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Saturday, 14 March 2009


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The Ashes and Snow project (http://www.ashesandsnow.org/), which is the most ambitious I have ever seen for a photography project was partly funded by sales of prints yet to be made.

This is definitely an interesting proposition. Especially, since I am on the side of the artist. I would love to be able to concentrate solely on my work and not on the realities of paying for materials and the cost of producing a body of work.

I do have to say however that the idea of paying in advance for something like artwork is a little dubious(am I using that right). For many people, my self included, the act of purchasing artwork is an emotional one. I really have no desire to purchase something because it is "pretty". I want something that touches me to the core. I want to look at the image over and over again and have that same emotion creep into the viewing as the first time I saw it. The act of the purchase is tied to the state you are in at the time.

Paying for artwork ahead of time with the hopes that you be emotionally attached is a precarious proposition. It may make sense financially, if you truly love the image. Maybe you would have been willing to pay much more for that image. But, if you have to attachment to the image, then it is just another photograph.

I think it would be a very daunting to have the pressure to create artwork that people are expecting to fall in love with before it has even been created. On the flip side it could also be creative fuel.

>> There are plenty of financial arrangements where payment is made in advance of the work being done, from...

Well, that's the entire concept behind a subscription... to everything from a magazine to a concert series. This is a subscription. Does that make it clear?

where's your paypal donation button Mike?

"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."

Really? Woa.
I'm curious, what's the supposed alternative?
I'm serious, I'm trying to understand the thinking here, what's the hope for the art?

I, for one, do not understand why this proposal is so controversial. The idea of a patron is a very old one for both artists and musicians. Do the names Mozart (the Thun family and Baron Gottfried van Swieten) or Michelangelo (Pope Julius II and Pope Clement VII) ring a bell? In this “new” economy this may be an “old” way to support the work of artists we like. Lighten up. After all, we’re not talking about eating children (Jonathan Swift).

We are talking about Ctein, not Madoff, for art's sake! He has a reputation that many of us could envy, when it comes to photography. He offers a way to acquire some of his images, on nothing more than a layaway plan. There is nothing wrong with that. We say yes or we ignore, we want to be in or not, but I don't see any potential risk, besides not being sure which pictures to choose. Before saying yes, I would advise people not looking for an investment to have a look at his website and be sure that his style of photography is compatible with their taste.
My 2 cents (like if anybody asked me...)

I guess it is like any subscription, like a photo newsletter. As long as it is being delievered, of which I have various experiences from the past...

I was surprised too how hostile some of the people who commented were. I think it sounds cool, and I would subscribe to Ctein's offer if I could afford it (Yes, $9.50 a month is very little to most, but my income is EXTREMELY limited and I have my son living with me now so feeding him comes first).

I actually wish I were famous/important enough to do what Ctein is doing and actually have people willing to send me money. I'm still young, so maybe someday!

Hey Mike,

Love the article, you were for a while selling your prints whatever happened to that?


I used to work in print advertising sales for rather upmarket magazines in Europe (SciAm would be the one most familiar to you). One of the most important axioms in this business is not to mix up editorial and advertising content. Obviously many advertisers would love to sneak by the "advertising-awareness-threshold" of readers by camouflaging as editorial. But one would damage the reputation of that editorial doing so and that could be in nobody's best interest, not even that of the advertisers.

With all due respect I think TOP is treading rather a fine line with now three longish pieces on your mate Ctein's business scheme. The relevance to all things photography is a little far fetched - yes, the advertised product is photography, and one might see this as an experiment and example for fellow artists. But the more glaringly obvious aspect seems to be someone is trying to attract sales - sorry: donations - here. That in my book is advertising. And I would much rather see it put with the other ads in the sidebars.

You're forgetting only one point, but it's an all-important one: Ctein isn't an advertiser.


This type of model will become more popular for online writing, photography, music and software. It's the chance to support some really good creators without completely knowing what you're going to get. People are counting that aspect as a disadvantage but for me, it's a plus. Help some people with good track records and obvious talent to get out there and do new work? Sounds wonderful to me and in the case of Ctein, I didn't have to think twice.

Something along the same lines might work for this blog - a small subscription option that carries a couple of potential benefits (like a printed annual book of Mike's selection of the year's best articles, perhaps, or a print or two) without taking anything away from the regular readership. There are plenty of people out there with money and even those of us with very little must have one or two luxuries. What's more inspiring than receiving examples of some really good work and knowing that you helped support its creation, even if in a small way?

Personally, having just caught up on the last few posts, I say good luck to Ctein. I see nothing wrong in soliciting patronage, many of the art world's greats have been doing this for centuries. I would certainly like to see how the whole thing pans out as my wife who is a fine artist would like to try something similar.

Hi Mike,

I'm not sure why this idea of payment for future work is so controversial.

Artists are commissioned for work and sometimes part or full payment is made in advance.

Magazine subscriptions are paid in advance and the reader does not know what articles are going to appear during their subscription period.

Regards ........... Aubrey

Mike, I admire you for all the hostility you have to deal with on YOUR OWN blog constantly.

Mike...you watch television? Tsk.

One aspect not mentioned here is that Ctein is nationally known for his printing expertise. Even if it turns out that the proffered prints are not precisely to your liking, as art, you are almost certainly going to get a print that you'll be able to use as a technical model for your own work. Since I struggle with printing, that's of serious value to me.

As for Henrik's comment about TOP hustling Ctein's work, I don't really see it that way. I see it as an experiment in marketing art photography, which is one of the most befuddling problems that serious-but-unknown photographers face. The outcome could impact a lot more people than another article on Lensbabies (which is like being shot in the neck with a poison dart, not to be critical or anything.)

This whole discussion has also raised two questions in my mind, which I would like to have answered, but don't really know how to ask: 1) For how many people is $9 a month a real consideration, that you would have to think about before spending? 2) How many TOP readers consider themselves AT LEAST semi-pro or "serious" photographers -- and for those who aren't full-timers, what do you do to earn your living?


No-one picked up on the 25c pr month yet ?

When this idea was mooted previously it led to a lot of discussion about people's fears that many wouldn't pay a regular sum and as such the site might suffer a lack of the 'to and fro' of these discussions. At that time I would have subscribed slightly to this fear, but with the apparent rise in popularity if the site the quality of the contrubutions, imho, has gone down whilst the quantity has gone up. (Hey, this is only a personal opinion not a quantitative analysis) Just to throw petrol on the fire, so to speak, I would suggest that a subscription model of this site might now work better than the existing one. I for one visit primarily to read the owners peices. As such its really more like a magasine to me. I would be happy to subscribe to a magasine so where is the difference. O/K so a lot of people might no longer visit and contribute to the discussions but equally that might be not much of a loss. M.J. would have to balance the possible of lower advertising revenue (Less readers presumably meaning lower advertising rates)against the certainty of a regular income via a monthly paypal account.

Just my 25c worth

Paul Mc Cann

p.s I don't think the 25c per month is realistic but if Ctein's marketing nous was followed then a $9.99 contribution per period via a standing order type arrangement should work.

Hendrik: errrr ... no!

For the naysayers: It's about being a "True Fan" which means you find the artist interesting in their own right which leads you to being unconditionally interested in their future work. This interest may of course go up or down.

Of the bands I truly like I will happily buy a new album without hearing a note based on my interest in them as musicians and my past experiences of their work. This is a very similar proposition.

If Ctein doesn't interest you as an artist then this clearly isn't for you.

"You're forgetting only one point, but it's an all-important one: Ctein isn't an advertiser.


However, he IS advertising.

Amen to Hendrik.

Controversy over a completely voluntary offer on both sides, that is, the offeror as well as the potential taker can go through with it or not? This, my brethren, is the ideal of a free market - all parties involved know everything, have the resources to take part [if not their decision is not to take part], and have a free choice to say yay or nay.

If this leads to controversy it explains how the current economic crisis came about.

Dear Hendrik,

Wanna know the truth? I agree with you. When I saw Mike's topic, I thought to myself, "OK, I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I don't much like to read three columns in a short time on the same topic. I wonder how the readers will react?"

As for confusing advertising and editorial, I will plead "not guilty." For promoting myself, the first column I wrote was entirely unnecessary. I wrote it because I think these alternate models, like 1KTF, are genuinely of interest to many photographers, and my "assignment" is to write about anything I like so long as it relates to photography. But I could have skipped it entirely if i hadn't thought that, and not hurt my advertising one bit.

The second column is self-promotion, granted. It's once in approaching three years and 100 columns. But if I hadn't thought enough readers were genuinely interested in the experiment, I'd have condensed it down to one paragraph in column on something else.

Sorry you don't see the relevance to things photographic, but it did seem so to me and Mike, and several dozen readers who thought it was worth discussing. A lot of my columns get fewer comments than these two did.

The awfully good reason for not mixing advertising and editorial is that it contaminates and discredits the editorial content. In commercial magazines, I most firmly believe in what Don Sutherland called "the separation of Church and State." I truly don't think we've commingled intent or content, but if you and others think that my self-marketing discredits or taints other writings I (or Mike) put up here, then maybe it was indeed a mistake.

pax / Ctein

Hi All, I agree with Hendrik. I have really come to like this site because I get introduced to so many great photographers and their ideas in this art. As such this site is worth something to me and I would gladly pay for it (on a donation basis) rather then for people directly advertising. However I don't hold the idea of an art subscription as being far fetched or strange. In fact the same thing happens on lots of the Stock sites already where you pay a monthly fee which allows you to download a set number of pics. I do like the notion of being able to getting higher quality work and especially prints though. How about putting this in a separate section in this site? You could make a small platform for artists to present them selfs and their proposition and maybe get something back from every deal thats signed.
I'd join immediately (As paying customer) as soon as there's someone who makes pics I like. (Sorry Ctein simply isn't my taste)

The proof's in the pudding, as they say. You should do an addendum to your proposition allowing the contributor in some way or another to obtain one of your dye transfer prints as end result. Those are stunning, but out of reach for most of us collectors I'd suspect.

Mike, indeed I do not see the point, or understand it, now you raised it - please explain. Which aspect of my argument are you addressing? He's not an advertiser, meaning he doesn't pay for it? Ok, good for him. But does it follow that, if he isn't then what he posts cannot be advertising? Of course it can and is, in the sense that he's solliciting monies.

But beyond the quibling about definitions, how is this interesting enough for the average reader interested in photography - and for three posts? The seems to be driven by Ctein's interest only.

It's not unethical for an editorial writer to promote himself if the editors will let him get away with it. Bad taste, maybe (and it often backfires), but it's not unethical.

From my standpoint, it's impossible to have a conflict of interest here. Readers know full well that Ctein is a friend of mine (although we've only met in person once, in a decade long ago and far away) and that he's a regular contributor to the site. That's full disclosure, because there isn't any arrangement beyond that. The entirety of his scheme is disclosed in his posts about it. You're fully armed here with the truth: you don't need further protection as an ethical matter.

If it were unethical for editorial outlets--magaziness, newspapers, television--to promote products, promote themselves, or let their guests and writers promote themselves, then about four-fifths of all the editorial content in the media is unethical (and actually it *is* a lot worse than it looks, so maybe we shouldn't get into that). But the essential part of the equation that's missing is that there's no quid pro quo here. Ctein isn't an advertiser; he's not paying me to promote him or his services; I'm not getting any sort of cut from his "True Fans" experiment; therefore I'm not compromised by hidden self-interest.

The problem in editorial ethics comes when there's any sort of hidden agenda between the editors and the people who pay the publication for advertising, or when the publication has an ulterior motive like trying to suck up to a manufacturer in order to induce them to advertise. But with full disclosure to the reader and no quid pro quo, you're left arguing niceties of tone, not matters of ethics.


On the issue of advertising vs. editorial, I don't see how this topic weakens the integrity of the blog. And anyway, it's a blog, where article writers freely express their opinions. I don't expect objectivity here.

As for a subscription fee for the blog, I'd happily pay it. I would worry about reduced readership because I get a lot out of the reader comments. Often I disagree with reader comments, but I find them difficult to predict. I learn things about photography, about how other people see and think, and sometimes (in a weak moment) about my own biases and superstitions.

Now for one of those disagreements. Reader comments about Ctein's proposal anticipate problems with PayPal, litigation, overrunning the blog with commercial interest, and more. These disasters look unlikely to me and in any case, would be fixed easily.

Actually, I have to agree with Hendrik; Ctein is clearly advertising for personal subscriptions here on TOP. (Nevertheless, I see NO reference to this "subscription" plan on Ctein's own site, which he claims to be so well subscribed.)

I am always cognizant that TOP is basically Mike's personal blog. I DO subscribe annually to TOP to support Mike's efforts in a manner not dissimilar to what Ctein is seeking; no strings or expectations beyond creating an informative and interesting informational platform anchored by photographic interests. But I have to admit that devoting so much space toward promoting Ctein's solicitations is troublesome to me. A brief mention of the plan as a potentially interesting economic model to support artists, perhaps with a link to the page on Ctein's site describing the plan (if there had been such a page), would have been perfectly consistent with TOP's style and content.

Anyway, I think we all now "get it" and we can hopefully move on.

As someone who's been trying to figure out how to keep a roof over my head while trying to get a book off the ground for the past few years, this conversation is striking several chords with me. But I'll just mention two.

First, on books: as you mentioned, Mike, the book business has for years had a basic mechanism for supporting artists while they create—advances against royalties—but it is under considerable assault these days. Except for the very top tier of commercial books (celebrity memoirs, vampire novels, or, best of all, memoirs by famous vampires), publishers don't want to pay advances anymore. (Here in NY, the air is filled with the lamentations of literary agents, who, even more than authors, depend on advances.) And how the eBook models, whether the Kindle or print-on-demand, will impact mid-list author advances is unknown, and scary, to many of my author friends. There is a gathering sense that the days of the decent advance may be over. And nobody that I know can clearly articulate a new mechanism by which good-but-not-necessarily-famous writers will be able to pay rent while they write books. I don't know any who are thinking of anything like Ctein's strategy, but we'll see what new and creative notions emerge ... (cont.)

Secondly, I'm reminded of a really excellent documentary photographer named Steve Simon who I briefly profiled awhile back. Partly because these issues are so much on my own mind, I ended up turning the profile partially into a short discussion of them, which can be read here, if anyone is interested (I may have linked to him once before in previous comments, but here he is again):

Steve Simon on his Book, Heroines and Heroes

And just because I think so highly of the work he does, a link to his website and a portfolio of pictures that Steve shot in Harlem on election night in the U.S. last November.

I think Ctein is just about a perfect person to give this experiment a try, and he gets my applause for gearing up to give it a go. As I'm guessing is his ulterior motive, he's doing a service for artists of all kinds, who stand to learn a lot—whether it succeeds or fails—if enough people like Ctein experiment with these notions and talk about how well or badly it works.

P.S. I should have added to my "ethics" comment that I personally think Ctein's experiment is interesting (and really, the only reason I wrote a separate post about it is that what I said was too long to be a comment). Creative people are usually looking for ways to "monetize" what they do. Schemes to achieve a steadier income and an attendant track record are inherently pertinent to people who freelance: those of you with "regular jobs," steady salaries, etc. might not know the extent to which the lack of a predictable income stream affects an artist's ability to get credit, commit to time payments, buy insurance, etc. It permeates the life. A way to create a steady income or partial income that one can establish a track record for would be a valuable thing to a lot of creative people.

It raises the "meta-" issue on TOP of...what's interesting? I'm afraid I have only myself to go on. I've pretty much decided to trust my instincts on that question--my premise is, if I think something's interesting, then maybe other people will too.

If not, then it's like the weather in New Hampshire--if you don't like it, wait five minutes. On a site as eclectic as this one, the topic is always changing--even the ones we "overdo."


I guess we just have a semantics problem here. Self-promotion isn't advertising in my lexicon. Advertising is when someone pays for access to an audience. Ctein isn't paying me. He could promote himself till the cows come home and it wouldn't meet my definition of advertising.

But, as one could often conclude in arguments over semantics, "whatever!" [g]



Other than a brief comment expressing interest in the outcome of this "marketing" strategy, I've enjoyed this discussion as a "listener". But, now, I'm mystified that it has devolved into an "ethics" issue. Wow, "witch hunts" on TOP.


Dear cfw,

Your wish is not only my command, I anticipated it! In the original offer, I say that if you don't want any of the prints in the special selection as your thank you gifts, I'll credit your donation towards any prints in my online gallery. That really does mean any work-- digital or dye transfer, large or small.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I am considering paying people $9.50 per month to look at my work. Think about it, for less than $200 per month I could guarantee myself an audience of 20 appreciative fans which up until now I have been unable to attract. Thinking outside the box.

Dave Kee

I think both TOP and Mr Ctein could have been better served if a good part of this discussion (maybe most of it) took place via person-to-person email.

After reading the first post, I thought Mr Ctein's idea was a good one. Then, as the comments and rebuttals piled-up, I began to wonder why this venture was being over-promoted.

Good Luck...

Cheers! Jay

It occurs to me that the discussion here is mirroring what some of the sceptics are envisioning as pitfalls in Ctein's experiment - people have formed a sense of what they get, or should get, when they come to TOP. When the content, or the discussion, doesn't meet those expectations, that particular form of disappointment that comes with a feeling of ownership results.

Similarly, there is the fear that, having invested in Ctein, he might do something other than the preconceived idea of what his art entails.

I suppose I'm somewhat bemused by the "controversy." While I do form expectations of the blogs, or online communities, that I frequent, being a blogger myself has taught me that unless you are unusually disciplined or mono-focused in your thoughts, or have an outside editor to keep you in line, blogs by their nature drift and jump in their topics.

Similarly, expecting an artist to do the same thing, over and over, over the course of their creative life is to misunderstand the nature of the creative process.

That Ctein is your friend, Mike, instead of a stranger may slightly complicate the story, but I find his experiment thought-provoking and worthy of my attention. If you feel that what he's proposing is worth devoting one - or 100 - blog posts, I either have to trust your judgment, and roll with it, or disagree and read something else.

It's an oft-repeated truism, but it's no less true for all that: It's your blog. Do with it as you will.

I for one am happy with it as it is, but if it ceases to please me, I'll just read something else. The real question is whether it pleases _you_.

I support this small move away from "transactional" commerce.

The assumption that the only market is for carefully measured exchanges of equal value is weird. That's not how most of life works.

This allows the artist to create and offer creation to others in the future, just as the work he offers now was enables buy hundreds of others actions in the past.

We all have a stake in the common good. Some will see supporting artists in that light. I do. Other coach little league.

Cheers, Alistair

I read TOP because it is intelligent, entertaining and idiosyncratic. Ctein's experiment seems to me to meet all three criteria rather well. The only way to find out if a new business model will work is to try it. As a former editor and journalist, I really struggle to see what either Mike or Ctein have done here to warrant criticism. Both have been (and this is important) entirely transparent about what is going on. Might be a bit different if Mike was on a kickback - but again, only if concealed. On the interwebs, transparency is all and allows many different models to emerge.

If I ran a blog and someone I knew and trusted asked me to allow space for something like this, I would without any hesitation. If they made lots of money out of it, I might expect a more formal commercial relationship (i.e. recognisable advertising, appropriately placed and paid for) in future.

As it is, I hope Ctein will document the progress of his experiment regularly, and that Mike will continue to give him the space to do so.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics.

I have done a rough word count of the “Ctein offer” related posts (both Ctein’s and Mike's) and found that the actual posts to date contain roughly 2,704 words, and all the comments to date amount to roughly 12,173 words. This represents just over a 4 to 1 ratio of comments to posts. If one of Mike's objectives is to publish articles of interest to more than himself, these stats show that he has certainly succeeded in this case; assuming that the amount of comments is one way of measuring interest.

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