Does photography matter anymore or has it become a video game?

Have you become your own gift wrapping?

I was just reading a piece in Ad Age Digital, here,  (the daily online "magazine" of Ad Age) wherein writer, Chas Edwards tosses out a few factoids.  According to his research and the research of companies like Facebook, and a Harvard Business School study, "70% of all activities inside the social network---from "liking" and commenting to looking at friends' content or uploading your own content-- revolves around photos."

Everyday the masses on Facebook upload about 250 million photographs. (And all this time you thought it was the witty uploads of your favorite Dilbert and What the Duck links that made Facebook popular....).   The next interesting factoid is that ten percent of all photos taken in the history of humanity were taken in the last 12 months.

But what does this really mean?  On one hand I would say that all photography is local.  And by that I mean that you photograph only the things that have meaning to you.  Your kids, your hot girlfriend, your cool car, you loyal dog and your favorite coffee.  You also photograph the world around you. And this is the stuff that most people throw at FB.  But how does all your "local" photography hurdle itself over the borders and become more widespread and viral?  From my perspective I don't think 99.99% of it ever does.  And it probably shouldn't.

Is your photography relevant?  I would say that it's highly relevant to you and the people one degree of separation away from you and becomes more and more like meaningless noise the more degrees it departs from the intimate awareness of you and yours.

Some stuff has relevance because it's outside our everyday reality.  I put in that category cool shots of SR-71 spy planes in flight,  very hot super models nude, or barely clothed,  very ferocious animals that are not in captivity, and food I couldn't afford to order on my own budget.  Your list will vary depending on your gender, social class and your global mobility.  Charming photographs of Roman citizens will have more inherent interest to liberal arts majors in the U.S. who have limited travel budgets than to people in the EU who can pop down to Rome for a weekend of pub crawling or whatever they call that activity in Rome.

A person with fabulous genetic material and perfect offspring will be far less interested in photos of other people's lesser children.  A photo of a trailer park may be boring to public assistance apartment dwellers but amusingly droll to people working on Wall St.

But I contend that while there's an enormous amount of misdirected lifestyle documentation by everyone with a cellphone or Walmart acquired "family" camera, there's also a tremendous amount of photographic shooting and posting that falls into the category of video gaming.  It's currently cool to walk around with a camera and shoot stuff.  It's cool to have a blog and it's cool to upload stuff that you think will garner good feedback from as many people as you can ping on your social network. This is true whether you are a rabid amateur or a "working professional."

It's not that you really care about the images, per se.  But you really enjoy the physicality of taking them and the implied art credentialing of "having taken them" that matters the most.  It's like earning badges in Pokemon or getting weapons in World of Warcraft.

And really, don't presume that I'm looking down my nose as a professional photographer and condescending.  I'm not saying this to drive some fictive wedge between what you do and what "professional" photographers do because,  I am here to acknowledge that I do it too.  And I think that all but a handful of photographers fall into our big intersecting ven diagram.

I've caught myself unconsciously changing notions of perceived values and historic methodologies as a response to my own video game-style stylings of photography.  So this is really a confessional column as opposed to a rant or a denouement.

I've become habitual about walking around with my camera flavor of the day and taking meaningless images of pretty girls at the coffee house, "interesting" architectural details and puffy clouds juxtaposed against blue skies.  I can pretend to myself that I'm testing some technical thing or that I'm really drawn to some facet of the images I create but in the end my disposition of the final images tells the tale.

I pick the ones I know my readers will like best, post process them to taste, post them along with whatever written rant or exposition justifies their existence and then discard them.  That's pretty much it.

In the days of film or early digital good images were hard won.  Like playing a video game without any of the hacks or hints or tutorials.  It was hard work to make a good image.  No wonder so many fewer people were interested in photography.  But we felt like artists and craftsmen.  We saved every decent frame.  We cataloged them and put them in archival folders to protect them from the ravages of time and we had the conceit that they would be our solace and a source of income (as stock) in our old age.

But somewhere along the line it all became so easy.  Not the real art, that's never been easy or hard, just relatively unobtainable.  But the process of seeing and making stuff sharp and well exposed has been transmuted from arcane practice to speed dial. And the latest generation of Sony cameras will even help you with (not lying here) auto composition !!!  Now I'll pull ten images from a folder of 400 and post them.  I'll give the rest a cursory look and drag em off to the little trash can icon and flush them without a second thought.

Why should I?  I can't take them along with me to level five.

Think about it.  Really.  I went to SXSW and photographed people I thought might be interesting.  What that really parses to is I photographed people who I thought you'd be interested in because in some mentally mathematical way it accrues me points when you "like" my photograph or "RT" my link to a blog full of images.  When I accrue enough points I become a magical bridge elf or a Pixel Ninja Warrior and move to the next level of play where my earlier accrual of points gives me access to a different part of the game. (More workshops? Sell more books? )

And when the game stops for the day I go off and do something else.  But I guess the real test is this:  If it's not all just a game with multiple players and levels and point rewards tell me how many images you make that you would consider spending money to print and mount and frame and put up on your wall and (most importantly) bear to look at every day of your life?  How's that for a test?

So, if I do it and you do it and we all do it and many of the big names do it does that make this a rant or an observation on the changing value of photography?

Clients still need people to make smart and perfect photographs and that's why we can still make a living doing photographs.  But at a certain point, with enough players in the game, the uploaded materials will be an interesting buffer to the need to pay to create more.  And if the players are playing for points instead of cash the value of an individual image will have subsided to an atomic particle level.

If you read the article I refer to you'll see that marketers have decided that big, interesting images will attract eyeballs.  Now the challenge is to figure out how to "monetize" the social networking sites.  And the randomness of the images plays against the marketing but it also provides this opportunity:  With the right TOS every image uploaded becomes a bot for an app or an ad.  You upload cheerleader Suzi  because you think your daughter is cute.  The marketers know that a large chunk of a certain market will find her to be "hot."  Marketers of products which appeal to that demographic will be able to "surprint" the image with ads.  The ad might pop up after you've had a few seconds to digest the image.  You'll have to click the ad away if you want to re-access the full image.

But it would just as easy to offer an app each time the image comes up.  If the marketers have to pay for an incredibly diverse catalog of images then profitability falls.  If every freely contributed image, regardless of mass merit, can have an ad attached then you've completed the circle.  By playing the video game of photography you have provided (we have provided) all of the content and we've honed it for the marketers to appeal directly to our very narrowly defined demographic market.  You "win" the adulation of the very group who will be subject to a relentless "micro-ad" onslaught.  And when the value of an image is placed at the microscopic level will the relentless friction of that trade eventually dissolve the profit of creating primary content for payment?

I guess it's the same as it's always been.  If you don't have some sort of destination in mind then you're really just driving around, burning gas.  Could we be at a tipping point?

I've long believed that spending time shooting hones your skills.  I may have been wrong.  You may be better off grabbing space on a comfortable couch and reading a good novel.  Otherwise you might just be creating the free content that will both compete with your aspirations of being a "paid" photographer while driving mostly effective advertising messages right back at ya.

An interesting parasitic circle, for sure.


Spencer H said...

Yeah...this could make someones head explode.

A relative of mine recently sat me down and showed me a few hundred images of her trip to some very uninteresting place (in the flat lands of the USA)

As poor image after poor image (and boring, and badly executed) images passed by and burned into my eyeballs, I wished I could say "Hey look, edit down your images, tell me the story of this in just a few photos, and come back to me"

Editing is a lost art. No one from the self taught photographer school seems to be all that good at it. In fact, no one that takes pictures at all seems to be very good at it.

Frank Grygier said...

"it's highly relevant to you and the people one degree of separation away from you" Creating "one degree relationships" with each subject that sits in front of the camera might be the goal for a portrait photographer.

Don said...

" The marketers know that a large chunk of a certain market will find her to be "hot." Marketers of products which appeal to that demographic will be able to "surprint" the image with ads."

At which point the cheerleader sues the pants off the unlawful users. Nothing trumps the model release and IP.

In an article I read recently it was stated that if you are not paying for something, you are the the product. Nothing 'free' can be sustained as there is always a need for fuel. (Article is here: http://www.transparencyrevolution.com/2012/03/if-youre-not-the-one-paying-youre-the-product/) Eventually the producers will become involved in the revenue stream - think YouTube.

Sheer amount of images doesn't mean that there is a slagging interest in quality images. My youngest probably uploads 50 shots a day... and her circle of friends do the same. Images of where they are, who they are with, what they are eating, what boys are flirting with them at the mall... hundreds a day - thousands a week.

And none of them have anything at all to do with commercial or editorial photography... they do not even think of them as photographs. They are sharing their experiences.

Does this cheapen photography? I certainly don't think so. There are a gazillion authors out there writing and publishing "online" - at least as massive a dose into the ethos or writing as the ubiquitous camera phone or P&S snapshots - and yet book sales keep soaring.

If we think that the interest in the medium means the same as the interest in becoming a content creator (with all that goes with it) we are mistaken.

Camera phone shots of what I ate for breakfast is not "Food Photography". Nor is shooting the car after I washed suddenly "Automotive Photography."

I don't look at the images my kids post (well, we do monitor the little one for any strangeness) with any sort of eye as to critique the work. It isn't work that calls for critique. It is a memory shared, not a Photograph (capitol P).

I think that the flood of images may have brought an interesting ethos to the whole image making thing... "Instagram" looking images are starting to appear in ads and design work even though they may not have been made on an iPhone.

Why? Because the masses have become interested in that sort of look to their imagery. The culture drives the image (see my blog for an extended view of that subject) not the other way around.

The best thing to do is to make the images we need to make, and close out the noise of the images that don't matter.

We can find a million reasons not to do what we do, so I have stopped looking for them. Instead I look for images I have to make, and then try to find a moment or two to make them... LOL.

kirk tuck said...

It may be wishful thinking to imagine that Facebook will return much revenue to users and if it does so it will be cosmetic and diffused over such a large user group as to be less than pennies per person. You are right that people can sue the people who let an ad slide over the top but people would do well to carefully read the TOS of every site they share on. If you are giving them permission to do what they want with your images it is you who will end up sued and not the end user. Mass culture never drives the image. The stuff we see in Instagram today was done first by people like Matt Muhurin many, many years ago and it seeped into the collective consciousness after gracing popular and widely distributed magazines.

For every kid who gets residual income from YouTube there are millions more who will create content that, in aggregate, drive viewship and they will be squat.

There seems to be a divide in digital culture right now between those who believe that business drives the web and will do anything and try anything in pursuit of profit and that one of their over riding goals is to drive content to free. I'm on that side of the argument because.....I work with big corporations. I see it first hand and hear it first hand.

Then there are those who really, really want to believe that this is all a brand new paradigm and that by participating they will get a share of the pie. They believe that artists en mass are driving their own culture. And I look around and I can't see that.

We both have come to essentially the same conclusion by different routes. "Close out the noise of the images that don't matter." But like second hand smoke, air pollution and noise pollution, it's pretty damn hard when it's everywhere.

I look for images I have to make but I look beyond that and try to figure out who will be paying us to make the images and where will the money come from when essentially free images become infinite.

I appreciate your counter point of view. It's probably important to note that neither of us has the definitive answer because there probably isn't one. I hope Don is right and that the glass is half full. At least.

Finally, if wading through a zillion poor books or a zillion poor images to find good ones isn't a negative then we have vastly differing points of reference and experience.

It's all the same soup. It's all in the same pots. Business is the driver. Read the TOS on every site you join. You are already creating the content for all the sites you share photos with. We are TV. They are the commercials.

Don said...

While you and I know Matt's work, I do not believe that the average 12- 24 yr old has any idea who that is. They see what they see NOW. They have some vague notion that an Instagram image looks "old camera like", but most of them simply think it looks "cool". BTW, I think that is why we did Polaroid transfers, cross processing and had various love affairs with old cameras and Dianas... we simply thought it looked cool.

As more and more young people see the Instagram/Snapseed like images, they will begin to more identify with that look... and marketers will give them what they seek. Marketers always do.

"Finally, if wading through a zillion poor books or a zillion poor images to find good ones isn't a negative then we have vastly differing points of reference and experience."

I don't. I don't slog through gazillions of images to find good ones. I rarely go traipsing through Flickr or 500PX or any of those sites. I stick with known quantities and follow people who's taste I admire and trust. I found two new photographers today... both through trusted sources.

Books are a wonderful example of how bringing the gates down allowed people to be published, or publish themselves, without middle persons who may or may not have the aesthetic to tell me what is permissible to read. Let the market decide. Too many good books lately for me to worry about the bad ones. They slip into the dustbins pretty quickly.

But the person who wrote it got their chance. And for many people, that is all they want... their chance.

Most will never do another book. Most people quit. Everything.

But some will get up, climb on the saddle and pour their heart into the next one, and the next... and maybe, just maybe, we get something great.

I don't see it as a glass half full or half empty. It simply is a glass of water. The world is changed. The business of change is the one that is the most operative these days.

And sure, Facebook may never decide to cut people in on the content they create... but will someone else? Will there be another model that comes up and says... hey, we have this. Competition is born and we are the winners.

Yes, there are a lot of businesses who are looking to get something for as cheap as they can. I am not sure I see that as something new. Or something that is unique to corporations. I see that everywhere... for nearly all things. I do not expect the corporations or businesses to be foolish and NOT look for as many deals as they can get.

I do.

But I also see a necessity for quality. I see people and businesses and corporations going for quality all around me.

Today I signed a deal with a new client for a simple website. She wants it to be perfect. She wants it to help her sell her work. She wants ME to do it.

There are currently about 457 free website places out there... hold on... 458... uh... well.

But she is willing to pay my rate (not highest end, but not cheap either) so that she can have something unique, something with quality. She could get something for free, but she wants to pay for something good.

I have faith that will continue. I think it may take some swings in marketing and more investigating by clients as to what really works. Bad crappy photos don't help sell anything. Bad crappy websites are a dismal experience for clients who use them.

But life is a lesson in the making. I have had more "can you fix our crappy website" clients than from scratch. Several had bid with me but passed on my fees in order to get something cheaper.

My view of the digital world is that it is a change, not an end. More photographers will be doing more things, more design means more work, more digital content means more need for imagery. And that means image specialists... not kids with iPhones.

Well, hell, a kid with an iPhone who makes a kickass shot that is better, more alive, more in tune with the clients needs than me and my megapixelpumpingDSLR deserves the gig.

Tofuphotography said...

Gosh Kirk, you post describes me and my blog! I do enjoy doing it though (especcially the pretty girls and they are the ones that get the most hits!) and I guess I will have the memories to savour in old age if I ever go back and look at them :-)

Carlo Santin said...

How many images have I made that I would spend the time and money to frame and display, for me and others to look at? I count 4. Two I've already printed and framed (soon as I finish a reno to an upstairs bedroom they are going on the wall in there) and two more I'll be doing soon. That's it. I've been shooting "seriously" since about 2006. Truth is, I suck as a photographer, but I enjoy the journey and I have learned a lot and improved, especially in the last two years, so I keep going. I feel I do have something to say as a photographer, but have yet to figure out what that is; therein lies the struggle of all artists using all forms of media, since the beginning.

Yup, I have a blog too. Nobody reads it, but I don't care too much. I treat it more like a diary, where I can post some photos and have a conversation with myself. I try to tell a little story with each photo...it's rather meditative, and I find it helpful for me to reflect and think out loud.

The internet is nothing more than a descriptor of our age. It behaves the way we tell it to ( I realize this is a rather simple statement). Our modern culture is one of garbage and noise. It is everywhere. I really believe that Walmart is not in the retail business at all. They are secretly in the waste management business. I'd bet money on it. All that stuff they sell in every Walmart all over the world? It will end up in landfill, sooner rather than later. Someone has to get paid to make it disappear. Why would the internet be any different?

Ian said...


You make way too much sense.

Are you sure that your thoughts belong on the internet?

Absolutely - monumental change to visual communication. There will be wreckage along the way.

kirk tuck said...

Ian, with all the cheerleaders for Seth Godin's New World Order I'm really starting to have my doubts. If I hear about "trickle down" to artists, and how our art "just wants to be free," a few more times I'm going to have to start asking for audited results from the proponents. Yes, if I change careers I can take advantage of all the people who really want to learn photography but I'm busy keeping on with the career I love. That's taking photographs. And getting paid for it.

jet tilton said...

your article really makes me think! I have been questioning my photographic motives lately.....mostly the question of who am I taking photos for? Myself? acquaintances on FB? We took kids to Fort Worth Zoo this week, took a handful of pics i would share, but then you have to decide where or even if it is worth it to post them! another "photographer" who is also in my group of FB friends went to the same zoo, and has already rushed to post her pics....so it becomes a competition! This silliness is the reason i dont frequent Facebook as much as i used to, all of the work in resizing pics, adding a watermark so someone i really dont like can "like" my photo because it contains magical Bokeh? doesnt seem worth the trouble!

on another note, you can see the LOMO look in catalogs like Urban Outfitters and Nordstrom, and the photography in Urban Outfitters looks as if it was done by a teen with a Diana or iphone!

Brian Fancher said...

Sooner or later the cult of Seth will run its course and people will long once again for the intimate moments that only happen in real time and only tue artists, in touch with real human interactions can interpret in a fram of light and tone. I remember sitting through a lecture on the application of Gladwell's Tipping Point to military thought and theory and having the visceral reaction that it was just a bunch of bullshit and poetry dressing up basic tenets that Chesty Puller used with guts and desperation in fighting back hordes of Chinese a half century before. Seth hasn't said anything groundbreaking. He's just polished up the tried and true ideas that made names like IBM and General Electric household names ; having wrapped them up in newspeak. What does that mean for us? Good photographers and good images still have their rightful place in the marketplace. It's jut a lot easier today o be distracted by ll he dross flog by on he river of mediocrity known as the Internet. The crap market for crap product by crap photographers has dried up like a tumbleweed, but so what. Is that where you really want to be anyway? I was discussing a similar effect with a musician friend yesterday. I think what survives will be far better art forms. Will you, or me or my guitarist friend be among that group? I don't know yet. But I'm not about to I've in to the line of thought that the way forward is in a devalued artwork that conforms to a oil critical mass for its urvival.

Brian Fancher said...

Sorry..the iPad editor made a proof reading mess of that response. I hope it makes sense with all the errors!

almostinfamous said...

thanks for the Matt Muhurin reference. I had never heard of his name before.

kirk tuck said...

I wrote this blog yesterday suggesting that most photography as it's practiced today is more akin to playing a video game than the traditional practice of photography. A previous line of thought that gelled from reading across the web is that the overwhelming majority of recent photographic adherents believe the process of photography to be about 25% taking the image and 75% (gaming) post-processing the images to make their art. Post processing, in a sense, has become more important than the content, at least in terms of time and thought spent. I also postulated (based on very good evidence) that clients are rushing to leverage the sheer quantity of user generated photo content on the web for advertising purposes, and, in fact many of the sharing site TOS docs are custom made to allow advertising within their own sites with the complicity of their users. I never made the statement that people would steal the images from the site and use them elsewhere. To be clear, the trend will be for advertising to be layered (temporarily) on your image on the site with the relevant TOS when the mysterious algorithms suggest a coincidental interest metric. We are one step away from that right now on just about any sharing site that accepts advertising. Yes, we could go blissfully along and ignore the advertising but we don't do that in movies so why would we do it when viewing the photographs of friends and family?

I was also misinterpreted in my examination of the market with the idea that I somehow think I'm getting the short end of the stick in competition with younger and hipper photographers (of which there are many, I am sure). That is not the case. While we all pine for a less complicated and more profitable past (which may or may not have ever existed) I am happy to operate in the present because, rationally, we have no other choice. But I refuse to moderate fact (falling wages across professionals, declining fees, more rights grabs, less intrinsic value to the market, etc) for Pollyanna fiction. If you operate a business you are much better served looking at accurate metrics for your markets than buying into a fantasy or a bubble. You can improve your financial outlook by working twice as much until you hit the ceiling of available time. I suggested that there's still a market for stuff that has to be good. But that market is overshadowed by quantity. It's not a question of "upping your game." The photography game has changed. It is a game.

kirk tuck said...

And more: I would love to believe in the mantra that says the web will bring us all wealth if we just bend over and give big business everything they want all the time. But the reality is quite different. That's why there is a need for contracts and common sense and.....yes.....metrics. I have a blog and I experiment with affiliate marketing. I know the numbers. I see the sustainability curves. We can do many things with the web and we can use it wisely to market. If our businesses are scalable and globally deliverable and our product can be mass produced then the web will favor our efforts.

If our businesses are local, hand crafted, hand delivered or otherwise custom created our leverage from the web is less ample and just gives us the power to further saturate our local market. Not all photography is the same. But the sheer volume and lowered mean value truly does affect practitioners in every corner.

Finally, looking at the numbers and putting my thoughts on the web doesn't mean that I give up. Or that I'm angry or sad. Or depressed. Or unhappy. Or focused like a laser beam just on the business of photography. I got up this morning and swam with my fun team of swimmers, outside in the fresh air. I had a wonderful cup of coffee (surprise, I made it myself). I met with my photographer friend, Will to do some business. I'm heading out the door to do some business downtown (if I can park in the midst of SXSW...) and I'm well invested in financial instruments outside the world of photography. If the market grinds to zero I'll do something else. But I don't think it will. I think it will be re-invented. And that's something I've been saying all year.

I don't think you can buy a stock photo portrait of yourself or your CEO or your kids or your mom and dad. I like portraits. I've always made a living primarily doing portraits. So I'll keep working in that field.

I felt the need to explain in more detail exactly what I was saying yesterday. Not that all photography has become a video game. Just most of it. I'll stay over here in the spot where we still create stuff that has value.

Travis said...

I think your comments are spot-on with regard to how most people approach photography. But as has been said here, most of this activity, while photography on a technical level, is not approached with the same purpose in mind. It's to share a moment with a close group of people, and maybe receive a few "Like"s along the way. And that's okay; it's in a different sphere of activity. I don't think it meaningfully cheapens what serious practitioners do.

I only got even close to serious about photography about a year ago, after overcoming many years worth of what I now recognize as Resistance. One particularly devious form that Resistance took was convincing me that there's no way I could do anything better or differently than it's been done thousands of times before.

What saved me from that was the realization that it hasn't been done this way with this *person* before, and that small distinction is the whole world of difference. It matters to the person in front of the camera, and if you can build a connection that lasts for even only an hour, you make something for yourself and for them that is unique in the world.

Portraits will change (and I eagerly await your take on their reinvention) but the value of them won't ever diminish.

kirk tuck said...

"My view of the digital world is that it is a change, not an end. More photographers will be doing more things, more design means more work, more digital content means more need for imagery. And that means image specialists... not kids with iPhones." (from above).

But why would MORE work matter if we're getting paid less and less to do it? Yes, I can cut grass for $50 per yard but how many lawns can I cut in a day? If I could get 100 lawns to cut in a day then I could drop my price to $5 a yard? How the hell does that make sense? Lots and lots of bad work is bad for society in general and artists in particular.

kirk tuck said...

One succinct answer: Better Photo Booths.