How Much Are We Worth?

How Much Are We Worth?
by John Leezer, A.S.C.

In these days of specializing, human endeavor tends toward many vocations, but for convenience let us consider only four general divisions: professional men, mechanics, merchants, and artists. A man is a mechanic because he seems best fitted for that kind of work. If he paints beautiful pictures, makes wonderful photographs, or has won fame because of his work in marble, we call him an artist. The motion picture photographer belongs to this class of workers.

He knows considerable about other lines of work, but he spends the most time at the thing he likes best and is so classified. He is not only classified as an artist, but he must be one in every sense of the word-- first, last and all the time. The bigger the man, inside, I mean, the greater artist will he be, but an artist is not an artist unless he can express himself. A man says he is a farmer. How do we know? Another may say he is an architect. How shall we know? If a man be an artist, he as already, by some such medium as the brush, lens or chisel, proven it. Those who can afford to give expression to their artistic sense, solely for the pleasure they derive, are few. Compensation is a wonderful incentive to artistic expression. So the question naturally arises, what are the efforts of an artist worth?

Values are supposed to be determined by supply and demand. If you have talent to sell or real estate or a goat, it is worth what you can get for it. The man with brains offers them for sale in the open market and they are sold to the highest bidder. No one is going to pay a portrait photographer fifty dollars for a dozen 8x10s unless he thinks they are worth it-- at least, not many. If the portrait artist is satisfied that the photographs are worth fifty-dollars, but is unable to get it, is he justified in reducing the price? Before we decide, whether he is or not let us go a little farther into the matter.

We must not forget that we are discussing the class of human beings called artists. The artist does not sit or stand at a machine all day long, turning out a part of a shoe, a hat or a watch. Such an operator puts no part of himself into what he produces. The machine does it; he is a machine man, but what you see on the canvas, one the photo mount, or in the marble, is a part of the man or woman whose work it is.

The Indian believes that something has gone from him into his photograph, otherwise it would not look like him, so we recognize the artist in his work, because of the personality stamped upon it. We know it is a Remington without seeing the name. This comparison between the mechanic and the artist has been made to demonstrate how little they have in common that would indicate what their labor is worth. The wages of the mechanic are determined by comparison. His wage is standard at so much per hour. The compensation of the artist on the other hand is not arrived at by comparison. Even the work of the modern painters varies in price. Some portrait photographers get ten, fifteen, and twenty dollars per print. But is the artist justified in taking less than he thinks his product is worth? There is, to our mind, but one answer. He is not.

It may be well to consider at this time one or two conclusions we have arrived at concerning the producer. The pictures he exhibits give us a good idea of what he demands in photography, and it varies considerably. Most producers get what they want in stories, directors, actors and photographers so, if a producer employs an artist to photograph his productions, it must be because he wants that kind of photography. What other conclusion can we come to? The producers represent the open market in which the artist-photographer offers his services. There are not so many producers as there were at one time, but that is no reason why the photographer should take less for his labor than he thinks it is worth.

Loyalty is a good word so far as words go, but there must be some difference of opinion as to what the word means, in the motion picture industry in any event. To my way of thinking loyalty begets loyalty, or should, but try as hard as I may I am unable to recall even one instance when loyalty ever got the best of a dollar. You may know of cases where it has. I hope you do, but I don't. Loyalty for loyalty's sake is a wonderful virtue, but extremely rare.

Reports indicate that the industry as grown wonderfully in the past ten years. What caused it? Stories, acting, and directing? It would be very discouraging indeed to think that there had been no improvement in these three important departments, but the quiet, unassuming, conscientious artist-photographer is in the main most responsible for the high plane of usefulness the motion picture has reached. But have you heard him making any noise about it? You could not, even with the most sensitive receiving apparatus the wireless expert has yet devised.

What is the most important thing about any structure? The foundation, of course. What is the foundation of this business? Photography! On the whole, I should say that the photographer bears a rather important relation to the industry, but what compensation has he had? Usually the more important or responsible position the greater the compensation. The following ratio is a fair example of real conditions. Directors' salary, 600; Star, 1,000; Photographer 250. No matter what conditions, the ratio remains the same.

The motion picture photographer, as well as any other artist, must decide what he will ask for his labor. If he can not get it or, in other words, if the law of supply and demand does not operate to his advantage, he can take up something else until such a time as he may conscientiously work as an artist again. So far as we know there may be rag pickers who cannot afford to paint pictures. 

- John Leezer, A.S.C. 

... March 1st, 1922

His words ring very true over 90 years later. Loyalty rarely gets the best of a dollar, the soul of the artist is in the picture as much as the subject, and the cameraman is a true artist.


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