I grew up in Fullerton, California, in an idyllic neighborhood populated by single-story ranch and Spanish homes that were filled with boys my age: Steve, Dean, Dan, Dick, Toby, Todd, Ted, Tony, Mark, Garrick, Sean, Jay, and Ed. We were all within two years of each other in age. We had great sidewalks for skateboarding, decent-sized backyards, and a centrally located alley, all within a two-block radius of the elementary school we all attended. We’d roam the neighborhood in packs, biking, skateboarding, chasing each other through peoples’ yards and over fences, and organizing all sorts of events, like neighborhood Olympics, pet shows, haunted houses, lemonade stands. We played pranks too numerous to mention, most of which involved throwing things at cars. Different factions of kids formed around various interests and activities, but mostly around whoever was wandering through the neighborhood, bored and looking for something to do.
One morning when I was about 11 years old, I skateboarded up to the corner and found Tony Lawton sitting on a stool, holding a Charlie McCarthy doll and a stack of paper. Tony was often a bit removed from our larger gatherings because he would hang out in his room, doing his own thing, but I got along with him pretty well, and enjoyed how creative and different he was. This particular morning I asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I’m selling stories.” He went on to explain that for 25 cents, he would sell me a story he had written, and he’d read me the story, using the Charlie McCarthy doll as a second character to help with the reading (he was also a budding ventriloquist). I of course didn’t have any money, but I told him I’d help him sell the stories. “How many do you have?” He admitted he only had two, so I offered to read both of them for him and give him my opinion – free of charge, of course.
The stories were great, and I wanted to be involved. I felt like I could add my own ideas and we could crank these stories out much quicker as a team. I sensed a business partnership, and offered my services. Soon we’d abandoned the corner and were in his kitchen, drinking Kool-Aid and writing more stories. I made a sign, and we got a table from his mom and went back out to the corner. We sat there for about an hour before some kindly adult came out and bought a pair of stories. As Tony put Charlie McCarthy on his knee and began to read, I remember a feeling of overwhelming satisfaction with the quarter that was sitting in my pocket. We had made something, and sold it.
For the last few years, I’ve hung out my shingle through both the Off Camera and Sam Jones Pictures websites. We started out with Off Camera, selling magazines, subscriptions, and even some t-shirts. Then last year I started the shop on samjonespictures.com, selling prints, books, films and other projects I’ve made over the years, and I have to say, it’s been an amazing experience. I’m extremely lucky to be paid very good money to photograph movie posters and magazine covers, and direct commercials and documentaries. Often, the phone rings, and I’m headed off to a foreign country or a distant state to work with some of the most talented people in the world. However, I think I get equal or greater joy from an email notification that someone in South Korea or Australia has purchased an Off Camera magazine for $5.95. I set up my little shop, and someone bought my story!
I started thinking about why this brought me such pleasure, and realized that for most of my career, I’ve made things for other people to sell. If I photograph actors for a movie poster, those photographs help sell the movie. If I shoot a cover for Rolling Stone magazine, I am contributing to that publication, but it’s still a different experience. When I put something new on my own site, it’s like sharing a little story about myself with the world. I started writing long descriptions of some of the prints in the shop because I wanted to share how those images were made, the circumstances, the backstories, and the lessons I learned in their making. I think these stories add to the work, and expand the frame.
I don’t think art should be connected in any way to status. I think the most enjoyable thing about collecting art is that it gives insight into another human’s unique view of the world – someone who wanted to communicate something so much that they took the time to come up with a totally unique and original way of sharing it. I want to hang work on my wall from artists that I relate to, and share something with. I don’t want to feel like I have to buy the right piece from the right gallery with the right appraisal of its potential for appreciation in the market. I don’t want someone else to tell me what is good or bad, or valid, or important, or collectable. I want to feel an undercurrent of elation and energy when I look at a piece or art. I want that piece of art to mean something to me that I don’t need to share with anybody else. Whether it’s a painting, a film, a book, a print, or a record, I want that art in my home so that it can not only bring me joy, but maybe so someone I care about can discover their own delight and connection to it as well.
I thought about all of this before deciding to open my shop, because it’s a very personal thing to hang a price tag on something you have created and ask someone to pay for it. With the website, I don’t have the buffer of a gallery standing between me and a potential collector; I’m just putting my shingle up and inviting the world to take a look. But one thing I can do is charge exactly what I think is fair for my work, without taking into consideration a gallery commission, or without trying to price the work based on what a gallery might get a collector to pay for it. And though I am at the beginning of this journey, I really hope that my work can find an audience that feels about me what I feel about the others whose work I collect. I hope that through Off Camera and these letters, where I write about my experiences as a creative, I can build connections that make the work feel personal and knowable.
In light of all of this, I wonder about what it means to be an artist in the age of social media and the Internet. In some ways, I feel like we may be returning to a model of Renaissance patronage, but rather than kings, popes, and the wealthy commissioning work, artists can find personal connections with complete strangers, and start a dialog that leads to a direct connection between the artist and the collector. I’m sure of one thing – it makes the act of creating, selling and owning any piece of art a more meaningful, joyful experience.