Art To Commerce (Observations and Experiences)

When I was very young, up until my mid teens, I wanted to be a visual artist, with my work appearing on the covers of books and in magazines. I was always attracted to the fantastical covers of novels and album art, and they were often a lure for me to buy those albums or books. I remember the wonderful album art of Depeche Mode and Pink Floyd, Duran Duran and ELO. I wanted to be the artist behind something like that, and it's a nice turn of events that those childhood aspirations are starting to come to pass all these years later. Imagery I have created is now in magazines, is now on a CD or two, and on a novel. So far. Hopefully this will all continue.

It was never known by me exactly how one becomes an artist for such things - there was no internet back then - and perhaps that is now no longer mysterious since the internet rules much of our lives now. Just in case you, the reader, are still in the dark about how all that come to pass, here is how I found my stuff gracing book covers, CDs and in magazines.


I started doing what some people call fine art photography (or conceptual art, or surrealism, or whatever you wish to call it) two and a half years ago. Before that, it was some portraiture, some dogs in the park, and occasional concept stuff with no real focus or direction. I decided almost three years ago that if my passion for photography was going to be satisfying to me artistically, and still not be a paying career, I should only do something meaningful to myself. That meant no more portrait clients and head shots, and certainly no weddings (I have never done one). I have always had a need to create something I consider art. Been doing it since I could walk, in various mediums. Until photography came along, I was a songwriter/performer, and that was satisfying - I was writing introspective songs that meant something to me. Anyway, once I focused my photography on conceptual art, I started to care about it more - it was becoming art for me, after several years of it being more of a technical exercise.

When you are a photographer in this day and age, you have several ways of getting your work seen. Flickr.com, 500px.com, SmugMug, BlueCanvas, RedBubble, the list goes on. I am or have been on all those sites. They work. You have to be vigilant and attentive, but you can start building an audience. Some of the people in that potential audience work at stock image agencies like Getty Images, ArcAngel, Trevillion. They will reach out to you and invite you into a contract if they like what they see or deem you as potentially marketable. They take all kinds of images - it need not be conceptual or fine art. They are usual worldwide - providing imagery for dozens of countries, in a variety of ways.

Five agencies have contacted me: Getty, ArcAngel, Trevillion, and I don't remember the other two. Until I started becoming familiar with the world, I had heard of of Getty, so when they came knocking, I was excited. They chose the ones they were interested in. It's kind of a lot of work with them - you have to upload them, and fill out a lot of fields, and upload a model release (if needed) with the image in question on the model release. I have five old images on Getty - some macros of oil and water droplets, and a couple portraits of yours truly. Apparently they have sold some of the oil and water shots - I get a small check every year for about $75 or so. No idea who it's sold to or how to find out. Getty wants more of my newer stuff, but word on the web is that they don't pay as much as other agencies. Besides that, I just didn't like the method of sending them images - it's very labor intensive.

Next up was ArcAngel. They seemed to focus mainly on Fine Art/Concept Art, and I knew some fellow photogs online affiliated with them with good things to say. So, I signed up with them and started submitting my images.

Here is where I want to stop though, and tell you what was going through my head at the time. I submitted some of my images to them, but not all of them, and not my best or favorite or most popular. The reason being…well, what if someday these images become part of a gallery show or could be part of a gallery show? That being my ultimate goal, I didn't want the perception of being a producer of "pop art" to affect that. It may have been a little precious of me, or inaccurate, but that was what I was thinking. Plus, I wanted to test the waters with this agency first, and see if they could sell some for me. I think your cut is about half of the sale. I uploaded some good ones, but not my favorite ones at first. About a year into the three year contract, and they have sold one cover. A Polish novel is now on stands, presumably only in Poland, with an image of mine on it. I have to say, this is pretty cool - it's satisfying and a little surreal for that to happen, and it certainly feels good.

And now here's the not so great news.

I found out about the sale from the company's Facebook page, no notification of the sale came to me. I inquired about how much the sale was for and when I might get the money. I was told the client had six to twelve months to pay for it, and they never told me how much I would get. I got it about six months laters, and it was less than $200. So, that's not much. I am told that European publications don't fetch as much as the U.S markets, so those are the Holy Grail. I decided that I needed to upload some more images to my profile there, and some of my better ones. Maybe that would help sell more for me. I still held back my personal best. It's now a year and half into the three year contract and as far as I know, I have not made another sale. It's easy to blame the company, and I do feel they are not great at promoting their artists, but maybe my stuff is not universal enough, too specific, not really sure. Whatever the reason, I am a little displeased with how things are going so far with ArcAngel, and I decided to not upload anything further. And here is why - and let this be a caveat to you if you are unfamiliar with this world:

I cannot sell the images i have sent to the agency on my own without their involvement, without them taking half. That is the risk you take, and that is pretty common. Even if they failed to sell them, and I did, they will be entitled to half because they "own" them for the life of the contract. And that life is three years. So, at this point, those images are their property and I can't sell them for another eighteen months. Besides that, uploading to this agency is also a pain - you have to upscale them to larger than native resolution and prepare them - you have to go through this horrible and extensive tagging process for each one, and the tags have to be ones ArcAngel have established. Finding out what those tags are is not easy, and it can take a full day just doing the tagging to a dozen images. The contributor interface on their site is not great either. These are of course my opinions, but they are true from my point of view nevertheless.

Next, I was contacted by Trevillion. I was pretty much done with the whole stock image process at this point and ignored their first couple of messages, and I even called them to ask about some of the processes. The exclusivity of the contract just never sat well with me. The idea that they own them outright is just really off-putting. But, Trevillion is a big up and comer, their site and art looks great, and I again got some feedback from a friend and contributor of theirs that I respect saying they really do work hard to promote your images. Plus, and this was the big lure, THEY tag your work - all you have to do is send them, and they take care of the marketing. Now this is how it should be, in my opinion. If you are going to own these and take half, you should do some of the work too. So, I have sent them a submission, and I held none of the good stuff back. I am going all in, and hoping this agency will sell more for me than the others. And the other big reason I decided on this agency being a better option? A one-year initial contract. Three years is too long.

Now, onto the magazines…

I have been in Camera Obscura Journal, Practical Photoshop, Vitruvian Lens, and Healthy Living. The first three were requests for interviews or tutorials of images, and Camera Obscura was the result of winning their annual photography competition. These interviews and tutorials mean a lot of work for the artist. You get a list of questions and you have to write all the replies out. Tutorials can take a long time too, and you will likely have to show them images from all stages of the construction of the image. More writing and a lot of images to prepare for print. Healthy Living has been the only magazine to buy my images for use. They have purchased four so far, and it's been a satisfying experience. Satisfying because they are buying them as is, and that is my preference - I want them to value them for what they are, and I am not too keen on doing work for hire. This is an artistic pursuit for me, despite wanting to make a living doing it, it must be creatively motivated. Commerce will have to be secondary, as foolish as that may sound.

However, the fourth one they wanted - something new happened. I was asked to make some changes. I posted the before and after photos above so you can see what they wanted and what they saw originally. My first reaction was "no." But I then decided to go through with the changes and the sale. The reasons were simple: I didn't want to burn a bridge with them, I wanted the money, and I didn't have a strong connection to the image they wanted. That last one was most important to me. This image was not one of my favorites; I felt it got away from me at the time, and that it was a little scattered and unfocused. There was a lot going on in it, and not a lot of it tied together well. It's kind of odd to get a message saying, "we need this image right away, but can you lose the priest collar, lose the blood, change the water to a field or dry land, and can you make the whole thing brighter?" It begs the question "what on earth did you like about it in the first place?" Whatever it was, I did ask for more money since they were asking me for extensive changes and that would take more of my time. So they said yes, and I made the changes in a couple hours and sent the image. That's the frustrating thing about all this though - they need things right away and you get paid maybe four weeks later. I suppose that's the nature of the beast, but it's still trust on your end needed - trusting them to do the right thing, trusting they will honor their part of the agreement. And if this was an image that I cared about, if it was something I considered a good piece of art, the answer would have been "no." Fortunately, this was not the case.

The last bit of advice, if there is any here, I would impart is where to showcase your stuff. All the attention I got has been mainly from 500px.com. The person from the magazine told me she scours the internet, not just stock sites like istock, so I would say that 500px is probably the most important site to be on at the moment. Also, be prepared to have the images you sell be altered before they are published. I can't say that I enjoy this part of it, but there is not much you can do under these contracts. Hopefully you can still see something of your original intent in the final product, and still feel good about the exposure, the business, and the fact that you are starting to do what you dreamed about as a child!

Michael Bilotta
May 11, 2014