send me some PayPal cash, and I'll send you a high-res image. 

I don't recommend asking for $10. In fact, I usually ask for $50 from non-profits and $100 from for-profit companies (though it's hard to tell the difference), but this would've been for one blog post, its life cut short by a flurry of new posts in short time. (Just in case you think non-profits are somehow more worthy, remember that the Directors and CEOs of large nonprofits make hundreds of thousands a year. The small ones don't, but they do pay their employees and buy office supplies!  They can afford $50. They can afford $10 for a blog photo.

Here is her reply:

As much as I understand (and agree) with your request, I'm only an intern working for a (non-profit) company/website who cannot afford to pay for the use of photos right now. For that reason, I'm going to have to pass on your kind and fair offer. However, I do encourage you to hold tight to your decision (as I am also a photographer -- amateur, but even so -- and understand completely what you mean). 
Thank you so much for your reply! I wish you all the best in your photographic endeavors.  
While her outrageously delicious writing and good grammar and perfect punctuation have me oozing with delight, I'm still giving nothing away.  

Ask your excellent dentist if you can, instead of paying her, hand out her business cards every time someone compliments your teeth! Ask your ingenious accountant if, instead of paying for having your taxes prepared, you could put a magnetic sign advertising his services on your car during tax season. Hey, wait! Don't tip the talented shampoo girl!  Wear her name on a barrette in your just-washed tresses.  

Have I ever been paid for a photograph? Yes! But no one who has ever written to request a handout has ever changed his mind. And that's fine with me. Because the people who write to ask for photos with a check in their hands are the places where the publicity will matter. And the big corporations who ask for handouts can suck my—well, this has been a family-friendly post, so I'll keep it that way.

Bottom line: hold fast to your principles. You retain so much more than those: you keep your integrity and your rights. Best of all, you do it for all artists—the photographer, the painter, the writer, the digital artist, the musician (!), the sound man, the composer, the actor. You do it for everyone, really.

If you want to give your artwork as a gift, your deserving friend will certainly appreciate that! (I do! We do!) Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations—these are the perfect opportunities to share your art with them.  But remember that even the paintings and photos hanging on the walls of your friends' homes and offices were, for the most part, paid for.  Let them pay you, too (a little less; they're friends, after all).

Share this public service announcement with everyone you know. And don't work for free. Period.

If you like what you read here, buy one of my books: BOYGIRLBOYGIRL; Let Me Eat Cake: A Celebration of Flour, Sugar, Butter, Eggs, Vanilla, Baking Powder, and a Pinch of Salt.

And if you're still giving your work away, you're responsible for this: Save the Sun-Times Photojournalists.

Edited to add the following note from a reader:

Is writing a blog working for free?

No.  It's working for yourself. You're trading something of value to you for something of value to you. Your name is on it. You're not promoting the services or products of anyone but yourself. In other worlds (and words), it's called "advertising."