Some observations after speaking to a small journalism class at the University of Texas at Austin.

I was invited to speak to a small photography class at the University of Texas at Austin on Tues. The class was composed of some undergraduates, a person working on his MA and another person working toward his doctorate. The general discussion revolved around e-publications but after a while spun off into a general discussion about the future of photography.

Twenty years ago, when I was invited to speak in the same department, classes overflowed with eager students, cameras were slung over their shoulders, hung from backpacks and bravado was everywhere. It was tough to get into the photography classes and often there were waiting lists. If you were a Photojournalism major you still had to learn to write, scan and send your images, etc. But the main point is that the classes were full and the mood generally very positive. The future of photography seemed, as usual, in flux and unsettled, but it's always been that way.

When I went to the Belo New Media Center to speak this time I found a building that looked nothing like the academic halls of just a decade or so ago. The buildings have taken on a shiny, contemporary, corporate sleekness that reminds me of a cross between an upscale hotel lobby and an Ikea furnishing store. The lobby area, with plenty of tables and chairs, was filled with students at work --- which seemed to revolve solely around looking at laptop screens, texting on phones and chatting up the people across the table. Something was unsettling to me. Oh yes, it was the total absence of any camera of any type (still or video) other than the potential cameras resident in every phone. How vastly different from my last visit to the halls of photojournalism.

When I met with my friend and tenured professor, Dennis Darling, he explained that the discreet silos of speciality: photography, videography, graphic design, writing, etc. were crumbling and now students were able to put together their degree plans like selecting from a Chinese menu. One from each column in any order you like. Most classes now were multimedia classes with an emphasis (big emphasis) on mastering -------(get ready to be disappointed) social media! As if social media was not as natural as falling off a log for this generation...

We headed up to a small conference room on one of the palatial floors of the building and I was introduced to the students. They all seemed earnest.

At the end of the long evening, while sitting in Kerbey Lane cafe, eating chicken verde enchiladas, I mentally conjoined the things I thought were true with the opinions and observations of the much younger generation I'd just met with and came up with exactly the concept that drove my essay, The Graying of Traditional Photography. Photography, while a vital component of advertising, marketing and even social media conversations has shifted from a series of images meant to hold their value and knowledge over time to a series of consumables that are meant to more or less be emotional inflections and ephemeral memes in service of very temporary themes or subjects.  The photo opens the blog (any blog) because it is more visually exciting than straight type. The image holds the eye long enough for the headline to engage the viewer. It's best if there is a tangent or connection between the narrative message and its visual accomplice but it's not always necessary and usually an image is chosen for its relative intersection with the text, and also for the universality and homogeneity of its appeal. The photo is the appetizer course for a fast food menu of various social media genres, and traditional media struggling to disguise itself as socially relevant, but with a whiff of hard news and purpose.

As with music the great majority of photography has been flattened and delivered as a commodity. The saddest thing though is that the delivery, unlike music, comes without any monetization for the vast majority of practitioners. It just exists naked on the web, waiting for the casual "right click" that will repurpose it, mostly without permission, in infinite numbers of micro-uses.

The great University, by conjoining and blending all the ingredients of journalism and communication in one stew gives credence and stature to the idea that everything is in service of the melange of sights, sounds and copy blending into a different recipe altogether, which they call new media. 

There is still hope. Even these wet-behind-the-ears students each had a project they were pursuing and most of the projects were centered around a series of still images. We may yet see the emergence of a new generation of image creators who value the single image, and the collection of images within a theme, as art that is still relevant. But we're sure distilling down the numbers of dedicated participants as fast as we can. 


Dave Jenkins said...

"But we're sure distilling down the numbers of dedicated participants as fast as we can."

I don't see that as a bad thing at all. There have always been far more would-be professionals than the industry can sustain.

amolitor said...

"Master Social Media" hah.

There's a common thread here, though. Some recent works of fiction started out as self-published books that found an audience. There's a recent interview on shifter.media with David Burnett in which he remarks that all too frequently PJ gigs go to people with large social media followings, rather than to skilled PJs. And I dare say there's more.

The thread is this: Employers increasingly want creatives to "bring an audience".

In the old days, creatives created. The the employer paid for editing, re-touching, all the post production work. Then the employer paid for marketing (finding and creating the audience). Then the employer managed the sales channel, and collected the money.

These days, increasingly, the creatives are being asked to do everything except collecting the money, because computing has enabled creatives to do that work "easily", more or less. For some reason, employers want to hold on to the part where they collect the money, though.

The obvious answer, in the abstract, is that creative should simply take that part as well. If you're doing all the work, you should get all the money. What that means in actually practical terms, um. Hmm. Hmm. Lemme get back to you on that.

hbernstein said...

I encourage people to check out Dennis Darling's photographic work. It's intense and satisfying; certainly demonstrating the power of old-school documentary images. We should all be as talented as Dennis! He also happens to be a very nice human being.

Nicolas said...

Music is like photography, there is minimal money in it for most practitioners.

James Pilcher said...

The graying of photography: I am becoming increasingly confused about even my own photography. Being near the same age as you, Kirk, I have engaged in traditional photography for a lifetime, but few in my circle of family and friends today want to make the time to look at my images if they are not available through Instagram or Facebook; areas where I have no presence and do not intend to be. Even posting on my SmugMug site does little to share because my SmugMug site is not in their personal workspace.

Digital left my father behind. Social media and phones with lenses are leaving me behind. That, of course, is largely my choice if it ends up being that way. How long to I want to continue to adapt, change, and learn? Interesting question.

James Weekes said...

Sad to read this. I know that change is the only constant but, at the age of 69 the ground is shifting fast. The good news is that there seem to more, good photo books coming on the market every week. I do think that there is already a swing away from grabbing any stock shot and engaging a professional.

A related question. Do you get requests from people to intern with you? My brother-in-law embarked on a long career in photography by interning with, then assisting Irving Penn. Pretty good start if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you're saying, but I have this feeling that things are beginning to change a little bit more toward the old situation. A lot of newspapers got hurt by things like Craigslist and blogs and so on, but as the Internet matures, I think people are catching on to the fact that blogs do not equal professional news coverage, that rumor is still rumor, that gasbags are still gasbags. The next step will be to find ways of protecting creative matter, and that's happening, too, I think -- you're seeing more and more lawsuits involving unapproved use of creative matter. Eventually, I think you'll be able to track any photo anywhere on the net and see all of its uses, and demand payment (or penalties) for illegal use. When people worry about "the future," it's often in terms of equipment -- but having a really great iPhone is not going to make a great photographer, any more than possession of a Leica makes a great photographer. People don't hire you because you've got a camera, people hire you because you've got photographic skills, which are not as easily acquired as a camera. But, for a few years, at least, the Internet public conflated equipment with skill. I think that's now starting to go away.

John Camp