Aesthetics & Photography – 12
Being an Artist in Business - 2
My Story, Part Two
Linhof Master Technika 4x5, Rodenstock 210mm, Fuji Provia
The section numbering in this essay is a continuation of Part 1 that ends with section 9.
People think that at the top there isn't much room. They tend to think of it as an Everest. My message is that there is tons of room at the top.
Robert de Niro
10 - The Break
According to McDonald’s we all deserve a break, and we deserve it today. We should take it right here, right now and preferably in a McDonald’s restaurant. The fact that McDonald’s are ubiquitously present in cities and along main highways makes this approach very convenient. McDonald’s certainly had marketing considerations in mind when they came up with that line. However, getting a break does have some truth in the context of our considerations.
In business, we all need a break to get started. Why? Because we need a way in, a ramp-up, a motivating factor, something to make us feel like we have a chance to succeed, something to make up for the fact we have no experience and (in my case) no funds to give us a financial advantage. Such was my situation and my break was being able to sell my work on the North Porch of the El Tovar Hotel at Grand Canyon National Park. By being able to sell at the Grand Canyon I was able to bypass years of attempting to make a living in second class, or third class, or even lower than that, venues. You see, in selling there are venues and then there are venues. In selling art, as in selling real estate, location is very important. And the Grand Canyon is a prime location, especially the El Tovar Hotel which on top of being the premier hotel in Grand Canyon National Park, and listed in the National Register of Historical Places, is located 60 feet from the rim of the Grand Canyon, with many of its rooms and suites having a direct view onto what is considered to be one of the wonders of the natural world.
11 - The People
But location, while being crucially important, isn’t enough to make you succeed. The best location in the world is nothing without traffic that brings you qualified customers on a daily basis. The El Tovar delivers just that. Located at the top of a hill overlooking the Grand Canyon, the El Tovar is on the path of just about every Grand Canyon visitor.
First, the Grand Canyon Railroad Terminal is located just down the hill from the El Tovar hotel. After getting off the train, passengers --who in the summer can number up to 3000 per train with two or more trains per day-- come up the path to the El Tovar because it is the most direct route from the train station to the first overlook. They then walk in front of the El Tovar, and, you guessed it, walk by our display, stop, look, and purchase photographs. Some purchase them right there and then, and some purchase them on their way back.
White House and Ollas
The pottery depicted in this image, as well as in the last image in Part 1-- Canyon de Chelly Collage-- is part of the archaeological collection of the University of Arizona.
I photographed it after obtaining special permission.
I have always preferred customers who purchase on their way back because the train only gives passengers a 3 hour stopover at Grand Canyon. When passengers realize it is time to return and stop by our booth, they usually have only minutes to spare and must make a decision right there and then. It is do or die, sink or swim, buy it now or have regrets forever time. Many sales to passengers that were “late for the train” and at risk of being left at Grand Canyon overnight (what a drag) were made on the basis of “Can you frame it and pack it in 3 minutes my train is leaving right now!” And we could. I would frame the piece, Natalie would package it while I wrote the receipt and processed their card or gave them change. In less time than it takes to say “all aboard!” they were running down the hill with a photograph under their arm. We never had a “late for the train customer” negotiate the price, try to not pay sales tax, or ask for a cash discount. I am sure many thought of doing so but time was running out. The expression impulse purchase was never more accurate.
Second, there were the hikers. Never discount the hikers. They may be sweaty, covered with dust and pulverized donkey poop, sometimes haggard and nearly always suffering from a bad case of Kaibab Shuffle, this unmistakable swagger that develops the day after climbing 7000 vertical feet and makes your lactic-acid-loaded-legs unable to climb stairs because you cannot lift your feet more than an inch above the ground, forcing you to walk with legs locked at the ankle, or the knee, and in particularly extreme instances at the hip, legs that can only be moved sideways and forward, as any flexing of the muscles that allow you to bend your legs has become impossible. The Kaibab Shuffle became our best friend, because hikers afflicted with this painful and debilitating condition were easy prey to any and all possibilities of sitting down. “Would you like a seat” became for them the best news in the world. A seat, and the knowledge they were on top of the hill and that as long as they stayed there they would not have to go up any further, was the best news they could ever get at this specific time in their lives. And since we were located on top of the hill, and because we had seats, specifically large historical benches located on the porch of the El Tovar, we were the bearers of good news. Almost any hiker that would take us up on our offer to “take a seat” became a customer.
Hikers would come in droves, equipped with complete explorer outfits and larger than needed backpacks, asking if we could ship. And we could. We had large signs that read, quite simply “We Ship!” Those signs were ubiquitously pointed towards the trail so hikers on their way down into the canyon could read them. They would make their actual purchase after they returned, most afflicted by then with the Kaibab Shuffle as I just describe, now seeking to bring back home with them one of our photographs, as memento of their trip. If their finances allowed it, this memento was going to be as large as we could make it, so that its size would be metaphorically proportional to the suffering they endured below the rim. The longer and the more difficult their hike was, and the least likely it would ever be repeated, the bigger the purchase. I once had a father who bought our largest piece – a 7-foot panorama of the entire Bright Angel Trail — and who mentioned, after announcing his decision “Two of them. One for me, one for my daughter. We did the hike together.” “Yes sir. And would you like a couple of companion prints with that?” Actually, I didn’t say that. I just said “Thank you. That is a wonderful gift to your daughter and yourself.” and proceeded to write the receipt. But I certainly thought it. Sometimes, it is really challenging to know when to stop talking. Usually, I was able to do quite well. But on occasion, I did digress. Not that time though.
The El Tovar is the second-closest lodge to the head of the Bright Angel Trail, the most traveled trail in Grand Canyon. The closest lodge is Bright Angel Lodge, about a half mile past the El Tovar. You may ask, “then the Bright Angel Lodge should be a better location, shouldn’t it?” Well, not really. You see the Bright Angel Lodge is not in the same caliber of lodges as the El Tovar. The El Tovar is where the wealthiest visitors go. Since art is a luxury, it is those with the highest amount of disposable income that will buy the most expensive artwork. Furthermore, just about every one who stays at the Bright Angel Lodge comes up to the El Tovar because it is along the path to other overlooks, because it is a beautiful, world-renowned historical lodge, and because it is next to what I consider to be the two nicest gift stores in Grand Canyon: the Hopi House and Verkamps. Visits to both stores are “required” of all Grand Canyon visitors. In fact, when you exit the park you are asked to show a receipt from one of those two stores and if you cannot show such a receipt your must pay the park entrance fee a second time. At $25 this exceeds the cost of a tee shirt, or other affordable souvenir, making shopping in those stores a no-brainer (just kidding).
Third, are the walk-in visitors. This may be the largest category, but not necessarily the most profitable. Walk in visitors are basically just about anyone who drives into the park, parks their vehicle, and walks along the rim, into the stores and into the historical buildings. They are sightseeing without a further goal in mind, unlike hikers who may be walking along the rim but are doing so waiting to start their hike either down to the river and back, or across the canyon, or on some remote wilderness trail following their own itinerary.
Walk in visitors is a misleading term because they are really “driving-in” visitors. However, by the time we meet them, they are on foot, their car parked somewhere, far away.
Tsegi Spring Storm
Olympus OM4, Zuiko 18mm, Kodak Royal Gold 25
The average Grand Canyon visitor spends 20 minutes looking at the Grand Canyon and 3 hours shopping in the stores along the rim, the three main ones being Verkamps and the Hopi House (required as I just mentioned) and the El Tovar whose gift store, although selling higher-end merchandise is also very popular. With Natalie, we worked very hard at lowering the average time people spent looking at the Grand Canyon. After 5 years, and based on extensive surveys conducted by the National Park service (survey based on passing over 7 million questionnaires to Grand Canyon visitors) we succeeded in lowering this average to 15 minutes. We were on our way to 10 minutes, and going strong, when the El Tovar show was terminated (just kidding although the show was terminated; more on that later). For now, let us look at a fourth traffic category: the hotel guests.
Hotel Guests were among our best customers. First, they were a “captive audience” so to speak, for the duration of their stay. The North Porch being the most direct way to the rim of Grand Canyon, nearly all of them walked by our show several times a day. Most of them looked at our work on their way in or out, and it was only a matter of time until they purchased something. Some made their purchase on their first visit to the show. Others made their purchase as they departed the hotel. Most made purchases during the middle of their stay, after having made their mind up carefully about which piece they wanted to take home with them. A surprising number made repeated purchases throughout their stay, often at the beginning, middle and end. Highly recommended. By the time they departed Grand Canyon for the next destination on their itinerary, they had become close friends. Some even recommended us to their entire family. I once sold artwork to each member of a 50+ member family reunion. All together, they purchased nearly 100 pieces.
What is most important to understand about El Tovar guests is that they were qualified customers. As I mentioned, because the El Tovar is the most expensive hotel in the park, only the wealthiest guests stay there. This means that they are the ones with the most disposable income, and because art is often purchased with disposable income this means they were our most likely customers. Second, they obviously liked the El Tovar otherwise they would have elected to stay somewhere else. It therefore made sense that they would like most other aspects of the hotel, including our art show. And finally, the fact that we were showing at the El Tovar, instead of in a lower-category hotel, said something about us. Clearly, the hotel picked only artists that met the high standards that had been set for this hotel. This in turn justified the prices we charged and guaranteed the service we provided. In short, we were the ones when it came to buying photography. The fact that we were the only ones in the park to sell fine art photography didn’t hurt either. Not that most people looked anywhere else. But for the few that did, it was a one-way trip back to our show. In short, and when everything is taken into account, we were the ones when it came to purchasing original photographs at Grand Canyon.
12 -The Approach
The best location and the best traffic and two essential elements, and together they are enough to guarantee a certain level of success no matter what your approach to business is. However, a certain level of success wasn’t what I was after. Call me ambitious, and if you consider this a crime, notify the proper authorities. In my book it isn’t. In fact I consider it a quality. What I was after was the highest level of success I could reach through this opportunity. I didn’t have much experience with arts shows at all when I started the El Tovar (I had done one art show in Michigan and a handful of shows (read Christmas Bazaars) in Chinle, and that was about it. My other sales had been through gallery exhibits or direct sales to customers. I had placed one ad in an art magazine, and had some success with it, and I had sold notecards wholesale to hotel gift stores in Chinle and Monument Valley. Unless I forgot something that about sums up my experience selling art at the time I started the El Tovar show.
The El Tovar provided an opportunity to go much further than I had gone before. The question was how to get there. I started in the most obvious manner: by studying how the other artists in the show, those who had been there before me, were doing it. I did this while selling my work at the El Tovar show. The El Tovar Porch was divided in two, along the entryway to the hotel. The first half was called the A side and the other half the B side. The A side was larger and was given to artists who had seniority, or were in good terms with the management, as we will see later. The fact is, and this is what I want to convey at this time, that when I started the show there were always two artists on the porch at any given time, one on the A side and one on the B side.
13 - The Progression of the Grand Canyon Show
Content is more than 'subject matter. It is all the feelings and ideas you bring to your painting.
We sold our work at Grand Canyon for 5 years, from 1997 to 2002. When we started the show we were, in the words of one of the other artists who had been selling their work there for several years, “the lowest guys on the totem pole.” By the third year we were at the top of the totem pole and every other artist wanted to outdo us. They were also wondering how we climbed to the top. Some of these other artists had done the show for 10 to 15 years, and to be outdone sales-wise by newcomers wasn’t easy for them to accept.
What had happened was fairly simple. As I mentioned, there were two sides, physically speaking, on the El Tovar North Porch, referred to as the A and B sides and separated by the entrance into the hotel. These two sides were allocated to two different artists by Fred Harvey, now Xanterra, the company that owns and manages the lodges at Grand Canyon National Park. Because there were about 8 different artists showing and selling their work at the El Tovar, each artist was allocated a week a month to show their work (4 weeks time two artists per week).
Needless to say, each artist wanted to be allocated as many days as they could possibly get, because more days meant more income. When we joined the show, scheduling was done on a preferential basis. If the people at Fred Harvey who were in charge of the show liked you, you got more days. You also got better days, and you got to be assigned to the largest of the two sides: the A side, which was about twice as large as the B side, and which therefore allowed you to display twice as much work. Since you sell what you show, to show more means to sell more (to a point). Again, needless to say, everyone wanted to be on the A side but only those who were “fuzzy” with Fred Harvey management got to be on the A side.
The same situation was in effect in regard to getting more days on the show. Eventually, once you had figured out your average sales per day, generating a specific income for the year was as simple as taking your income goal for the year and dividing it by your average daily income. The number you got after the division was the number of days you needed to show at the El Tovar Hotel. Unfortunately, while the math was easy, getting scheduled for the number of days you wanted was far more challenging. Here too, only those who were “fuzzy” with Fred Harvey Management got to have as many days as they wanted. The others got whatever they could get and had to be thankful that they got anything at all.
In 1999 things changed drastically in regards to show assignment when a new retail director was hired, replacing the previous one who had worked there for over 20 years. This new director took a good look at the receipts provided by the El Tovar artists, and realized that there was a discrepancy between how much the artists were bringing in and how many days they were assigned on the show. Specifically, some artists were selling over 100 days a year, and yet their average sales per day was about half that of other artists (read “us”) who were only selling a few days a year.
This new retail director was into maximizing the financial return to Fred Harvey from the El Tovar Show. To sell at the El Tovar, artists were required to sign a contract stipulating that they were to give 20% of their income from the show to Fred Harvey. In order for Fred Harvey to maximize the income from the show, the logical thing to do was to give the maximum number of days to those artists who had the highest daily average sale. This is exactly what he did, changing the rules for the next year and putting into the contract that show days would be allocated by priority to the top-earning artists.
When the daily income ranking was finalized, at the end of 1999, Beaux Arts Photography was on top of the list. I asked for a week a month, all on the A side, and preferably with a Painter rather than a photographer on the B side, to minimize competition. I got everything I asked for. I remember the words of the retail director when he gave me the schedule for 1999: âï¿½ï¿½rock and roll.âï¿½ï¿½ I certainly did.
Grand Canyon National Park
14 - Quantity
Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Over the next few years we rapidly moved towards being “the top dogs” at the El Tovar. For several years in a row our sales volume doubled each year. I got taken into this rocket-like assent, to the point where I thought it had no limit. Unfortunately, it did have a limit, and this limit was how much artwork Natalie and I could physically produce. The problem was not how many pieces we could sell, for there was either no limit, or we were very far from having reached that limit. The problem was being able to produce enough artwork to satisfy the demand.
Most artists worry about how much they are able to sell. We worried about how much we were able to produce. No matter how hard we worked, we could not keep up with the demand. Not only that, but there was the framing and packaging, which took time as well, and finally the packing and shipping of sold pieces. Nearly all our customers were traveling, either from another state or from another country, and many were not able to carry their artwork back with them. We tried very hard to do what we could so they would take it with them, but regardless, after each show we had something like 50 packages, usually large framed pieces, to package and ship. Because many pieces were sold prior to being made, we first had to print and frame most of the pieces we needed to ship. Furthermore, all this had to be done in a week, the time we could devote to that part of our business. Then it was back to preparing artwork for the next show, which took two weeks, and then time to leave again for the El Tovar. This pattern, which with a one-week show covered exactly one month, was our normal rotation schedule from one show to the next. We could not have possibly done more than a week of selling a month. As it was we had time for nothing else. If someone called to place an order, because for example they didn’t purchase at the Grand Canyon, their order had to be placed at the end of the queue and was delayed by about 3 weeks.
To try and meet this huge demand I was printing my work on 3 different printers, powered by 3 different computers, and all three running at the same time. While printing was going on I would be cutting mats, framing artwork and packaging pieces. I would also be placing orders for frames, mats, packing supplies and one thousand other items needed to run our business. I was also taking deliveries from UPS, Airborne Express, DHL and other carriers who managed to find their way to our trailer in the middle of the Kindergarten Center, the name of the housing area where we lived in Chinle. Often, they didn’t manage to find us, and would instead drop our packages at some strange location in Chinle, either the School Warehouse, or the Kindergarten Center, or the Junior High School. I would, sometimes, get a call from someone wondering what that pile of boxes in their hallway was all about, or Natalie would hear from someone about my packages. If I knew something was coming on a specific day, I would do the rounds, trying to find where the supplies I ordered for my business had been delivered. Usually, this wasn’t feasible because shipments to Chinle made it there when they made it there, regardless of what the shippers schedule might be. A sand storm, a flat tire on the truck, or simply the driver getting lost, or forgetting to pick up or deliver my packages, meant that the delivery was pushed back until their next trip to Chinle, which, if I was lucky was the next business day, but often ended up being several days, and on occasion up to a week, later. All in all, it took a lot to hold everything together and running smoothly. Somehow, we managed to succeed in front of what at first sight appears to be insurmountable odds. The cost, for there was a cost eventually, was to come later. We will get to this in a minute.
After a couple of years the problems of ordering and delivering supplies had become such a burden that I bought a 10’x12’ shed, had it built in Flagstaff over 200 miles away and delivered to Chinle on a flatbed truck and installed with a forklift, and started ordering supplies for an entire year, as much as I could figure out how much to order in January for the coming year. I was usually wrong, erring regularly on the low side, since I could never quite expect the business growth that each year brought. There was also a limit as to how much I could stock. For example, I ordered frames 300 at a time, in sizes from 11x14 to 40x50, and that amount lasted only about a month. The boxes the frames came in alone were enough to fill the trailer and the shed because we kept each empty box, and the foam peanuts they were filled with, to ship sold pieces. I could not have ordered more, simply because I did not have room to store them. Cash flow was the least of my worries. Storage room was the issue.
Ordering from home, even though I had one hundred other things to do, was a luxury of sorts. Often times I had to place my orders on the road, often from the basement of the El Tovar Hotel, next to the bathrooms, were the public phones were located (Grand Canyon had no cellular access at that time). At such times this was the only way I could schedule delivery prior to my next show, because certain suppliers, including the company where I ordered my frames had a two week wait time between ordering and delivery.
15 - Wearing out
The first requisite of success is the ability to apply your physical and mental energies to one problem without growing weary.
At this point, if you followed the jest of what I just described, you probably are getting the idea that I was wearing out. I certainly was. All I was doing was creating art and selling it. In fact, I could not create enough art to sell. I was having a problem. Unlike most artists, my problem was not that I wasn’t selling my work. My problem was that I was selling too much of my work.
I tried everything possible to increase my production capabilities, short of moving on to an assembly-line approach or hiring workers (the El Tovar contract stipulated that we had to create the work we sold there ourselves so this was not an option anyway). I started by purchasing a computerized mat cutter. I made the decision after starting to feel pain in my right wrist and hand from repetitive motion cutting thousands of mats. To me, avoiding serious injury to my hand was worth the 20k or so price tag the computerized mat cutter carried with it.
The computerized mat cutter certainly speeded up mat production and also enabled me to create much more fancy mats than I previously could. With it I was able to cut a variety of corners, including decorative corners, as well as cut multiple openings, layered mats, and more. I no longer had to spend hours calculating the size of a mat opening, or the spacing of a complex layout. All this was taken care of by the software. Furthermore, I could save each mat layout on the computer, very much like I save image files for future reprinting.
I also moved to compressed air framing tools. This move was initiated by the air compressor that came with the computerized mat cutter. A computerized mat cutter works with electricity and compressed air. Electricity powers the two servo motors that move the cutting head on the x-y axis table. The cutting head itself is pushed down into the matboard by compressed air. Compressed air is also necessary to operate the clamps that hold the matboard to the table.
The compressor is a Silent Air model, meaning it makes no more noise than a large refrigerator. Having it run all day is therefore not a disturbance since we can hardly hear it. The first air-compressed tool I started using was a framing staple gun. This tool is used to fasten the backing board into the frame. Prior to the compressed air staple gun, I was using a hand-operated model. It worked great when you have a few frames to do, but when you do hundreds a day, as I did, it tires your hand and here too you face the risk of getting repetitive motion syndrome.
Canyons of the San Juan
San Juan River, Utah
I then moved on to a compressed air box stapler. This is not a tool you will see very often unless you go to a place where large amount of heavy packages are shipped. We noticed that the frame boxes we received were closed with staples, and we saw they were working great so we moved on to the same approach. Prior to that we were using miles of packing tape to close our frame boxes. This tool made assembling and closing boxes a lot faster and easier.
We also moved to an electric, cordless screwdriver to screw the wire frame holders to the back of the frame. And finally we moved to an antistatic compressed air gun to clean the prints and the inside of the frames prior to framing. This too saved us a lot of time since cleaning a frame of lint and dust can be very time consuming, especially when you work with acrylic which is highly conducive to static electricity.
At any rate, all this only fixed part of the problem. It made our work less physically demanding and it allowed us to work faster and better. However, it only allowed us to create artwork faster. It did not solve our main challenge which, unknown to us, was that we were selling too many photographs.
So I hired a private marketing consultant, at a high price, to help me with this challenge. His solution was simple, and in retrospect obvious although at the time it was scary to implement: we needed to raise our prices. At first, we couldn’t do it. We had come to associate our success not with what we sold but with how much we charged for it. To change our prices, to raise them, was (or so we believed) to ask for trouble and most likely to put an end to our success.
But we had to do something. We now understood that we could control the volume of sales by the price and that lowering our volume could only be achieved by raising our prices. Even if we were scared to do so, we had to do something or we would die trying to meet the impossibly high demand placed upon us. So we did. Timidly at first, then, seeing that it hardly made a difference in the volume of sales, more and more authoritatively.
I decided that since we did not know the maximum price we could ask for our artwork, we would proceed cautiously, raising prices $5 or $10 at a time. But because we were so far below what we really needed to charge, at some shows we had to raise prices daily, if not several times a day, as our stock got lower and lower, to prevent this stock from running out before the last day of the show. In other words, we were starting to understand that we had a finite amount of artwork to sell. That finite amount was equal to the amount we could physically produce and transport (by the third year we used two vehicles, each loaded to the brim with artwork). To maximize our income, and to make our efforts worthwhile, we had to sell this artwork for as much as we could, and this for each and every piece. To sell it for less than that was to lose money. The real challenge was finding the correct price.
We not only raised all our prices considerably over time, we also started introducing much higher priced pieces, aware that some of our customers were looking for larger and more exclusive pieces. Again, we were so successful in this endeavor that we had to raise our prices again and again, and this on prices which when first introduced seemed already high-priced to us. Just as an example, by the end of the show in 2002, I was selling one to two $2000 pieces a day, for a total of seven to fourteen in a week. And that was for just one frame size, a size that was far from being our best-selling size.
My success doing what I love was so incredible that I had no more time to do what I love. By 1999 my time was nearly completely devoted to the El Tovar show. I became aware of that while preparing my taxes for that year. When looking at my total expenses for film plus film development, I realized that I had spent a whopping $300 on that for the whole year. When you shoot 4x5 film this means using one box of 50 sheets of film in a year, the cost being about $6 per sheet with development.
Shooting 50 sheets of 4x5 film in a year when you are a professional is nothing. It does not even cover one shoot. In fact, I can’t even remember what I shot with that one box. It probably does not even matter. The fact is that I had stopped being a photographer. My bank account was better than it ever had looked, but I had no more time to do what I really wanted to do. Even raising my prices over and over again did not solve the problem.
I was not aware of it yet then, but what was wrong was my endeavor itself. As long as I sold my work at the El Tovar Hotel, I would be tempted to sell as many pieces as I could possibly sell, no matter what. The solution was to quit the show, something that I could not envision doing in the least, something I could not quite get myself to believe I would do. I remember wishing that, somehow and for reasons unknown, the show would stop just so this whole situation would stop. I did not know it then, but my wishes were about to come true. I am sure you have been told this before, but I need to mention it again here because it is true: just be careful what you ask for, because you may get just that.
16- Transitions: how the end of one opportunity can be the beginning of another
Business Art is the step that comes after Art.
The Navajos believe that if you can say what you want out loud, then doing so will make it happen. It must be true because I have personally witnessed it, in my own life, several times. It certainly was the case with the El Tovar show. Not right away mind you, it did take a couple of years. However, eventually the show that had been in existence for over 15 years came to an end in 2002. By then I was prepared for it, and the transition to what we might call the “after El Tovar show” was smooth and painless.
What I did was prepare myself for the possibility of the show ending. Besides me wishing that it would end, there were serious rumors that it may end because of new National Park policies requiring that concessionaires, such as Fred Harvey, do not hire subcontractors, such as us. This policy was finally implemented at the end of 2002 when the 15-year contract that regulates Fred Harvey’s operations in Grand Canyon came up for renewal. The new contract speculated that Fred Harvey could not hire subcontractors. They could only hire employees. For us to stay on the El Tovar Porch, Fred Harvey had to make us employees. There were some weak attempts on the part of Fred Harvey to do so, but the realities of having to pay us a salary, covering our health insurance, and meeting other obligations made them decide against it. Furthermore, our sales would have had to be handled through Fred Harvey’s cash registers, meaning our income would first go to them before they gave us back 75% of it.
Spiderock in Snowstorm
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
By then the percentage we paid to Fred Harvey had gone up to 25% and the writing was on the wall that it would continue its upward journey. In short, and when everything was considered, this meant the end of being artists in business at the El Tovar and the beginning of being Fred Harvey’s employees. Well paid employees but employees nevertheless. No thanks. I liked it just fine the way it was before.
At any rate, attempts at making the El Tovar artists employees failed miserably and by the end of 2002 the show was officially cancelled. We were only told the news in Spring 2003, but I did not wait until then to make my move. As usual, it is best to plan ahead. And, as we will see shortly, as usual how you react matters a great deal more than what happens to you.
17- The second best place to start a business is Phoenix, Arizona
My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.
How you react is important. Not reacting is even better. Reactions are like knee jerks. They are often uncontrolled, frequently overdone, and almost always out of place and regrettable after the fact. I knew the end of the show was coming, I just didn’t know when it was coming. Therefore the sensitive thing to do was to prepare for the ineluctable, and expect it to happen sooner rather than later. What I wanted to do was what the Boy Scouts recommend: be prepared. Being prepared is far better than reacting, especially in a business situation.
Being prepared in business often takes the form of a healthy stash of cash. There is nothing more effective in this situation than asset liquidity. It allows you to move quickly, without having to ask a bank for permission to spend their money. Loans are nice, but not having to ask for money is even nicer. It shortens the delay between taking a decision and acting upon it to a minimum.
So I put aside enough money to make the move from Chinle to “some other place more propitious to business.” While Chinle was the best place to start a business, in my estimate and as I explained in Part 1, it wasn’t the best place to grow and expand a business. In fact, in that regard it probably was the worst place to do so. Supplies were unavailable locally, shipping took days or weeks, the closest city was 100 miles away, delivery was hectic, and most of all I wasn’t even supposed to have a business at all, let alone do well with it.
It took me a while to find the ideal place to relocate. I seriously considered just about every town in Arizona. At least I had the state down (Arizona is my favorite state) but being roughly the size of France (understandably without a minuscule wine production and with far fewer roads and villages), it didn’t make my job much easier. My considerations were numerous. First, it had to fit my budget. I had put enough aside, but everyone has limits. Furthermore, taste tends to grow just about as fast (often faster) than income. As they say, expenses will always rise to meet income. In fact, they will usually rise to exceed income if not watched carefully.
Then there was the issue of being close to my suppliers: frames, matboard, packing supplies and a million other things had to be shipped to me in Chinle at a high cost in shipping expenses and in time. I did not have the leisure of getting up in the morning, call a supplier, and have what I needed brought to me that very same day. No sir. I had to plan weeks or months in advance. When something ran out unexpectedly, a red light started flashing on top of the Kindergarten trailer, alerting (to no avail) anyone who wanted to pay attention that something was amiss inside. Well, not really, but you get the point. We were on the brink of disaster if, god forbid, we got a little bit too confident about our stock or if something – anything -- went wrong. There wasn’t much of a cushion in that respect. In fact, often there was no cushion at all.
Canyons of the San Juan 2
San Juan River, Utah
Third, there was the issue of stereotypes. Some cities in Arizona are both attractive and expected to be chosen by artists looking to relocate. One such city is Sedona, land of red rocks, real estate and psychics. Sedona is, in the mind of many people, where I should be. Yet, Sedona is where I am not at the current time. Certainly, I am also not in a number of other so called “artist colonies” in Arizona, such as Jerome or Tubac, to name two of the most famous besides Sedona, and for this reason it is worth looking at why I am not in these locations that are supposed to be most propitious to artists.
To live in such a colony is to fall prey, in my estimate, to a stereotype, and stereotypes are dangerous. They are dangerous because, if you subscribe to them, you wholeheartedly and without much thinking embrace a situation that was created by people other than you and for motives unclear. I personally much prefer creating my own reality. At least, if I subscribe to it, I subscribe to something that I created. My reality, when it came to relocating my business, was to guarantee the success of my business model while securing my real estate investments. Put that way, it sounds nothing like an artistic endeavor. That is the whole point. Moving from Chinle was not an artistic endeavor. It was a business endeavor. Once again, one must not confuse the two.
18 - Teaching again
Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.
The end of the Grand Canyon Show, and the move away from Chinle, marked the beginning of new opportunities. If I had my way at all, and I had my way quite a bit because I was in control of the situation, I was not going to recreate the situation that was ours at the Grand Canyon. In other words, we were going to make a change from selling quantity to selling quality. Not that we erred very far from quality during our years at Grand Canyon. However, we were getting awfully close to doing so. Furthermore, I wanted to go further than we had ever done in regards to quality and offer a product that would have nothing to envy to anyone.
This move also was the opportunity to start teaching again. Natalie and I love teaching. Both of us were trained as professional teachers and hold teaching degrees from NAU and MTU. When we moved to Chinle it enabled Natalie to teach art to 7th and 8th grade Navajo students. However, for me, the Grand Canyon show kept me so busy that there was no time to think about teaching photography or anything else for that matter.
Not that I didn’t have requests. In fact, I had many requests to teach photography and offer workshops on the part of photographers who visited my show at the Grand Canyon. The problem was that I had no time to do so because the show consumed all my time and energy. I considered it a success simply to be able to fill the orders and come back for the next show with a full inventory. To offer workshops on top of that was simply not an option.
The end of the show offered the perfect opportunity to incorporate workshops and other teaching opportunities in my schedule. In fact, I did not even wait to find out if the show was to take place or not in 2003. While we were supposed to get the news about the show in March 2003, I started designing and implementing a comprehensive teaching program in January 2003. By the time the got the news in March and learned that the show was effectively cancelled, I had actually started taking registrations for my new Beaux Arts Photography Workshops program.
Teaching is important to me because I want to share what I know with others. I know how hard it was for me to acquire the knowledge that is now mine. I know how many hurdles I encountered along the way, and I know how much time I spent – years, literally — trying to find out information that was not available in books or anywhere for that matter. I also know that photographers – professional photographers that is — can be hard to get a hold of and difficult to contact or ask questions to. I, personally, was very intimated at the thought of asking the people whom I admired, the photographers in my personal “pantheon” so to speak, how they did what they did and whether they minded explaining it to me. So much so that I never did ask any of them, preferring to try and find answers to my questions on my own, a process that takes much longer of course.
Before our Time
Coso Range, California
For all these reasons, and for many more that I may detail in writing at a later time, I am acutely aware of the difficulties that photographers face. My goal is to provide a solution to this problem -- an effective solution -- by making available and easily accessible information that I believe to be crucial for success in Fine Art Landscape Photography. The fact that I am now able to do so through my workshop program and through my tutorials is something that I am both very proud of and very pleased about. For all the blessings I have received from landscape photography, I am happy to be able to make this one contribution so that others can enjoy doing what I do and can look forward to being able to create photographs of quality equal to my work – or better -- in their own work.
19- Quality, Not Quantity
The subject itself is of no account; what matters is the way it is presented.
Two separate opportunities were offered to us at nearly the same time: the first one was moving from Chinle and the second one was the end of the El Tovar Show. Together, this was exactly what we needed to make serious changes to our business both in terms of focus and in terms of the direction we wanted to take. Both opportunities worked hand in hand in helping us take a second start, so to speak, without losing the momentum we had gained over our previous years in business.
One of the most significant changes we made was to move from creating and selling artwork in quantity to creating and selling quality artwork. I have already touched upon this earlier on, but I want to cover it in greater depth now.
When I started selling my work at the Grand Canyon my goal was to sell at least one of my photographs to every Grand Canyon visitor and to, eventually, everyone in the world. While I did not succeed in selling one of my photographs to everyone in the world (who would… !), I was so successful in selling a photograph to nearly every Grand Canyon visitor that, as I previously explained, it nearly killed me. It also nearly caused me to lower my standards so low that I may never have been able to create quality work again.
Fortunately, we did not get there. However, we got close. We managed to keep our work at a high level of quality, but the toll placed on us by the demand for quantity work of high quality was nearly too much for us. That is why I was so elated when I learned that the Grand Canyon show was not going to be renewed. On the one hand, I was fully aware that a wonderful business opportunity had ended. On the other hand I knew that if the show had not been cancelled by forces beyond my control, I would not have been able to stop doing this show myself. It was just too good of an opportunity, and I had been taken into the desire, the goal, to increase my income from the show each and every year. It had become a maelstrom so to speak, one that, eventually, was going to kill me.
And what was going to kill me was quantity. You see, there are two kinds of businesses, to simplify things to an extreme: businesses that create a product and sell it wholesale, and businesses that buy a product and sell it retail. Certainly, some companies both create a product and retail it, but they are relatively few. However, when it comes to artists in business, nearly every artist both creates the product and then sells it themselves in retail locations, at shows or in galleries for the most part. There are exceptions to this rule, however the rule holds true in the vast majority of artists.
Mists of the San Juan
San Juan River, Utah
In this situation, which was ours incidentally, the variable that matters most is quantity, i.e. how many pieces we had to create in a year, using the tax year as a time frame. There is, inherently, nothing impossible in creating a product and selling it retail all by yourself. What is impossible is creating millions of products with a team of 2 (Natalie and I) and selling them retail all by ourselves. The demands on our time in terms of producing the product and selling it, then shipping the orders, getting the necessary supplies and finally re-supplying our stock in anticipation of our next show, were just too great. In fact, they were so great as to nearly overwhelm us.
I am personally convinced that we managed to keep our operation together at the cost of an extremely focused and concentrated effort, and at the cost of the total elimination of our free time. How long we could have managed to do so remains to be seen since we did not reach the breakdown point. However, that breakdown point was somewhere down the road, and in my estimate the distance that remained to be covered until we reached it wasn’t very far. In other words, we were almost there. We had nearly reached the breaking point when the show ended and were saved by the bell before we could say “no mas.” In short, we were blessed that the show came to an abrupt end. I honestly don’t think that I would have been able to stop doing the show myself, and I know for a fact that it is only now that I can see how close we were from loosing it all.
All this to say that my focus on quantity nearly killed me and nearly ruined our business. As things played out, we walked away unscathed, scared by the proximity of the storm but our holdings left untouched by it. However, a change was needed and when the opportunity presented itself to us we, unabashedly and without looking back, decided to focus our efforts on producing the finest quality photographs we could possibly create, understandably in small quantity and for at a higher cost. At that time we turned our backs to quantity once and for all.
20 - New shows
Natalie and I also started doing shows in Phoenix very soon after moving there because the show season there takes place over the fall, winter and spring, which are the cooler months. Since we moved in January 2003, we were there right on time for the Spring show season, which worked great for us. In Phoenix there are no shows in the summer because the temperature soars to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
In other words, I was not waiting for Fred Harvey to make up their mind. If they wanted me to give them a percentage of my sales, they had to get on the ball. Otherwise, they were going to have to forfeit that income. I was moving on.
Furthermore, by the time we moved we had a larger number of collectors who bought from us regularly. However, the Grand Canyon show prevented us from staying in touch regularly. We were just too busy for that. As soon as we moved, we changed this for the better, significantly increasing our level of sales made outside of a show situation. We also started developing and updating our website, another area that had suffered from our lack of time to do much more than the El Tovar Show.
21 - Longer and more thoughtful essays
In 1998, at the suggestion of Michael Reichman, I started writing a series of essays which were published on Luminous-landscape.com in the context of my monthly series: Briot’s View. These essays were very well received, and focused on a variety of topics ranging from creating photographs to selling them as well as on the equipment I used.
Because of the limited amount of time available to me, these essays were usually rather short, from 2 to 4 pages on average. When the El Tovar show ended, I found myself having a lot more time available to write, and as a result I started writing much longer essays. The essay you are reading now, for example, is 36 pages long. Quite a stretch from the essays I wrote while doing the El Tovar Show.
I was also able to start writing about more complex subjects and on issues that required lengthy research and reflection. As a result I enlarged the scope of my Aesthetics & Photography Series from the originally planned seven parts to 13 parts, covering subjects that address the technical as well as the philosophical and artistic aspects of photography. Without the free time afforded to me by the end of the show, I would not have been able to do so.
22 - New Projects
In fact I went much further than simply writing longer and more complex issues. I started a second series of essays titled Reflections on Photography and Art, this series gave me complete freedom about what subject I could write on. I also started a subscription based approach to my essays, through which subscribers receive my latest essays in PDF format the minute they are completed, while online versions take weeks or months until they are available.
I also made my entire collection of essays available on CD. As of now I have released two separate article CD’s: Briot’s View CD-1 and Briot’s View CD-2. I plan to continue adding to this CD collection, currently by publishing one new Briot’s View CD per year.
Finally, I created the Beaux Arts Tutorial CD Series that consists of several Tutorial CD’s each focusing on a specific aspect of photography. I decided to focus on aspects not covered in other tutorials, aspects that took advantage of my specific expertise which is Photography as an Art Form, and of my specific training as an Artist, Teacher and Photographer. As of now this collection includes 3 different CD’s: Alain’s Composition CD, Alain’s Marketing CD, Alain’s Portfolio CD.
The cover of the Navajoland CD and DVD
I designed the covers myself using my own photographs and layout concepts
23 - Becoming a music producer
In 2004 I released the Navajoland Portfolio, featuring 25 photographs created during the seven years we lived in Chinle. In many ways this portfolio was my legacy to the years we spent in Chinle. Many of the photographs in it could not have been created if we did not live there. We simply would not have had the access or intimate knowledge to the locations featured in the Portfolio. The Navajoland Portfolio was also the physical implementation of my decision to focus on quality rather than quantity. Every aspect of the portfolio was addressed with only one goal in mind: to create the finest quality product possible. No attempt was made to cut corners in any way, or to hasten the creation or production process. The end result is a collector’s item that stands out as one of my proudest achievements.
In January 2006 I decided to create a DVD movie of the Navajoland Portfolio images. To this end I contacted Travis Terry, Native American flute player, whom I had met in Chinle and with whom Natalie and I have been friends for many years. Travis agreed to create a set of 10 musical compositions for the DVD, each one based on and titled after my photographs.
In addition to the DVD Travis and I decided to publish a Music CD, Navajoland, so that collectors could listen to the music anywhere. In creating these two products, and in being in charge of the recording, copyright and production of the Navajoland CD and DVD, I branched out of photography as my sole source of income and became a commercial music producer. I love being a music producer, so much so that I plan to produce several additional music CD’s and DVD’s in the coming years.
24 - Setting up the ideal studio
An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.
Moving to a new location was also the opportunity to set up the “ideal” studio. Granted, ideals are challenging to reach, and perfection is not of this world, but the idea was to incorporate all that we had learned during our years creating, optimizing, printing, matting, framing, packaging and shipping our artwork into a convenient and efficient working environment. To this end I actually chose a floor plan for our house that accommodated our business needs as well as our living needs.
For one, I wanted the working and living spaces to be as separate as possible, so that we could get away from work when we wanted to, something that was not possible in Chinle. There, work was all around us all the time. We had supplies piled up everywhere there was space available, and everyday we had to “push” artwork aside in order to make room to have dinner, socialize, watch a movie, and so on. Artwork was dominating our lives and we wanted to remedy this situation.
We also wanted efficiency in our workflow. In a nutshell, after the photographs have been captured, I optimize and print them, mount, mat and frame them, then package and ship them. There are basically three main steps, and I decided that each step would best be carried in a room specifically designed for that. We therefore looked for a house with at least 3 rooms we could use solely for business. We also looked, and found, a floor plan that would accommodate these three main steps in succession, with each room being located in a row, so to speak, so that we could move quickly from one step to the next. Efficiency leads to saving time, which in turns leads to a more efficient business model.
As Dale Carnegie put it, and I paraphrase, “Hard work and long hours are not enough to generate success. You have to have an organized plan.” We did. Our plan was to create an efficient, practical and pleasant working and living environment. We were fortunate to be able to start from a blank slate and to pick the location where we wanted to live based on our personal needs rather than on the distance and driving commute to an outside workplace. In other words, wherever we were going to live, we would already be at work. No commute was necessary, hence we could live anywhere because we did not need to take into consideration how far we would be from our workplace. The two things that concerned us was the layout of the house and the selling price. The first concern was taken care of by a careful analysis of our needs based on years of experience selling tens of thousands of photographs. The second concern was taken care of by careful savings over many successful years in business. Things were moving right along.
25- Two businesses into one
Natalie decided not to look for a teaching job in Phoenix, preferring to work with me full time. This business partnership (Natalie is one of the biggest assets to our business) meant that each of us could run a different part of the business, effectively dividing the workload in two. While until moving to Phoenix I had to take care of every aspect of the business while Natalie was at School teaching, I could now focus on those areas that interested me the most while Natalie did the same for the areas that interested her the most. We each have unique skills, and we each have areas that we excel at. With this arrangement, Natalie and I are able to use the skills we both excel at. The end result is an increase in our level of success across our entire business endeavors.
In practice this arrangement takes the form of creating, in essence, two separate businesses. In short, Natalie started taking care of selling at art shows while I started taking care of Internet sales. With both of us working on different aspects of the business, we are able to optimize the use of our time while considerably increasing our business income.
From a creative perspective, I personally focus on creating new images, optimizing them and printing them. Natalie on the other hand, focuses on matting, framing, packaging and shipping the photographs as well as on invoicing. You wouldn’t think that invoicing takes a long time. Fact is, it does. In fact it can take an amazingly large amount of time. Here too, as with Grand Canyon, the key element is volume. While our volume now is nowhere what it used to be at Grand Canyon, because we now focus on quality rather than quantity, it is still considerable and adequate invoicing is very important.
Teaching is something we do together, because we both enjoy teaching and because by teaching together we are able to offer a double learning path to our students. Natalie and I have a unique teaching approach, a unique focus and a unique taste when it comes to art. By having each of us express these, our students benefit from the two different approaches that Natalie and I can offer.
Marketing is something that I originally did myself. However, recently Natalie started working on marketing as well, again effectively increasing both our business and our reach.
26- Learning Never Ends
Have no fear of perfection; you'll never reach it.
I am always surprised when I meet someone who believes that I know everything there is to be known in photography. Certainly, I would be the first one to call myself an expert. If reaching the highest levels of success selling your own art does not make you an expert on the subject, then nothing ever will. But I would also be the first one to say that I am a student of photography, and that I am far from having reached the end of the road in that respect. In fact, I truly believe that this road is a journey and that wherever it may lead isn’t the most important. What matters most is what is learned along the road, not what one may find at the end. Art, like life, is a process, a continuous endeavor. It may, for all we know, not necessarily stop at the end of the road. There may, for that matter, not be a defined road. Instead, there may be a different road for each of us to take, a road that only artists and artists in business tread.
Canyons of the San Juan 3
San Juan River, Utah
So take it for what it is and enjoy the journey, for your road is bound to be different from mine. However, I am ready to bet that there will be many similarities when it comes to the main stops, the main learning opportunities along this road. The path may take you to places unknown to me, but what you will learn in those places will most likely be very similar to what I learned. This is, in fact, the basis for my entire series of essays and for my writings in general. What each of us does and where each of us goes may differ, but eventually the main lessons that life teaches us end up being quite similar. This is good news because we can, to some extent, learn from each other and avoid some of the pitfalls that would be ours should we not be able to benefit from what others have learned before us.
This is really a temporary conclusion for this essay still has one installment to it: Part Three- How you can do it too. In this third and last installment, Number 13 in the Aesthetics and Photography Series, we will look at how you can become an artist in business if you choose to.
So this is not really a conclusion. It is more like a page turning opportunity. The conclusions will be reached in Part 3. For now, let us simply reflect on what was covered so far, on the path that took me from a visitor-photographer in a land entirely new to me, to a successful photographer and business owner in this same land. This path can be yours too, or variations thereof as the popular format of this statement goes. As I said, how you can do it too will be both the subject and the title of my next essay. This time, the focus of my essay will be you instead of me.
For those of you who are interested in hearing additional aspects of my story, such as how I applied and was accepted at the El Tovar Show, or how I handled competition with other artists at the El Tovar, much more information is available on Briot Speaks CD-1. Briot Speaks CD-1 is a 4-hour audio CD consisting of conversations between Natalie and I on the subject of Being Artists in Business. I decided not to include part of this material in this essay due to considerations regarding the length of the piece you are reading, which is already quite long for an essay. In other words, in this essay you get the jest of the story. However, should you want to know all the facts, these are available on Briot Speaks CD-1.
For now, and to continue with a longtime tradition, this series is still A Suivre…
Alain Briot offers Photography Workshops, CD tutorials and Fine Art Prints. To learn more about these, simply visit Alain’s web site at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com
Alain also welcomes your comments and suggestions on this essay as well as on any of his other writings. Simply email Alain at email@example.com