It's not, "Who Moved My Cheese?" It's "Who Moved the Path?"

Belinda standing in front of a painting she did in school.

Making art has never been easy.  Well, that's not strictly true.  The process of making the art is as easy or as hard as the artist makes it, but figuring out how to make a living doing the art you want to do is the incredibly hard part.  I had it all figured out in the 1980's and 1990's but then the path to profits for photographers changed.  We went through the same transition art directors and designers did when they became typesetters and color separators.  We learned how to become our own color labs and printers.  But the print part didn't last very long and most of what we learned through long, dark hours in front of glowing screens and of massaging ink jet printers to get them to spew out color correct prints has already fallen by the wayside. Nobody wants or needs prints anymore, they want digital files they can use now.  On an iPad or in a website.

There's cheese out there and it's still in the same spots.  It resides in client checkbooks and client direct money transfers.  It resides in P.O.'s and credit cards.  But our evolving culture, intertwined with fun and disruptive technologies changed the path to getting to the cheese.  And we need to learn a whole new process of navigation.  We, as professional photographers, need to figure out a new way to get to the cheese.

Here's how not to get there:  

1.  Depend on gear.  Why? Because clients no longer care, the market no longer cares and the images no longer care.  If the image is shot on (God Forbid) an iPhone or an 8x10 view camera nobody really cares as long as it's technically usable and the image looks great.

2.  Depend on print sales.  I don't know where to start on this one other than to say that we had a good recovery year in 2011, as far as billings go, but this is also the first year when we really had nearly zero request for prints.  At all.  Zero.  Clients want images for mobile devices and high res images for commercial process printing but the era of display prints is as dead as a 8 bit computing.   Ask your friendly neighborhood wedding photographer how those print sales are coming along...

3.  Depend on traditional imaging.  And by this I mean learning the rules for "three point" portrait lighting, the rules of "correct" architectural photography or the rules that pertain to how all of this has always been done in the past.  Nobody cares if the colors match up exactly (except big companies with products) and no one cares if the lines are straight (except for architects...and maybe not even them).  If you are still doing headshots with two umbrella lights and a cute little spot on the background you may already be done with the profitable part of your career.  In this regard change is good.

4.  Depend on selling stock photography.  The world market now contains billions and billions of stock images.  And unlike the billions and billions of burgers McDonalds has sold they have not been digested and returned to the earth to fertilize the land.  All billions and billions of them will live like zombies, seemingly forever, and the prices will continue to spiral down and down like a dying seagull.  Heading for the zero zone of the horizon.  Have you played the lottery lately?  Are you one of the handful that have won millions of dollars?  No?  Have you broken even on your lottery "investment"?  No?  And chances are you never will.  Nor will you make any real money ( or even fake money ) in the stock photography business.  There's always a person or two who can point to some income but if you strip out the camera costs, the time and the learning you'll find them radically upside down and not the least bit dependent on stock sales for survival.

5.  Depend on print sales of "fine art" prints.  Here's the funny deal:  In a way, photography is a mechanical process and people in our culture have an enormous belief in the power of the creative machine.  They respect the camera more than the artist.  Now cameras have become incredibly easy to use.  When poeple want art, more and more, people are buying their own cameras and shooting their own art. Which is fun. Which leaves them less disposable income (and inclination) with which to buy your art.  Sorry.  I know it's probably better art, but the great unwashed have a different metric for just how good the art on the walls needs to be than we special artists....  And remember, people don't really want prints, they want stuff for their screens.

6.  Depend on the corporations.  They're busy tapping into their own employees for "free" art.  You know Bob in marketing?  He's a wiz with a camera and he's volunteered to do all of the XXX art work for the XXX project.  And the best thing is that since he's doing it on company time not only do we get it for free but the company also owns the copyright or IP.  And if Bob's stuff doesn't turn out quite as well as the stuff they're used to paying for they have a graphic designer who's a wiz with PhotoShop and she can fix it in a heartbeat.  

7. Depend on magazines. Right.  I'll just let that one lay there while we all think about it.

If the traditional paths are nearly gone we have to find  new ways to make money with our art.  People are quick to tell you about new career paths you might want to consider.  You could make "apps" for other people's cellphones.  But that's not what you bought your first camera to pursue, is it?  And you could teach but it would have to be in workshops because the number of faculty positions is static and the professors already teaching are so frightened by what's happened to the market in the last ten years that they'll never venture out away from  academia.  But maybe you're a loner, an introvert, a working artist, and you don't relish the idea of spending weekends with groups of people toting overstuffed camera bags around and trying to figure out how to use their cameras.  And maybe you're tired of the question they ask over and over again in your landscape workshop:  "How can I make money shooting landscapes?"

The real answer, going forward is that you'll have to invent new paths to profitability and that's going to take some hard work, some experimenting and a lot of new marketing.  The cheese is still out there and it's going to go to the people who identify the new "needs" of the market and deliver.

I'm not sure where everything is going but I know it's not going to go on the same way it has been.  I'm pretty sure that my business would be a lot less profitable if I didn't write books and articles.  I've made some in roads into the video business.  I'd love to figure out how to make "old school" art portraits deliverable to a new market.  And I'd love to find a way to package and sell the stuff I want to shoot.  I am convinced that an iPad app that shows just images isn't going to be nearly as profitable as an iPad app that shows an experience.  And I'm equally sure that people are becoming more and more interested in the experience of experiences than in the souvenirs.  But there might be a way to explore all these options and still stay true to the art you want to do in the first place.

As Seth Godin would kinda say,  "Choose yourself."  If you have a book project in your head, and you know you can do it, don't wait to be invited by a publisher.  Put together a package and sell it to your own investors.  Don't wait for the market to find you.  Find the market.  Don't wait for the money to decide to head in your direction, put together your product and go find the money.  

But I guess the biggest thing is to decide what you really want to do.  Are you an artist or are you a business person?  If you are just in this field to make money you've chosen poorly.  If you would pursue your art regardless of all the hurdles and blocked avenues then you might want to separate the idea of what you do for love and what you do to live.  Find easier ways to make money and live so you can do the hard work of doing the art as a separate part of your life.

The pathways to profit have changed and now we need to act like pioneers instead of map readers.  It will take re-invention and exploration to find new ways to keep doing what you love.  Ask any working professional in the arts if he or she is still doing it the way they did it ten or even five years ago and I'm sure you'll quickly find that the successful ones have learned to tack into the headwind and keep moving forward.  They might be adding stuff they never thought they'd do before but that's part of the deal.  

And the ones who are still doing their art exactly the way they did it ten or twenty years ago fall into two camps:  1.  People who support themselves outside the construct of the working artist.  Or, 2.  Those whose work is so individual and so beautiful that it falls outside the run of the mill and is coveted by clients.  Regardless of how anachronistic the delivery or approach.  What a great spot to be in!  

Most of us have chased the business so hard we've lost part of what the art meant or means to us.  Maybe the re-alignment of the economy is a way for us to get the meaning back.  Compass ready?  Move forward.

One last point.  There's still work out there.  It's going to the people who market best.  The analogy is one we all should understand.  If we want the sharpest photograph we should use the best technique. In most cases that means putting your camera on a tripod. But most of us forego the tripod far too often.  Getting work means cold calling and meeting with potential clients but it's far easier to just put up a website, throw some stuff up on Tumblr and wait.  The marketing is the tripod.  It is the technique.  While we're looking for the new roadmaps it's a good idea to make sure you're marketing well to the people/clients you can identify right now.

note:  This was written from the perspective of someone whose sole income is derived as a freelance artist and writer and it was intended to speak to other people in the same boat.  If you are in a different business and the market hasn't shifted yet for you then count yourself lucky.  But don't think all other trades and professions are immune.  The digital shift happens in a heartbeat.  And the cure is nearly always a mystery.  Anyone can give advice but the best advice generally comes from those who've been there and survived.

final note:  This is not angry, cranky or pessimistic.  It wasn't written with that intention.  It's meant to encourage people to think of new ways to do what they already love and continue to make a living.