It Doesn’t Make a Lik of Cents

Peter Lik boasted recently he had sold one of his photographs for $6.5 million. The claim is unverifiable, and like much of what Lik says and does, may be a lot more about marketing than fact. This is the photo:

Peter Lik's "Ghost," Alleged to Be Sold to an Anonymous Buyer for $6.5 Million

Peter Lik’s “Ghost,” Alleged to Be Sold to an Anonymous Buyer for $6.5 Million

To WC’s eye, it’s seriously over-saturated, and the sand in the sunlight beam is badly over-exposed. And the fact that Lik earlier sold a black and white version of the same image to another buyer suggests that Mr. Lik doesn’t let principles get in the way of his principal. His photographs from Alaska are lame. Ronn Murray would discard Lik’s aurora shot.

The New York Times recently did an article on Lik and his marketing. And the article reveals that Lik is mostly about marketing.

You say you’ve never heard of Peter Lik? By one measure — money, the one most important to Lik — he may well be the most successful fine-art photographer ever. His chief financial officer claims he has sold $440 million worth of prints, in some 14 galleries in the United States that Lik owns and sell exclusively his work. Lik’s images are mostly panoramic shots of trees, sky, lakes, deserts and blue water in over-saturated colors. It’s not about the quality of the photos, though; it’s about the marketing.

It tells much of what you need to know about Lik that he hired a public relations firm to trumpet his claimed $6.5 million sale.

Lik sells his photos in limited editions of 995 copies. Lik creates an artificial demand by driving up the prices as he sells more copies. A photo is initially offered at $4,000. The photo’s sticker-cost rises steadily as the supply shrinks. An image that is 95 percent sold-out becomes “Premium Peter Lik” for $17,500. At 98 percent, it’s “Second Level Premium Peter Lik” and leaps to $35,000. And when the image gets down to its last handful, the prices can go as high as $200,000 or more. The artificially created scarcity is used to generate an incentive to buy today, before the price goes up.

Artnet reports,

Art consultant David Hulme, who in 2012 warned against collecting Lik “because Peter Lik’s photographs have no secondary market presence or value,” routinely fields calls from Lik owners who are hoping for a profitable resale. He told the Times that he worries that the galleries’ tiered pricing structure is “misleading” customers, understandably causing them to assume that the outside market will reflect the ever-rising prices charged by the artist.

Lik has placed his galleries where there are lots of people with more money that taste. Or experience in buying photos. Las Vegas, Waikiki, Beverly Hills, Key West. His sales force goes through a four day training program that borrows heavily from life insurance and vacuum cleaner sales techniques. Somehow they never mention that Lik’s photos have no market outside of the galleries.

Feel free to ascribe WC’s disdain to WC’s failure to sell $440 million worth of bird photos. Or to Lik’s sneering at Ansel Adams’ work (“Just a nice shot of Yosemite,” Mr. Lik said, summing up Adams’ work. “Right place at the right time.”). But WC isn’t the only photographer who is appalled. From The Independent:

“It’s an abomination,” Michael Hoppen, a leading British photography gallerist, says of Phantom, which shows a shaft of light entering a canyon. “I remember when he sold the picture in 2010, my jaw dropped. I thought, who could be persuaded to part with $1m for a piece of tat? You could have done it with an iPhone.”

Looking at Phantom, the record-breaking photograph, Hoppen, a former photographer whose sister is Kelly Hoppen, the interior designer, adds: “He’s obviously got a huge camera and must have an amazing printer, but that’s not art, it’s a function of the equipment. Art, whatever the medium, is something that moves and informs you or changes your opinion. This has nothing to do with art or creative photography, and the tragedy is that it brings the whole business down.”

“I’m the world’s most famous photographer, most sought-after photographer, most awarded photographer,” the New York Times quotes Lik as saying. Not even close.

Least scrupulous, maybe.


3 thoughts on “It Doesn’t Make a Lik of Cents

  1. The one that sold for $6.5 million was the black and white version called “Phantom.” The color version is called “Ghost,” which was the Art in Nature winner for the 2010 Windland Smith Rice International Awards; the same year I won the Environmental Issues category with “Wolf Tracks on Ice.”

    If only I knew I could convert my shot to B&W and get millions for it.

  2. WC, Do you feel Lik has marred and possibly even killed the market for Photography as Art? My son, when he was a music major at UNL, developed a passion for photography and chose to pursue Fine Art Photography as a career– just to make a reasonable living. He is
    He came to me last night crushed, feeling like his chances of any success are gone forever. Max spends hours composing his work., selecting his location. He has studied light and uses both natural and artificial light and shoots digital (but longs to earn enough to have film equipment), then he edits for 20 to 30 hours all in hopes someone will want to buy a photo he prefers to have printed on aluminum, or that someone will commission him.
    Will there be a market for photography as fine art?
    — Max’s Mom

    • While Lik’s marketing tricks have hurt pro photographers, there are a lot of reasons why most successful pro photographers now have day jobs. WC does mostly nature photography. Here are a few reasons why that segment is on hard times.

      1. Everyone is a photographer now. Even before the smart phone cameras improved, digital photography made it far easier to take quite good photos. In WC’s specialty area, beginners now take and post photos that would have been National Geographic quality just 20 years ago. Check out the nature photos at Nature Photographers Network, where most posts are beginners of semi-pros. So there are a lot more better quality shots out there.

      2. The market saturation with high quality photos has pushed prices down. And the beginners are all too willing to give their photos away, further depressing the limited market.

      3. The internet has killed the magazine industry, the biggest single market for photos.

      4. Photoshop – more accurately, digital manipulation of images – has damaged the credibility of photographers.

      As a result of these and other factors, it’s a really hard time to be a pro photographer. WC supports his photography with a day job. Others lead photo tours, guiding and teaching beginners (and aggravating the problem, perhaps). Still others teach. Some, like WC’s buddy Carl Johnson, develop books, and fold their photography into the published product.

      To succeed in pro photography today you have to be very good, very lucky and very well-connected. WC’s best wishes to your son.


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