The Process of Reinvention Can Be Misguided. Sometimes you just need to be relaunched.

I had coffee with my friend and sometimes mentor, Will van Overbeek, this afternoon and I was blathering on about how we needed to re-invent ourselves for the new age of photography.  (I do go on.)  This time he stopped me and offered,  "No.  You're wrong.  We don't need to invent what we do.  We're artists.  We do what we do.  What we need to do is figure out new ways to market what we do."  And he reminded me that we're not like Coca-Cola, we don't need to mess with the formula,  maybe we just need to work on new delivery systems.

As in most things, Will is probably right.

In my capacity as a supportive member of a college photography program's advisory board I watch a lot of very, very famous speakers come thru and speak to the students and the local chapters of the ASMP.  I watch them show an endless show of cool images from "the good old days" and then I sit thru the second half of the show where they routinely admonish everyone who will listen to charge stratospheric prices, jet to NY to show your book,  dig around in the change jar on your nightstand and finance your own round the world shooting trip or grab a Red video camera, a couple dozen of your best friends and start making your own movie/music video/commercial/magazine or some other such suggestion.

After hearing such from at least a dozen people who HAD stellar careers in the 1980's and 1990's I got to wondering why I don't see their names attached to big, current ad campaigns, in the cut lines in the gutters of magazines, and in all the usual places we used to see their names.  Seems that when the phones stopped ringing back in 2006 most of them waited next to the answering machines for a while just dead certain that everything was going to come roaring back.  About 2009 the realization finally sunk in that things might take a lot longer (if ever) to come roaring back.  Longer than most could wait.

But when they tried all the things they'd done in marketing past campaigns they found that success was now elusive.  The mantra of recent years is SEO and that's great if you selling commodity widgets.  You can rush to the top of the page and I pretty much guarantee that you'll attract the attention of several kinds of shoppers:  brides and bargain shoppers.  Great for wedding photographers but not so great for advertising photographers who've made careers out of differentiating their vision and offering a custom made intellectual property instead of a commodity that depends on price and availability.  (As I've said before, it's hard to scale up production on creativity....)

The other dodge of just about every photographer has been to rush to "free marketing" which means depending a mix of e-mail blasts, social marketing and a dynamic website.  Well,  guess what?  All those crowded front page websites with articles and blogs and words and links on them are design nightmares. And we're trying to sell to designers, right?  A well known photographer and workshop talent who embraced the "crowded page/Word Press/mixed blog=portfolio" websites last year reported yesterday that his page views fell by half since he changed over and drank the Kool-Aide on "dense pack" front page website design.

On the other hand mentor Will has been actually asking art buyers what they really want to see and it seems that the genre that generates the most (all) enthusiasm is not the "blog and portfolio in a blender" approach championed by SEO experts like Blake Discher from the ASMP but the good old fashioned, ultra clean design of a portfolio website.  Now that's not to say that other photographers don't flock to each other's site to see who's doing what and what kind of stuff might be best to "pay tribute to" but it does mean that the people who buy our stuff just really want to see the product (our photography) clearly and quickly and without a lot of clutter.  Probably the reason LiveBooks can still charge three or four big car payments to get you a site up and make it happy.

But the bottom line is that staying in business and pulling in jobs is harder than ever for guys who have the most tenure in the business.  We had old ways of doing things and were slow, both emotionally and logistically, to change course when the icebergs cropped up.  Doesn't mean the work isn't sellable but sometimes I feel like we put the marketing on a train to nowhere just as super highways sprang up all around the edges.

So, what are all the "super pro" veterans of our industry doing? Some have their heads down, learning new skills and producing video as fast as they can.  Others are finding new markets or brilliantly resurrecting old markets in new way.  And I salute these peers.  They've got their heads down working and you don't know who they are because they market exclusively to art directors and art buyers and not to their fellow photographers.

But a huge proportion are opting to stop shooting directly for money and to leverage their decades of name branding and affiliations with giant magazines and new organizations into the world of experiential entertainment.  And let me say right off the bat that I have no problem with people selling knowledge and cheap thrills to a legion of people who are rightfully curious about what working at that level WAS like.  But I also want to say that so, so, so many of the workshops are like astronomy.  When you look in the big telescopes you are seeing photons that left distant stars light years ago and have traveled thru time.  You are not seeing stars in real time.  You are directly experiencing past history.  And this is enchanting and fun and, at times, breathtaking.  But you shouldn't confuse it for what's happening right now.

Learning the language of the past is fun and satisfying but you should understand that it's probably not the current language nor will it be the language of the future.  If you do photography as a hobby, art or for fun then the only thing that matters when you take a workshop is whether or not it was fun, fulfilling or interesting.  If you do it for a business make sure you understand the inflections.  Make sure you can see clearly what is history, astronomy or nostalgia.  As the best coaches in sport say, "Play your own game."

Will is right.  Artists need to hew to their own vision.  We're not in manufacturing we're making a unique intellectual statement.  If one market isn't biting the logical thing not to do is to chase the same "look" as everyone else.  The logical thing to do is to find your market.


Jan Klier said...

A very good reflection on what is going on out there right now.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks Jan. I think what we lack right now as an industry is clarity of purpose. And defined boundaries between what's really the industry and what is entertainment about the industry.

Anonymous said...

Astute observations. Wish everyone else didn't believe in voodoo.

Jan Klier said...

I think that is true. A healthy industry does need thought leadership and it does need honest conversation about how it conducts itself. From my vantage point I'm not seeing either one happening enough.

Take as an example the recent spat over the photospam blacklist as highlighted at APE. Instead of further balkanization and throwing dirt at each other, the art buyers and the photographers should have a conversation about what more effective means exist to match skills of photographers with art buyers. Clearly the arms race of e-mail promos is not leading anywhere, and instead is causing wasteful busy work and non-creative cost in the system plus lots of hot tempers and frustration. In a world of innovation and technology there is no excuse for not finding better solutions. Where's match.com for the art buyer (semi tongue in cheek)?

Also, I think there is lots of room for entertainment, and even a grey zone into business. Take American Idol - it's primarily entertainment for amazingly large crowds. But it's also about finding the next artist that is pre-approved by the audience, and have the talent search self-funded by the audience. A win-win for the industry insiders. But I assume few have illusions that this is the real industry of music.

Likewise, there's lots of room for photo entertainment, including countless workshops, books, and a wide range of useless cheap gadgets. But there should be no mistake by those being entertained that they are just having a vacation in Vegas.

James B. said...

As a web designer, I can really appreciate those "let's throw everything on the front page!" portfolio sites. Even worse are those portfolios with the animated photostrips where you have to chase the images around.

It strikes me as odd that people who are supposed to be visual communicators would have such poor taste in design.