January 30, 2010

the oversaturated sky is falling!

Filed under:, , , , , — cwage @ 11:50 am

The LA Times turned its eye to commoditized stock photography, last week, and the languishing industry in general. It's extremely silly. Never before have I read such a melodramatic sob story for the woebegotten creative photographic industry:

The New York Times this week announced a plan to charge frequent online readers for the stories and photos it spends millions to create. Hulu executives said they plan to begin charging for some of the TV shows they previously put on the Internet for free.

Now the freelancers -- the sensitive, right-brain souls who sell their creative power one byte at a time -- are going to have to get just as aggressive as the big boys. That means struggling mightily to find the audiences who appreciate their work and make them pay.

It won't be easy.

Photographers are among those who found out most painfully what happens when their work (or a reasonable facsimile) becomes readily available online at little or no cost.

A decade ago, professional photographers thought nothing of selling pictures to stock photo houses. But what once provided a source of income went into catalogs of nearly endless size and accessibility.

Seemingly overnight, a publisher who wanted a picture of a sunset could choose from thousands on any number of databases. Why pay a photographer hundreds, or thousands, of dollars to go out and shoot a new one?

Oy. Now, what makes this article so silly is that they've made a grievous error: they've conflated stock and/or product photography with creative arts. It's not the same thing. Sorry. There are two angles to this. First, the consumptive angle. Why indeed would any consumer of photography pay a photographer "hundreds, or thousands, of dollars" to go take a picture of a damn sunset? You'd have to be a fool. Digital photography has made brilliant sunset pictures as ubiquitous as cats on the internet. It's not an evil conspiracy -- the work of dastardly corporatist overlords. It's just reality. The advantage that you, mister stock photographer, once enjoyed by virtue of the high cost of film cameras, film cost and processing cost is gone. The advantage in archival, organization and distribution is gone. Technology marches forward.

Then there's the production angle -- the skill (and the art?) that goes in to this work. Is the march of technology obliterating genuine artistic talent, condemning it to languish in obscurity, unrecognized and uncompensated? Hardly. The industry that is evaporating isn't artistic, it's utilitarian. I realize that throughout the course of history, there has been much artistic merit found in the work of "professional" photographers being paid to do otherwise bland, "commoditized" work. (The FSA photographers come to mind, of course.) But, let's not get too sentimental. Technology is making photography easier, and the niches of the photography industry that are evaporating just aren't that hard, folks. Product photography isn't that hard. You basically buy your way into it. Lights, softboxes, cameras. Action. Naturally it can still be done badly, and it can be done quite well, but the market (it turns out) doesn't really discriminate that much. They just want a picture of a [whatever]. Similarly, taking a picture of a sunset isn't that hard either. (I should know.) It's easy. It happens almost every day! Point and shoot. It doesn't take a "sensitive, right-brain soul". I could pretend that my oh-so-stunning sunset pictures are a reflection of some facet of my inner soul and artistic spirit, but they're just not, sorry. The emperor has no clothes! As a photographer, I know what goes into this sort of professional photography, so I'm a little unimpressed by this article making it sound like these are hapless creatives losing their patron:

I've now heard it hundreds of times: fear that the technology providing the world entree to an unimaginable trove of art, images and information is also obliterating the boundaries that once allowed the creative class to make a living.

It's not that I lack sympathy -- having your entire industry wiped out in under a decade has to be jarring. But, that's life. Time to find a new niche. The human instinct towards self-preservation is strong, and in the face of changing economic circumstances, it manifests in futile defensive measures -- just look at over-reaching labor unions, protectionist trade tariffs, etc. Rarely do they combat reality for long. This bit highlights the real shift in what's going on:

This winter, for the first time in two decades, Berger didn't shoot a single company or family Christmas party, work that used to bring him as much as $5,000 once he'd sold prints to all the participants.

Berger sent me a few of the photos one group had come up with as a substitute. "They stood them against a wall, wide angle, with an on-camera flash, looking up their noses. Static. Lame. Absolute junk," Berger said.

The problem here is that Mr. Berger is overestimating the economic value of his artistic work, sadly. People want good pictures of their memories, of course, but it turns out they're not as concerned about the relative artistic/creative merit. At least not compared to the cost of buying PnS cameras and doing it themselves. Berger's technological advantage is gone. Oh well. Time to do something else.

Despite all this commotion, nothing fundamental has changed for the creative/artistic market. Technology can't change this, and it never will -- the elusive nature of art and the ever-changing market behind it guarantees this. Speaking as someone that has contemplated the various ways I could be making money with my photography, I can commiserate with the plight of a lot of photographers. What I don't have sympathy for is the exasperated cries of the slighted supposed-artists. Perhaps you weren't as good as you thought. Nothing is stopping you from making art, and nothing ever will. Digital technology has made photography a lot easier and a lot more popular. The industry has changed. Get better, or get out. (But definitely shut up, either way.)

UPDATE: Kenneth Jarecke, at the Online Photographer, tackles this as well. It has the same sort of lamentations that I think are somewhat silly. Though I think I could paraphrase his larger point as being that outfits like Time or Newsweek really are (were?) the modern day equivalent of the artistic patron, supporting and subsidizing genuine art. And that as they resort to cheaper alternatives, the artists relying on them starve. I think this is a decent point, but I think this intersection is a rather small (miniscule) data point in the grand scheme of things.

  • bob

    Mister Berger seems to be a lousy job of marketing. He DOES do something that is different than mugshots with a PnS, and it probably has value to someone. He's just not finding those people. I bet that his trouble has to do with his rolodex going stale -- or something like that -- than with technological advances, mass market cameras, or the public's deteriorating taste.

    That said, yeah, the kinds of businesses you can wrap around a camera and some sort of skills that you have with it are changing.

  • Scavenger

    What's that noise? Is that the sound-of-barriers to entry falling? I love the future.