Magnum’s Square Print Sale

Are they leading the race to the bottom?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the legendary photo cooperative Magnum practically invented the modern photojournalistic era. They pioneered the model were a talented person with a camera could tell visual stories, get these stories published, profit from their work, retain ownership of their work and continue to profit from this work throughout their lives. Yet today it’s common to hear photographers bemoan their collective fate. They claim to not have any choice when it comes to signing work-for-hire agreements. Or they ask why a powerful company like the New York Times should just give them their copyright? What they don’t realize is that the early members of Magnum faced the exact same issues, and instead of giving up, they fought back. This victory, won over sixty years ago, ushered in an extraordinary time for photography. Suddenly, great photographers could be rewarded for producing great work and in return magazines had a deeper pool of work to pull from. Magnum’s victory proved to be a win/win situation for both photographers and the publishing industry.

So yeah, Magnum is the real deal.

Then something happened. Some agencies realized the only way they could compete with Magnum (or some of the other elite agencies) was by lowering their price. This was a bad idea. Producing great photography is expensive. When it comes to photojournalism, even in the best of times the profit margin was thin. When agencies started actively undercutting one another, the race to the bottom had begun. The editorial market collapsed because of downward pressure on the price structure. The Anti-Magnums killed the successful business model that Magnum’s founders had fought so hard to create. Nobody wins when this happens. Not the creators, the distributors or the consumers. If you don’t believe me, you may have a “fine art print” you bought at Target hanging on your wall.

It’s a slippery slope when you start competing on price and not quality. That’s how we got were we are today. Downward pressure on licensing fees is what drove Magnum (for the most part) out of the editorial world. Magnum was founded as a photojournalism agency. When that market was destroyed by lesser agencies, they re-invented themselves as an artistic cooperative which would rely on the fine art and museum market to replace the revenue once earned from magazines.

This is why it’s troubling to see Magnum selling prints for a hundred bucks each. Here’s the link. True, the prints are small and the printing process itself is fairly inexpensive, but the business model, sell a lot and make a little on each, is more suited to a fast-food outlet, not a fine art agency.

Isn’t it better to sell a hundred prints at a thousand dollars each, than a thousand prints at a hundred a piece?

Delivering a thousand prints is a chore. It necessitates the need to further automate an art form that is already criticized for being a mechanical process. That’s why the work of a mediocre painter will always sell for more than a highly regarded photographer. Low print prices serve to reaffirm and justify this prejudice in the minds of collectors. Limiting print sales, either through artificial means like numbered editions, or through market means like cost, protects the investment of those who support your work. It also protects the investment the photographer has made in establishing the value of their work.

Right now I’ve got about thirty true fans. I’d like to have about a hundred. A hundred I can take care of. I can answer their emails, give them advice on what camera to buy, shoot a wedding, whatever it takes, because it’s in my best interest to do so. My true fans buy a couple of prints each year. They donate work to museums. They recommend me to others. We have a relationship that is mutually beneficial. The cost of entry for them is a little higher, but the value they receive is worth it, and that higher cost also protects our relationship. I can’t afford to give proper attention to a thousand people. The higher cost of entry protects both parties.

The price you accept, is the price you get. Collectors have a memory, so does the marketplace. For lack of a better word, you have to train the market to respect the value of your work. Take care of your patrons and they’ll take care of you. Respect them and they’ll respect you. It’s a bad idea to undercut your biggest supporters and potentially devalue their investment by flooding the market with cheap prints.

Quality work is hard to produce and quality customers are hard to find, but as an artist, it’s worth the extra effort to pursue both.

The bottom line is lower prices have a detrimental effect on the marketplace. Out of necessity, corners are cut and quality goes down. Magnum saw this firsthand when the Anti-Magnums entered the editorial marketplace and forced them out. They responded by reinventing themselves. They chose not to participate in a market looking for bargains. Just like Chanel doesn’t compete with, I don’t know, that cheap-ass jeweler in the strip mall across the street from the real mall.

Magnum has a tremendous history, their photographers have created an amazing body of work and they are respected throughout the world, but selling these tiny prints at a silly price is damaging the marketplace that Magnum and all the rest of us now depend on.

The success of their annual print sale (last year it was reported their server crashed due to the heavy amount of traffic) no doubt helps the agency with their short term financial needs, but in the long term print prices will be forced down for all photographers (I’m already feeling it myself).

Investing in a non sustainable business model that offers short term gains while lowering the long term value of your product is a trap. The same one that destroyed the Golden Age of Photojournalism that Magnum’s founders helped to build. Their name recognition let’s them get away with it for now, but what happens after consumers have been fully trained to only buy low cost prints at a particular time each year?

When this happens where will Magnum flee to next?

My blog and portfolio.

Update:

I wrote this article to draw attention to the issue. It’s already an “inside baseball” type of post, and a five minute read (an eternity on the internet), so I didn’t write about every aspect of the issue. I also wrote this to spark a conversation, which could be stifled if there weren’t any questions to ask.

So I’ll answer a few of the questions that have been raised.

I don’t think the market magically “flips” through inaction and prints start selling for $1000 instead of $100. I do think the market is influenced by the actions of industry leaders who set low prices. I know it’s a marketing gimmick, small prints, limited time, low price, but gimmicks have a way of eventually becoming the norm.

Magnum has a wide base of influence, people do care. One of the reasons they care is that Magnum has set the standard for 60 plus years (as I said in the article), but now they are using this influence to set the wrong standard.

The work is extraordinary, but I’m not sure the prints they’re offering of this work is of high quality or has lasting value in the marketplace (though I could be wrong). Invest in a real Salgado print and you can get your money back out of it (and eventually more). I’m not sure that these square prints will do the same.

I’ve not suggested that simply slapping a high price on print is the answer. I suggested the opposite in the article. Print prices, what your clients/collectors will pay, need to be carefully nurtured over time. No one answer will cover all photographers. Most of us sell prints at a $100 all the time, high school portraits, weddings, you name it, but how do you justify selling a print to a portrait subject for $100 when they can get a Capa for the same price? That’s a real issue. Magnum has used their (well deserved) good name to apply downward pressure on the perception of what photographic prints should be worth.

The cost of fulfillment needs to be considered. I used the number of a 1000 prints at $100 in the article, versus 100 prints at $1000, because the gross from those sales is the same and would be a significant amount to most working photographers. Packaging, signing and delivering 1000 prints is a logistical nightmare. The most I ever delivered from one sale is 36, and it was a juggling act. The cost of making the prints, 100 large versus 1000 small is about the same, but that’s only the monetary side. At some point you stop being a photographer and you become a one person, mini-Amazon warehouse. This is an aspect of your business model that can’t be ignored.

I know writing pieces like this doesn’t help me win any popularity contests nor help my own bottomline, but telling the truth is what my journalistic career was based upon, regardless of the consequences. Speaking “truth to power” as the kids like to say.

Finally, don’t think similar conversations don’t happen behind closed doors at Magnum. There’s a reason some of your favorites aren’t available at this bargain price.

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