As I sit and reflect a bit on my most recent show- the Whitefish Arts Festival in Montana- I thought I’d share a quick story. Many who know me, or follow my work, have already heard ad nauseum how Whitefish is one of my favorite places in the world; that I lived there for several years and one of my most cherished, rewarding experiences in life was working the lifts on Big Mountain. Still true. And with that, this show carries a little extra sentimental value and is one that I love to be a part of.
This year was another great return overall. We had nice weather, the festival is always very well organized and run, and I got to stay with some close friends and spend a little time with their growing, adorable boys. I’d be back in an instant for those reasons alone. Sales-wise though, it wasn’t my best outing. It sounds like many of the other artists experienced the same, and sometimes you’ll just have that. There simply weren’t a lot of people buying. But I also know, in my case, that the odds weren’t so great to begin with due to factors that I’ve been trying hard to overcome.
Nature photography is an extremely competitive field, and when you get into the art festival scene, it’s honestly kind of an arms race. There’s a lot of talent out there- and we’re all juried into these events, so we’ve earned our inclusion- but the photographers who really stand out in a crowded venue are those with eye-popping displays. Those showing off huge prints, giant double wide booths, nine-foot-tall walls… the kind of set up that can really ‘wow’ anyone passing by. And to be fair, most of them have the work to back it up. I have several friends on the scene that fall into this category, and I love what they’re doing, and the success that it brings them. They’ve worked hard, their photography is incredible, and they deserve all the attention they get.
Me on the other hand, I’m just not there yet. My situation, especially post-pandemic, just hasn’t allowed me to carry the inventory, invest in display upgrades or the trailer I would need to create and haul such an exhibit. Which puts me at a marked disadvantage. It’s something that I’m aware and take ownership of- I know that’s something that I need to build toward, and it’s solely on me to find a way to do so. I’m trying. But for now, it leaves me hearing far fewer patrons who exclaim “Oh my gosh, let’s look in here!” and way more comments along the lines of “ugh… another photographer…” as people grimace and pass me by.
No matter your level of understanding, awareness or experience, have that happen enough over the course of a weekend and you’re gonna start to feel a little inferior…
So that’s kind of where I found myself by Sunday afternoon- in those hinter-hours of an unprofitable show when you come to accept that your saving grace (the one person who was going to run home and measure their wall quick) isn’t returning, and you look around at all the extra work you put in and pieces you brought with the best of hope and intention, to realize now it’s just all the more to pack up.
From the corner of my eye, I saw two ladies standing near my note card rack, and heard one of them say, “Oh, I just have to get this…”
Alright, that's good. Another five dollars for the coffers. Frankly, the sale wouldn’t even buy enough gas to get back out of the Flathead Valley, but what she said next served a reminder that will carry me a long, long way.
The woman explained to her friend that several years back she’d stricken up a conversation with a sweet old lady on a plane, and upon learning that this person didn’t have much family, agreed to become her pen pal. They’ve been writing each other since, and you could see the woman start to get teary eyed, knowing how much this simple act has come to mean to them both.
“So now,” she said, “I’m always looking for cards like this. The ones that are handmade and special. When I find a pretty one from a place I’m visiting, I get it for her and just send it with a little note from my travels…”
A few years ago, I attended a business workshop taught by a landscape photographer who’d become, and continues to be, very successful- especially in selling large fine art prints. I learned a lot about what goes into this trade, but one thing that I couldn’t really get on board with was the emphasis on branding and focusing your appeal to a wealthier class. In that, it was suggested that the sale of small items- like matted prints and note cards- were not only not worth our time, but potentially harmful to one’s professional image. That prompted me to write the following on the note card overview page of my website.
“A personal note on my card sets... A pretty common viewpoint in the fine art world, especially as an artist evolves and strives to create works of more prestige, is that lower priced items are not only unworthy of our time but might prove detrimental toward our image as serious artists. Honestly though, that's just not me. I started my business selling note cards at my local farmers market, and slowly built it piece by piece on the back of many sleepless nights- when I would stay up making cards to be sold at market the next morning for a couple bucks a pop. My work too, has evolved, and I now offer museum-grade fine art prints that will make stunning additions to any collection... but I haven't forgotten where I came from. I understand that not everybody is looking for a masterpiece to hang on their wall, and the purpose, as well as the true honor, of sharing my work is for its ability to touch people. As humbling as it is to think of my artwork displayed in somebody's home, I take equal satisfaction imagining the tearful smile on the face of someone's grandmother as she opens an envelope to admire one of my photos and read a heartfelt note inside. With this in mind, I'm going to keep making cards. So even when you find me at an art show amid display walls adorned with high end prints, you can be confident in knowing that I was still up until three am the night before, gluing photos to card stock and hand labeling each location one at a time. And please know that to me each sale is just as meaningful, and that everything I create is done with an equal sense of pride.”
Again, still true.
Making sales is obviously a crucial aspect of any business. And in photography, it’s not only what allows us to invest in displays, inventory and equipment, but it also buys us the freedom to spend our time creating. I do understand this, and I do concede that I need to sell those larger pieces in order to keep growing, be competitive and find success on the business end of things. However, money has never been, and will never be, the true reason I do this.
For me, it’s always going to be about connections. About inspiring people. About exploring and sharing my view of the world. And for moments like these, in the waning hours that Sunday afternoon in Whitefish.
To know that my work could play a small role in this beautiful ongoing exchange of human compassion and friendship.
These are my people. Regardless of background or any other factor, I will pour my heart out to find resonance with those who seek depth and meaning in life.
This is what keeps me going.