Friday, July 10, 2009

Why I'm Not Giving It Away

Edgartown Light, 2008

An art director from a city magazine in New England contacted me this week to inquire about using one of my photographs from Martha’s Vineyard. She was hoping I’d let her use the image for free.

I’ve done this before to get my name “out there.” I’m usually quite willing to lend photos for use by non-profits. But this was different. The magazine is a for-profit business. They weren’t offering so much as a free subscription in return for the use of the photo. I had to tell the young lady that I wouldn’t give her the image for free.

The proliferation of sites like Flickr and Fotolog, in giving people like me a place to show work, has also created a problem for people who make a living from their photography. Amateurs who are so anxious to be seen and published that we’re willing to give our work away for free devalue our own work and undermine the integrity of the market for professionals.

Over the years, I’ve sold photography to newspapers and magazines. Photographs from my “Vineyard Sojourn” series have been especially popular with art directors. They don’t pay a lot. But the ethical ones consider it important to pay at least something for the images they use. Perhaps this gives them some legal coverage. I don’t know. I like to think it allows them to sleep a little better for knowing that they’re treating people the way they’d like to be treated.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art used the work of amateur photographers in a recent advertising campaign. Here’s a nonprofit that has every reason in a tough economy to be looking for ways to shave expenses. I’ll bet most of the people asked to contribute to this campaign would have been more than happy to allow use of their photographs for free. Yet the Met insisted on compensating them for the use of their photographs.

That’s what I call a class act.

I’ve been photographing the lighthouse at the mouth of the harbor of Edgartown, Massachusetts, for more than thirty years. It’s the kind of target that’s so magnetic to photographers and painters that you sometimes have to jockey for a position because of all the art workshop participants who have staked their tripods and easels in the sand around it waiting for the sun to come up.

You’d think that having shot the lighthouse for so many years I’d have exhausted the ways of presenting it. But last fall I was determined to see the Edgartown Light in a fresh way. In thinking about what I might try to shoot on this trip, I’d pledged to spend a lot more time exploring negative space opportunities. By using the lighthouse as a small, but critical element in a negative space photo, I was able to stand way back from the mosh pit of workshop painters and photographers, mitigate their presence in my photograph by making them so minuscule as to be unnoticed, and create a photograph that is both all about and nothing about the lighthouse.


  1. It's beautiful!

    I totally agree about the folks trolling sites for free photography. Even I have been incredulous when several people approached me about photos in the past, and I don't even consider myself a photographer to begin with, so I can imagine you getting bombarded by people.

    My son and I were discussing this very subject very recently. Kudos to MOMA for doing the right thing.

  2. Good on you. You did the right thing, Chris.

  3. Your work is too beautiful to give away.
    I hope these are low res files.
    I've had to take tiresome measures.

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  5. You are soooo right !!!! /cariocando

  6. Business is business & the MOMA understands the value of art & artists. Too bad the rest in the field can't follow their stellar example. I applaud your response.

  7. Yeah, I'm with you. My favorite are the people who get offended at YOU because you (politely) won't let them use your picture.

    Chris, Enjoyed browsing around here tonight. You're a fine writer. Always good company. Along with your terrific photos this is a class act you've got going.