Ken Rockwell's Prediction for the future of professional photography

Sometimes I'm accused of being less than optimistic about the future of photography for professionals.  The usual suspects tell me to become better and smarter.  If I could I sure would.  But most people just tell me that the world is cyclical and that I should hold tight and hope it all comes back.  I've got my own opinions but I'm always interested in what other people in other markets think.

I know many of you hold Ken Rockwell in less than high regard but in the last five years of reading his stuff on his blog I can't recall a single time that what he says hasn't turned out to be pretty darn true.  In a column a few days ago he went through his mailbox and answered a few questions for us.  Most were along the lines of, "what camera should I use?" But this one had to do with this question:

3. Future of photography & photographer's role in it?

And I find his answer quite interesting and along the same lines as what I would say.  That I agree with him doesn't mean that I'm personally depressed.  Or that I am a "sore loser."  Or that I need to get over myself.  Or that I should be irrepressibly Pollyanna about the future.  It only means that I dispassionatly agree with his assessment of the future of photography for money as we practice it today.  If you click the title of the blog it will take you to Ken's site.  Scroll down the page a bit to find this list of answers.  Without belaboring it further, dig in:  

(The following is from Ken Rockwell's blog.  ©2010 Ken Rockwell.  Don't pass it along without attribution, please!!)

3.) Downhill, and less of a role in it.
The future is downhill because photography, which is the art of seeing, has beendiluted into becoming a hobby for computer people, instead of an art practiced to excite the imagination of others.
Photographers will play less of a role in it, as most pro photographers will no longer be needed because today's cameras do all the technical stuff for which paying photography clients used to have pay someone with basic technical skills. These people with basic tech skills, but little to no vision, used to get by by calling themselves "photographers," even if they were simply camera jockeys who could wrangle a light meter, but had little ability to see the picture in something, or see it from a new angle. Now that anyone can snap a technically decent picture, only those with the ability to see the real image inside something will survive as photographers.
Photography is exactly like sculpture. When you start, you've got a big block of something that means nothing. The artist is the one who sees the final work living inside this big block. The final carving away of the unnecessary bits to release your vision into tangible form is simply the final mechanics, not the art. With photography, you're removing the irrelevant parts, leaving only what matters. It's seeing it in the first place that is photography or sculpture, not the carving or the snapping.
Tomorrow, all we will need are the real photographers with vision, while clients who don't need vision, but merely a decent record photograph, can do it themselves.
We've already seen this in stock. Guys no longer can pull in $30,000 every month through formal stock agencies renting out old slides of people standing in airports holding phones, or holding blank signs, or pointing to globes. Today, everyone can and does snap these same boring images and sells them via microstock online. (Hint: why not photos of hot girls holding phones? Why aren't those images sold as stock?)
Photography is the art of seeing. Photography is showing people things in ways that they didn't see for themselves. Photography is the art of seeing the picture that's already standing in front of you, but that no one else has noticed. Photography is the art of recognizing the hidden beauty in everyday things. Photography is the power of observation.
Photography has never been about cameras. The hard part about photography is seeing something. The trivial part is taking the picture of it once you've seen it.


Craig said...

I have a lot of respect for Ken, though that doesn't mean I agree with everything he says. This piece is a good one, though.

In today's society it often seems to be considered somehow improper for a writer to have an opinion of his own as opposed to trying to be "objective" or "fair to both sides." Review sites like Digital Photography Review, SLRGear, and PhotoZone.de present, for the most part, rather dry and technical analyses of products. They say very little that they can't back up with measurements. This is useful, but it's not the only way to write reviews. I like Ken's site because he presents his own generally well-informed viewpoint with enthusiasm and without apology. Like it or not, he is who he is and he's not afraid to let it show. He's also been taking pictures for most of his life and knows a lot about it, not only as a photographer but also from a technical standpoint. This all adds up to making his site one of the must-reads of the online photography world, even if, like me, you sometimes see good reasons to disagree with him.

John Small said...

I've been taking photos for a similar length of time as Ken, limited mostly to 35mm film and digital. While I have a few images that may possibly qualify as artistic, it's not a long list. As has been oft quoted, 'Life is short, the art long.' And perhaps, it is no accident I'm overly computer literate starting with an undergraduate degree in engineering! So, from lay experience I couldn't agree more with Ken and Kurk's observations.

John Krumm said...

It's a good piece. As a bit of an art snob (from the literature side) I used to laugh every time I picked up a photography magazine. They are always so full of cliche and sex and "pop." What Ken says makes sense, but is still well within the "craft" of photography, less so the art, which requires at least a little originality (not to speak ill of craft, which can be amazing).

John Small said...

I'm sorry. Misspelled Kirk, as Kurk. Please edit!!!

jefflynchdev said...

Photography is the practice of pulling off the side of the road and taking the shot. Most won't do this so we do it for them and (hopefully) make enough cash to stay afloat. No one said it was easy but it's never dull.

Pete Appleby said...

Hi, Kirk. I have a little bit of a different take on this. Like many folks, I got my first camera as a kid when I was about 8. I had to save allowance for film and developing. I learned fairly quickly to use a bit of thought into what I was doing as far as composition and exposure. It got a little better when I joined a photo club, so I could the darkroom to get closer to what I was trying to accomplish.

Fast forward 45 years. For the most part, we are conditioned for instant gratification on everything from microwave ovens, movies on demand, etc. Camera manufacturers are in hot competition with each other for our money, so the features keep getting added on top of other features. This has made the tools easier to use for many folks. The technical aspects are more and more automated. Just set it to P mode and go. Of course, that is an oversimplification.

Most every family has a computer and internet access. Most every family has a camera. There is almost zero cost to going out and taking hundreds if not thousands of photos. So the general population may be thinking that a professional photographer is something I only need for my wedding.

Now take into account the economics of the past few years. Real Estate started diving about 4 or 5 years ago. Newspapers and magazines have also been in a decline. The finance area has been hard hit over the past 3 years. So there are naturally less good paying professional jobs out there now that in the recent past, both for self employed and the average employee.

The biggest question now is "Are we in a down cycle, or is this the new economic reality?"

I believe that is a combination of both. Newspapers and magazines will most likely never bounce back to pre-internet volumes. The economy will continue to improve, since there is almost nowhere to go but up when you are at the bottom.

Some more thoughts

Like it or not, the best artist is not always the best business person. Marketing, sales, and social skills are extremely important for self employed folks.

Adapt or die, if you used to make a living shooting for newspapers and magazine, you need to find another niche to pick up billing clients.

Keep up the excellent blog, Kirk.

Anonymous said...

I don't care what anyone sez, Kirk and Ken Rockwell are frickin geniuses.

Don said...

I think it is about right... but not totally a negative spot. I do think that there will be a washout of those who make 'meh' pictures. It will only keep getting a bit more constrictive as the newer cameras keep pushing the technical envelope to allow 'everyone' to make 'professional' pictures. With the populace simply asleep at any kind of critical thinking ability we have people like Kanye West and Hannah Montana being considered in the same breath as Pavarotti and Bernstein. Oprah is hanging out with Lady GaGa - what a shame for a class act like O to go down the pop culture crap hole.

There will be opportunities to make great images, but I do believe that that the herd will be thinned. Is that good or bad? I have no idea... but it is one of the 'symptoms' that is raising it's ugly little head...

The serpent known as technology coming face to face with the workforce. I love tech. I love to work at my job. Tech is slowly erasing many jobs while our schools continue to roll out mush-headed nimbskulls with no skills... So we will have a huge, growing populace with continued and upwardly trending unemployment demanding their 'fair share' from the few that happened to get into the 'middleman' position on the tech that kills the jobs that the populace needs. That about right?

How do you think that is going to play out? I don't think that having fewer photographers will be our biggest issue. No, kids, I think the issues will be much, much more immediate and, quite frankly, scary.

kirk tuck said...


The herd is being thinned day by day. Some of it is natural, some episodic but a whole lot of it is the breakdown of business morality and enforcement of laws (like the copyright law). If it's "okay" to steal anything you want off the net, and the biggest market is the net, then we're all f*cked. No matter how smart we are or how pretty our pictures.

Our biggest issue will no doubt be the creation of a society that values only profit and production and has no use for art and beauty and music and philosophy. The engineer and biz admin. types will no doubt snicker at that ancient idea but when they lie on their death beds years from now wondering what it was all for it might slowly dawn on them.....they were supposed to appreciate the beauty of life. The content, not the framework.

Kurt Shoens said...

Here's an example of the sort of change that Ken wrote about. My employer has an in-house designer. He in turn has a little tabletop set-up with a tripod, a point & shoot camera, and a hot light with a small softbox. He takes his own photos of small items. For large items and people, he calls in a professional. Seems rational, no?

Don's nightmare scenario reminds me of Ayn Rand's 1957 novel. Maybe she saw really far into the future, but her dystopian vision hasn't happened yet. Or if it has, then you and Kirk see the world in opposite ways.

Every time I think the "kids these days" are hopeless, I meet some who are superb.

Kirk, are you saying that society values profit and production now more than ever? Worse now than the 1980s? The 1920s? The 1890s? Straight line extrapolations to ruin rarely pan out.

As an engineer, as I lay dying it's possible that I'll look back on my life and regret that the photography I saw in advertising and corporate communications wasn't better.

OK, I'm sure you meant instead that the work of creative people needs to be valued, honored, and encouraged. I think that people do value creative work, but it's broadcast so easily (even putting theft aside) that one great image has more impact than ever before.

Anyway, that's my two cents. I think you both will do well, no matter what the future holds.

kirk tuck said...

Ayn Rand's vision hasn't come true yet but Aldous Huxley's sure has.

In answer to Kurt, above, I should clarify. I'm never talking about art as it relates to advertising but there's a lot of applications like editorial and fine art that are so undervalued. I think engineers can die easy if they've lived a full life and enjoyed it (and maybe it's the wrong group to use as an example of profit at any cost because so many people enter the field for the pure joy of problem solving) but if they complain, as many of my engineering friends do about the stress of their jobs and the deadlines and whatnot then yeah, they might benefit from taking a deeper look.

As I said, or thought I said, it's the content and not necessarily the structure that makes this brief sharing of human life meaningful....

thanks for the parting shot. I hope it's true. I still have a fourteen year old to put through college.