Two interesting things happened in the photography world today.
Firstly, a simple photo of a humble potato sold for over $1 million dollars. Then, David and Victoria Beckham’s sixteen year old son Brooklyn was chosen to photograph fashion label Burberry’s latest fragrance campaign.
It would appear that the two, while reflective of two very different parts of art and photography, were about comparable in controversy.
“Potato #345 (2010)” (why didn’t he call it Potato In Space?) is by Silicon Valley portrait photographer Kevin Abosch. A visit to his website shows … not very much. It’s extremely sparse and very uncomplicated, like the examples of his portraits. He apparently makes really good money taking photos of professional type people, but nothing in the range of Potato #345 (2010).
My initial reaction was much the same as everyone elses. I’ve been doing this all wrong, I thought, I just have to take some random photo of some random thing and apparently someone will buy it. Truth be told, despite how much I love photography I actually can’t imagine anyone paying a million dollars for a photograph, let alone a photograph of a potato. But it raises a question about what art is, and is art actually a universal concept? What constitutes art for each of us personally, does that necessarily make it art to everyone else? Who gets the ultimate say in what art actually is?
According to his studio, this isn’t his first potato subject either:
“Kevin likes potatoes because they, like people are all different yet immediately identifiable as being essentially of the same species,” his studio tells PetaPixel. “He has photographed many potatoes. This one is one of his favorites.” (Peta Pixel)
So obviously, Abosch sees something in them that we might not necessarily see. And maybe we would be more inclined to understand that if someone hadn’t paid such an exorbitant amount to own it. If Abosch had just come out with a coffee table book of different photos of different potatoes, maybe we’d just laugh it off as one of those “contemporary art high concept” things. But because someone out there felt that this particular photo – subject matter, how it’s photographed, the whole thing – was worth over $1 million dollars, that’s what’s left everyone scratching their heads and looking through their kitchens for stuff to photograph.
The other event moves away from what is art and more towards who makes art, and breaking into the photography world.
According to diyphotography.net David and Victoria Beckham’s sixteen year old son Brooklyn announced on his Instagram account to his 5.9 million followers that he was going to be photographing the new Burberry fragrance campaign ads. Professional photographers – and those who want to be professional photographers – soon started to flood the comments section of the post to decry the decision as a blatant act of “nepotism” used as a tool for publicity. This insecurity is not borne out of nowhere; it is now easier than ever for someone to walk into a store and walk out with a mid-level or even higher range camera, start a Facebook page and start charging people to take their photographs. There are thousands and thousands of photography start-ups like this every year. Newborns, family portraits, senior pictures, weddings. Any search for any permutation on the words “photo” or “photography” will bring them up. People going wide-eyed and optimistic into a cut throat, expensive business that is unrelenting and unforgiving. They severely under charge and try to undercut others in their area. Many fold within a year, if not much less than that.
Because of this surge of competition (you notice it most after Christmas, when everyone gets a new camera) suddenly the market is flooded with photographers and people, naturally wanting to save money, will go for a cheaper photographer rather than someone who has been working and specializing for fifteen years and charges proportionately to that knowledge and experience. The candle is snuffed out through lack of oxygen and the industry can’t handle the pressure.
This isn’t even taking into account the fact that some newspapers are firing specialized photojournalists in favour of simply handing their reporters iPhones.
This tension in the photography industry is building up slowly in the background, and so to hear of someone who is being propelled into an extremely high end, lucrative job at the age of sixteen when for all intents and purposes it is most likely because of his name cuts a little deep. One look at his Instagram though shows that he does have an eye. An eye doesn’t come with a surname, no matter what it is. And an eye doesn’t even always come with years of experience. It’s one of those unquantifiable things that people either have or they don’t. Brooklyn Beckham definitely has it. His photos are moody and raw, and the subjects are about what you’d expect from a teenage boy (no potatoes, sadly. Sorry Kevin Abosch). But how much of this sudden break comes from that eye, and how much came from his name?
With his famous parents come stepping-stones that other people have to gather, beg, borrow or steal on their own. Things like connections, networks and opportunity. He didn’t have to go very far to look for those; he was born with them around him. Other people, possibly the ones so angry and responding on his Instagram post, are the ones who have to rely on a lot of grit and a lot of luck just to get those connections and opportunity. They could be more talented than Brooklyn Beckham and have been taking photos since before he was born, but because they don’t have easy access to the sorts of industry people the Beckham’s would, it would be meaningless until they could find their way out of limbo. People don’t just stumble across a job working for Burberry shooting a costly fragrance ad. That just doesn’t happen.
As someone who is struggling to find my way (and incidentally, someone who put up a Facebook page really early and thought of herself as a business probably before she should have) it is hard not to be resentful. I’m a no-name woman in Melbourne, Australia far away from Tinseltown who is losing money on her small – I wouldn’t even call it a business, but business – rather than making it, so sure I am kind of pissed that someone a lot younger than me is afforded an opportunity that not only would I love, I wouldn’t even think I was good enough for. Maybe that’s the secret? That at sixteen, he still has that bluff and swagger that he can do it and even more than that, he’s entitled to do it.
But who’s to say that he won’t rise to the challenge? And who’s to say a photo of a potato isn’t worth $1 million dollars to someone out there? In the end they both speak to fundamental questions about photography and art in general: who makes it, and what is it?