Interesting idea about the death of print.

"Show me the picture NOW."

In the original Ghostbusters movie, released in 1984, Harold Ramis's character, Egon Spengler, declares: "Print is dead."

Last night I had some nice wine and some very tasty cheese with a photographer friend who is a much better photographer than I'll ever be. We got together so I could quiz him about a recent trip to Azerbaijan that he did for a travel magazine. He told me that the trip was very long in both directions and that he slept the first day he got there, shot for two days and then it snowed. He left on the fourth day. Basically he had two full shooting days. And yet, I sat in front of his computer screen and clicked through several hundred beautiful images. Not just beautiful in the sense that they were perfectly good travel images but beautiful because nearly every image had some subtext, some wry point of nearly disguised humor and an almost encapsulated narrative.

Now this photographer has been engaged in taking images for over 40 years, has done campaigns for Canon, McDonald's, Quaker, CNN, and a thousand other big name clients. He's worked for the best magazines and he's been profiled in Communication Arts magazine. And he currently holds a full time position as a staff photographer at a magazine.

As I was getting ready to head home I asked him his opinion about the state of magazines and print photography in general. That's when he dropped the line from Ghostbusters. I asked him for details and he just shrugged and said, more or less, that the writing is on the wall. We're the last generation for whom magazines and big circulation picture books were a primary medium. We're the last generation to value printed newspapers and we're the last generation who really cares about making prints and putting them on our walls. (And I think his optimistic assessment of "our generation" is anyone over say, 45).

If you are over 50 you are probably in some state of denial and you are waiting for all these media to make their comebacks. Sorry, I just don't think it's going to happen. Going forward I think still image display will become more and more like the trading cards in the first Harry Potter movie. The image will be on the screen until it's replaced by another one. The images of your family and your dog that used to have a place in your real world wallet have been replaced by the same images on your phone, living amongst the electrons that also make up your virtual wallet.

I thought about all of this while I drove home and turning on the radio in the car I heard an NPR story about the retirement of David Letterman. At one point he was the king of late night TV. At one point there was huge market share for late night TV. Over the past six years his audience has dropped by two thirds. And it's not like he is being battered by younger, funnier, brighter new stars. He's still more or less at the top of that game.  It's just that very few younger people are routinely sitting down and watching late night TV. There are so many other options and none of them are really time and schedule constrained. Jon Stewart may take Letterman's place or it may be some other rising star but it won't materially change the trajectory of late night TV watching. TV is now a medium for watching live sports events for a big swath of the TV watching public, and a habit for an older generation with insomnia. There is no replacement audience for what is effectively a continuation of the programming that Johnny Carson invented so many decades ago.

But saying that late night talk shows are dead or that print is dead is not the same thing as saying that photography is dead. I give still photography a few more years....

There is a certain power to stopping time and presenting it in two dimensions. But the point that I think we need to come to grips with is that the actual representation on a flat media has changed from permanent print to ephemeral projection or emanation. We're at a generational inflection point where the momentum favors audiences (eyeballs)  enjoying images on big screens rather than sitting, Buddha-like, reverentially sorting through much smaller boxes of prints.

I am, of course, conflicted. I am 58. I grew up with magazines and in the early decades of practicing commercial photography right alongside my hobbyist passion for photography my immersion in the printed piece (both from the darkroom and the CMYK printers) was complete and seemingly unshakeable. I love the print but at the same time acknowledge that to other less weathered audiences the print is almost at the point of being, "quaint." An affectation of an older age.

We've slid in this direction much more slowly and more comfortably than we did when we transitioned from taking images on film cameras to making images on digital cameras. The ink jet printer craze was a comfortable decade of buffer from the rigor of the darkroom to the immediacy of the screen. Those printers have been a way of easing ourselves into the future without a wholesale abandonment of the trappings of print. And I expect prints from the ink jet machines to have a decades long death slope mostly because many of my generation will continue to use them and my generation seems to be on track to live a long time.

But I don't expect that Ben's cohort will have anything like the same regard for print. I think the younger the audience the more comfortable they are with digital screen viewing of images. And, if you consider still images as the raison d'ĂȘtre of print you'll quickly see why, while Egon Spengler's prediction was decades premature, print will actually die off. The images don't move and the generations entering the markets (and their immediate predecessors) were entirely acculturated in a time when television was the primary, in many cases sole, and ubiquitous medium of their maturing experience.

There will be no nostalgia for a "lost art" by a generation that never really experienced the immersion into that art or the commercial trappings of the still photography construct. All currently powerful art seems to be either retrospective printed work or of the moment moving art and most of it takes place on a screen. We may not like that but we need to remind ourselves, as commercial artists, that the delivery system is the message. Making stills is fun. There will be markets for stills as long as older generations have disposable income and the will to use it on consumer goods. There will be niche marketing as there are now many targeted niche magazines for mature audiences.

But it's a sunset medium now being replaced by electronic stuff that moves and talks. We can emotionally reject the new market or we can adapted, play in it and remain happily relevant. It really is our choice.


Kirk Tuck said...

To all who recently posted comments to this entry!!!! I screwed up when moderating the comments and pushed delete instead of publish. I am truly sorry. They were all good and interesting comments. If you have the time please consider reposting and I promise not to screw ip again!

Yoram Nevo said...

What about painting, is it dead too?

Patrick Cote said...

Oh dear. I often keep a copy of any longer comments until I see them posted just in case but didn't this time. Let me see if I can reconstruct...

As a 37 year old art book designer (at least that's part of my design work load) I hope, and to an extent believe, you are wrong.

But I also know that I good deal of what you posted is true.

I'm less concerned with magazines and newspapers for a variety of reasons. They are not, as a rule, how I make my living. I feel that battle is already mostly lost. I lot of the content contained within them will be historically irrelevant. I know the last point will get me in some trouble in certain circles but I truly believe it.

Books, however, those are a different story. I've spent some time looking into the options for creating electronic art books. None of them are satisfying. Up to a point none of them are more economical (oddly). And, most importantly, none of them appear anything close to archival to me.

I said I'm book designer because that's my favourite type of design project but I began as a web designer and developer 16 years ago before I went to design school and could get book projects. I've kept up with web and seen so much change in just that time. I wouldn't trust an art book app to be worth looking at 10 years from now, never mind 20. Think about not being able to currently access all the photo and art books made in the 50s, 60s and 70s today. Not good for the advancement of human culture.

Print's been dying since I started in design. But every year more is being printed. New magazines launched, new photo books being sold out and the prices soaring on the used market. I won't stick my head in the sand and there's an inevitability about it that I sense but some printed material still has legs.

Peter F. said...

Hmmm, it seems to me that I see mounted and framed photos on walls as much as I ever did. Not just old folks like me. My 27 year old son, when he and his wife bought their first house, picked out 4 images of mine that they wanted mounted and framed real big. When I asked my 32 year old son what he'd like for Christmas, he said "one of your pictures". That is the second one of mine he now has on his wall. And his twin sister has three of mine in her apartment. Now maybe that's because I either give them for free or charge whatever it costs me online for the print (mpix) or the framing materials (americanframe). What's Ben going to put on the walls of his first apartment. I bet there'll be a photo or two. At least here's hoping *grin*

Peter F

Kirk Tuck said...

To Yoram, No. Painting has been dead for quite some time now...

STA said...

I don't always disagree, but I always enjoy your pieces.

So, umm...Errr... not sure about the death of painting. Maybe in some precincts or contexts, perhaps, but Lucian Freud was worth something like 100 million when he kicked and that was only a few years ago. Both positions are admittedly outliers but perhaps hyperbole is required to make the point. And, yes, I do know that you're not talking about the practice of art, necessarily.

In all seriousness, one of the advantages of printing is that you can surround yourself with your work, literally viewing hundreds of images at the same time. You become subject to the body of work. No wonder we did (do) that for layouts, essays, books, shows.... I still have an 8-foot-by-12-foot section of wall that is actually sheet metal painted to match the surrounding drywall. With magnets I put up pictures, typically 8x10 to 24x36 depending on the nature of the work.

With screens, obviously you're limited by the number of devices. But we know that. I raise the issue of becoming subject to the corpus because it is a generally good idea for the artist to view the work in some kind of density that approaches entirety. It will likely come to be that tablets or high-quality digital picture frames will cost so little that this will be a viable option.
Currently there aren't any 24"x36"-capable monitors/tablets/displays that I can afford.

But as an end-use display medium I love a screen. They're like light tables from heaven, or someplace. Tablets are, now that one can calibrate, pretty freaking awesome as a review, portfolio and even installation tool.

Recently I did a long swing in the field using only a couple of wifi SD cards in the cameras, an iPhone and an iPod Touch for review, selecting and even some post. A battery-powered wireless USB host device served to connect a pair of 1TB HDDs as a back up to the iPhone/iPod pair - which of course is a backup strategy in and of itself. It only works if you don't mind looking at your selects on a 4.5-inch screen. But no laptop (I did carry a 7" tablet but it was used for non-photographic tasks) ever entered my luggage. Do you realize how far this enables the "small cameras/high mobility" paradigm? I travel with carry-on only most of the time, something that I haven't been able to do for a long time. I feel like a hippy again!

Perhaps the corollary to this is I just sold most of my library of books, keeping only a few (read: less than 100) volumes. Over the course of the last few years I've migrated nearly all my reading material to a variety of tablets.

This has, happily, left more floorspace in my home for dancing.

Shane Tyler Adams

Biro said...

I understand and agree with your point enitrely, KIrk. Just one tiny point of information. You'd probably be closer to correct if you credited Steve Allen with creating the template for late night television, rather than Johnny Carson. But I still get your point.

H. Bernstein said...

I dunno, it's comparing apples to oranges.

Without a doubt, most-all uses of printed imagery are either being superseded by digital display, or being lost to generations who haven't grown up with paper being the primary medium for photographic images.

But I think that there will always be some demand for the specialized artifactness of the paper print. Human beings love things, and photographs can be such lovely things.

Michael Ferron said...

While few art forms truly die I do believe the electronic image is now a legitimate way to view photography. Sure their will always be a nitch for darkroom B&W prints (still play there myself sometimes) but most often I shoot for the internet. This is where folks can see my photos and back lit images on screen look pretty good to my eyes. I shoot occasional events and will ask someone if they want a print of a photo I took. Most just say "can you send it to my phone?" It's not 1999 anymore!!

Yoram Nevo said...

OK. Please let me be less concise and less provocative. Of course you are right that photographic-print as a commercial occupation and business is dead, or dying. But what I was trying to say is - is it dead as a form of art too ?
There are (good) living artists today doing photographic-prints as there are artists today doing oil-paintings. If you go to a museum today you will see more and more video-art, but they are not taking their Van Goghs of the walls. And the small art-galleries have exhibitions of painting and photography of young new artists (and I mean age 25 not 45+ like us). Something personal - my spouse is back to art-school to complete a degree in art/teaching. She is (not like me) in the bleeding edge of art and therefor she is very "in" to video-art and such. But she has decided to take an oil-painting course. Yesterday she completed an exercise of making a copy of a Van Gogh (Head of a Woman with her Hair Loose). I must tell you that just looking at this oil painting copy is such a revelation. As much as I tried I couldn't make a photograph that will capture its essence.
All the best, your regular reader,

Patrick Dodds said...

Weren't cinema and radio meant to die with television and the VCR and yet aren't they doing ok? I think we're in the middle of a mass love-affair with all things digital but eventually the dust will settle and certain conventions and artistic formats will remain, altered but stronger. Print has undoubtedly been wounded but not fatally - the business and endless possibilities of a screen sometimes grow tiresome and we yearn for the lack of choice, the discipline, afforded by a book or magazine.
Re: painting, I think abstraction and modernism have been a wrong turn in some ways and that old values may emerge again, or at least I hope so: craft and dedication and years at the helm. A Julia Margaret Cameron or Sally Mann portrait can be stunningly beautiful but so too can a Rembrandt, and I'd be very sad to think such objects won't be produced again in the future (although of course sadness isn't necessarily a driver for the existence of a practice). And video doesn't approach a well executed painting for beauty and ambiguity and poise and depth: people want to be able to bring their own thoughts and interpretation and psychological need to a picture - the literalism of video doesn't make room for this.
I'm rambling and unqualified. I'll stop. :)

Anonymous said...

I don't think print is dead (at least in the UK). It's just changing. In the same way that downloaded music has killed mass distribution CDs and eReaders are taking a big chunk out of printed books, digitally distributed photographs have made making 'prints' more of a niche endeavour.

However, what we're left with is people producing physical artifacts which are beautiful for people collect, share and gift. See: "Stack Magazine subscriptions" for examples of wonderfully produced, independent printed magazines. Or Kristin Hersh releasing her new album (and Throwing Muses new album) as (art) books. Or (in my hometown of Cardiff) two brilliant photography galleries 'Ffotogallery' and 'Third floor gallery', dedicated to getting pictures off of the screen and onto the page (or paper, or wall).

I'd agree that the days of mass produced print are gone. But there is a real renaissance of craft, art and the production of something tangible. Smaller, niche, print runs and the proliferation of online print sites such as blurb all mean that while print in the future is going to be 'different', rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated.


Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting for the George Jetson jet-packs they said we'd all be using in the future, that were destined to replace the automobile.

With respect to commercial photography (and magazines), I think your comment is right-on. But with respect to the artistry of print photography, not so much (but maybe that will be one of those "niche" areas).


theaterculture said...

It might be worth thinking about this in terms of Marshal McCluhan's ideas about how the cultural uses of a media change over time. He describes how media tend to go through three phases: 1) Emergent; 2) Dominant; and 3) Residual. While the way each medium develops in history is specific, these are often broadly identified with Communication, Commerce, and Art respectively - during its Emergent phase a medium is available to be explored and used for producing and communicating new ideas; during its Dominant phase it primarily serves as a mass-market commercial tool; and during the Residual phase its available for artists to use by tweaking the codes and conventions worked out in the previous phases.

If we wanted to consider "the printed photograph" (or, indeed, printed matter more generally) as a medium, you could probably make the case that we're kicking into the Residual period. There are still lots of possibilities, including possibilities for individual commercial success, latent in a Residual medium (the live theatre has arguably been Residual since cinema adopted the full-length drama as its primary story material in the 1910s-20s, but is still kicking on...), but the fat part of the mass market wherein people take the form for granted and engage with it unthinkingly moves on.

If this is at all the case, big well made prints and wonderful expensive art books should still have their audience, even (especially?) among the young, in the same way that the dematerialization of music has moved most consumers to iDevices but also created the collector market in beautiful special-edition vinyl.

davek said...

I am in my early 50's. The last negative I shot was Halloween 1998 - all digital since.

I shoot more video than stills and believe that if you want to really capture a person or a situation it is much easier to do with the aid of sound and motion.

I have not made a print of anything in at least 10 years. I would much rather look at an image on a 50" HD television than a 4X6" print.

On the other hand, I do think stills are important.

Decent video is hard work. I can spend many hours creating a 3 minute clip. With stills most of the work is done at the time of the shoot.

Bad video is painful to watch as watching video requires a greater investment of energy than does looking at a few stills.

For many occasions stills are all you need. They are easy to do, get the job done, and are easier to consume.

For something like a digital frame that you hang on your wall stills are more appropriate because you do not have to stop and stand there to understand it. Having audio endlessly coming from a frame hanging on your wall is also a bad idea.

The digital version of stills is not going away.

Michael said...

Sadly I have to agree. The print is nearly dead. I have been saying for ten years that not only are books dead, reading print is dead in general. Moreover soon the novel will die; it is not tweetable.

RFS said...

Big national print may be dead but I know several people who are doing very well printing publications for regional or specialty audiences. The big problem with digital, of course, is that advertisers aren't willing to pay very much to advertise in digital pubs. They too, think the internet should be free.
So the thing to do, if you wanted to get rich, would be to start a Texas photography magazine that offered viewers a mix of country serenity, ranchland vitality, urban danger, oilfield drama, Dallas decadence and depravity, the works. Sort of an Arizona Highways meets Texas Music meets Interview with a little bit of the Shiny Sheet thrown in.

Kirk Tuck said...

I'm pretty sure Texas Monthly Magazine has that market totally sewn up. And the latest issue of Austin Magazine (big, four color glossy) is nearly 200 pages. But I think you are more than right. The national print is the first to crater...

Anonymous said...

I have been a photographer nearly 50 years and am now exploring what is being called iPhonography or mobile photography. I believe this has morphed me, as an artist?, into an image maker as much as a photographer. And while I post some of my creations to Flickr, I am now saving both my photo work from the past and my new creations in the form of self-published books (i.e. Blurb). After all, I believe the best storage device is still the print! I think Alfred Stieglitz would be relishing this debate.

MO said...

People will never stop decorating their walls. And the picture will continue to be picked for this purpose altso in the future. In witch form i dont know. But like fashion it will wave up and down in terms of form, style and amount. But in 100 years you can sell the same idea to the World all over again!

Dave Jenkins said...

Well, you may be right, Kirk, but I don't think so. I think there are going to be a lot of very sad people when this generation realizes they have entrusted their visual heritage to an ephemeral collection of electronic impulses and now finds their old DVDs and hard drives are not readable (if they even bothered to back up their photographs at all).

Even though I'm scanning many of my negatives and old family negatives and prints (and backing them up), I'm still holding onto the negs and prints themselves for my children and grandchildren.

Kirk Tuck said...

Dave, I think our generation is so indoctrinated into the value (historic, nostalgic, family treasure) of prints that we can't see outside of our own long cultivated prejudices to even begin to understand that the generations following see photos and their use in an entirely different way.

We embrace the idea that we are preserving something of our tenure on the planet but I think they are more interested in the idea of the experience than the artifacts that experiences throw off. It's such a cultural change that we can't begin to bridge it.

Also, the poorest cultures have few visual artifacts and so are drawn to the scant few they have while kids today have been surrounded 24/7 by all kinds of imaging and just assume some sort of image they might want to see will always be at their fingertips at any time without any effort on their part. And it's possible that they are right.

Think of the hurricane and devastation in the northeast two years ago. The floods claimed so many albums filled with family images. But if those same images had been resident in the cloud, on a Google page, in a Picassa album, on Facebook, they would still be safe and accessible.

I know that I am sometimes an outlier on these issues but I have very, very little interest in historical photos of my extended family. Yes, I might have seen many photos of a great grandmother but what about her great grandmother? No photos existed when she was alive. Do we feel that loss?

I like photos of Ben and Belinda and the Dog. I'll have the memories of everyone else. And when the memory fades through disease and age even having the images will eventually become, for some, totally meaningless.

How sad to think of a print unmoored from its connection and purpose....

calvininjax said...

Although I basically share your gloomy view regarding print as a medium, it could be that the young may surprise us and do a 180-degree turn.

CDs spelled the death knell of vinyl albums and MP3 and MP4 are killing off CDs, but vinyl albums are still in demand among some youngsters.

So maybe in the not-so-distant future a specialist market will still exist for print and printed photographs.

As a 60-year-old, the thing that frightens me most of all is the pace of change. All our lives have been transformed in the space of a mere decade. That is scary!

Kirk Tuck said...

I think you nailed it. It's not any particular change (cultural, industrial, social, taste, product desire, technology...) it's the extremely rapid, ever accelerating pace that is frightening for most people (myself included). But I am trying to stay neutral instead of trying to hold on to idea that no longer have wider relevance. Tough to do.

Larry Cordeiro said...

Painting may have died several years ago, but not in my studio. I still paint several times a week, and what happens outside has little or no effect. My camera is but one tool I use, not the only.

Kirk Tuck said...

Please understand that when I talk about the death of print or the death of painting I am speaking about commercial markets or wide consumer markets. There are still sculptors and painters and print makers and even conceptual artists working. It's just their audiences that are changing. If it's okay to work with a limited audience then an art may never die...

But to the consumer world it may already be as dead as a Zune (which may still work as well as it ever did if the battery is good).

Dave Jenkins said...

We'll see. One of my sons and his family were visiting not long ago, and our granddaughter Marlee, seven at the time, was looking through the various albums of snapshot we have around our home. Finally, she went to my wife and asked, "Where are my pictures, Grandma?" Louise said, "In Grandpa's computer, sweetheart."

I had switched to digital the year before she was born.

So for her eighth birthday I edited out 150 photographs from her birth on, made 4x6 prints, and put them in an album titled "The Book of Marlee: The First Eight Years." My daughter-in-law tells me Marlee treasures it and looks at it nearly every day.

That's only anecdotal proof, I know, yet, I think there's hope that this generation might not be so quick to abandon their visual histories as we fear.

Old Gray Roy said...


As an 83 year old great-grandfather I usually abstain from comment on such as "... the death of print". My preferences are, quite naturally I think, tied to an earlier time. However, because I have a 27 year old granddaughter who is selling her (oil)paintings at a rapid clip it seems odd to me to think about any hand done product dying. Add to this that I recently had a good-size photo essay hanging at the local community college. It created a lot of interest and comment and made this old guy feel really good.

Final comment: Recently a large local metropolitan city school district received a nearly 1 million dollar grant to be used as a poll of elementary kids requested. The overwhelming majority of kids want books to read. Not tablets, or laptops or anything digital; they want books. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, I think you're right that the mass commercial market has moved on. That market was linked to prints being the form of distribution and that's clearly never coming back. The 'residual' market, referenced above, is where print will thrive and all I'd note is that that market is bigger and wider than ever before.

But the one thing that should really chime with you is that the Print market is shifting towards people who are making quality, who are aiming for art!

And finally the fact that people have cloud stored stuff doesn't exclude prints being made, it just means that the editing selection is done on screen.

(nb- I'm in my 30s and love prints, my twenty-something buddies, are, if anything, even more proactive about having great pictures on their walls and homemade books)


Andrea said...

Probably print as a mass-medium is dead. But humans love buying and receiving "things": a book, a paint, a statue, a print - something to have in the house and to look at. So I think photography will survive as a gift or collector/art item...

Andrea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Huw Morgan said...

Last I heard, they were still making houses and condos with walls. I echo Peter F - kids are still decorating their houses with paintings and photos. All three of my 30 something kids have homes with real art on the walls. Art schools are still turning out kids who want to paint, photographers who want to make prints and designers who want to design tangible things.

Toronto's CONTACT photo festival has never been stronger and is full of galleries displaying prints for people to hang on walls.

The sky is not falling.

Kirk Tuck said...

Yes, yes. We are all relatively affluent and traditional people here at VSL and of course we've inculcated that in our own children but anecdotal evidence isn't admissible in court or in history.

I am speaking about a wider cultural context, not enclaves of anchored taste and upper middle class social convention.

There may still be prints on the walls but I'll betting they are smaller and more transient than what we grew up with....

Jordi Pujol said...

Hi Kirk!

I am from Ben's generation (slightly older I guess, '94) and couldn't be more truthful.

Now as of agreeing if the print is dead...
Just between photographers... Not dead, just getting into a niche.

For the general public it is quite dead however. Getting photos printed is just a "More special" way of presenting them.

As a hobbyist, I recently had a small printing spree and loved doing it. The print has this warmth and presence that the screens don't.

However, for many uses (as commented in mags and books) the convenience of screens trump prints.

Now, I attended to a party and they hired photographers... Yet seemingly those will just be uploaded to Facebook.

Will have to ask for the original sized files...
Just because I want to print them!

MO said...

I do believe that printed photos as advertising, are becoming niche to. But took the perspective of the working photographer:) The form is changing rapidly, you are right about that to. But you can still sell pictures or your time as a photographer. And finding your own niche or product is essential for your business. But i agree that your paycheck is not made from prints:) But you will have to create a interesting product that can create a market. The form must fit the market. Prints has become niche. I agree!

MO said...

nice post and discussion by the way :)