I have recently re-organised an updated the website to be more accessible and to better present the portfolio. The website is located at http://www.sergiomuscat.com. Please go there for the most recent work and articles.
I’ve been wanting to post this for a while now. Last year I had the honour of being photographed by Corsican photographer Antoine Giacomoni. Giacomoni has been photographing rock stars for the past few decades (although being photographed by Antoine does not in any way imply that I am one). He still photographs with film, and the process is actually so fascinating that when given the opportunity I immediately wanted to experience it.
Giacomoni uses a square make-up style mirror, encircled with old-fashioned light bulbs. He photographs his subjects through the mirror, dressed in black to disappear into the darkness lest he is of distraction. “Relax, look straight into the mirror and think of something nice” he says before removing the Jablo block covering the mirror. He does wait a few seconds before revealing what’s beneath the cover – enough time to build a certain anticipation, curiosity even.
When looking into a mirror, we rarely ever do it consciously – we’re busy with other things and the mirror is just a tool of convenience. Remove that convenience, and the image that we see in front of us is that of vulnerability. “Look straight into your eyes”, he says. And I’m sitting there, looking deep into myself, trying to understand who I am, what has led me to this specific moment in my life. I can barely stand it – I’m anxious, but after a while I start getting familiar with the person on the other side, and relax. It takes but a few minutes and maybe four or five snaps – that clunky mechanical sound modern-day has forgotten. Then it’s over. I’m back, and life goes on. But that was deep – uncomfortably so. I loved it.
It took a few months – I had almost given up ever seeing the result. We’re used to seeing the result instances after the act, today. It makes us impatient. Then one day it arrived. I love it.
Read more about Antoine Giacomoni here.
This is a debate that has been raging on for a very long time. I would even dare say that at the moment it is probably hotter than the “is photography art” debate, which I feel has started to settle down, although we all know it will never really end.
I have noticed that over the past weeks/months, the argument of whether a photographic artist should issue work in limited editions has started flaring up again. I have personally had this dilemma from the day I printed my first photograph with the intention of selling it. A few years ago, I had a totally different view, centred around the value of a photograph being bound very strongly with it’s rarity, in the same way that many people prefer to purchase paintings or sculpture because of their uniqueness. Most of my initial work was thus issues in editions of only three.
Today, after many years and maybe some more sense and experience, I have finally decided to put an end to this dilemma. I have made a decision moving forward, and it is to not limit my prints any further. There are many reasons which lead me to this decision, but now that I have made up my mind, it all seems so much clearer to me that I wonder what took me so long to figure it out.
Let us start from the nature of the medium itself. The idea of limiting prints stems from printmaking, whereby the nature of the medium would deteriorate over time, thus the limit would guarantee that the buyer is protected from lower quality prints. Photography is very different from that. It’s nature allows for multiple prints to be created with the same quality, without deterioration of the source, so whatever limit is forced on a particular edition, it is purely artificial. To be clearer, it is purely a marketing exercise designed to allow the photographer or gallery inflate the mark-up, thus earning more money selling less quantity. I do not say that this is wrong – every photographer or gallery is free to do this, and there certainly is a sizeable market for such limited prints – however one cannot say that imposing a pre-defined limit on the number of prints issued from a single photograph is inherent or required by the medium of photography – on the contrary, it is just being untrue to the medium itself.
When limiting a print, one is placing a substantial chunk of the value of that print on the fact that it is limited. This is similar to earth’s resources – the value of a resource (e.g. gold, iron, diamonds, etc) increases not only due to the popularity of the resource, but also inversely to its availability. For example, if a material is very useful, it will be expensive because of the demand, however if the supply is also very limited, the price of that material will shoot up very quickly. One very good example is Rhenium, a very rare, very expensive ($6,000 per kg +) element used in the manufacture of high temperature alloys for jet engines. It is obviously a useful element, but the insane pricetag is very much a factor of its rarity. It’s very simply the rule of supply and demand. In an ideal state, the supply and demand creates a balance – when there is more demand, the supply increases to match that demand, thus creating a balance in price. If the supply cannot cope with the demand, then the price will increase to balance things out. When an item is either naturally limited, the supply is fixed, and the demand determines its price. However, when an item is artificially limited, the producer can determine the quantity depending on the perceived demand, and can adjust that value to get the best price even when the demand is not very high. My point is that in the latter case, it is not only the demand which dictates the price, but the limitation of the item which is used to artificially increase the asking price per item. This is a very common practice, where producers create items in limited editions to target higher earners. The higher price is not a result of the higher quality of the item, but purely of it’s limited nature.
The “Fine Art Photograph”
Disclaimer: I firmly believe there is no such thing as a “fine art photograph”. There are photographers and there are artists. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, David Bailey re-iterated what I and many others have been stressing for quite a while – “Photography is not an art. There’s that old cliché that my old mate Duffy used to use: photography and painting aren’t art. It depends on whether the person doing it is an artist.” For a photographer, the photograph is the end – there is nothing more and nothing less to it. An artist produces a body of work over a lifetime. Whether this is done through photography or other media is irrelevant. The photograph is the means, and should be seen and appreciated as part of a whole, rather than as an individual piece. Some of these will be aesthetically pleasing, and others will not, but it is the figurative depth of the work which defines the art, and not the aesthetics. Of course, some pieces will be more popular than others, and will sell better individually. By “fine art photograph” I mean a photograph produced by an artist, not necessarily one which is of particular aesthetic pleasure, as many understand it.
The concept of supply and demand is spot on for photography (and other art forms, of course). The value of a photograph is determined both by its demand as well as by its supply. Demand is something which photographers and galleries do not have control on, and therefore, in order to increase the value, one would need to decrease the supply.
I do not agree with this approach on a number of levels, one of the main ones being that through this practice, the value of the photograph is not a reflection of the demand, but also a factor of its rarity. This obviously creates a disparity across the board and one can no longer really gauge the value of a work purely on its quality.
The quality factor, in fact, is one of the many characteristics (together with concept, visualisation and focus on the end rather than the means, to mention a few) that distinguish an artist from a photographer. Quality is of course in no way limited to technical ability at the shooting stage, but also quality of the concept, the ability to translate that concept into clear visuals, and the ability to achieve a final product (i.e. the print) which reflects the vision of the artist. I believe that this alone should be the determinant factor of the value of an artwork, and not the fact that its availability is limited to a certain number of prints.
Poor but Happy
One of the greatest pleasures for an artist is to see his/her work hanging on someone else’s wall. If it didn’t cost me so much time and money to create each print, I would be giving out my work for free (which I do quite often anyway, to those whom I know appreciate it). So in reality, the answer to this dilemma has already been placed before me a priori. Do I want my work to be something which only the elite can afford, thus limiting the distribution of my work, or do I want to allow anyone who appreciates my work to be able to have a piece hanging on their wall? To me the answer is simple. The goal and pleasure of any artist is to share his/her art with the world – “the world” being as many people as possible. I would rather get to the end of my life knowing my work is owned by many, rather than having gained more financial benefit with less distribution. There is always that sense of immortality associated with artistic creation – I am quite sure that together with the sheer need to create, this is one of the main factors which keeps artists dragging along in richness and in poverty. In the end, let’s face it – money is transient, while art is forever.
Limited by Life
There are a few photographers that sell a lot. Let’s go back a few years – Ansel Adams was one of the greatest selling photographers ever. His “Moonlight over Hernandez” is probably the highest selling photograph ever (he didn’t limit his prints). That photograph sold “only” around 800 copies in his lifetime. I would say that 90% of photographs will rarely sell beyond double digit, and a good chunk will probably not even sell beyond single digit. There is no point defining a pre-determined limit on a work, because it will be limited anyway by the amount the photographer can produce in his/her lifetime. Artists who are focused on the quality of the work, will anyway not be able to produce large quantities of prints, because of the sheer time and dedication it takes to produce each print. It is true, today it is easier to create prints using digital tools, however it is not as straightforward as many might think. Anyone can produce an average print using an inkjet printer, however it takes time, dedication and experience to learn the subtleties of digital printing. I have been at it for more than 2 years now, and I know I haven’t even scratched the surface. Whether it comes down to profiling, colour management, and even choice of paper, there is always something new to learn – not to mention the breakneck speed by which technology is advancing, opening up always new possibilities of improvement. Which brings me to my next point.
Forced to Stop
Whenever I am asked for a print, I make it a point to take a good look at the work before printing, and if needed, tweak and improve it to my liking. As it happens, it is very rare that I find myself going to print without changing anything. First of all, this makes each print subtly unique, and secondly, in between printing runs, I will inevitably learnt something new, or just feel that there is a need to give it a slightly different look. It is not the first time that I have totally scrapped my previous work and started over again. It is a natural process of improvement, and it will never stop as long as I’m around. It is very similar to the approach taken by a darkroom printer. It is true that in a darkroom one is forced to redo the process each time, however in both cases, it all depends on the approach taken by the artist. Some great photographers outsourced their prints to professional custom printers who were able to produce almost identical prints with great dexterity and incredible speed. Others preferred to do it on their own, taking more time and changing styles slightly with each print. None of these approaches is wrong – they are equally valid. Some artists prefer to concentrate on the shooting aspect, outsourcing the work to those who have more experience in the field. Others enjoy the process from start to finish, maybe because they find themselves able to define their artistic expression at each stage. I happen to fall in the latter group.
Let us consider the implications of limiting the number of prints, and let us assume that early in an artist’s career, a great photograph is produced, which sells out completely. That artist will be forced to see his/her great work stuck on negative or digital file, locked in time to the last print produced, knowing how much more could be achieved with all the knowledge gained in the successive years of his/her career. Considering both the advancements in printing and post processing techniques, it is inevitable that better ways of producing a print will emerge regularly. It would very frustrating to be unable to create new prints using those new techniques because that would break the edition limit. I know this from first hand experience since I have a couple of images I am very fond of from a couple of years ago, which I have almost sold out and would not bear to know that at some point I will not be able to create any more prints of these images.
Some photographers have over time opted to destroy the original of a photograph, be it the negative or digital file. I can say with absolute certainty that I will never do that. First and foremost, it is a practice which is totally unnatural to the medium. There is no reason whatsoever which justifies the destruction of the original work. If the original were to deteriorate with each subsequent print, such as lithographs I could understand it, but not for photography. Secondly, I know that try as I might, I would not be able to get myself to do it – it would be akin to cutting off a finger or a limb. We all know what a great tragedy the loss of Ansel Adam’s negatives to a darkroom fire was. But that’s an accident, which happens – doing it purposefully is totally another matter.
Being forced to stop producing new prints from a photograph is not only a saddening thought for me as the author, but also to the art community in general, since prints would stop evolving at the point they are sold out, even when new methodology emerges which allows these prints to be improved upon. By keeping an edition open, we know that as long as I’m around (and possibly also after I’m gone), prints can still be produced which reflect the time in which they were produced.
There are two main points (apart from marketing reasons) for limiting prints. Both are linked. The first one is that by limiting prints, the artist is fuelling the secondary market (i.e. auctions), since once the prints are no longer available directly from the artist they will start selling at auctions, raising the price of the print. While this is a very valid point, I do tend to see some flaws in it. First and foremost, what is the artist gaining through these sales? Nada. The practice is there to fuel speculation and earn money to collectors and auction housed. Fair enough, they need to make a living too, but it’s far more important for the artist to make a living while he/she is alive, since that will trigger even more work from the artist, and that’s what we want from artists after all. True, by selling prints in the secondary market, the same artist is gathering momentum and can sell prints at higher prices. This is true, but really and truly, how many photographers actually make a prominent appearance in the secondary market in their lifetime? I’d bet even the most venerated of the lot didn’t get there until after their death. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Andreas Gursky. Secondly, I believe there are other ways in which one can improve their asking price without going into the secondary market and gain full benefit out of it. I will get there shortly. The second point is that unlimited prints will struggle to sell in the secondary market even after the artist’s death because there’s loads of them out there, therefore making it a less worthwhile investment. This is certainly untrue. A good print from a great photographer will remain in demand even if there are others around. Case in point, “Moonrise over Hernandez” raised a very respectable $609,600 in 2006, shortly after the artist’s death, and was then superseded by the sale of “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park” for $722,500 in 2010. I doubt the original purchasers paid that kind of money when they bought them from Ansel Adams.
I believe that while artists are alive and producing work, it is they who should be the main beneficiary of the sale of their work. Galleries play an important role in the primary market, and in the end their role usually benefits the artist’s cause, since they take care of what the artist couldn’t care less about. Art collectors purchase art for various reasons. Those who do it because they like the work will not care about immediate financial gain, while those who do it for investment usually accept the fact that it will most probably bear fruit when the artist stops producing new work, be it photography, painting, sculpture or any other kind of medium. In all this, there are, as always, exceptions. Some artists tend to benefit greatly from secondary markets during their lifetime, and collectors sometimes tend to reap gains from their investment very quickly, however the artists who fall into this category are few and far between – and even then, I am pretty sure that only a small percentage of these are photographers.
The choice here is whether as an artist and photographer I want to put myself in a position which will focus mostly on the primary or secondary market during my lifetime. Being realistic, the likelihood of my work gracing the catalogues of Sotheby’s in my lifetime is not exactly a given, so in my view it makes more sense to focus on the primary market, endorsing those who purchase my work for love over those who purchase it for investment.
The Bottom Line
I have read many essays and participated in numerous discussions about this subject. I have probably heard all possible arguments in favour and against limited editions. Each have got valid arguments, however, I believe that whatever direction artists decide to take should be a personal decision, based on what they believe and what makes them most comfortable with their art and themselves. We should not try to rationalise such decisions, because it would be next to impossible (not to mention incredibly frustrating) to derive a conclusion and take a decision based on these arguments. I now realise that this is why I have not been able to do so beforehand. The moment I realised I don’t really care much about what others might think or what the “market dictates”, the decision came quickly. The bottom line is that while all arguments are valid, decisions are and should be dependent on other factors – personal, artistic, intangible factors. Some of these factors are temporal, and might as well change through an artist’s career – in which case, decisions and attitudes might change. Every artist has the right to choose the direction to take and everyone – artists, galleries and collectors included – should respect such decisions.
Making it “Worth it”
One concern faced by collectors, galleries, etc, which I fully understand and respect, is the “investment factor”. Collectors love to feel that they are spending money on something that will increase in value over time. One way in which this can be addressed in open-edition prints is to create pricing tiers. Each print starts at a base price, and as it gets sold, slowly increases in price. For example, the price might increase by 25% after every 5 prints sold. This method addresses numerous factors. Collectors can choose to purchase newer or less popular prints for lower prices, spending less up front and balancing the risk of a print not becoming very popular with the benefit of gaining a much higher return if it does. Alternatively they may choose to purchase prints which have already proven popular, investing more on high value prints which might still increase in price, although less likely than newer prints, but which would already have a proven market value and would most likely sell better if placed on the secondary market in the future.
I have decided to adopt this approach since I feel that it best addresses my needs and those of anyone who decides to purchase my work. Each print will be signed, with the print number and printing date at the back. A certificate of authenticity would accompany each print, containing details of the print, printing medium and any other relevant details.
In the end, different strategies will inevitably work better for some artists than for others, and it is up to each one of us to take the decision on how best to approach the situation. Whatever we do, it needs to be the best possible solution for us and for those who believe in us enough to buy our work. Anything beyond that is irrelevant.
Every year, I try to keep myself on edge by participating in some international competitions. Some are better than others – one of the better ones in my view is the Spider Awards, mostly because the quality of the submissions is quite high. This year I submitted a few images, and to my surprise they all made the final stretch, getting a total of 4 nominations.
All these images are very close to my heart. They have in some way or another defined my photography, and my view on life. I am glad someone beyond our shores appreciates them – it gives me a certain pride – more like a parental feeling than anything else.
Photographer: Sergio Muscat
Title: Dance of the Shadows
Photographer: Sergio Muscat
Title: Homage to Size
Photographer: Sergio Muscat
Photographer: Sergio Muscat
Title: Crime Scene
Also this edition of the Jazz Festival is over. As always, it was great fun and great music.
Here are the photos from Day 3.
This article appeared in “Professional Imagemaker” last year.
Photography is a relatively new artistic medium, counting in at just over 150 years; just a snippet of time in the history of art. However, during its short lifespan, it has gone through a crash course in artistic development. Being initially influenced by other fine arts, it has gone all the way through to influencing other visual arts in its own right.
The history of photography is rich and captivating, marked by challenges, obstacles, failures and triumphs. One thing, however, remained constant throughout – the struggle to bring to photography the recognition it deserves as an artform in its own right. The height of this endeavour took place around the turn of the 20th century, when traditional fine art itself was experiencing a revolution which would propel it into new directions. This revolution, triggered initially by the establishment of the Dada movement, which strived to deny all that were the traditional concepts of fine art, affected photography positively, due to the adoption of this new medium by major artists as a form of mutiny towards other forms. This in itself triggered an experimental phase which brought photography into the picture as a medium that could produce, rather than just reproduce.
Indeed, this was, and probably still remains, the greatest struggle for photography – convincing society that there is a highly intricate creative process behind the creation of a photograph; that in fact a photograph is the interpretation of a subjective reality and not the portrayal of the absolute. It is no surprise that photography was the medium of choice of many Surrealists – the members of the artistic movement succeeding the Dada movement. Their main aim was to break down the links between the mind and reality, producing work which was a direct interpretation of their dreams and thoughts. One of the main contributors to the Surrealist movement, Man Ray, was particularly fond of the photographic medium, experimenting new techniques at length. His philosophy was one which has been adopted by many artists who followed: “I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence.”
Fast forward eighty years. While technology has advanced photography into new heights, the one thing which made photography the powerhouse it is today remains constant. The photographer’s eye has brought us into an era where the real and surreal meet and sometimes overlap, creating that niche which photography so much longed for. It is this overlap that earned photography its deserved place in the most prestigious art collections.
As a photographer I often ponder on what I would like to achieve through my photography. It is a constant exercise which I find very important to the production of my work. As I look back at the history of photography and art it clearly transpires that photographers, more than any other artist, cannot be judged by a single photograph, but by their life’s work and the concept behind their creations. If we look at the greatest names of 20th century photography such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, to mention a few, we keep stumbling into patterns. These photographers did not just take photographs. They followed a vision, a concept which drove their life. Photography was their way of interpreting this vision.
It is this vision that makes a photographer more than just a person with a camera, and it is the ability to interpret this vision into images which move and transport the viewer that make that photographer stand out from the crowd and become great. How we interpret our vision is irrelevant. It is the vision itself that is relevant and the will and skill to bring that vision to light. As I develop as a photographer, it also becomes clearer that vision must be strived for. We are not born with a concept in mind – it is something that comes through a constant journey of self-discovery. This journey has only a beginning and no destination. Its path is only dictated by the next step.
My personal journey has until now taken me into a number of directions – architecture, street photography and abstract to mention a few. Each of these directions has been fuelled by curiosity, passion, belief and opinion. It is these convictions and traits that give artists the extra dimension that makes their work remarkable, and allows their vision to permeate onto the viewer. While artistic discovery is a very personal voyage, its final purpose is to externalise what is within the artist, and therefore shared with the world. Photography, I find, is an ideal medium to achieve this. It is difficult to beat the feeling of being shown what is seen every day and not recognise it. Photography is the link between all this – no other artistic medium can claim such an intimate relationship with reality while holding control over its interpretation.
I knew it would come… It came the first time I had an exhibition, catching me very much off guard and throwing me off course for a while, and kept appearing like clockwork after each exhibition or project. I thought I could avoid it this time around, but there it was, like the flu – you know it’s going to hit, and you think you’re going to avoid it this time around, or at least be prepared for it, but it still kicks hard, and every time it seems to be even worse than the last (actually, I got the flu too, so it hasn’t been very happy times as of late!)
Coming to think about it, it’s quite a natural thing. The effort that goes into preparing for a project or exhibition, when done well, is totally draining. It takes away all your physical and mental energy. To top it off, there’s that constant nagging feeling of incompletion which I am sure most artists out there will be familiar with. Then the day arrives, it’s a success (hopefully)… and suddenly it’s all over. Instead, there’s void. It’s quite a nasty feeling – not knowing where to go next, not really wanting to do anything for a while, and above all, no idea when it will be over. Then there’s also the knowledge that next time around you’ll have to do better than this, which in itself is quite intimidating.
After “Inheritance”, I was inevitably dragged into it once again. The project took up a lot of time and energy, and together with some other things, was a total energy-drainer. There is little which can be done apart from just riding through it, trying to “enjoy” that moment of mental quietness. It is also probably quite healthy, since I am pretty sure that force would most likely result in mediocrity. Eventually the ideas and enthusiasm start flowing back.
Since a short while now I have been thinking of new projects to work on, and have homed onto one or two interesting things. My process tends to take a while, with a few projects sprouting out and eventually converging or focussing onto one. I have some work I’ve been wanting to work on and I think that it is now mature enough to form a collection in itself, and I’m quite enjoying it.
Of course, I speak this way because I have the advantage that I am not relying on art as my main source of income. I can imagine it’s much tougher for the professional artist who needs to create a steady stream of work. I have gone through periods whereby I’ve yearned to do this as a full time job but now I realise that for the moment this is the best place to be. Having the freedom to work on something or stay put for a while is quite stress-relieving, although I can also think of a few disadvantages to that, including slower evolution and longer “recovery time”. In any case, art for me is an escape, and it can only be an escape if you want to go there rather than have to go there. That’s how I would like it to remain for now.
It has been a few months since I’ve ventured into the blogosphere, and there is a very good reason for it. Since the exhibition in October, I have had very little spare time, and I certainly needed that to avoid bursting out in flames.
Let me wind back a few months, to that fantastic evening in mid-October that started it all. The preparations for the Inheritance Exhibition were now almost ready, and the plan was to start setting up on Monday 18th October. In the meantime, just to make sure I’m totally snowed under, I dreamt up submitting an architectural panel for a fellowship (FMIPP) qualification. It was a tough one, not only due to the excruciatingly high standards, but also because I was doing this while juggling a 6-piece strong exhibition on a shoestring budget which would be open in three days time. I vowed I would keep my cool in the run-up to the qualifications, and being on some of the judging panels helped me keep my nerves in check, however inevitably the butterflies came, multiplied, and made a havoc of my stomach while I was sitting there waiting for the verdict.
It turns out it wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and I must say that the excitement was great when the judges said yes. I now happen to be the youngest Fellow in Malta, and one of the youngest in the UK, which is quite flattering. I also got interviewed for the SWPP magazine, which is quite nice!
Still reeling from this great news, I joined my family to set up the Inheritance exhibition the following Monday. I was very wary on the way it would be received, since “traditional photography” went somewhat straight out of the window with this exhibition. To my surprise, there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the exhibition. People were very pleased – dad’s work was an overwhelming success mostly due to his very original style which greatly pleased a more mature audience, while Carlo’s work and mine mostly appealed to the younger generation.
Over the next few weeks, we organised events, and in general kept ourselves very busy promoting the exhibition. In the end it seemed like a great success, and overall achieved our goal of showing how the same, seemingly restrictive, medium can be used in very different ways. I am glad to have spent all the time and energy to do this.
However that’s not all. Rupert Cefai, a fellow artist and friend, had approached me in September with a proposal to set up a small art gallery in Valletta. This had been a topic we had explored ad infinitum during our various conversations over the years, so it didn’t take much effort to delve into it. Over the next few months, Rupert worked on converting this totally run-down room into a great (albeit small) space where our work and that of other artists could be displayed. Gallery Pi opened in December, and again, I am glad to say that the space has been very well received, and we have had some very positive feedback. There is still loads to do, but the enthusiasm is strong and we’re hoping this project will grow into something which will become a mark in the local art scene.
Up next, I’ll be delivering a couple of presentations in the UK for the SWPP conference in London, which is pretty exciting stuff! I am sure it will be a fun experience and I am very much looking forward to it.
If this year stays on the same positive trend as last year, I think there will be quite a lot to write about (and very little time to do so). In the meantime, I’ve uploaded some new photos from the inheritance exhibition and the fellowship panel. Enjoy!