by Christopher Armstrong on July 7, 2019
Nearly every advertising photographer I know has an underlying desire to make and sell art. Some photographers are able to blur the line between their personal work and commercial work but for the most part, the paid commercial work is what keeps them afloat.
There are a handful of people that make a living out of fine art photography but the numbers are small. That being said, if this is where your passion lies, by all means pursue it. If you don't, your chances of success are zero.
I posed some questions about the state of fine art photography with one of Los Angeles' best known gallery owners, Paul Kopeikin of Kopeikin Gallery. His answers are both insightful and eye-opening.
CA: While I know you for your amazing photography exhibitions here in Los Angeles, I noticed that you recently branched out into other mediums. Is this because of a decline in the interest for fine art photography? Or are you simply broadening your horizons?
PK: It really isn't recent. As far back as 2004 I presented a painting show by Julie Heffernan and have done at least one or two per year since then. But Photography is definitely what I have been known for most of the Galleries life, and mine for that matter. As a collector I have continued to buy photographs while also buying a lot of work on paper, and truly the best collections I have seen are not restricted to any medium, but rather follow artists and ideas. So while my interest in photography hasn't diminished, my taste in art generally has widened.
CA: I know a lot of photographers who have a desire to quit their commercial work and then devote their time entirely to fine art photography. While I know of very few photographers who are successfully doing this, what would your advice be to those contemplating such a move?
PK: That is would be a mistake. First, I would hope that each aspect of ones work impacts the other in positive ways, allowing you to grow both technically and artistically. In the past I may have first said that "you don't want to quit your day job,” meaning that you want to continue doing whatever is making you money while pursuing your dream. But it seems that fewer and fewer people are able to make a living doing commercial work, so perhaps that no longer applies. Regarding ones artistic inclinations, if you really are an artist — and most “artists” aren’t — then you make art because you can't not make art, and every other consideration is secondary.
CA: What qualities and aesthetic are you looking for in a photographer's body of work when you're developing a new exhibition?
PK: Increasingly I am looking for someone who I want to work with, who takes their life and art seriously and understands what my role and their role are in our partnership. So that’s about the person even before we get to the work. Hopefully when I start to show someone it’s the beginning of a lifelong relationship, professionally and usually to a lesser extent personally. I expect the artist to continue making work at a steady pace that will or will not be something I’ll show in the future. No one-offs, although that winds up happening unintentionally. Then I ask myself some pretty basic questions, like whether I like the work, respect it, and would I put it in my own house; would I want to live with it. Once those are positively identified I ask myself if I am filling a hole or whether I am already essentially showing this same work, or close enough to it that I am diminishing one of my artists by showing another. I don't want to do that. Also, am I showing the entire body of work or a part of a greater whole.
CA: What are some of the greatest photography exhibitions (other than your own) that you've ever attended?
PK: The Peter Hujar show last year at the Morgan Library stands out as exactly what one hopes from such an exhibition; a better understanding of an artists whose work you thought you knew. Also in New York, but maybe two years ago was the early work of Diane Arbus at the Met Breuer. Most of the shows I see are more like visiting old friends than making new ones. i don't think there has been an “important” photography show in Los Angeles since the joint effort by The LA County Museum and the Getty to cover the entirety of Robert Mapplethorpe’s career. A version of that was at the Guggenheim a couple of months ago and I didn’t make the time to see it. That show was an eye-opener for the early career photographs and ephemera. I have a pretty bad memory, so I’m sure there are a few I’m not remembering.
CA: In your opinion, who are the top three living photographers (who are still working)?
PK: Yes, there are so many photographers whose work that we love that we are not able to sign. I do not usually help those photographers find agents but I will refer them to another one if I know that agent is looking.
This is the sort of question that can get a person in trouble. And I can’t do three, sorry. Imposssible. I'm thinking of who will be remembered 50 or 100 years from now. Let me get the American men out of the way first, since they dominated the scene for so long and are therefore over-represented. I think everyone would agree on Robert Frank, who is a national treasure. William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, I guess those would be my three although I’d be quick to add… Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyons, Robert Adams and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Then thinking of women there’s Sally Mann, Nan Goldin Cindy Sherman and Annie Liebovitz.
CA: If you had to choose only one photograph to hang in your home, what image and photographer would it be?
PK: I’m restricting this to something I already own, for no particular reason. So either a Marion Post Wolcott of a baptism or Raeburn Flerlage, a Chicago photographer who you’ve never heard of, and his photograph "Jackie Wilson performs at the Trianon Ballroom, Chicago".
Upcoming Exhibitions at Paul Kopeikin Gallery