"Can I take these too?"
"Oh!" I said with realization. "Absolutely"
She was talking about those little white beveled placards the Orlando Museum of Art puts under each individual piece. It includes the title of the artwork and the price. Plus, another larger one with the series that lists the artist and the artist's statement. They are printed on a white beveled board with a tasteful clean font and look elegant. It is a memento of buying a photographic print showing a scene from backstage of the Central Florida Ballet's The Nutcracker.
It was then I learned my first lesson: The experience of buying a work of art and where that artwork came from is, arguably, as important as the work of art itself. Those white cards were part of the museum and part of the experience. Like a ticket stub to a favorite rock concert.
I would miss the boat on this again when I got the call for the biggest volume sale to date Real Florida Photo has ever made.
Mermaids of Weeki Wachee!
Out of the blue, I got a voicemail regarding a hotel Pe-what? Petana? Pesana? That word makes no sense. What's this about?
It's Portuguese, you dolt.
It was from an interior designer. A prominent interior designer. She has been the personal interior decorator for one of my favorite television celebrities and her home office is in one of the most expensive places in the world.
Up to this point, selling photographs was having a web site that displayed my pictures along with a little shopping cart. People could click on the shopping cart and order their photographs. A third party would then print, package, and ship them to the customer. That had to be the way the pros do it, right? I mean, SmugMug says that's how the pros do it and they ought to know. They are the "SmugMug Pros" after all. Their advertising told me if I showcased my photos through them they promised I would feel all "Smuggy" about it.
Besides, if you can't trust that little green dude, who can you trust?
I stopped feeling Smuggy when one of the most prestigious interior designers alive today asked if I was ready to receive her credit card so I could begin producing the prints. I told her I don't take her credit card information, but rather, she clicks on the little shopping cart on the website and picks out her stuff. Then her printed canvases are shipped to her direct from a lab and, if she has any problems, talk to them.
To backtrack a bit, and in defense of SmugMug and the myriad photography website providers that display and sell your work for you like this, it's a fantastic business model. IF you are a wedding photographer, photograph sport events, children's photographer, or a lot of other service industry photographers where you want to make prints available ASAP to be proofed by the primary client and convenient for family and friends to order. SmugMug and their affiliates produce beautiful work. Plus their transactions are smooth and hassle free.
However, if you are a fine art photographer selling a dozen photographs (each one at a fine art price) to a woman overseeing a multimillion dollar renovation of a 1930s Art Deco hotel in South Beach, you might consider providing a more cultivated experience than a digital shopping cart.
Yeah, but can they even afford me?
The affair was a series of phone calls and every one, start to finish, I was a stagger-step behind. She said they were working on "kind of a collage" of my pictures to figure out which ones they wanted and how best to arrange them. On another phone call she asked if I had any other photographs emulating Old Florida beachgoing life. During one part in our conversations, I was pushing for a way for me to autograph my pictures thinking the exposure of being prominently displayed in a South Beach Hotel was the ultimate in advertising. Of course, this put the burden on her to get me access to them.
Sure! Just sit down, order a burger, and as soon as the waiter leaves, whip out a sharpie and sign away.
I was too busy worrying about stupid stuff and listening to bad advice from friends who, really, had never been in a situation like this, to do what I was supposed to be doing. Despite my bumbling, it worked out great. My photographs now hang in the Mermaid Bar and Bistro in South Beach Miami Florida.
Mine are the dozen smaller pictures on the right. NOT the large square one in the center.
The experience was not so clear at the time as I just related it to you. Over the following years, it occurred to me with flashes of insights and cringe-worthy memories. It started with a vague feeling that the transaction did not go like it should.
Then I realized that, when she said she was trying to make a collage of my photos and figure out the layout, she should have received an overnight package from me the very next day with small proofs of each photograph in the series that she could use for the layout and help her make decisions. Plus, it would have shown off the quality of my work not visible on a computer screen and established myself as more of a collaborator in the project instead of a vendor. I now develop and print my own work so this is easy.
Which leads to the second lesson, real artists develop and print their own work. If not, then closely overseeing what is delivered to the client is essential. That's you as an artist in that final product.
Finally, the mistake that, to this day, makes me cringe. One question in a series of questions in a series of phone calls so, like almost everything else in this working relationship, I missed it at the time.
It was the question, do you have any photographs depicting old Florida beach life? I don't remember exactly how she phrased it but I knew exactly what she meant. The imagery of sunbrellas and frilly one-piece bathing suits. A well composed shot taken with a Holga of a beach ball. A wood paneled station wagon taken with a Polaroid. The beginning of Miami Chic in the 1950s. After thinking for a second, I simply answered "no".
I simply answered "no"
What an invitation! What I would do today is say, "let me check on that for you", immediately take a week off from my day job, head straight for the most rustic and historic beaches I could find, and shoot like crazy. Have photographs arrive at her office at the end of the week and say, "I do have a few of these. I thought you might like to take a look." Now me is screaming at past me over this. You can not be a reticent angel if you want to be a successful artist. You need to leap where angels fear to tread.
Illustrator Pamela Colman Smith's depiction of how to become a successful artist.
My real problem, and I suspect a real problem for many artists trying to figure out how to market and sell their work, was not that I was a terrible salesman, though I am, but that I thought I needed to be a salesman at all. The client for Hotel Pestana had no need for a salesman. No one who procures art does. What an art procurer needs from the artist is a collaborator. Leave the selling to the artwork itself. My attitude should not have been geared towards closing the sale or even trying to appear professional. It should have been working with her to help her get what she needed.
And, when she hinted she wanted more photographs in my Real Florida Photo style, I should have been her Johnny-on-the-spot photographer out creating them for her and trying any way I could to help her to finish decorating that hotel. Even if nothing came of that one event, that's a good memory of me for an interior designer of high-end hotels to have.
I still can not make a sale to save my life. But I love to collaborate. Sincere enthusiasm for the creation of artwork will stand far and above any sales pitch.
From the real estate agent helping you find the perfect home to the butcher at the meat market, if you think of it, the best of them are not the best salesman, they are the best collaborators.
Of course, it does not hurt to depict an image that uniquely defines who you are and what you create.
For the 1st Thursdays event at the Orlando Museum of Art titled, The Art of Women, I presented a photograph of my Goddaughter in the swampland of Central Florida done in a style emulating the color and lighting of many works by John William Waterhouse.
A regular suit and tie would make me disappear in the museum-going crowd so I put more thought into it and decided to wear a bow tie. This was both an homage to my grandfather who wore one every day to work and had given me my first camera as well as to stand out with a unique look that helped define my classical artistic style without being too quirky.
By the way, if you are ever in the market for orange socks to accessorize your orange bow tie, do yourself a favor, don't shop for them at the last minute.
I strolled into the cool marble-floored halls of the Orlando Museum of Art feeling like a million bucks, checked out my well lit photograph framed in elaborate gold filigree, checked out other people's work, glanced at the performances that accompanied the event, and took up my usual position lurking in a corner near my artwork.
My saturated color palate, along with the larger size of the work attracted attention. Many stopped to study the creation. I love when what I create reaches people.
I knew I should do something but I still had no idea what. Walking up and saying, "so, what do you think?" seemed awkward. I stood to the side, watched people eat, drink, get tipsy, laugh and be loud. Still not having a clue what an artist displaying his work does.
It was then I thought, maybe the gallery scene is not for me. I like in depth conversations and I like talking to people, but I'm not a mingler. I picked up my artwork, unsold, a few weeks later and wrote off attending gallery events forever.
Until, I got an invitation for a first Thursday's event at the OMA titled Inside/Outside. Tough title. Meaning how do I depict something that is an attractive work of art that depicts both the inside and outside of the subject? I went to St. Augustine and produced:
Our Lady of La Leche Shrine
By then I was printing my own work and this was by far the best print quality I had publicly displayed yet. I was complimented by the museum staff on it as soon as they figured out which artist I was. It was displayed at the entryway into the gallery.
And I did my usual wallflower routine until, my wife complimented me that it really does look nice and I started gesturing with my hands illustrating on the image what didn't work and how I shot it to fix it. People started to come closer and leaned in to listen. I immediately clammed up a little flipped out. But, it was then I realized I had been holding out all along. I realized this is what I was supposed to be doing. Talking about the work, why I did it, why I made all of the decisions I did. Trust me, that's me all day.
And so, after a two year sabbatical from the fine art world, I'm back.
Realizing that I am not to be good at being a salesman, but know now how I want to be really good at being Real Florida Photo.
Whether I have spent the week in my studio working on prints and pontificating on art, or am out in the great land of Florida capturing more images, you're invited to drop by, hang out, and come along with me. Every Sunday, right here, on the Real Florida Photo Blog.