On Hotdogs and Swiss Watches

| March 4, 2015

Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal. –William S. Burroughs

I was reminded recently of one of my first forays with a professional photographer, several years before I decided to become one. Upon finding a composition that prompted me to stop and examine a jumble of colorful willows, the pro sneered and mumbled, “nobody’s gonna buy that…,” and continued to walk, expecting me to abandon my subject and catch up. For all the hype and platitudes about creativity, spirituality, inspiration and significance in photography today, the predominant view among many still is that good photographs are photographs that sell (and in the era of “social” media, I might add also – photographs that are popular).

It is worth considering that there are many measures for what is good, and that one who seeks to create good work should also explicitly decide on what kind of good they wish to aim for. It is fair to say that the sales of hotdogs far outpace those of hand-crafted Swiss watches, but nobody will consider comparing their “goodness” in terms of units sold. Each is good in a different way, and such quality cascades into how they are created and promoted, to who and for how much. One provides an easy and (hopefully) satisfying, if short-lived, experience; the other requires considerably greater investment and (hopefully) may satisfy the purchaser for decades, and perhaps continue to satisfy their heirs after them. They are different products, to be evaluated by different criteria. It is surprising, therefore, that artists often fail to make similar distinction in the way they produce, sell and approach their work.

From the consumer’s perspective things are different, as well. In all but the most discerning circumstances, those purchasing hotdogs do so because they like their taste and value for their price. They don’t concern themselves too much with how hotdogs are made and the ingredients used in their production (and often will purchase them even if they did); they don’t consider the qualifications or skill of their maker or the investment of time and expertise that went into their design and manufacturing. Those who purchase a Swiss watch, on the other hand, do so expecting that it was carefully designed and constructed from the highest-grade materials and by the most expert professionals – people who honed their craft for years and decades and who personally control, assemble and inspect every aspect of their making.

In the world of photography, some approach and sell their work as hotdogs and some as Swiss watches. This is as it should be, and both can be satisfying in their own way, when considered for what they are.

But, a more perplexing phenomenon is those who try to market their hotdogs as if they were Swiss watches – those who invest little in creative visual design; those who aim for mass appeal rather than personal expression; those who streamline and shorten and automate their production cycles and do not take the time to personally and painstakingly process and print their own work or to become experts in such things, yet still try to pass their works as equal to those of artists who are creative; who make their work out of an inner drive to express something worthy and original; who are expert craftsmen and who are personally involved in the making of every product that leaves their studio.

There is a reason why discerning consumers will not pay the same price for a genuine Swiss watch as for a mass-produced imitation, even if very close (even identical) in function and appearance. This is because the personal touch, the training and expertise of the craftsman, and the knowledge that the product was made and inspected by the artist whose mark it bears, and met with their exacting standards, counts for a lot. It is my hope that purchasers of photographic art will, in time, also learn to make this distinction. And woe be unto those whose buyers believe they paid for a Swiss watch only to later realize that they were sold a hotdog.


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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (13)

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  1. Tim Parkin says:

    You made me laugh so much with this one… nicely put

  2. Dave Benson says:

    a very timely reflection on art…

    ….some, might even suggest, that it was written just in the lik of time….

  3. Great article, so very well written. I really enjoyed the comparison of hot dogs to Swiss watches. It really inspired me to keep my focus on the important aspects of being an artist, and it also reminded me why short cuts are not the way I want to work.

  4. So true Guy. I really appreciate you putting this into words. I wonder if Peter Lik will read this and sneer? So sad that words of wisdom are wasted on some.

  5. Steve says:

    You are such a diplomat. Maybe our next secretary of state? I personally am saving up for a 6.5 mil hot dog.

  6. Allan Culver says:

    When I was between 12 and 15 years old I wanted to learn how to make Swiss watches. Those first attempts were very crude. So I started making hot dogs later for a career, always keeping my eye on the Swiss watch.

    I made the best hot dogs that I could, so that I could retire and give my full attention to Swiss watches. The road to making Swiss watches is not easy, for there is always a better Swiss watch to make just around the next corner.

    My goal was never riches, but rather to share my Swiss watches. And that is what I do today, share my Swiss watches with other Swiss watch makers.

  7. Excellent and entertaining article Guy. IMO – Locally outsourcing your printing can be a labor of love too.

  8. Another well written post on a topic that his been dear to my heart lately. It seems there is little distinction these days for what is real art and what is perceived to be real art (Peter Lik’s recent sale). I would rather own one of your prints that have a dozen of his or others of his ilk.

    I particularly enjoyed these words you wrote, “And woe be unto those whose buyers believe they paid for a Swiss watch only to later realize that they were sold a hotdog.”

    Thanks for weighing in on this topic Guy! Wish you a great weekend 🙂

  9. Mark says:

    An interesting and humorous analogy Guy! It had me thinking about a parallel though – what about music? Many have drawn tangents between music and photography, and certainly there are observations of commoditization of each. However, at the end, whether it was a hot dog produced song or a Swiss Watch crafted one – people still only expect to pay a buck.

  10. Brad Mangas says:

    I understand your premise Guy and it is a correct one. Though you did mention the cost differences you may not intend for this to be the main point. I believe honesty and integrity to be the determining factors. The truth is when art is crafted in such an artisan way the cost must come in to play typically equating to higher prices. Is this by design or just by the artist’s desire? Such is the case with the so called “Limited” print. Only limited by the person who desires the price to inflate.

    I couldn’t agree with Mark more. I believe music equates to photographs much better than Swiss watches equates to hot dogs. Hundreds of thousands of dollars goes into the recording and preservation of music. This is in addition to the hundreds even thousands of hours that are spent by the artists to create it. It is then made available to the public at $1.29 or less per track. An entire album (portfolio in photography terms) is then made available for $10-$20. What is wrong with this scenario? How many songs would an artist sell if each song cost $100 or more or if an album cost $2500 or more?

    I know there is not a direct coalition between musical art and visual art but it is close enough we should pay attention to it. I believe all art should represent not only the truth about the artist and its creation but about the artist’s desire for others to enjoy it and making that desire available.

  11. roy seibel says:

    Seems there is a sea change the 21st century view of aesthetics. This article points to the personal visual vocabulary is paramount with regard to art. Craftsmanship can be part of that vocabulary, part of the set of tools used to compose. Interesting that Keuhn is a professional when his photographs are centered and in focus, an artist when they are not.

    The Art of Seeing
    Photographs from the
    Alfred Stieglitz
    Collection – Metropolitan Museum of Art

    “Portraits and figure studies formed a significant part of the Stieglitz collection. Still lifes and landscapes, in the minority, were not frequent subjects among the artists represented. One reason for still life’s lack of popularity may have been that it was best handled in the studio, and was therefore the natural motif for those who did commercial work and portraits. Commercial photographers were considered out-casts by the experimentalists who comprised the main part of Stieglitz’s collection before 1900. Only after that time did many of the first generation (exhibiting by 1896) try to earn a living from their craft, and a new attitude toward commercial subjects came about. Kuehn’s Tea Still Life, of about 1908, might be mistaken for an advertisement for fine porcelain; but its off-center composition and soft focus are the telltale marks of a personal rather than commercial intent.”

  12. Rafael says:

    Certainly a funny way of depicting reality… which very often can be the funniest of things. Very well put Guy… I will try to find some hotdogs next time I go to the Swiss Jura 🙂

  13. Phil Hemsley says:

    Wonderful wit and eloquence indeed. I hope that more people come to recognize and appreciate the difference between the hot dogs and the Swiss watches of photographic images. A photograph that comes about from an emotive or visceral response to the subject, that transports and immerses, will keep the viewer satiated far longer than any hot dog ever could.