There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer. - Ansel Adams
The concept of audience is one of the most difficult ones to come to terms with for artists and photographers. In fact, finding and defining an audience is one of the most difficult aspects of doing art.
This problem is not unique to photography. It is just as problematic for artists working in other mediums. Many writers, for example, have difficulties coming to terms with the concept of audience. When I taught Freshman English (English 101) in college while working as a graduate teaching assistant during my Masters and PhD studies, audience was one of the most difficult subjects I had to teach. Not because I didn’t know how to teach it, but because students were reluctant, to say the least, to consider their essays to be written for an outside audience. In their minds, I, the teacher was their audience. They did not need, did not want, and were not interested in considering any other audience for their work.
I was their audience because I was grading their papers. Therefore, they wrote for me. They were less interested in writing what they believed in than in writing what they thought I wanted to read. No matter how much I would explain that they were graded on the quality of their arguments (much of teaching English 101 in the United States is based on a rhetorical approach. So much so that Rhetoric Departments are responsible for training English Teaching Assistants) and not on what they thought I wanted to hear, most of them still could not write for any other audience besides myself. No matter how often I would point out that after graduation they were going to write for a “real” audience and not for a teacher, they still continued to write for me. I was their audience because I was giving them a grade. The fact that later on they would write for someone else, their boss, co-workers, employees, people they were interested in doing business with, publishers, or simply –and more to the point—an audience who was interested in new ideas --their ideas - did not phase them one bit. The point was, they were writing to get a specific result, and that result was getting a grade, be it an A, a B or a C depending on whether they wanted to excel or simply pass the class.
Who Is Your Audience?
I think ultimately if you have a very high expectation of your audience and you know exactly what it is you're trying to express through the medium of film, there will always be an audience for you. - Atom Egoyan
It would be far fetched to say that photographers face the same problems as my freshman English students did. They don’t, at least not directly. For one, many photographers study on their own. Few take formal classes and those who do are graded more on technical and artistic content than on whether their work is meeting the needs of a specific audience. And of course, during workshops we do not give a grade.
Still, the concept of audience is a thorny one. I teach it in just about all of my workshops, and each time I get raised eyebrows and objections from some of the participants.
The most frequent objection I receive comes from participants who mention that they do not need an audience. They photograph for themselves, and are not trying to show their work to anyone else. They just want to become better so that they can enjoy creating better images and better prints.
Fair enough. After all, as I often say, this is a free country and we can and do whatever we please. The problem is that the same participants do bring prints that they want to receive comments and critique about during the group print review that is part of each workshop. At that time, they have to have an audience. That audience is the group of participants who are attending the workshop.
In other words, at the time that you show your work and ask for comments, an audience is necessary. Not wanting or needing an audience stops the minute you show your work to someone else. This is the very first boundary between audience and no audience. Until then, you are your own audience. Afterwards, your audience is also other people. If you do not want an audience, then you should not show your work to anyone else.
For most of us, this sounds ludicrous. In fact, it is hardly a possibility. We all want to show our work to others, even though “others” may be a relatively small group of friends and relatives. This shows that having an audience is an ineluctable aspect of doing photography or of engaging in an artistic endeavor.
We create art, and we take photographs, because we want to share our work with others. If this was not the case we would never show our work to anyone else. The minute we do show our work, we acknowledge this fact and we accept that we need an audience.
This could be the end of the problem. Unfortunately it is not. At that point, having acknowledged that they do need an audience, many beginning photographers do bring up the fact that this audience doesn’t have to be specific. They are not choosy therefore anyone interested in looking at their work is part of their audience.
Interestingly enough, this is the exact same point that my English 101 students would make when asked to define their audience. They would say, “My audience is anyone interested in reading my paper.” I would point out to them that since they are free to pick any subject they like, not everyone will be interested in reading what they have to say about, for example, seat belt laws (a popular subject at the time), abortion, finding a cure for AIDS, or any other specific topic they might choose. Clearly, only people interested in these subjects would take the necessary time to read their essays.
The same applies to photography. Whatever subject you photograph, only people who have an interest in this subject will look at your photographs. Certainly, others may encounter your images “in passing” or “by accident” but unless they have an interest in the subject of your work they will not take the time to take a longer look at your images and to try to understand their meaning. If you do fine art, which is the approach that I teach, you know that fine art photographs need to be looked at and studied for some time to be truly appreciated. Doing so requires more time than someone who discovers your work by chance and who has no interest in your subject is willing to spend.
What does this imply? Simply that unless you place your work in front of an audience interested in it, you will not have a valid response to your work. What is a valid response? It is a response given by people who took the necessary time to look at your work and to try to understand what you have to say in your photographs.
The same applies to writing. Unless one reads the entire text that you wrote, one won’t be able to make informed comments and develop an informed opinion about it. Of course, this concept is easier to grasp with writing because we all know that reading an essay, or a book, takes time and concentration. Many, on the other hand, believe that a customary glance, done quickly in passing, is all it takes to understand the message in a fine art photograph. Not so. Reading a photograph can be just as time consuming as reading an essay or a book. It’s just that this reading takes place differently. Instead of reading words and sentences, one reads visual metaphors, the arrangement of objects and elements into a specific composition, the use of a particular color palette, the choice of a certain type of contrast, the use of a specific type of light, and so on. Doing so is time consuming and requires knowledge of photography, just like appreciating a fine text requires knowledge of literature. In the end, only those who have the required knowledge, time and interest, will do so. “Those” are your audience.
I created this poster for sale in Grand Canyon National Park after I realized that it was one of my best selling images. It shows the Bright Angel Trail, the most heavily traveled trail in Grand Canyon, in its entirety, from the El Tovar on the South Rim (at left in the photograph) to the Bright Angel Lodge on the North Rim (at extreme right in the photograph).
This poster had to be approved by Park Rangers prior to being sold in the park. Approval was granted on the basis that the image was not manipulated in any way. Since over 180 degrees of view are shown in this image, a single photograph cannot capture the entire scene. I therefore used a Seiss rotating panoramic camera to create the original photograph. Stitched digital captures would not have been accepted because they would have been seen as manipulation.
The image was taken at mid morning, not because this is the best time of the year or the day for color or light quality, but because this is when the trail could be seen in its entirety. Too early and it would be in deep shade, too late in the day and it would be washed out by direct sunlight. Clouds also helped soften the deep shadows that usually fill the inner canyon.
Finally, this image was taken in March, because spring and fall are the time of year when most people hike the Bright Angel Trail, when the temperature is still low. Most hikers start early in the morning and find themselves in the middle of the trail by mid morning. They do this to avoid hiking in direct sun (the majority of the trail is in the shade in this photograph). Similarly, cloudy days are a blessing since there is less or no direct sun. Because the Grand Canyon is a mile deep, temperatures at the bottom are often 30 to 40 degrees higher than on the rim, hence the importance of hiking in cool conditions.
As you can see, decisions were made not so much from an artistic point, but mainly from the perspective of pleasing the audience. As an artist I would have preferred to show this scene in a very different way. I may also have decided not to take this photograph at all.
The Concept Of Audience
Documentary photography is the presentation or representation of actual fact in a way that makes it credible and vivid to an audience at the time. - David Hurn
My approach to the concept of audience stems from the example I just gave. In a nutshell, your audience is people who are interested in the subject that you photograph, in your approach to this subject, or in both.
From this interest in your work, and from devoting the necessary time to fuel this interest, comes what Barry Lopez calls indebtedness to our audience. This indebtedness goes like this: we are indebted to the audience because our audience gives time, effort and attention to us and to our work. In turn, we must repay our audience by giving this audience our very best effort at creating our work. If we do so, we will repay the debt we owe to our audience and the process will continue. The audience will give us their time and attention in return for work that continues to further our vision and meet our highest standards. If we break what is most often an unspoken contract, we will leave this debt unpaid and we will face the possibility that our audience loses interest in our work.
In short, we repay our audience for their time, attention and effort by giving them work that fulfills the promise we made to our audience. This is the simplest way I can put it.
There remains the issue of what the promise we made to our audience is. This promise varies from artist to artist. In terms of subject matter and personal emphasis, this promise is infinite in nature. There are endless sources of inspiration, creativity and motivations that an artist can tap into for his or her work.
However, and for all artists, this promise is about creating art that furthers the artist’s vision and personal style. And yes, for this approach to work the artist must have developed a personal style, which is why this essay comes after my series of four essays on inspiration, creativity, vision and personal style.
I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach. - Alfred Hitchcock.
Whenever I mention that as artists we repay our debt to our audience through our work, the response I frequently receive from other photographers is that this relationship is similar to selling out to an audience. By selling out these photographs mean doing something purely to please the audience and often solely for financial gain. Some refer to this as “selling one’s soul” referring to a purist approach to art in which, if successfully implemented, the artist creates his work in solitary confinement, without any contact with the outside world except for food, water, and shelter, only revealing his work to his “audience” after it is completed without providing any explanations about how this work came to be or what it means.
Cool but unrealistic. How many successful artists do you know that really work this way? Note that I said successful. Certainly, some artists do work that way. But how many people know them and how successful are they? I know a few, and I can say they are neither successful nor well known.
The fact is that developing a relationship with an audience is crucial both to the creation of art and to the creation of a discussion, a dialogue, about one’s art. Does one sell out by creating art and by initiating a dialogue with his audience? Absolutely not. Not anymore than an author sells out by writing a series of books on a specific subject for an audience who appreciates this subject.
So why are some beginning photographers saying that one sells out by doing so? Because, I believe, it is another argument towards negating the need for an audience. In other words, it is another way of saying that they do not need an audience: these beginning photographers do not need an audience because having an audience –any audience—is going to make them sell out. In turn, anyone who has an audience has already sold out. Shame on those who did. Shame on me because I did, and shame on you if you did too. But what they call shame, in this one instance, isn’t really shame. It is simply acknowledging that we understand the artistic process features two parties: an artist and an audience.
This whole issue about selling out because one has an audience is not only ridiculous, it also backwards. One needs an audience to move forward because, without people interested in one’s work, and without people commenting on one’s work, one will have a very difficult time creating everything. Audience interest and commentaries are the motivation behind creating new work. If you are making a living selling your work, without people buying your work –a buying audience—you will not be able to make a living and continue doing the work you want to do.
This is another view of the Bright Angel Trail, but this time taken from the viewpoint in front of the El Tovar Hotel. This image shows not only the trail, but also the rim plus Indian Gardens and Plateau Point, both located below the rim, which are popular destinations for day hikes.
This photograph was extremely popular with El Tovar guests because it is the view that they could see from their room, if they had a room with view on the canyon, or from the North Porch of the hotel (where my art show was located) or from the rim since the El Tovar overlook is only 50 feet from the hotel itself.
In other words, this was the view that all hotel guests saw during their stay. Again, it is taken during the day, this time around 9 a.m. Since most visitors see the Grand Canyon during the day, this image closely matched their visual experience of the Grand Canyon.
As with the previous image, more consideration was given to the audience than to my artistic impulses and vision. I personally preferred other images of this scene taken at sunrise or at sunset but those other images did not sell as well.
Art Is Seeking a Response And a Dialogue From the Audience
We create art, meaning we write, create photographs, paintings, sculptures, musical compositions, you name it, because we want a response. We create art because we want to start a dialogue. A response from whom? A dialogue with whom? A response and a dialogue with other people. A response and a dialogue with an audience interested in what we do. To say that we are selling out the minute we are participating in this fundamental aspect of art is reducing the purpose of the art to a minimum. It is reducing the role of the artist to operating in a vacuum and living in an environment in which the artist doesn’t let anyone come in until this artist approves of their visit and has checked and rechecked their credentials, identity and what not. It is creating an environment of distrust and suspicion. It is, eventually, defeating the purpose of art which is to let people discover a work of art uninvited, simply because they like this work, or are curious about it, and want to experience it personally.
Of Best Sellers and Art
Don't make music for some vast, unseen audience or market or ratings share or even for something as tangible as money. Though it's crucial to make a living, that shouldn't be your inspiration. Do it for yourself. - Billy Joel
In no other domain is this “selling out” belief is more prominent than when it comes to discussing the concept of best selling images. Best sellers seem to raise more questions than any other subject when it comes to mixing them with audience.
I find that somewhat surprising, since best sellers are nothing more than a given item which pleases a large number of people. Best sellers have everything to do with business and little to do with art. They are found in any business endeavor, be it selling photographs, cars, books, pet supplies, Halloween items, you name it. Best sellers are a fact of life when it comes to business. Certainly, they are business assets because one can depend on them to bring a regular income. However, one also knows that creating a best seller is not a straightforward process. Knowledge is involved, but luck is involved as well. In the end, it is a trial and error process, not a scientific endeavor. Whatever the field you are in, which items turn out to become bestsellers is usually a bit of a surprise. While there are givens to what the public likes, such as price point, features, novelty and so on, creating a package that includes all of these and that goes beyond what the competition offers is not only difficult, it is also a bit of a gamble.
How to Create a Best Seller
This is even more so when it comes to art because besides having to take into account the business side of things, one also has to take into account the artist and the artistic process. Since art and business rarely mesh well together, conflict is more often than not part of the process. Yet, one can count on a certain number of variables if one is so inclined as to manufacture a best seller. How those variables play out in the context of art and business is what I will cover now.
There are two ways of creating a best seller. The first approach is to give people exactly what they want. The second approach is to create exactly what you, the artist, want to create and then let your audience decide if they like it or not. The first approach is focused on the audience. The second is focused on the artist. I have used both approaches, in the order that I just mentioned here, therefore I am qualified to talk about both from an informed perspective. I have also created best sellers with both approaches.
Let’s start with the first approach, creating exactly what the audience wants. The first issue here is finding what the audience wants. Clearly, to find that out, you must know who the audience you are trying to reach (and please) is. This demonstrates, once again, first that you have to have an audience and second that you have to know who this audience is. This is even more important here since this approach to creating best sellers is audience-based. Clearly, if you do not know who your audience is, your chances of giving this audience what they want are nil.
So to recap, first find out who your audience is and second find out what this audience wants. This is the approach that I followed when I was selling my work at Grand Canyon National Park from 1997 to 2002. For 5 years I tried not only to create best sellers for Grand Canyon visitors, I also tried to outdo my previous bestsellers so I could reach an ever-higher sales success.
Clearly I knew who my audience was. It was visitors to Grand Canyon National Park, people who loved the canyon, who saw it from the rim, or hiked its trails, or both. It was people who wanted to bring back a souvenir from their visit to the Canyon. People who preferred to bring back a fine art photograph rather than a tee shirt, postcard, or other mass-produced item.
I also knew what they wanted. If they looked at the Canyon from the rim, what they wanted were views they had seen from the overlooks where they had been during their visit. If they hiked the trails what they wanted were views either of the trails they hiked or views from the trails they hiked.
Put together, I knew that the best sellers would be photographs of the overlooks and the trails that were the most popular. It would be the overlooks seen by the largest number of visitors and the trails hiked by the largest number of backpackers. My job was cut out for me. All I had to do was get to work and photograph these places in the manner that would be most appropriate. What would that manner be? Here too the answer lay in looking at the problem from the perspective of my audience: the manner most appropriate would be to show these locations like my audience experienced them. In the end, what mattered was that they saw in my photographs what they had seen themselves, and that they felt what they had felt themselves. In one word, what mattered most was that I could achieve in my work a representation of what their experience of the Canyon had been. If I could do that I would have a best seller. How well I could do that would define how good of a best seller I would have.
This is pretty much exactly what I did the first year I sold my work at the Grand Canyon, and over the next 4 years I assembled a collection of images that featured the most popular trails and overlooks. Financial success followed, because this collection met the needs of my audience in regards to the locations and because I priced it to meet their financial needs as well. In other words, I gave to the audience exactly what they wanted. I met all the conditions of approach number one.
Lets talk about approach number two now, and about how this approach differs from number one. This second approach, as I mentioned before, consists of creating exactly what you want to create and then let your audience decide if they like it or not. While the first approach is focused on the audience, this second approach is focused on the artist.
In this second approach the artist creates work focusing on his inspiration, vision and personal style rather than on what his audience might desire. This is the approach that I follow today. Why did I change? Essentially because I got bored with the approach I described previously. It was fun for a while to try and create images for the purpose of seeing how well I could meet the audience’s needs. But after a while doing this, and after being successful at it, I realized that the further I went with that approach the further I also walked away from doing what I really wanted to do. For example, if I photographed a little-known location the chances of that location selling well were small because my audience was not familiar with it.
Similarly, if I enhanced or modified the photograph too much, for example if I altered the contrast, color palette, color balance or other artistic variables, my sales would also go down because the image no longer closely matched the scenery that my audience had seen during their visit.
In other words, following the first approach, which is giving the audience exactly what they want, meant walking away from doing the kind of images that I wanted to create. It also meant creating images that were fairly close to reality, images in which the contents of the photograph closely followed the contents of the natural scene I had photographed. As I started using more and more image enhancements, modifications of color, contrast, and palette and using stitching as a technique to affect the composition of the image, this requirement was met less and less.
The issue was significant, and for some time I was not sure how to solve it. Telling people that my work was about enhancements and modifications to the image in order to express what I felt rather than what was there did not necessarily do it. People wanted images that represented what they had seen, which meant they wanted to purchase images that were fairly close to reality.
In the end, the solution was to change audiences, something that was achieved by no longer selling my work at the Grand Canyon. This change took place against my will when Grand Canyon National Park decided to no longer have artists selling their work in the park. I later on realized that it helped my career in many ways since I may not have been able to quit this show on my own.
I am often asked where this image was taken. I always answer, “On the Playa in Death Valley National Park.” The next comment I usually get is that “There wasn’t that much water when I was there!” or “Where is the playa?”
Both of these questions point to the fact that this image is less about Death Valley than about my artistic inspiration when I created it. The Playa is a huge area that basically includes the entire bottom of Death Valley, the entire flat, dry lakebed area that composes most of the Valley. In other words, this image could be taken from many places in the Valley and it would be very challenging to direct someone precisely to where it was taken. In fact, I myself have had a very hard time going back myself since I usually can’t remember precisely where I was.
There is also way more water than there usually is in Death Valley. In fact, there is hardly any water in Death Valley, that’s why it is called Death Valley! People die there because it is so hot and dry. It is not a welcoming environment.
And yet the image is all about water, blue sky and fluffy clouds. It is clearly meant as an interpretation of the scene and not as a literal representation. Clearly, my goal was not to show the valley in a stereotypical fashion, as a dried out landscape with sparse vegetation and blazing sunlight.
In fact, my vision when I created this image was very different. I kept thinking of the poem by Robert Frost, The Path Less Traveled, and as I worked, I kept trying to compose an image in which two small “rivers” as in the photograph above, merged together offering a metaphorical version of a path made of water. In the end, this approach did not work, and I created this image, which is a single path, metaphorically speaking, in which the cloudy sky is reflected.
I see it as a path towards an unknown, but welcoming, destination. I also see it as a merging of the sky and the earth, a combination of the land and the sky, a symbiosis. I am sure other interpretations, just as interesting, are also possible.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Artist
Every image he sees, every photograph he takes, becomes in a sense a self-portrait. The portrait is made more meaningful by intimacy - an intimacy shared not only by the photographer with his subject but by the audience. - Dorothea Lange
There is a good reason why the necessity of having an audience is upsetting to beginning photographers: finding an audience is difficult. So difficult that some artists never find an adequate audience and have to live with an audience that is either very small, adverse or not in a position to purchase their work.
Van Gogh, to take but one example, never found an adequate audience. While he did have an audience, that audience was very small. His brother, Theo, was his main audience. While living in Southern France at the end of his life, a couple of collectors either purchased his work or traded goods or services for his paintings. In the end, his work never generated the response that, as artists, I believe we all seek. Van Gogh’s response was essentially coming from his brother. He never had a major show of his work and he did not live to see his work fetch unheard of prices. In fact, it took another generation for that to happen. Of course, as we all know, when the response to Van Gogh’s work came about, it took the world by storm and today the discussion about his work is such that just about everyone has something to say about it, even though most of what is said is redundant. Van Gogh has become a household name. His audience is enormous. The gap between the size of his audience during his lifetime and now is mind boggling and difficult to explain.
This is an extreme example, and few artists find themselves in such a situation. However, it does show the difficulty of finding an audience, of generating a response to one’s work and of starting a conversation about this work. It is far from being easy, and for some it may never happen. This can be for diverse reasons. It may be because, like Van Gogh, one’s work is misunderstood because and perhaps far ahead of its time. It may be because the work does not attract a buying audience and that without funds the artist is unable to continue. It may be because the work is not palatable to any given audience or that it goes against the grain and is unwelcome in the society as a whole.
Or it may be, as I think is often the case, because the effort to reach a given audience was not made. It may be, as I think too many artists are responsible for, that the artist did not seek to start a discussion. It may be that the artist did not seek a response. Notice that I did not say, “Want a response”. I think all artists want a response. I said, “Seek a response” because too many artists believe that the response will come just like that, without having to do anything. Unfortunately, such is not the case. One has to seek a response, and to do that, one has to place the work in front of an audience that is likely to be interested in this work. This, sometimes, is an effort that requires the abilities of a long distance runner rather those of a sprinter, metaphorically speaking.
How to Find an Audience
A lot of my audience are in their 50s. But they want me to pretend to continue to be pretending.- Pete Townshend
I am often asked, after making the points that I am making in this essay, how one actually finds an audience. The process is simple: you show your work and by showing your work you find your audience. Let me explain.
As you show your work, you define both your subject and your approach. One cannot photograph everything and successful shows are rarely, if ever, about photographs that do not fit into a category, or are not about a specific subject, approach or project. In other words, a show is about a subject, or an approach, and ideally follows the completion of a specific project. Going over what a project consists of is beyond the scope of this essay, but I do cover the subject in my other writings, as well as in my tutorials and during my workshops.
The title of your show is important as well, and so is the venue at which your show is held. Since I am not trying to be specific about subject matter, approach, and style here, we are talking about a very wide range of locations and venues, all the way from a street fair to a well known gallery or museum. It also includes printed publications, such as books and magazines, as well as electronic publications, such as websites and electronic documents (PDFs or digital books for example).
The point is that the subject of your show, the venue where your show is held, the promotion that is done to advertise this show, as well as any other variables related to this show, will attract a specific audience. For example, if your show is held in a gallery, it will attract the audience that frequents this gallery and that regularly attends openings.
Another way to explain this is to say that in order to find an audience you will have to “dip your oar in” or, non-metaphorically, to participate in the ongoing discourse about art by showing your work and by having people look at it, comment on it, and if you are selling it, by buying or not buying it. There simply is no other way to reach an audience. The choice you have is in the venues you choose to show your work at. But the fact remains that you have to show your work somewhere. You can’t expect people to show up at your door and ask to see the contents of your print file! It just won’t happen.
In a sense, this does give validity, in a strange sort of way, to those who say that they do not need an audience. Keep your work to yourself, show it to no one and if you do not need an audience you will find this situation most satisfying. On the other hand, if you find this situation unsatisfying, you do need an audience. If such is the case, displaying your work publicly, using one of the venues mentioned above, is the way to go.
As I typed the location where I created this photograph above, I was thinking that it could have been taken anywhere. While the exact rocks depicted in it may be found along the San Juan River in Utah, similar rocks, or rocks just as colorful, can be found in many other locations.
All of this is to say that this image is not about the location. It is not about rocks either because it would not do too well as an illustration in a geology textbook for example. My publisher chose this image for their 2009 Calendar. It is also very popular with collectors.
This image is about color and composition. It is the juxtaposition of the three shapes at the top and the contrast between these shapes and the shape of the rock below them. It is about the fact that all 4 rocks are of different colors. It is about how these four colors are in harmony, each reinforcing the visual presence of the other instead of clashing with them.
In the end, this photograph is also about me. I could have walked by these rocks without seeing them, or without giving them the attention required to make a photograph. The fact that I preserved their visual appearance on that day, along the San Juan, is what eventually makes us look at them. It is not a photograph that one buys because one has been there. It is a photograph that one wants because of what it says.
Skill Enhancements exercises
This essay is about a practical subject and it would not be complete without a set of skill enhancement exercises. I therefore designed several exercises aimed at helping you define and find an audience for your work.
Describe your ideal audience. Describe the audience you would love to have, the audience for whom you create even though you do not know for sure if they see your work or know about you. Describe that audience whom you believe understands what you are saying and is responsive to your message.
Describe a specific member of your audience. This person may be a combination of several persons you have met or a compilation of qualities you have seen in several people who each had part of what you consider to be the ideal audience.
Maybe, to take one example among many possible, someone understood your work but was not able to verbalize this understanding. Or someone else was able to verbalize what they thought about your work but spent little time looking at your work and lots of time talking about it.
Or maybe another person is a collector of your work and purchases from you regularly, however you have not had a conversation with that person about your work. Perhaps yet another member of your audience is very knowledgeable about photography, and understands your efforts perfectly, yet does not buy your work or comment about it except in technical terms. Yet another person talks to others about your work, in a very positive fashion, and his interest in your work stops there.
For this description, write a compilation of all the character traits you like in your audience.
What do you consider selling out to consist of? In this essay, I have talked about selling out. What do you, personally, consider selling out to be? What does an artist have to do to sell out? Describe what their actions and their work would be like if they, or you, sold out.
Your best sellers Do you have best sellers in your work? Or, can you imagine an image that you know would become a best seller if you created it?
In this exercise, describe the best sellers that you have, or the best sellers that you want to create. Be as specific as possible and include subject, location, light, time of day, image size, presentation and any other variable you can think of. Finally, describe the audience that would purchase this best seller.
As an artist, having and knowing your audience is important. You may, in the very beginning, be able to get away from having an audience. If you are not interested in sharing your work with others, and if you photograph solely for yourself, this is indeed possible. Similarly, many photographers use a “found” audience rather than a sought audience in the very beginning. Co-workers, friends, and family are what I call a found audience. They are available because they are part of your life, be it family, professional, or recreational. In other words they are willing to look at your work because they know you, not because they have a vested interest in photography.
Eventually both of these “solutions” to the problem of audience fade away when you start to seek more promising venues for your work. If your goal is to show your work in a gallery, a museum, or an art show, or if your goal is to sell your work through a stock agency, or in stores or in other commercial venues, you will need to know who is the audience that goes to specific galleries, museums, stock agencies, stores, etc. in order to find out if your work is suited for this location. If you overlook researching the audience of the venues you seek to show or sell your work at, you will face serious disappointment and you will most likely fail in your attempt at having your work accepted in these venues.
Why is that? Simply because when you show your work in a given gallery, or at a specific show, or again when you sell in a given location, or at a specific store, the audience of this gallery, museum, show and store becomes your audience. At that time there better be a match between what this audience likes and expects to see in these venues, and what your work consists of. If this match is not there, at best the audience will disregard your work. At worse they will question why you are there in the first place. That is, if the curator, storeowner, show organizers, etc. has accepted your work to start with. Since they know the audience that visit their venues, it is unlikely that they would accept work unfit for these venues. Most likely you would be rejected and most likely you would be left to wonder why. The why is not knowing who is your audience.
Certainly, in a given venue there may be more than one type of audience present. For example, at Grand Canyon I met people who were interested in purchasing photographs that were artistic rather than touristic. In fact, I made quite a few sales to members of this audience since towards the end of my participation in the show I was carrying work that addressed both audiences.
But the fact remains that the majority of the audience for a given location will fit in one category or the other. Eventually, while you may make a few sales to an artistically oriented audience in a touristic venue, the majority of this audience is looking for tourist photographs.
Eventually, you need to go where your audience is. Not doing so will cost you not only in terms of sales but also in terms of your own development as an artist. In my case, selling in a touristic location made it very challenging to push forward with my artistic work. While I did try, the audience made this endeavor challenging. I kept getting too many questions about whether my work was real or not, and about whether I manipulated my images or not. It not only took me time to work out the proper answers to these questions (see my essay titled Just Say Yes), focusing on these issues also took time away from the work I wanted to do. In the end, I had to face the fact that the problem wasn’t with the audience as much as it was with my choice of audience. Once I accepted this fact the solution was clearly to change the audience I was trying to reach, something that is far easier to do than trying to change the audience’s mind!
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Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, printing and on marketing photographs. Alain is also the author of Mastering Landscape Photography. This book is available from Amazon and other bookstores as well as directly from Alain. You can find more information about Alain's work, writings and tutorials on his website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com.
Comment posted by Stan Rose on 12/08/08 at 02:05 am
Fascinating and very telling article, Alain. As one who has struggled with finding an audience not only for my photography but also for my photo-art, and my music (too many hobbies, too little time...) it was nice to see such a deatiled discussion of the subject. Finding a balance between staying true to your personal vision, while recognizing the need to reach out to an audience to bring your vision to other people, is a very challenging and delicate process!
Registered on 09/15/05, 795 Posts, 16266 Comments Comment posted by Mohsen Al-Dajani on 12/12/08 at 5:12 pm
Very informative Alain, and this topic is ignored by many photographers. Thanks!
Registered on 08/23/07, 160 Posts, 432 Comments Comment posted by Alain Briot on 05/11/09 at 5:34 pm
Stan and Mohsen,
Thank you for your comments. I am pleased you enjoyed this essay. Audience is a particular interest of mine, one, as you say, that is too often ignored. Yet, it is very important.
Author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, and Marketing Fine Art Photography.