It's a slow day, and a couple is pointing at one of my pieces for sale. I adjust my umbrella and settle back in my folding chair. If it wasn't for the concrete, the noise of the traffic, and the dogs yapping at each other in the dog run behind me, I look as though I could be lounging at the beach. The pointers move on without so much as a nod in my direction, and I go back to my book. There's an axiom among my friends that simply states, "Buyers never point, and pointers never buy." This has held true for the last three years that I've been selling my photography as a New York City street artist.
It all began as a whim. A "something else to do on the weekend type of thing that would get me out in the fresh air and maybe make a few bucks, too..." Make a few bucks? Definitely. Weekend type of thing. Not. It begins to absorb you and your time. You sell a lot, you replace a lot. Fresh air? It's New York City. There is no fresh air. What the hell was I thinking?
But what I also wasn't thinking about at first was my market. It took me a while to understand that parading before me was the largest mobile gallery crowd one could imagine. All I had to do was catch their attention-which is all of two seconds. That's all you have. Two seconds, two heartbeats to catch their eye. And when they see your work, if their heart doesn't skip a beat, stop them in their tracks and generate that impulse-buying urge of "I gotta have that!"-you might as well be at the beach.
So what stops them? First, images that work at a distance. You have to draw them in. Unlike four painted white walls and a table full of cheese cubes and so-so wine that the art buyer/viewer usually comes for, your buying force is not a captured audience. There are so many distractions going on in the city streets that you have to view people like butterflies. Vibrant colors. The placement of these colors in your display along with strong visual patterns that don't clash with each other are all factors. These are the primary hooks. I have five specific images that I put up as my hooks throughout my display. Once I draw my potential buyer in with these, it's easier for their eyes to wander over the rest of my work. Which lends itself to the second hook, the photography itself.
Which in turn, lends to the question that begs to be asked: "What sells?" That's a strange one. When I first started, I had a lot of dolphin photos. I mean, who doesn't like dolphin photos? Well, apparently all of those people who kept walking by. It takes time and some hard knocks to your ego to read your audience and build your "selling" portfolio. I give an image a month to sell or at least generate talk. If it doesn't, it's dead weight. I now present a wide range of subjects that incorporate my underwater work, travel photos, nature, black & white documentary work (photos from South Africa during the apartheid, and photos from the NYC subway taken in the '80s are both good sellers), all while adding new work or presenting old work in a new fashion. Also (and this is hard for me), it's important to listen to other people. A good friend and photographer, Bill Alger, suggested that I put out a photo of four dolphins swimming away-basically a tail shot. It went against my grain. It turned out to be a very good seller and one of my "bring-them-in hook shots."
The street life isn't for everyone. It seems like a lot of freedom with many passers-by wishing they could share in my bohemian ways. But my days are ruled by cold, rain, available space, and location, which is ever-changing. The hours are long, and I patiently listen to many a story from non-buyers as if I were their only source of psychotherapy. Still, I enjoy myself and get a kick every time I bag a photo.
Oh, another thing: People who view your work through sunglasses don't buy; neither do camera-toting folks, along with the ones who ask for a business card or inquire if you're going to be there next week. Favorite? The ones that exclaim that they love the work and as soon as they get some money, they'll be back to buy something. Okay, I'll wait right here.
John Conn (www.theconnartist.net) trained as a Combat Still Photographer in the Marine Corps and became a presidential photographer for the Marines. He holds a BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts. His work has appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Time/Life Books, IMAX Films and various other publications.