The Inspiration and The Dilemma

For those of you who follow the photography world a little bit, you’re probably familiar with Peter Lik’s recent sale of a $6.5 million “one of a kind” photograph titled Phantom. I throw the one of a kind in quotes because it must be really nice to just be able to flip a color image you’ve been selling for years to a black & white and command such a huge price. News of this sale was quite astonishing with skeptics aplenty since the buyer was anonymous. The news took me back to Caesar’s Palace in Vegas in March 2008 when I first walked into one of Lik’s galleries. I was with one of my good friends and we were both blown away by the photographs on the walls. The size, the colors, the lighting and presentation, all of it was just beautiful and I was in awe. 

At that time I had been a hobby photographer, a true novice that had been shooting for a few years with a Fuji Finepix (my second one!). But as we stood in front of one Lik’s pieces, my buddy turned to me and said flatly “some of your photographs are better than this.”  I was amused and flattered, and in the back of my mind I agreed with him. So I grabbed the nearest sales guy and tried to pepper him with questions:

“How does he get them to look so vibrant?” 

“What kind of paper is that?” 

“Are they backlit?”

“Does he use photoshop?”

“How do they look THIS good, how does he do it?” 

To which the only honest response I got from the guy was this:

“Quit your job and spend the next twenty years of your life searching for the perfect photograph.” 

I walked out of that gallery with the inspiration to travel and photograph more of this wonderful world. For the next few years I took pictures of whatever I could, all the while not learning the basics of how the camera worked. I was literally that spray and pray photographer. Take a ton of shots, flip a few knobs, and hope I could edit the photo into something decent in iPhoto! By any definition I was a shitty photographer that was just hoping to get lucky. I had a basic point & shoot camera and I hadn’t even taken the time to learn what it could really do. I didn’t know this at the time, but instead of learning the fundamental technical aspects of photography, I was teaching myself something equally important: Composition. 

It wasn’t until May 2012 that I took the time to understand the elements of proper exposure (ISO, aperture, shutter speed). It’s easy for me to remember the date because my wife and I were on our honeymoon and I had borrowed a friend’s Nikon. I had broken my trusty Finepix while camping in the backcountry of Yellowstone the previous July and hadn’t taken a photo in nine months. Now that I had some time away from photography and a “real camera” in my hands with the Nikon, I was going to take the right approach and actually teach myself photography. So there I am googling whatever I can and coming up with my own version of Photography for Dummies with notes I’m taking. And then looking up the D90 manual online to find out how to actually change the shutter and aperture, etc. By the time we landed in St.Lucia I can say I was a little dangerous with what I now knew!  Thus began what I call my serious years as a photographer. That’s right, when people ask how long I’ve been doing photography I tell them “about ten years, first seven years faking it and much more seriously the last three.”  It’s amazing what a confidence boost a little knowledge and new gear can do (I soon after put together my own Nikon kit).

Fast forward to today and that record breaking sale by Peter Lik. With all the recent press over the sale comes this article by the NY Times that I saved awhile ago which really pulls back the curtain on the Lik empire. And while the man was the inspiration that I needed to go out and create my own images, there is no doubt that Lik is a marketing master that employs questionable sales tactics. I mean I didn’t know a damn thing in 2008 but even then I knew most of what the sales guy was telling me just wasn’t true. But it’s flat out working, and others know it. In the same Las Vegas Venetian hotel as a Lik gallery is the Rotella Gallery displaying the work of Robert Rotella and Art Wolfe. And while the sales pitch isn’t as aggressive, the frames are the exact same you would find on Lik photograph. Yes even the great Art Wolfe is copying Peter Lik’s style just a little bit. Lik is a master of the hype and is using that to drive his extraordinary business success. The fact that many people are calling bullshit on the record sale as a ploy to boost sales speaks volumes about how far people believe he’ll go to generate that hype. But this quote from Lik himself about the art pieces he sells maybe the clincher the skeptics need “It’s like a Mercedes-Benz. You drive it off the lot, it loses half it’s value.”  With that quote from the master himself, it’s amazing he can sell another photograph! Yet his business still thrives. 

I sit here today, on the verge of following the advice of that salesman and very soon quitting my day job to follow my passion. It has taken more years than I would have liked to get here. But like I said, I was faking it for the first 7 years. However the decisions of how best to market my work and stay true to myself (I’m not at all a pushy sales guy) and still make a living out my passion is proving to be quite a dilemma in itself. It’s certainly the biggest factor in quitting that safe day job to just go for it. Turns out the inspiration is the easy part. And Peter Lik is selling that all too well.