Who is Peter Lik?
Australian-born photographer Peter Lik is, by all accounts, the most financially successful landscape photographer in the world. The New York Times’s David Segal did a profile piece on Lik, which you can access here (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/0...).
I first heard the name “Peter Lik” during a show of my own fine art photographs in 2007. A visitor to the show offered an admiring comment and then added, “Your work reminds me of Peter Lik.” I accepted his complement, but wondered, “Who is Peter Lik?” Through the miracle of the internet, I soon found out. I also found out that Lik and I were drawn to some of the same wilderness locations—locations that have now become iconic photographic locations of the American Southwest—Mesa Arch and Antelope Canyon, to name a couple.
A few years later, I was walking down the street in Aspen, Colorado one evening during a fall color photography trip to the Maroon Bells Scenic Wilderness Area when I happened to notice a brightly lit window display. I looked up, and to my surprise, found I was standing outside a Peter Lik gallery. I went in to view the work. I was impressed, to say the least. Large, boldly colorful prints, displayed behind glossy acrylic glazing, with gallery lighting designed to make each print come alive against the dark, dimly lit background walls. The Aspen gallery collection seemed to concentrate mostly on photographs taken in the area, though there were a few obviously from Hawaii or other non-Colorado locations. The layout of the gallery was long and narrow, with a middle partition so that the acrylic face-mounted prints would not reflect any glare from windows or unintentional lighting. The décor of the gallery was vintage-but-polished, reflecting the historic mining-town-turned-celebrity building.
Fame and Fortune
Currently, according to the gallery list on lik.com, there are 10 Lik Fine Art galleries in the U.S., with four of these in Las Vegas and others in equally well-heeled, touristy locations. All told, Lik sells over $1 million of photographs every week, in “limited editions” of 950 each. Where did Peter Lik come from? According to David Segal:
It takes a while to piece together Mr. Lik’s life story because the tale emerges in random shards that must be reassembled. He skipped college and began working as a salesman, first for a packaging company and later a greeting card company. Everywhere he went, he brought a camera and eventually, he parlayed his portfolio into a job shooting for the Queensland Tourist and Travel Corporation….
In 1996, he used his Queensland photographs to start a successful postcard company, and he later opened four galleries to sell his prints in his native country. But he always wanted to move to the United States and in 2001, he sank nearly all his savings into a gallery he opened in San Francisco. It flopped. On his way back to Australia, however, he stopped for a visit to Maui. There, he spotted a retail space that he thought was perfect, and by 2003, he had opened a thriving gallery.
Two years later, he was ready to expand, and he opened a gallery in the shops in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He flew in the best of his sales team and ordered them to sell $1 million worth of photographs a month.
“If you’re in Caesars Palace, you’re no joke,” he said. “That was a huge turning point. I’m in Caesars. I’m God. Nailed it.”
Peter Lik Style™
Fine Art Prints
What makes Peter Lik’s photographs so popular? First, he prioritizes—just as I do—the beauty of our natural world. Most of the elite art world has eschewed Beauty as an art aesthetic, preferring social commentary, a pattern that has been going on since at least the Great Depression. See, for example, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (https://www.kennedy-center.org...). Lange was a contemporary of Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Brett Weston, and Edward Weston and a fellow founder of Group f64, a San Francisco-based group of fine art photographers formed during the 1930s. Adams and the Westons were criticized for “photographing trees and rocks” instead of making “socially relevant” images during America’s Red Decade. But by staying true to their ideal of Straight Photography (see their Manifesto http://photographyhistory.blog...), Adams greatly contributed to the environmental conservation movement and Brett and Edward Weston raised photography to the level of fine art.
The second reason Lik’s photographs sell so well is that he face-mounts his photographs to optically clear acrylic, creating stunning color vibrancy. When a beautiful photographic print is made on high quality paper, and then face mounted behind acrylic, light refracts in such a way that makes the colors pop and provides a near 3-D effect. When proper lighting is used, it almost appears as if the piece is illuminated from behind. This effect cannot be achieved by presenting photographic prints behind glass in traditional frames. At large sizes, and further enhanced by printing on metallic paper, an acrylic face mount is unparalleled in the ability to produce a “wow” effect. This presentation process adds value to an image that traditional frames and canvas prints cannot.
Face-mounting to acrylic is a relatively recent print presentation process in the United States, though it has been widely used in Europe for years. In 1969, Heinz Sovilla-Brulhart, a Swiss chemist, patented and trademarked the process of adhering a photographic print to acrylic without air bubbles. In the years since Brulhart’s invention, acrylic face-mounting has gained acceptance not just by casual buyers, but also in the high-spending world of art dealers and collectors. In 2011, a new world record for the most expensive photo ever sold was recorded when an 81”x140” acrylic face-mounted print by German photographer Andreas Gursky (Rhein II) sold at auction at Christie’s for $4.3 million (http://www.photoble.com/news/g...).
As you can see, there is no “secret” to either the style or presentation of photographs used by Peter Lik. He was one of the first landscape photographers to enlarge his color photographs to very large sizes (like Andreas Gursky) and to make extensive use of the acrylic face mounting presentation process. Having established himself as a successful gallery owner in his native Australia, he leveraged that success to conquer the American market. I have no qualms with that; more power to him.
As with any successful artist or business person, Lik has acquired his fair share of criticism, some of which seems entirely justified. The criticism seems to revolve around four issues: deceptive, heavy-handed sales tactics in his fine art galleries, where customers are misled into believing their purchases of Peter Lik’s fine art prints (in edition sizes of 950 plus 40 “artist’s proofs”) are excellent financial investments; selling composite photographs (combinations of two or more photographs) as exact reproductions of actual scenes occurring in nature; over-saturated, highly “Photoshopped” prints; and Lik’s sometimes overwhelming ego.
As Scott Reither, a wonderful fine art photographer in his own right, and former Peter Lik employee puts it:
Lik's company sells the work as "investment" art, which is absurd. To pay $6000 for a large piece because you love it - I see no problem in that, and I don't think that price is extraordinary. To pay $6000 for a piece today, when you aren't really totally committed and ready, because the salesperson is telling you, “It’s going to be $30,000 in 3 months like this one over here so you better hurry and do it now...plus, it's an investment and will be worth so much more, so get it now", is not cool.
In fact, as Lik himself acknowledged in the NYT article referenced above, his artwork is not a good financial investment: “It’s like a Mercedes-Benz. You drive it off the lot, it loses half its value.”
As for the art itself, there are reports of Lik’s gallery sales staff representing that some photographs are actual representations of natural scenes when closer examination has proven they are composite photographs, i.e., two or more images that have been combined in post-processing in Photoshop (https://fstoppers.com/composit...). The most egregious example of this is Lik’s 2018 photograph, Moonlit Dreams, in which an astonishingly large moon silhouetting a cliff face and pine trees appears to have Earth’s clouds behind the moon. Lik also appears to have used the same image of the moon in his Bella Luna photograph.
I have nothing against combination photographs (composites) as long as the photographer is not misrepresenting the image as created completely in-camera. But representing a photograph as an extraordinary event of nature when, in reality, it is constructed of two or more separate photographs, in the words of Scott Reither, is not cool.
I like some of Peter Lik’s photographs very much; some are stunning works of art. We are, in fact, drawn to some of the same subject matter and locations. I don’t like other photographs of Lik’s, usually because they appear to me to be too over-the-top in color saturation. I like the design of his fine art galleries. I think his rags-to-riches American Dream success story is inspiring. I even like that his success is despite, not because of, his work not being taken seriously by the elite world of art galleries, museums, auction houses, and collectors. I’m also happy some of his photographs are like mine and that with such a portfolio, he successfully maintains 10 U.S. fine art galleries in expensive retail locations. Such success in the field of landscape photography is encouraging.