Wednesday, March 1, 2017

PCNW Revisited

(I’m really on a roll on blog posts — that’s the influence of a couple of snow days last week that gave me the unexpectedly uncommitted time to edit several latent posts.)
A while back, well 2013 to be truthful, I wrote a post grumbling about the MFA show at the local flagship university and how much more to my taste was the "thesis" project show at Photographic Center Northwest (PCNW). I found the work there to be a good deal closer to the mainstream and nowhere close to attempting (and failing) to be innovative and original.

How times change.

In the interim between then and now the advisors at PCNW have seemingly changed their approach. The thesis projects that are the capstone of their certifcate program run to the conceptual and introspective -- characteristics that in my opinion are not well addressed by photography.

Moreover the number of students finishing a certificate is dwindling. Only four were in the most recent (July 2016) show. I suspect that the decline in numbers is strongly related to the fact that a prominent local aerospace company changed its policy on employee education benefits to exclude anything not directly related to job skills. But I digress.

I went to the opening of the show and it was a cheerful party with a goodly crowd -- much bigger than I expected.

Two of the four projects in the most recent show were conceptual -- one of these involved large panels of cyanotype material exposed by laying them in the shallows at the edge of a Salish Sea beach. The lapping of the saltwater and the sunlight partly filtered through the water yielded an abstract pattern. The panels were hung without flattening so that the wrinkles in the paper were intended to suggest the lapping of the waves.

The third project was very, very personal and was undoubtedly meaningful to the artist.

The final project was a series of carefully staged and beautifully executed portraits of Jewish women. It was intended to comment on the place of women in the artist's own conservative Jewish community. They were sweet, loving, respectful (too big for my taste) color portraits printed on Japanese rice paper then coated with beeswax that gave them a slightly muted, dreamy look and a vague halo around the highlights. The content -- commentary on women's roles in the community -- wasn't obvious to me as an outsider but the prints were very appealing.

Talking to several of the other guests, the unusual size of the crowd was driven by members of the artist's community who had come to congratulate her and to see how her project turned out. They were delighted with it, as was I, and several of her pieces already proudly wore red dots. Nothing from the other projects had been sold by the time I left.

On the subject of sales -- and pricing -- the pieces in this show were priced in the several hundreds to a couple of thousand dollars. Well, that explains the dearth of sales except to the subjects or families thereof of the portraits. I later discussed the issue of pricing with an experienced arts administrator who explained it all to me. It seems that art speculators (oops, collectors) haunt graduation shows hoping to snap up an early work by a graduate that they believe will turn into a hot market item. Ah. Perhaps pricing to that potential buyer is a good idea if the show is of MFA graduates from Yale but I'm pretty sure that it more often merely gives the freshly-minted graduates an inflated expectation of the market value of their work.

Ray Bidegain, an established Portland photographer, prices his lovely platinum prints to sell -- in the range of $250 matted -- with the goal of making them available to a wide audience. As a result, he sells a lot of them. He openly says that when he can't keep up with printing them then, and only then, will he raise his prices.

LensWork’s Brooks Jensen sings the same song — saying that if you want your work to sell then it needs to be priced at a point that appeals to an audience beyond the wealthy collector.

My friend Katrina for many years did stunning underwater photography. Her large, color prints of tiny sea creatures were expensive. The same images in smaller sizes, on greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, bookmarks ratcheted the price down to a few tens of bucks, a few bucks — or less for a bookmark. Do you want to guess where most of her income came from?

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