It's been very interesting to read the responses to Ctein's little experiment... everything from "I'm in," to "it's worth a try," to "you can't do that," and at least one inadvertent insult (a "hobby"? What, is a professional athlete out there for a little recreation and exercise? Just because something's a hobby to one person doesn't mean it is for everyone else too).
And there's been a fair amount of skepticism, as if the idea were somehow disreputable. I really don't see it as any different than any number of other investment or pay-for-work arrangements. I'm especially surprised at the notion, variously expressed, that there might be something vaguely dishonest about asking payment for work that hasn't been done yet. There are plenty of financial arrangements where payment is made in advance of the work being done, from a down payment on a kitchen remodeling to a lawyer's retainer to a publisher's advance on royalties to an author. All such arrangements contain various mixtures of trust and risk for the buyer: you have to trust that the person you're paying in advance is competent to do the work, and will actually do it, and that the work will be worth its cost once it's finished. In some cases (the remodeler, for instance), past work might be considered a reliable guide to future performance; in the case of the author's advance, the publisher knows it's a crapshoot and that the finished book might not make its advance back (from what I hear, only about one in ten books does—but the profit on that one-in-ten bestseller more than makes up for the publisher's losses on the other nine).
From the artist's perspective, the arrangement is simply meant to smooth out the income stream. Regardless of how you feel about this, it's undeniable that artists have to "front-load" their investments in their careers to sometimes incredible degrees, sometimes working "on speculation" as it were for years with an eventual payoff far from certain—
—we've all heard tales of the "overnight success" who's been working hard for twenty years in obscurity and penury.
And when you think of it, taking a salary from a company is just another method of smoothing out the risk-and-reward equation for the worker. You might think that a salary in return for 9-to-5 work is a straightforward pay-for-work arrangement, and in the microcosmic view, it is. But the company still has to be successful over the long run in order to pay the worker—the company is not just paying for the worker's labor, it's taking a calculated risk that the labor of all its workers, taken together, will allow it to succeed so that everybody involved can continue to share in the proceeds. If it collectively fails too consistently for too long, it doesn't matter how "good a job" any individual worker is doing—the payroll can't be met. In this sense, a company is merely collectivizing risk, in order to reduce the risk for any given individual and make the reward steadier and more immediate at least in the short term. (Would you work your current job if you had to work each year for the whole year with no pay, but the promise of a share of the company's profits at year's end—but with no guarantees? That's how some farmers have to work, isn't it?) Artists seldom have a similar luxury, because art isn't a collective enterprise. That doesn't mean that artists might not like to trade the cycle of speculative work and uncertain sales for a lower, but steadier and more certain income. (I'm sure people who have actually taken business courses will object to some of my terminology here, which probably isn't pro forma. But you get my drift, right?)
In any event, I can think of several reasons why you might want to take Ctein's offer. First, the payoff (okay, the "gift" you get in return for your "donation") might be cheaper than you could get it otherwise. Or, it might enable you to pay more comfortably for something you want anyway—a layaway plan. Or, special circumstances might apply—let's say, for example, that Ctein's offer was very successful because he did a very good job marketing it, and he had to raise his price to $19.50 a month—in which case, you've gotten even more value by "getting in on the ground floor." Or, you might just like seeing Ctein's work and want him to keep working. I grant you, it probably wouldn't affect many people directly if Ctein took a job selling shoes and stopped producing work altogether. But let's take another example—this site. If I were to come to you and ask you for, let's say, 25¢ a month in order to keep this site going, you might do it if you consider that you get more than 25¢ per month of entertainment value out of it. The people who come to read TOP once or twice a week and aren't impressed with what they find here would not care if it disappeared, but, to people who come here once or twice a day and really enjoy it, and really don't want it to disapper, it might be worth the cost and hassle of signing up. The idea, at any rate, of allowing an artist (or content provider) to continue producing something you enjoy is one good reason to proffer a modest amount of support on a regular basis.
(Come to that, I think I should put my money where my mouth is and go make a donation to Public Television when I finish writing this post. I probably watch PBS more than all the rest of the channels combined, and I would not be pleased if it went off the air.)
A frame and wall space
Regarding Ctein's product, it seems to me that photographic prints have always been problematic as a product. In art school we used to routinely denigrate "wall art," as if the worst fate in the world was having your work hang above the sofa in some bourgeois living room. But I've done nearly a complete about-face on that point. It now seems to me that the cost of a frame and the devotion of a bit of wall space in one's home—a limited resource for nearly everybody—is about the highest compliment that a person can pay to a photographer. There just aren't that many prints—of my own or by others—that are worth a frame and a patch of wall to me. It probably represents the biggest bottleneck in the dissemination of prints as product: is it good enough to actually go on the wall? On the one hand, you have to look at the crap people actually put on their walls—at least in the less formal areas of the house—dull scenics, cats peeking out of empty planters, nondescript posters from the locus of their last vacation—and it sure seems like the bar is set none too high. But on the other hand, I'd have to really like a picture to pay $150 to frame it—and it would have to be something I really like to stand up to being looked at every time I pass it. I don't know about you, but I certainly always consider it a high compliment when I go into a friend or relative's home and see my own work framed and displayed on their walls.
So anyway, I look at it this way. As with the work of any photographer whose work I know well, I have some favorite Cteins. So there's always the possibility that one of the pictures he'll offer at the end of the year will delight me, and I'll want it for myself. But even if I don't like the choices Ctein's going to give me at the end of the year, $57 each for two well-made prints of something scenic and colorful would probably make a nice and appropriate gifts for half the people my Christmas list—and I know plenty of people who would appreciate it. (I gave a Michael Reichmann print, of a Vietnamese fisherman, to my mother and stepfather, who have traveled to Vietnam several times, and they still love it, after several years on their wall.)
So I'm covered, the way I figure it. He can count me in, too.