5.20.2011

Sigma, Cindy Sherman and pricing models.....

I read, with great amusement, the announcement of Sigma's newest DSLR camera, the SD-1.
It looks like a very well designed digital camera body.  They claim that the body is carved out of magnesium and is weather sealed.  It will bang out 44 megapixel files at five frames per second.  It will take a full line of Sigma SD lenses.  It has a three inch, 460,000 LCD on the back.  I like the little strap lugs.  But the aspect of the announcement that brought a smile to my face was the revelation of the MSRP.  The price of this camera, sans lens, is just under $10,000.  The rationalization (and I think this is such a far stretch that it could only have been thought up after a long evening of heavy, heavy drinking...) is that the three layers of APS-C sized sensors each record pure color for each of the RGB colors instead of using a Bayer Filter with Interpolation for digital capture.  This also does away with the need for an anti-aliasing filter which, in theory, should make the files sharper.  When you do the math this way (3x15 megapixels = 45 megapixels) you can say that your camera captures the same size image files as the Medium Format digital cameras on the market.  Indeed, if this camera made images just like a 40 megapixel Phase One back it might  be worth less than half the price of the Phase One.

But all things are not equal.  While photographers like the high res files provided by MF cameras they also like and use the depth of field effects provided by a large sensor.  And the Phase One sensors are nearly four times the size of the SD-1 sensor.  Another benefit of bigger sensor wells spread over a larger surface area is that lenses don't have to be designed to ultra high tolerances in order to deliver the goods to the sensor as a whole.  To get the same system resolution in the SD-1 that you'd get with a big Phase One sensor you'd need lenses that were computed and manufacturer to be at least four time higher resolution.  Much better corrected for CA and other issues and you'd need much tighter tolerances because all geometric physical deviations would be amplified by a factor of at least 4.  (Quick.  Some engineer check my work here.....).

I've used Sigma lenses.  Some of them are good.  None of them are good enough to make use of the implied resolution of this sensor system.  Maybe a few of the Zeiss lenses.  Perhaps the M series Leica lenses (which would not work on this camera) but not the typcial 18-250mm zooms.  So, what were they thinking?  Will we ever know?

Here's a scary thought for all of us nay-sayers:  What if it really does what it says and we have so much gear hubris that we can't let ourselves believe it?  Naw.  Size is size.  But you have to admire their courage for putting it on the market this way.  Now when they drop the price to $4900 it will almost seem like a bargain....

So, ten thousand dollars for an APS-C camera body.  Now I think we have a real handle on just how bad inflation really is in America. ( proffered as a joke...).

With that in mind let me move on to the other interesting news of the week:  The world's highest priced photograph.  A Cindy Sherman self portrait (mise en scene) sold at auction in New York for $3.9 million.  Everyone on the web is outraged.  The "pro" forum on DPreview is bristling with "photographers" who are frothing at the mouth and exclaiming that "no photograph is worth that much money!!!!"  Even normally open minded Mike Johnston at the Online Photographer opined that the pricing was probably the result of ridiculous pissing match on the part of two collectors with too much money on their hands.

I'll take the opposite side.  I think Cindy Sherman's work represented the vanguard of work that pried open the museum market and made collectors and curators consider photography as a real and bonafide part of the art world and all that entails.  The spoils go to the pioneers.  Just as Steve Jobs and Apple reap the benefit of being first and best in the tablet market (and make billions!!!!) Cindy Sherman was part of the first wave of photographer/artists whose photos were about an idea, a manifesto, a dogma, a thought instead of being purely representative.  With Cindy Sherman, Sandy Skoglund, and a handful of others it became okay to make art about a thought instead of about a thing.  And this opened the door to current masters of the large inkjet prints who, incidentally, are getting up to half a million dollars a print for large works.  And those works haven't withstood the tests of time, nor are they revolutionary in the same sense as their predecessors of thirty years ago.

Why is a Rembrandt worth one hundred million dollars?  Why is a Van Gogh worth forty million dollars?  Why are Leonardo da Vinci paintings priceless?  In a sense, it's because they represented a giant tectonic shift in art which reflected a related shift in culture and society.  They are a visual artifact of our collective evolution.  They are our monolith on the moon in the movie,  2001 A Space Odyssey.  These works are the signposts of change in our civilizations.  That's why they are prized.  They are prized as ideas not as paper talismans.  And the world market now sets their price.  Can you really argue with the power of ideas?  Isn't that what drives corporations from Xerox to Apple to Google?

The idea moves all people forward.  How to put a price on that?

So.....back to work.  I'll need to sell a lot of photographs and videos if I'm going to get on that long list for the SD-1, let alone my own copy of a Cindy Sherman.

One last thought.  It's not important that we all own a Cindy Sherman but it is important for art in general and photography in particular that our culture is still able to celebrate expression and art as having value.  That's the real meaning of the auctioned Cindy Sherman photo.  Now just think how much more it would have gone for if she'd made it really, really big.......

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

I never thought about art that way. That's a pretty amazing argument.

Jim said...

Sorry Kirk. I don't buy it. Your argument or the print.

rbusato said...

The files generated by Sigma SD-1 have 15mp (4800 x 3200 pixels). While they may have better color fidelity due to the foveon sensor, they aren't 45mp files like the ones you get from MF digital backs.

Aaron said...

"These works are the signposts of change in our civilizations."

So well said.

It's been quite difficult for me to come to terms with the titanic volume of provincialism and stupidity found on most internet "photography" forums. I won't touch DPReview with a ten foot pole and can only take Flickr in small doses.

Thank goodness for blogs like yours!

kirk tuck said...

JIm. Why not? Why must everything be Walmart Cheap to have value? And please, poke some holes in my argument and tell me why it's okay for a Picasso to cost tens of millions of dollars but not a Cindy Sherman print.

And remember, no one is asking you to buy the print.

Alan said...

Thanks for your last thought "it is important for art in general and photography in particular that our culture is still able to celebrate expression and art as having value."

I have never been a big fan of C. Sherman's work, but I've seen her work in galleries as well as the published work and I'm glad that it has been successful. It's good for all of us.

Aaron said...

I think what many photographers, especially hobbyists and amateurs, struggle with when it comes to photography as art is that the only thing separating them from an artist like Cindy Sherman is VISION. Pure vision.

They have access to the same equipment, locations, costumes etc, and it even could be argued that if all the planets aligned and a butterfly flapped its wings in Bangladesh that they "could make a photo just like that." But deep down they know they can't do what Cindy does. The answers aren't in a book or posted somewhere on a blog and that's a bit disconcerting.

It's easier to accept paintings, even "childlike" abstract expressionist ones, as being art because they recognize the technical skill that goes in to creating a painting. Not anyone can just pick up a paintbrush and paint. But anyone can pick up a camera and take a photo.

Perhaps this is why Gregory Crewdson is so highly regarded by this new breed of internet-schooled photographers that worship the technical. His photographs are pretty and they see the incredible logistical and technical processes behind the images. They are comforted knowing that one day they will have the technical skill and logistical resources to create an image just like him.

ginsbu said...

I think you're wrong about the demands of the SD1 sensor vs other APS-C. As I understand it, pixel pitch on the SD1 is about the same as on cameras like the D7000, so the spatial resolution demands on lenses are the same. The difference is that Bayer sensors are collecting less data per pixel, and so give up a lot of that resolution in interpolation.

I can see a niche for the SD1 in work where deep DOF is an advantage, like macro (for which Sigma has very good lenses). The high ISO limitations of current MF backs limit how much you can stop down and still keep shutter speeds up. B&W specialists might also like the combination of high resolution while retaining full color capture for channel mixing in PP, especially for those whose lens needs aren't well matched to the Leica M-system.

That said, the price is very high indeed.

Will said...

Ginsbu, I think Kirk was talking about the demands of the SD1 sensor vs a 40MP medium format back.

As far as the SD1 is concerned, I think it is a real shame it costs so much. The cost, nearing that of the Pentax 645D, is completely out of line with what the product is likely to be able to deliver. I like the idea of Foveon technology, and when the camera was first announced, I was thrilled to see that the sensor finally broke the sub-5 megapixel barrier. But Foveon can't get traction at this price. Either it needs to become more affordable, or Sigma is going to be sitting on the digital camera equivalent of Betamax.

As for Cindy Sherman, the easy argument against the astronomically high price is twofold: for one, the print isn't stable, and will fade over time. For two, it is a single print made from a negative that can generate literally countless more prints. That's the nature of the beast with photography, I'm afraid. So while I think it is vital that photography has value, I don't think an apples to apples comparison is valid between a one of a kind Picasso painted in oil and a mass-producible print that is certain to fade in less than a decade of hanging on a wall.

ginsbu said...

Will, I didn't mean to take issue with Kirk's comparison with MF backs. I was responding to this:
"I've used Sigma lenses. Some of them are good. None of them are good enough to make use of the implied resolution of this sensor system. Maybe a few of the Zeiss lenses. Perhaps the M series Leica lenses (which would not work on this camera) but not the typcial 18-250mm zooms."
I thought he was implying that Sigma might have lenses good enough for something like a 16 or 18MP APS-C Bayer sensor, but not good enough for a "45MP" Foveon. My point was that (as far as I understand it) the spatial resolution demands of those are essentially the same, so if you think Sigma's 70mm macro (to pick one of their better lenses) is good enough on a D7000 or 7D, then you should expect it to be adequate on the SD1 as well.

Dave Jenkins said...

Count me as provincial, but I wouldn't hang a Sherman on my wall if it were given to me.

To each his own.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem with comparing the Cindy Sherman photo with Rembrandt and Van Gogh is that it seems so ordinary. Like something you'd see on Flickr. Looking at the picture requires you to either question its value or assume your understanding of artistic merit is wrong.

Dave Jenkins said...

"Looking at the picture requires you to either question its value or assume your understanding of artistic merit is wrong."

Who knows?

John F. Opie said...

Kirk is absolutely right: Sigma doesn't make lenses that can handle this sensor. Not many do.

The price point has got to be a monument to fantasy pricing. They're thinking that they can market it this way, but will be blown out of the water when it comes to veracity. Not that marketeers were ever very good at that...

At that price, you're way too close to FF or even S2 territory. Sigma should own up to what the camera probably really can do: outstanding 15MP images that are highly competitive. But an APS-C camera like that sells for $1500 and not $9600.

Absurd pricing. If Sigma were to price that at $2k, they'd sell as many as they could make. At $9600, they're not going to sell many at all. It's a shame what they're doing to that lovely technology...

Mel said...

Stieglitz would be pleased. Assuming price = art.

Marco Venturini-Autieri said...

Yes I am an Engineer and yes I am checking your count ;-)
As you say, lenses must be extremely good to have enough resolution for many pixels in little space. However, in this case, the resolution of the lens must be "only" as good as to cover 15 megapixel in APS-C size, not 45, since, as you know, there are three layers.

Craig said...

The basic problem here is that all the camera makers lie about resolution. Cameras with Bayer-matrix sensors (that's nearly all of them but Sigma's) don't really have resolution equal to the number of pixels in the image files they produce, due to the softening effect of both Bayer interpolation and (in most cases) an anti-aliasing filter. Realistically they probably have about half the claimed resolution, assuming the use of a top-quality lens. Sigma's camera may have 45 million sensor elements, but the resulting image is only 15 MP. It is, however, a true 15 MP, or would be if lenses of sufficient quality were available for it (which, as already noted in this discussion, is unlikely). So Sigma's 15 MP camera might, under ideal circumstances, significantly out-resolve a 16 MP Nikon or Canon, but not by a factor of 3x. Something like a Leica S2 or Pentax 645D would surely blow the Sigma out of the water. The Leica is double or more the price of the Sigma, but the Pentax is actually competitive with it; I'd choose the Pentax if I were inclined to spend $10K on a digital camera body.

As for the Cindy Sherman auction, the thing to understand is that the art market, for the last few decades, has been dominated by nouveau-riche would-be "major art collectors" who don't really know anything about art and therefore are easy prey for scummy art dealers who have figured out that they can make lots of money by hyping transitory fads (like graffiti art in the '80s). The prices paid for art thus no longer tell us anything (if they ever did) about an artwork's real worth or cultural durability.

This is not to put down Cindy Sherman, whose work I am not very familiar with and prefer not to comment upon.

Silvertooth said...

No real comment on the Sigma. I did enter the drawing to win one, though.

On the Sherman print, I truly believe that the reason most are upset about the price is that they are jealous. Plain and simple. They are jealous. Anytime someone can make a lot more money than me doing what I think I can do equally well, I am jealous. Not that I can do what Cindy Sherman can do.

Just my view on things. Have a great weekend everyone.

reikui said...

I almost cried when I saw the price of the sigma, i was waiting on it too :(

Jim said...

About the SD-1 pricing: seems to me the pricing commentary essentially is the same as when the Nikon D3X came out at $8K--everyone (including Hitler on youtube) claimed it was overpriced, Nikon was nuts, it'll never sell, etc.--that was until pros started using it and seeing its performance. The same internet noise recently came with the release of the X100--overpriced, etc. Maybe Sigma is onto something; maybe the sensor is to die for. For me, I'll hold judgment until the camera is released and user images start popping up on the net.

Who knows, maybe it's like the Kodak SLR/n that you, Kirk, recently wrote about--no AA filter and shot at base ISO = really sharp images, with superior resolution (I'm borrowing a friend's and comparing to my D700). Just a couple of thoughts.

mbka said...

Remember Kirk I we once had an exchange re: technique vs. meaning, and I infamously quoted Levi-Strauss. Now on this one I'm partly with you - and I liked Aaron's comment on how people feel more secure when technique is concerned because that can be learned more readily than developing vision.

But still: in that comment back then I wondered whether I liked something because it's good, or just because it's new (to me). Once you've seen many of the same kind, a style often becomes tedious. Now in this post you more or less say, it's good _because_ it is new. Or, the first instance of a new technique or a new vision, merits massive novelty value. I agree in the sense that the first moon rock was also in that category and were there tons of moon rocks around no one would care. A special kind of scarcity, the first of any kind is always extremely scarce. Even if many followed.

But still: this particular print: what's in it? what's novel? Even in technique? I am not offended by the pricing, I think it's great if photography sells for good money, I just wonder, why this one? An Ansel Adams, an Irving Penn, has magic to me. An early Daguerrotype has true painstaking technical novelty in it (and we can now really call it history). But this one?

And novelty: expensive sharks in formaldehyde are novel too and I have to give that to the artist... there is a bit of jealousy in me in that I would not have dared to just scale the usual biology specimens up a few times and charge millions. But it's still tacky - to me.

Jim McDermott said...

My own principal problem with the 'Cindy' (I suggest it as a new generic to describe a state of non-comprehension with the world of art that transcends even one's difficulties with Cage's '4'33') is that, as she was certainly not looking through a viewfinder when she took the photograph, it is, in fact, a $4 million snapshot. Christ alone knows what it would have fetched if there'd been an element of composition also.

Gingerbaker said...

".... Something like a Leica S2 or Pentax 645D would surely blow the Sigma out of the water...."

It appears that Sigma claims the opposite. I guess it'll come down to the reaction of gurus looking closely at large prints.

That kind of resolution appeals to me for landscapes, but the Foveon's Achilles heel has always been color rendition, especially greens. They have gotten better with each generation, but it will be interesting to see how many of their initial sample images will demonstrate convincing foliages.

Matt said...

I was drawn to photography in large part for its egalitarianism, the idea that working-class people could have access to affordable art identical to that in great museums - an egalitarianism that cannot exist in painting (for instance) or some other forms of art. It makes me sad when I realize that gallery-curated photographic art is just as far out of reach for the average person as the other parts of the art world.

But 'Cindy' is as deserving of a record tag as any photograph. Anyone who doubts its/her influence needs to visit a photo class with any women around the ages of 18-22.

Ira said...

Aaron--If all you see when you look at Gregory Crewdson's work is technical prowess, I encourage you to look again.

As Bruce Lee said, "It's like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all the heavenly glory."

Personally, I couldn't care less about Crewdson's technical chops--I care about the unique vision he brings to his work.

wayne said...

Is that Linoleum underneath her in the photo? I looks a bit like my girlfriend's kitchen floor back in the 70s. I don't think a $3.5M photo should include Linoleum..............or anything that looks like it.

Miserere said...

The spoils go to the pioneers.

But they don't because Ms Sherman wasn't the owner of this print, as is usually the case when a print sells for a lot of cash--it's never the artist who benefits.

kirk tuck said...

Not necessarily the cash spoils but certainly the paragraph in the art history books....

Christian said...

A response to the statement above that the print will fade (which I don't dispute, I merely question the proposed timeline: "certain to fade in less than a decade of hanging on a wall.").

Check out Ctein's analysis of print longevity over at TOP. I don't know what Sherman's materials where for this print, but if they are anything like Ctein accounts for, then hung on the wall behind UV glass you might be able to expect 120-200 years* from the print.

*note - I take his 75-120 year range and tack on another 60% to the low and 100% to the high since I propose UV glass. And the print could last a lot longer if it is not displayed or if it is displayed behind a light-blocking curtain (the UT Harry Ransom center did this for some of their old albumen prints which are VERY volatile in light). I would be surprised if a purchaser of a ~$4Mil photo did not strive to prolong its existence.

(to Kirk - I hope you don't mind that I linked to the TOP article. If you do, you're welcome to edit or not publish my post).

-------

A response to the suggestion that it is a snapshot. Aren't holiday photos snapshots even if the photographer is looking through the viewfinder? I think Kirk's point makes a lot of sense: It's a piece of Art. The medium happens to be a printed photograph (regardless of how or when the shutter was fired). I capitalized the A in Art because it's recognized by the Art World as such. We can assume there is vision (as Aaron said) and planning behind the piece and it contains more than merely visual aesthetics. It is certainly composed. It's not composed like a traditional portrait, but does that imply the composition isn't planned?

Ultimately I think that there is an idea and people apparently resonate to the idea, the concept, and what is communicated. I prefer to look at Ansel Adams' work personally, but I am not good at "Art" (preferring "art" which is that which moves me in a sublime way regardless of my lack of understanding of Art World "Art") but Adams documented (and enhanced and showcased) that which is there to be seen whereas Sherman is instead using the image as a foray into a dialog. The intent is different, and the intended audience and culture are different. And in this way she is more akin to contemporary artists in other media than Adams is anymore. She is of her generation and he was of his.

My $0.02

Anonymous said...

Kirk,
I am and have been a great admirer of yours over the years. I really enjoy your blog. I am surprised, therfore, that you got your argument about lens resolution requirements jus backwards.
The situation is this: the SD1 has only 14.3 MP facing the lens, spread over and APS-C sized sensor. AS such it's lens resoloution requiremts are fixed by that aspect. Further, as you know well, all lens manufacturers present their lens resolution data in terms of contrast as sharpness as a function of radial displacement from the lens axis. As can readily be seen, all lenses lose sharpness and contrast at larg distances. This works to the advantage of smaller sensor based cameras, since the furthest radii are limited by the smaller sensor dimensions. You can see this with 4/3 based systems, where, for example, Olympus makes many lenses which perform excellently on those smaller sensors. Some of these lenses would fail to measure up were they working into a MF sensor. Please bounce back on this aspect, and straighten this out if you agree. In all of this, I remind you that the Sigma Corp considers that it already has more than 40 lenses with performance suitable for the SD1.