The Value of Art and the Art of Pricing | Simeon Smith

The day before yesterday, I was out shooting street portraits, asking strangers before clicking the shutter, and one gentleman (with the kindest eyes in the world) politely refused to have his portrait shot, but then saw that I was using an old Leica. "Oh, well I've never had my picture taken on a Leica before!" he said, and proceeded to pose for a couple of frames. There's definitely a lot of interest in vintage gear, and people often ask me about the differences between the look of film and the look of digital, but to be honest there are some great digital presets that look pretty much like pushed HP5. I've ended up using an old Leica for most of my work because I love the feel of it, the look of the brassing, the smell of the old leather. It's a beautiful object to carry with me.

In a small venue in Welsh suburbia hangs my first film-only photography exhibition. Four prints, all shot on my 1938 Leica IIIa within the last year, all candid "street" shots, all black and white. I made this little video about why I make photos in the way that I do. 


But my artistic process isn't what I want to tell you about today. Next to the prints I've put up this sign: 

Maybe it's just my own little friendship group and social media circle, but I've seen a lot written and discussed about the value of art lately. The arguments are as old as the cassette tape. In the sixteenth century, authors and artists were probably discussing how the then-new printing press was affecting their trade. 

These days we discuss the erosion of musicians' income by streaming services, the changing income structure of authors with Amazon's payment-per-page system, and the theft of images from photographers' Instagram pages. Whatever your views on new digital media, and whatever benefits come with the territory, it certainly seems that with each new platform artists are being paid less for their work, and need to be more creative in finding ways to sell their work. 

However much we discuss the value of an artist's work, we often seem to lose sight of a debate which I think is equally important - Can art be valued in monetary terms at all? I realize that my response to this question comes from a place of privilege: I don't lack paid work, and whether or not my photographic prints sell makes no difference to my ability to make the mortgage payments. Sure, my gear and materials cost money. I put a lot of time and effort into my shots, and I'm proud of my results - but once printed my photographs have a life of their own that I find hard to put a price on. Couple that with the paradox that in this digital world, any image can be copied and reproduced ad infinitum, and I'm left feeling like the photographs that I make are either worth serious cash, or nothing at all. This is where the silent auction comes in. 

Maybe I'll get close to the sale price for one of my prints - maybe more. Maybe I'll get to swap work with other artists and end up with some amazing art created by someone else. Maybe I'll be paid in homemade cupcakes, or homegrown tomatoes. 

However this works out, I feel that this way my photos will be valued, rather than priced. 


Photographer Simeon Smith is based in the UK.  Connect with him on Tumblr.