When you’re searching for a niche in which to specialize, there’s often one ideal place to look. Pick a subject that genuinely interests you, something that you’ve been shooting anyway just for fun and you’ll not only be earning a little extra cash, you’ll also have that unbeatable feeling that you’re being paid to do something you find immensely satisfying. It’s the perfect combination: an interesting photography project that costs you nothing and that actually gives you money. That’s what happened to Kevin Baumann, a photographer and Web developer from Detroit.
Kevin’s 100 Abandoned Houses project is a collection of images showing the derelict homes of his city. His images sell as prints, his online gallery earns ad revenue and his work has been highlighted in the New York Times and on ABC. Best of all, the attention his images have generated have helped him to bring donations to local charities that work in the subject his images portray.
Kevin had been a professional photographer for about five years, shooting architectural images, product photography and lifestyle photos for Michigan businesses. As the car industry continued to shrink though and as automotive photographers in Detroit began to look for other lines of work, so Kevin found the photography market increasingly saturated. Web development had looked like an interesting challenge and what was once a side job has now become his main profession, with photography a paying hobby. And it was as a hobby that he first began shooting pictures of abandoned houses. Kevin traveled around Detroit taking pictures of dilapidated properties that caught his eye. The pictures are shot front-on so that the building’s façade — and that façade’s decay – is clear. It’s a style that allows the building to speak for itself, with minimal interference from the photographer, Kevin explains.
70 Print Sales in One Week
After a few years, his trips had given him a large collection of images which he decided to turn into a series of 100 pictures.
“At first 100 seemed like a lot of abandoned houses, but it’s really not, and I’ve gone well beyond 100,” he told us. “Almost every abandoned house is interesting in some way, though I don’t photograph every single one I see. Some are more striking than others.”
There was no agenda, he points out. He wasn’t intending to make a political point about the city through his images or appeal for funds for renovation. The buildings simply fascinated him and in photographing them, he felt he was able to understand Detroit and its problems a little better.
Kevin placed the photos online and found that when the economy declined – and in particular, as the automotive industry declined – so attention turned increasingly towards Detroit’s problems. When the New York Times described the project in its New York edition, traffic to the website leapt. Around 8,000 unique visitors stopped by to look at his photos on the day the article came out, attention that led to a sudden jump in sales.
So far, Kevin has sold 100 limited edition prints and 25 prints in “other sizes.” The limited editions of ten 5 x5 inch prints sell for $35 each, plus postage, of which ten dollars is given to charities such as Habitat for Humanity and The Greening of Detroit. The larger prints, of course, sell for more. Seventy of those sales came in the week the New York Times ran its article. The pages also have some carefully optimized AdSense units which do particularly well with visitors who reach the site from AOL. StumbleUpon and Digg both send Kevin lots of traffic but none of those users convert into buyers.
That might be because the images to appeal to a focused market. The prints are particularly popular with ex-Detroiters, followed by people who live on the coast. New Yorkers make up the largest geographical area for buyers, but no one living in Detroit has bought any of Kevin’s photos.
“[W]hy would they?” he asks. “I don’t think someone who lives among abandoned houses finds them to be intriguing like so many others do.”
None of the owners or former residents of the houses have contacted Kevin after seeing their homes on his site, but he has been asked by owners of other properties to take pictures of their old houses. Many haven’t seen them in years, Kevin explains, and wonder about their state.
Keep the Prices Low
For photographers looking for a project which would be both interesting and rewarding then, Kevin’s experience offers a number of lessons. The most obvious is to shoot what you enjoy first and then look for a way to make money out of it. Kevin was motivated primarily by his fascination with his city, and not by the attention or the money his images might generate.
When it comes to making those sales, it’s a good idea to keep the prices low – unless you already have gallery representation or a big name (and big value) to protect.
“Most people who are interested in photography can’t afford or won’t spend hundreds or thousands on prints,” says Kevin. “I will, and do sell, larger and more expensive prints, but the smaller less expensive ones allow more people to purchase them.”
Affordably-priced prints then are important, and Kevin is now working on a photography book that he’ll make available too. Finding a cause to support is helpful as well. Kevin stresses that he didn’t want take advantage of Detroit’s situation but rather do something helpful with his project. The donations he gives to local environmental charities make his prices more appealing to potential customers who get to feel that they’re not just buying a print but also giving back to the community.
As for subjects, Kevin has been contacted by plenty of other photographers who want to do something similar in their areas, but he questions whether there would be as much interest in a city that wasn’t as politically sensitive as Detroit is now. New neighborhoods though, especially those have not been completed and which also include abandoned houses, might make for some interesting projects, he says. That’s something to think about as the economy picks up.