I keep hearing about the demise of our industry. What's the deal?

Victoria chides me for adding devil horns to her image on the Cintiq. 
I can't help it if I have maturity deficiency disorder.

When I started working as a photographer most of the things that made all of us successful had to do with mastering certain techniques. If you worked in a smaller market in the 1980's you needed to be able to provide your commercial clients with transparencies shot on 4x5 inch sheet film. Which meant that you had to know how to use rises and falls and tilts and swings. While it sounds like no big deal you also had to be able to load sheet film into holders, meter very accurately and also manage larger Polaroids. In order to make ISO 64 sheet film work well for you at f16-22 you had to know how to light because you couldn't just hit the menu and get more sensitivity out of your film. That meant a typical commercial photographer needed to own and maintain about 4,000 watt seconds (minimum) of electronic flash equipment and all kinds of modifiers.

 You had to know how to shoot black and white sheet film, load it and unload it, process it, contact print it in your own darkroom (a famous era for rush projects) and you had to know how to make beautiful black and white prints from your negatives as well. It pretty much goes without saying that the 4x5 was the standard format requested by clients for product shots. And the clients were happy when the shots were well lit and in focus. But you also had to have a medium format system for shooting advertising photographs in the studio and on location and, if you also covered events and public relations you had to have a complete 35mm SLR system with lots of backup stuff. (Cameras actually broke back then...).

Shooting 35mm with finicky films was especially trying because you couldn't really preview with Polaroid (and there were no LCD  screens on the backs) so you had to be able to read a meter and nail an exposure in just about every condition. Including those conditions in which you supplemented the existing light with flash. In those years the meter was a mandatory part of the kit. It had to be.

Many photographers could stay busy just supplying these basics because there was a steep learning curve and often no time opportunity to do a re-shoot. Clients paid for technical expertise and reliability. The better people in the fields also added good tasted and a point of view. But I'd guess that the vast majority just covered the basics and delivered well exposed and well focused shots and clients generally were happy.

In the consumer/retail market customers went to portrait studios and wedding photographers for much the same reasons. A wedding shooter had to have their technique down cold and practiced. Most used color negative films so there was some wiggle room to save a file in a custom darkroom with an experienced printer, but for the most part the portrait guy needed to sell a well lit, reasonably sharp image with the subject projecting a pleasant expression and an overall good look. The good ones knew how to light to make faces look their best. In that day and age there were accepted styles of portrait lighting which mostly revolved around the ideas of short light and broad light, high key and low key light. There was a lot of talk about lighting ratios....not as an aesthetic consideration as much as a nod to the limited contrast range of the photographic paper upon which they would be printed.

The reality of the portrait business is that people didn't innovate year by year. There were codified styles that photographers worked to emulate, the idea being that there were certain "optimum" lighting styles and posing configurations that were tried and true and could scarcely be improved on. That allowed portrait photographers to essentially abdicate responsibility for aesthetic innovation and still work to be the best technicians they could be. All the way to the retouching.

Things were good in the 1980's and 1990's for working pros. Many of my friends in the commercial side of the business routinely billed $200,000 or more out of one person businesses, supplemented by freelance assistants, producers and stylists (whose fees could also be marked up for additional profit. But, essentially, what we were selling, even if we wouldn't admit it and still won't admit it, was a good level of technical expertise and an understanding of the aesthetic underpinnings of our industry.  We emulated a lot of good lighting and good ideas from a small percentage of photographers who pushed the envelopes in New York, LA, Paris and Milan. Burrow down to the core and most of us were technicians who also dabbled in the creative side of the art form. Really. We learned the basics of composition and incorporated ideas that were popular at the time. But it was our grasp of the fine points in the owner's manuals that drove the bus.

The massive shift to digital would not have made much of a difference to the industry if it was still hard to get a great image. But the reality is that most of the work done in the last 10 years by cameras makers and software companies has been aimed at simplifying technical processes and automating technical tasks that used to require a step by step knowledge. It's also been aimed a allowing a mindless replication of some styles with software driven solutions.

When the technical gobbledygook no longer mattered and the LCD's on the backs of cameras and phones provided instant feedback, fast learning through quick iteration became the trend of the day. And why not? The educated public at large is open and exposed to the same samples, examples and visual resources as the previous "elite" visual cadre was. We look at the same TV shows, study the same movies and read the same magazines. The technicians had NO lock on the visual language of our culture except in the times when an intermediate (and complex) device was required to create an artifact.

It's widely acknowledged that the old school part of photography as a commercial industry and product generator is quickly dying off. Much to the chagrin of one dimensional suppliers whose only trick was that basic skill set of technical fulfillment. In many instances, especially in the wedding and portrait markets, the vast majority of previously paying customers zigged while the practitioners zagged. People liked the more casual and unconstructed images they were seeing all over the media of popular cultural, and anti-technical photographers with edgy points of view, such as Terry Richardson (now a millionaire many times over from his point and shoot camera ethos) have driven a wave of imaging that is valued for it's authenticity and in-your-face point of view much more so than because of any technical consideration. But the same was true in the art history of photography when Robert Frank's The Americans and Robert Klein's iconic books, New York, Tokyo, and Rome hit the bookstores in the both the 1950's and 1960's. In their time they were a clarion call to cast off the status quo of commercially inflected imaging and to embrace the immediacy of a new media....the small camera. The hand camera. With its grain, noise and fluid mobility that promised unconstructed glimpses of some reality.

While the kinetic intensity and imagery of Frank and Klein was unencumbered by too much precious technique it didn't effect the vast majority of practitioners because the technical constraints of the new photography didn't change much, only the aesthetic foundations shifted. It's also important to note that, in a society whose cultural news came to them predominantly filtered through weekly lifestyle magazines and monthly photography magazines (with long lead times) it would have been impossible for the culture at large in that time frame to absorb, mull over and integrate the changes from the avant garde whereas in our current milieu our absorption rate is over night, the adaptation rate is measured in cycles of days and an avant garde technique becomes: mainstream, practiced, shared, disseminated and ultimately discarded by avid hobbyists, enthusiasts and culturati as fast as the web can spread the word. Or instantaneously....whichever is faster.  

Finally, the first two waves of photographers to realize the eminent collapse of their industry have created a secondary teaching industry that effectively marks an end to the tenure of photographers based on technical skills. There are literally millions and millions of videos and sharing sites dedicated to deciphering the nuance of skill based shooting. You can learn just about anything you want on the web, the only difference between paid and unpaid resources being the value of curating, bundling and aggregating of the information and, to some extent, vetting the information.

How can one dimensional visual handymen survive? The mantra three to five years ago was the we should all up our game and create better or more complicated to duplicate work. But really, the commercial field is client driven and they only care about fulfilling their marketing needs which, out of messaging necessity, need to be part of a homogenized and referenced popular cultural idiom. Too much of too good falls outside what the audience expects and is used to and, in fact, diminishes the ad messaging by making the audience think too much about ideas outside the selling proposition. Why are the shadows so dark? Why are the colors all funky? How did they distort the frame?

So, in fact, the traditional markets are only looking for work that hews to the sweet spot of the Bell Curve of execution and taste because that's where research implies it will have the most power.

For now the people that are hanging on are finding ways to deliver images that the rubes still can't, en masse. Complex lighting takes more advanced skills and creating a rapport with other humans in front of your camera takes people skills. Advanced compositing and post processing skills also count. But these are speed bumps along the road to ultimately completely democratizing the business into irrelevance.

In the end it will all come down to luck (being in the right place at the right time), a stylistic point of view that's an uncopy-able amalgam of tech and taste (some fashion work and some high end portrait work) or work that creates a new category (the intersection of video and still imagery) or the re-invention of older photographic analogies (the substitution of massive megapixel cameras as a metaphoric representation of work from 8x10 view cameras with the infinite detail and silkiness of tones). 

We, the rank and file of professional photography, are like the family dog. We think of professional photography like our territory. We see our local markets like a dog sees his family's yard. We are on guard for intrusions and bark and posture when we see people eyeing our St. Augustine grass. We bark loud and even chase the cars of progress with our snapping and snarling. But the progression in many parts of the field are inevitable. 

I've seen the writing on the wall since the introduction of the iPhone and now the melding of phone and camera as represented by the Samsung NX Galaxy running on Android. We're all image creators now and even if 1% of us are by some degree exceptionally good ( which I doubt----we've just had more times at bat) that means there are still hundreds of millions of us competing for mindshare with editors and advertisers around the world. How many thousands of portfolios a week can an art buyer see before they shut down and just grab the most convenient resource from an infinite stack of infinitely similar work?

I'm as guilty as the next guy when it comes to girding myself against change but it's here and it's now and it's not going to roll back when the economy completes its recovery. Everything is mutating. My goal is to find the apex of the new paradigm that fits my temperament and skill sets and make that the new locus of my commercial work. That probably means more hybrid work. Still portraits that flow gracefully and naturally into video interviews. Narrative products that combine words, stills and motion. And it certainly means teaching more and more. We old schoolers are bad teachers when it comes to style and aesthetics because we have a set point which mentally restricts what we consider "appropriate" looks and styles. It's almost hard wired. It's tied rigidly to our successes in the past. But we're good teachers when it comes to understanding the fine points of technique and the interface between image maker and real people. And that's what we should be teaching and leveraging.

I am not opposed to teaching as a side profession for image makers. Until the industry gets its new sea legs it's a good way to supplement income in uncertain times. But I'm also convinced that art teachers and photographers who run workshops do their students a disservice when they try to teach style and substance in addition to good technique. So many students come to parrot the work of their instructors and become hampered by visions limited by long practice.  Instead we should be saying: "Here's how to shoot, but don't shoot like me...."

The market will sort itself out. And most of the sturm und drang has to do with the preservation or destruction of traditional markets. We hear the pain of photojournalists working ( or no longer working) for print outlets. We hear the gnashing of teeth by wedding photographers who are dealing with the  dying demand for traditional leather albums with individual prints tucked into ornate matted sleeves, and we are hearing the unhappiness of portrait photographers whose markets for traditional color display prints are quickly drying up in an age of electronic display and relentless sharing.

While large swaths of the markets in both commercial and retail are being rendered obsolete by consumer taste and almost foolproof, simple tools the entire market is not melting away. There is still a market for well done portraits but they must be in a contemporary style and in a medium that matters in order to be a sellable commodity. There's still a need for quality product shots and interior architectural shots but they too must reflect a more nuanced and sophisticated style and "look", not just because everyone has magically become more sophisticated and nuanced but because the style started with effete/elite tastemakers and is quickly absorbed and processed into mass style by the grinding machine of social interconnectedness. We may not understand the intellectual underpinnings of the latest style but we sure as heck are hellbent on emulating it, if only not to be left out of the current communal brain waves of our own tribes.

For every portrait photographer who uses "fine, painted, artisanal canvas backgrounds" and who is mystified by why his market has left him there is a corresponding Peter Hurley who has created a modern headshot style which is currently bubbling through the geologic layers of awareness to become the new status quo. And when his style is totally subsumed the market will turn to the next version and the next in a relentless pursuit of now, driven by the almost frictionless access to the latest thing. Twitter as a cultural driver. Instagram as this generation's Vogue Magazine.

For every architectural photographer who is setting up crossed umbrellas and sticking the vase of perfect, red flowers onto the table in the corner and making sure everything is just right there are younger photographers who are introducing models that move through spaces and add blur and substance and humanity to human designed spaces in a way that never happened with long exposures on view cameras or the analogy in the digital age.

The problem most established pros (and hobbyists and amateurs) will have is to throw off the yoke of the past and balance the new styles and their immediacy with the photographers' own visions. It's no good just to follow the pack. To be successful one must absorb the message of the pack and add an inflection and a framework of personal vision to make a unique and differentiated vision and product to sell.

The important thing to understand about what I'm saying is that this embrace and re-imagining of current cultural style and current taste are only important in so much as you need to earn a living from your work. If you are an artist then the only thing that's compelling is your separate and sustained vision, unsullied by the marketplace or by imitation. If you shoot for fun then your best course is to follow your nose. If a style smells bad to you then avoid it. If a style feels natural and right to you then enjoy it.

But if your livelihood depends on the visual products you create you serve no one with a desire to defend the past, and past styles. You serve a market, for better or worse, and your choices are to reflect back to the market, create a new direction for the market or to surrender and leave the field of the business battle. It's stark but it's an honest reflection of every market shift in the past 100 years. Just ask GM. Just ask Apple. And now, just ask Dell.

No one gets huge margin customers by making commodities and no one gets rich missing cultural shifts. Apple was almost bankrupt twelve years ago but they started breaking from the pack and launching products consumers wanted but had not yet been served. They prospered. Dell mastered the art of making a low price, low margin commodity, preserved the past and have been injured and ebbing ever since. Apple saw the move from desk computing to mobile computing and made iPhones and iPads, their ability to intuit and confirm the direction of the market led to their success. Their ability to abandon whole technologies to embrace the next generation of technologies will ensure their market position and success. Dell focused like a laser on what they knew best. And what they knew best was the past. In looking and planning only for what had already occurred they missed the whole mobile phone market with it's ecosphere fences and it's reverse halo effect.

Traditional photographers seem to be looking for a return to big studios and the sale of Leather Craftsman wedding albums and big corporate junkets and lavish, big studio advertising shoots. But they are looking into the rear view mirror of our industry instead of embracing the fast moving, fluid and discipline-crossing reality of the moment. Not everyone is affected but enough people are watching their businesses erode to make a trend. People scoff at the idea of "Change or Die" but I'm softened it by saying "expand the product net" and at the same time "expand the net that brings in mind changes." Be willing to move from an older delivery system to a newer delivery system.

Do you remember a time when studios took only cash or checks? I do. I remember when people rolled over and let ad agencies string them along on payment for 60 to 90 days. I remember images of wedding couples floating (via double exposures) in brandy snifters looking down from the heavens at their own ceremony, all in one godawful eight by ten inch color print.  Could you sell one of those now???? I didn't think so.

Change is inevitable. Learn what is unchanging and what needs to change and then implement. Survival is more fun. Embrace it. There's still money to be made. It's now on a different aisle...

The recent site of my introduction to being on the other side of the camera. 
Denver, CO.


Dave Jenkins said...

I'm one of those good technicians from days gone by, and I have to say that I hate, hate, hate the changes that have taken away much of my edge and my market. But I'm 76 and I want to keep on working as long as I'm able. My hero is Julius Shulman, the great architectural photographer who worked until his death at the age of 97 or so, getting around on a walker with an assistant to carry his camera.

I analyzed the trends some years ago and decided to concentrate on those aspects of photography where my lighting and technical skills still mattered. For me, that was architectural photography and business portraits. The architectural work required specialized equipment, and both required lighting skills.

The architectural thing worked okay for a while, but recently not so much as Photoshop added perspective tools that architects themselves could use. That leaves me with business portraits, and I'm working on becoming the first photographer anyone in my market thinks about when a business headshot is needed. Wish me luck!

chrislh said...

I think you nailed it Kirk!

Corwin Black said...

Im sometimes bit more afraid that we run out of people that recognize difference between good and bad photo and are willing to pay for that. Like it happend recently in one newspapers. Tho how that ends remains to be seen..

Carlo Santin said...

Excellent article Kirk, one of your better ones. Luckily, I shoot for myself (I'm no artist though)so I get to follow my nose and do what pleases me. The changes you discuss here have happened to every industry. If you want to talk about disappearing profits look no further than the farming industry for example. In my line of work, teaching, things have changed so much very recently, especially within the last four or five years. Many of the "old school" teachers I know are completely baffled when they pull out the resource binder from 1983 and the material is met with apathy, disinterest, and even outright hostility by today's young minds. Many of these same teachers also refuse to change, instead finding ways to blame their students for being lazy, never once considering that perhaps some change on their part is in order. I could go on but you get the point. Thanks for the good read.

Anonymous said...

Love the picture on the top of the blog! When do we get to hear all the details of your trip to Denver? Also, this particular blog is right on the money. All the whining in the world isn't going to change the market. If you are smart you change. If you are dumb you go out of business.

Ian said...

Lots of chewy bits it that post.

André Balsa said...

Yes, food for thought, no doubt about it. Thank you, Kirk.

Richard said...

Honest commentary, cute lead-in pic... that is why I read your column.

Anonymous said...

Yep, Kirk nails it almost perfectly again. The reason I say almost is that there is another option and that is to find an incredible niche, dominate it to the point that you are celebrated and then you call the shots. Some call that fame, I call it the only thing worth striving for.

And I am striving for it in using 100% black and white film hand crafted in a real darkroom by the way. I call the shots, not a soon to be gone market. So far, I am right on target...

MGO said...

Love this post. A homerun

Greg Brophy said...

Great article. Thanks for that. I really like the part " It's no good just to follow the pack. To be successful one must absorb the message of the pack and add an inflection and a framework of personal vision to make a unique and differentiated vision and product to sell."