The Image of a Shrinking Path

Ever since I was sent this NYT article: For Photographers, the Image of a Shrinking Path -, I had been mulling this in my mind. Before that even. I picked up on one set of words … which I replay here to save you clicking through.

Full disclosure - I am not - nor would I ever pretend to be a photographer, fine-artist, musician, write, sculptor or any other kind of creative professional ….. I am however someone who admires the work of a number of photographers, fine-artists, musicians, writers, sculptors and other kinds of creative professionals - and I currently happen to be working in a space that provides an aspect of business savvy to those photographers, fine-artists, musicians, writers, sculptors and other kinds of creative professionals.

"There are very few professional photographers who, right now, are not hurting, said Holly Stuart Hughes, editor of the magazine Photo District News.

That has left professional photographers with a bit of an identity crisis. Nine years ago, when Livia Corona was fresh out of art school, she got assignments from magazines like Travel and Leisure and Time. Then, she said, three forces coincided.

They were the advertising downturn, the popularity and accessibility of digital photography, and changes in the stock-photo market.

So what is it about this article that made me tick ?

Well, two things;

  1. It is like all the other articles that face off on the topic of the challenges of a photographer. It highlights the problem - provides not even an offer of a solution - and leaves everyone with a ‘woe is me’ attitude …. "Well - it isn’t so bad that I am having a hard time - so is every one else.

  2. The world doesn’t owe ANYONE a living - so what are we going to do about it ?

No one can dispute that a photographers life is difficult these days. But sorry - everyone’s life is - EVERY industry and profession is having the rug pulled out from under its feet. It is a problem. But not insurmountable.

If you read other parts of the NYT and similar organs, there is much written about the importance of creativity and innovation and thought and leadership as the key to extricating ourselves from this particular swamp.

Last time I looked - photographers are part of that creative energy and drive that can lead us into the brave new world. Where is the leadership?

Before I move on to how that leadership might kick in how about a few more forces that collided with the three already picked out earlier.

  • A massive downturn in the US economy AND
  • A massive downturn in the Western economies AND
  • A massive downturn in the global economy AND
  • Levels of unemployment across the US not seen for 30 years or more AND
  • Low barrier of entry to be a photographer AND
  • Convergence of stills and video AND multimedia AND
  • Lack of understanding in the buying public as to what it takes to ‘create’ AND
  • No value associated with what a pro (in any field) does AND
  • No accreditation - if I can’t afford to use an architect to build my house - I don’t ask my sister’s friend who has done some doodles of a remodel on their place to design mine - why doesn’t that apply to photographers AND
  • so on AND so on AND so on AND so on

A quick diversion into Music

Cast your mind back 10 years ago - and the MP3 download revolution that was going to destroy the music industry. How life was going to never be the same. How this was it - the end of the Music Industry. Site after site went up allowing people to download and swap MP3s if not for free - then at a very marginal cost. The courts were used to push massive fines onto 12 year olds to pay up thousands of dollars in fines - what a WASTE. We knew it was wrong - we did it. You know what - they were right. The Music Industry is in its death throws. Thank God.

BUT - Music is alive and well. Very well - thankyou very much. The creative energies are bursting out all over - and for us - the consumer - there is now so much choice it is hard to keep up - its like being back in the 60s again, with every day a new band or singer popping up - delivering their sounds … it is awesome ! The old style music industry is of course not doing too well out of all of this - Musicians are going direct to their fan base, the distribution engines that used to be essential are being bypassed, there is no need to have ‘the Suits’ involved - that ‘MiddleMan’ is dead. (Of course there are plenty of other MiddleMen springing up - would you recognize a Social Media Optimization expert if they walked into the room ? (Clue - they are about 12 years old).

The point is that the people that made the money out of music - Universal, Capitol, EMI, Sony …. yes - they are having a hard time. EMI in the UK is the latest disaster. And with Tower, Virgin, Sam’s Records - name your record store of choice all (pretty much) gone. I mean - where do you go to buy a CD today. A what?

But the musician is doing ok. I think. True. it is different. New knowledge is needed, but you no longer need to sell millions of records to make a buck. Will there ever be a band as big as The Beatles again ? I say not. Been there - done that. But don’t forget that for every ‘Beatles’ - there were tens of thousands of bands that never made it.

I maintain there is an analogy at work here. Musicians give their work away for free to make it up in another bucket - eg Radiohead. Or perform for free - in the hope of selling their recordings (think buskers) (Two extreme examples). David Byrne of Talking Heads wrote a piece in Wired two and a half years ago called Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists — and Megastars take a read - two and a half years ago - this was before the recession - and still the Music Industry was in shock - but there was a way through.

So - what could photographers do ? Who is going to write the equivalent article for the photographic industry ? Is there a single person of that stature, with that knowledge that could do it and would want to do it ?

I have some ideas, even made a start. But I am not that person. Who the hell am I anyway and what do I know ? Actually - little. I am not an expert. I flit between industries and connect dots. I see something in Industry A - and wonder - would that work in Industry B?

That is why I am passionate about this. The Photographer is not the only career hit by this problem - but is one of the few that can do something about it. I think. Easy for me to say - so shall we set about proving it ? Passed on - with thanks to : Rachel Lacour for the original piece.

April 6, 2011