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January 25th, 2011

Marketing for Fine Art Photographers

Posted by Matt Bailey

An interview with Mary Virginia Swanson, creative consultant on making and marketing art. Written for our friends at APA National.

MB:  First of all, thank you for taking the time to add your insight and expertise on this subject for the rest of us to benefit from. As we’ve discussed in the past, I started out as a fine art photographer in the late eighties, well before the internet gave artists access to a global marketplace.  I’ve seen first hand how commercial photographers have gone from shipping physical portfolios from agency to agency as their primary form of promotion to circulating links to a wide distribution list with a well designed email campaign.  How have you seen the world of promotion and commerce change for the fine art photographer over the last 10-15 years?

MVS:  Today, introducing your work to new audiences or keeping in touch with those whom you’ve met should be consistent in brand identity and intention whether it is in print or via email.  Depending on the market segment you are targeting, using social media such as Facebook and Twitter may be appropriate.  Regardless, your website should be the anchor of your marketing, featuring a tight edit of images, and a clear message, with simple navigation.

Portfolio review events have evolved in recent years to become an important  forum for artists ranging from FotoFest’s “Meeting Place”, a component of its biennial festivals (est. 1986 in Houston, Texas), to nearly 20 events per year available to photographers in the US alone.  Some are juried, such as Review Santa Fe, others are regional in focus, and still others offer meetings with a range of international curators, gallery directors, photo editors, publishers and more.  Some events now offer opportunities to meet with industry professionals in one market segment, others, with a broad cross-section.  I encourage anyone considering attending a portfolio review event to weigh the price, the value of potential contacts and the opportunity they will or will not have to meet with reviewers who are a priority to them at this time in their career path.   These events offer an opportunity to gather together with their peers and to begin professional relationships; whether participants work to grow the relationships they begin at review events is up to them.

MB:  With all this change, and a move toward disintermediation in the world in general, how have you seen the role of the gallery change, and where do you feel the relationship between artist and gallery is headed in the future?

MVS:  Few traditional galleries are taking on new artists, a direct consequence of the global financial challenges.  The idea of “gallery” extends beyond the brick-and-mortar spaces, and the notion of representation may or may not include responsibility for marketing of fine prints.  Today’s gallery representative may also handle commissions and licensing opportunities for the artists they work with.  At the same time, we see a rise in photography being featured in interior design and décor projects, as well as art in public places such as airports.  While diversification is wise in challenging financial times, I believe you should be represented by individuals who are excellent at what they do, have a clear understanding of conducting business of any and all market segments and have the respect of the professionals within the fine art, advertising, editorial, or corporate markets.   It is rare to find someone who has a current perspective on all markets, and more common that photographers will have someone who may handle one part of their professional life, and that they themselves with be their best representative to other markets.

MB:  I know a lot of commercial photographers who do personal work that they would love to have up in a show or sell to a collector.  Do you work with people who do both commercial and fine art photography?

MVS:  YES.  An increasing number of my clients are finding a place for their personal style within commission assignments, and interest in acquisition of collectible prints produced for clients.

MB:  Is it difficult for them to tap into their creative side after working on client work?

MVS:  In the best-case scenario, commissioned work is a creative collaboration, one that is engaging for all parties.  I find those whose commissioned work is not necessarily within the subject area of their personal work making a commitment to their personal projects, keeping engaged and stimulated and making new work for themselves.

MB:  There are many photographers I know who have been working in the same way for many years, and have huge archives of beautiful work like Stephen Salmieri, and are just getting comfortable with the idea of marketing online.  The first step is often creating a website, but then there is the challenge of driving traffic to the site.  Do you encourage any specific strategies to address this issue?

MVS:  SEO strategies are proven; don’t ignore the potential for launching a website that is poised to communicate your message.  PRINT is the most important companion to marketing the presence of one’s website.   Marketing via print mailers is down dramatically, but in my opinion the impact and the experience is preferred to an e-announcement.  Network!  Be present at industry events, where you will give out your promo card personally. And of course social networks are the logical first form of communication for some clients,some markets, and some locations.

MB:  What would you say are the most important things for a photographer to do when trying to gain traction in the fine art world?

MVS:  Target your audience, research online and in person, network online  and in person and most importantly MAKE NEW PHOTOGRAPHS FOR YOURSELF EVERY DAY.

MARY VIRGINIA SWANSON helps photographers find the strengths in their work and identify appreciative audiences in today’s diverse marketplace. Her lectures on industry awareness and marketing opportunities in the arts have aided countless photographers in moving their careers to the next level. She is the author of The Business of Photography: Principles and Practices. Swanson and co-author Darius Himes have recently completed Publish Your Photography Book (Princeton Architectural Press, Spring 2011).  Her website can be found at

Posted in Marketing / Matt Bailey / Q and A


  1. January 25th, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Tweets that mention Marketing for Fine Art Photographers | RESOLVE — the liveBooks blog --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by liveBooks Inc., Matt Bailey and Dickerman Prints, APA National. APA National said: RT @liveBooks: RESOLVE Blog post: Marketing for Fine Art Photographers, an interview with Mary Virginia Swanson […]

  2. January 28th, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Friday Links | Vincent Demers Photography Blog

    […] Livebooks’ blog Resolve has an interview with Mary Virginia Swanson, creative consultant on making and marketing fine art: Marketing for Fine Art Photographers […]

  3. February 1st, 2011 at 5:55 am

    Thomas Hodges

    Interesting article, but I find it doesn’t really embrace the reality that the vast majority of commercial photographers find it difficult (if not impossible!) to attain status and recognition as a photographic artist. The prime reason for this, is above all, the mentality of the photographers themselves.

    Shooting commercial assignments and working as a photographic artist are two very different arenas with a completely different focus. For one thing, one is a photographer, whilst the other is an artist, using photographer as the medium of choice (often also using other medium or producing mixed-media works). The mentality of a photographer and the mentality of an artist, are by default very different. The biggest problem for galleries and other artist’s representatives when dealing with photographers, is that often, they just have not embraced the context of producing work as an artist, with the focus primarily on a client base comprising specialist collectors of the photographic media.

    Of course there are exceptions, we see it in the likes of Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton, both of whom never saw themselves as artists. However, this is the minority, not the majority. We also have the like of David LaChapelle, but then David does declare himself an artist, and is in the category of photographic artist also undertaking commercial assignments, but with a firm foot-hold in the art-world.

    Whilst Mary Swanson is clearly an authority in her field, in reading this article, I can’t help but feel that her field is primarily that of advising “photographers” not “artists”, and within this article, “photographers” that are would be “artists”. For the latter, I believe the best advice would be firstly to reposition your mind-set from photographer to that of artist, as in reality, it’s an entirely different world. For many however, this is more easily said than done. Even the infamous Annie Leibovitz suffers from this syndrome (see blog post: and if Annie is struggling to make it in the art world, can you imagine how difficult it is for the others!

  4. February 1st, 2011 at 6:27 am

    Thomas Hodges

    I just wanted to add a postscript to my previous comment.

    I was looking at the website of the APA (American Photographic Artists), and note that their Mission Statement reads as follows:-

    “Our goal is to establish, endorse, and promote professional practices, standards, and ethics in the photographic and advertising community. We seek to mentor, motivate, educate, and inspire in the pursuit of excellence. Our aim is to champion and speak as one common voice for advertising photographers and image makers to the advertising industry in the United States and the World.”

    Clearly, there is no focus on “photographic art”, despite the name “American Photographic Artists”. This in itself is a source of confusion, and to some extent it is understandable, especially when you consider that commercial photographers sell their work to “art buyers”, and photographer’s representatives frequently refer to their photographers as “artists” or “talent”. All of the latter however is completely autonomous to the world of “collectible photographic art” and “photographic artists” in the true context of “artist”.

    I just thought I’d add this as a further clarification seemed justified.

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