This interview is now several years old and many things have changed but it is still worth reading as an insight into how a professional went about establishing himself. Michael’s gallery is now closed as the high rent finally persuaded him that the time had come to consider his next photographic project. He now sells his superb prints through his website at http://www.michaelscottlees.com.au and through many retail outlets in Jindabyne.
I met Michael Scott Lees at the Kosciuszko Mountain Retreat at Sawpit Creek, a favourite place for me to stay when in the New South Wales High Country. It seemed an appropriate place, tucked away as it is in the bush, to talk to a photographer who makes his living from selling images of the Snowy Mountains in all their moods.
Having explored our backgrounds, we got down to the serious business of discovering just how Michael had ended up with a gallery selling his fine art prints in Jindabyne.
My research had already uncovered the fact that the photography bug had bitten while Michael was in Year 10 at school — coincidentally at a school which was a close neighbour of the one where I was Publications Officer and in charge of the school Photographic Society.
It was at a time when his school was having considerable success in outside competitions thanks to the enthusiasm of the photography teacher and Michael won first prize in the portraiture section of the Sydney Morning Herald competition. As he commented, “The school made an almost clean sweep that year.”
Photography was firmly established in Michael’s life and he went off to Art College.
“At the time, I felt Art College was a bit of a waste of time,” Michael said, referring to his disappointment that it appeared that the technical aspect of photography had been subjugated to the demands of artistic creativity. But hindsight is a wonderful thing and he quickly added, “but not now”. The fact is that he now recognises that it is that very creativity and good grounding in design that has enabled him to produce the stunning images that people are prepared to buy from his well-known gallery in Jindabyne.
Once out of college with his brand new degree under his arm, Michael followed the traditional path of becoming an assistant to a professional photographer. It happened that he was a fashion photographer but that was incidental as this period enabled Michael to fill in the technical gaps that he felt he had missed at college. It also introduced him to the panoramic format in the shape of a Widelux and, as Michael puts it, “I fell in love with the format”.
Still following the traditional path, Michael then became a freelance commercial photographer with a leaning towards industrial photography. He survived for eighteen months but he failed to promote himself and by that time Africa was calling.
That continent had been a bit of a passion so it seemed as good a time as any to buy his own panoramic camera, an Art Panorama, and head off and “then come back and start again”. Michael had the idea of a coffee table book — they were all the rage then — but that didn’t see the light of day but, he commented, “I grew up a lot in Africa”.
Another idea that Michael had early in his career was that of opening a gallery — in fact opening seven or eight galleries around Australia — but the first objective on his return to Australia was to earn some money.
He started by going to South Australia to do a photographic piece on his brother who was a jackeroo. A stint as a rep for Ilford followed where he learned as much as possible about Cibachrome (now Ilfochrome), as he puts it, the best product for colour prints.
When it came time to re-consider his career and where life was leading him the main option was a return to freelancing. But, “I’m not really a city person — I’m really always trying to get out of the city so to go back to freelancing was not a great idea.”
So, the idea of a gallery was resurrected. Michael had set up a small business selling souvenir products and gradually he had saved enough money to make the gallery project viable.
Bungendore, not far from Canberra, seemed an attractive location and the rent in what had been the local railway station was low so that is where the first gallery was established selling Cibachrome prints while, as Michael puts it, he waited for the rapidly advancing digital technology to refine itself.
Eventually, he could afford to move to premises in the middle of the village and that is when sales took off and the second gallery, this time in Jindabyne the main town for the New South Wales ski resorts of Thredbo and Perisher Valley, was opened.
This is where I found the work of Michael Scott Lees. To wander round this gallery and view the many sizes of original prints for sale from around A4 to, shall we say, humungous is an eye-opener for any photographer. And, not only are there self-printed original prints — now produced on digital printers using Epson Ultrachrome archival inks — but also greeting cards, bookmarks, and fridge magnets, all of which Michael produces himself plus commercially printed posters and a few outside products compatible with the mountain theme of the images.
I asked how Michael goes about the pricing of the original prints. As he explained, the danger is over-pricing and he uses the sales history and his now considerable experience to set prices. If there is an increase, it generally occurs across the board rather than only for the best-sellers.
He continues to sell the souvenir products through other outlets and is considering pushing the sales of posters. However, prints are only sold in his gallery. As he explained, “I don’t want the pictures to be everywhere otherwise when people do come to the gallery it will be a case of ‘Oh yes, I’ve seen that’ and Limited Edition sales will suffer.”
Michael’s vision of a chain of galleries has been shelved for the moment as fate dealt a bitter blow when a family tragedy triggered a re-assessment of his and his wife’s priorities. The Bungendore gallery was closed so that Michael could spend more time on the Jindabyne gallery and be near home, a 300 odd acre property outside Jindabyne. Michael is very family oriented and recognises that there has to be a balance between business and family.
We discussed the difficulties associated with selling photography as fine art and I was interested to learn that Michael, who has obviously been very successful at doing so, feels that the public is becoming more educated to fine art including photography.
I am always interested in the efficacy of the web as far as business is concerned. Michael’s website does bring in some business and he sees it as just another tool in the marketing process. He feels that some of the visitors to the gallery do not have time to make a buying decision immediately and sometime later do have a look at his website and maybe make a purchase then. He used to have his catalogue on a CD which people could buy to refer to at leisure but now relies more on his website.
Promotion and getting his name known is constantly on Michael’s mind. This last winter season two projects were tested. The first was a wine tasting in conjunction with a local restaurant on Thursday evenings when for $10 visitors could sample wines, enjoy nibblies and admire, and hopefully buy, Michael’s work. They also went into a draw for dinner at the restaurant and a framed print from the gallery.
This was a partial success. “The hours were not optimum for us. It was a poor snow season and in a good season I think it would really work. There were two very good evenings and next winter we will probably do it again but maybe only in August.”
The second project was an opportunity for photographers to attend a workshop in the snow with Michael. It involved a snowshoe experience to ‘capture an Alpine dawn and share Michael’s expertise and passion for Australia’s high country’. Maybe the thought of dawn after a night’s après-ski activities was too much for those whose prime interest was racing down the slopes rather than capturing them in camera and when no bookings had been received by the end of July, “I canned the project because I hadn’t been out photographing as much as I wanted”.
Which led neatly to my next question, “With all the administration of the gallery, the printing and framing of your images and the hundred and one other things that running a business entails, how do you find time to actually make pictures?” Michael does have Katy, an efficient assistant in the gallery, but there are still many things with a claim on his time.
“I don’t have a set routine. I get out when I can and when the situation looks promising. Of course, a lot of my image making is done at dawn and dusk and then the problem is when do I sleep! There is a lot of luck involved but you have to be there if you are to take advantage of that luck.”
Michael shoots on Velvia, scans the transparencies himself and then prints matching the print to the original transparency. Books are always in the back of his mind. And digital? “Film I love, but . . . .” And, then he added, “It’s all about the image. If it’s got it, it will sell.”
As far as advertising, “Word of mouth is best”.
Michael is now concentrating on the High Country but he does love the outback. “Probably the least satisfying area for me to shoot in is rainforest. I love it but in the rainforest I feel hemmed in. I’m a creature of space.”
I turned off the tape recorder and, with the eyes of photographers, we gazed at the bush scene through the windows of the chalet. I’d be out there in the late afternoon, when the Eastern Grey kangaroos come in to graze the open grass, watching out for the slanting light enhancing the gums with its warmth before I packed up and headed reluctantly back to Sydney the next day. But, Michael Scott Lees will be there to capture more images which will grace the walls of homes and offices to remind the viewers of the majesty of the High Country.