5.21.2016

The death of commercial photography has been overstated. Wildly overstated if you consider the health of the bigger category of imaging.


There's been a thought trend that the photography business morphed into something new and diminished; at least financially, during the maturation of digital imaging and the massive destruction of the economy from 2007 until 2013 or even 2014. We assumed (collectively) that the business had changed into a blue collar undertaking with much lower pricing structures and a default to letting clients dictate new rules about intellectual property and ownership of images.

What I am seeing in Austin right now is a resurgence of interests on the part of clients in both traditional fields and start up technology fields in using respected artists and smart, well educated practitioners to collaborate in creating new styles of images and combinations of imaging technologies. They are no longer looking (if they ever were) for the lowest priced, technical button pushers, rather they are looking (as clients have since the dawn of creative photography) for people who can guide companies through the part of the process of branding by creating innovative visual work that reflects the feel and dress of the business entity. It starts with their portrait assets and diffuses into the rest of the visual, public facing representations of the company. Does the architectural imaging (and the architecture itself) reflect the look, style and feel of the portrait images? Does the video reflect the same messaging and feel as the still images?

Companies have come around to the idea that really good and really innovative industrial design (hello Apple, Ikea, Tesla, Sony, etc.) is very valuable to consumers and now that the technology inside products has become ubiquitous and invisible to the eye the quality of design and build is a major differentiator in people's desire to buy and own. The logical extension is imaging as part of the industrial design matrix. After all, the design of a company and their product is all represented to the market via video and photography.

Of course I am not talking about wedding, baby and family portraiture; styles and tastes there have always traditionally followed the marketing space by a decade or more...

While large parts of the USA are still dealing with lost jobs and declining wages for many a look at the major technical markets; from Boston to SF, from Seattle to the twin cities, unemployment is hitting record lows. Numbers not seen in decades. Here in Austin we just hit the official number of "under 3%" unemployment. I have friends with fine dining restaurants whose businesses are almost in danger of failing because they are consistently unable to fill positions throughout their enterprise. From cooks to waitpersons. I hear from retailers who are unable to find clerks even at wages quite a bit beyond any minimum.

The recovery works to buoy the value of our work by, on one hand, removing people at the lower end of the market who had not yet found ways to make their forays into photography financially successful (but who have successfully found traditional employment) and, on the other hand, by providing an ever more sophisticated market for ever more sophisticated imagery.

I think the secret is constant experimentation and a deep dive in the currency of being current. But knowing what is selling is only half the equation. Instead of replicating the styles we see it's incumbent upon us to figure out how to integrate the styles that are aligned with our own vision with the stream of current taste. Everyone must figure that out for themselves. But I will tell you that the market feels to me more like it did several decades ago when we were hired as both image makers and professional imaging consultants to collaborate on the projects instead of just taking orders for cookie cutter services. The vital aspect in all of this is to having to go out and show your new work.

Nice to see the market appearing to support a more professional and in depth approach to our partnering of companies with our expertise.

On a different note there was an interesting article in the NYT about how our lack of workforce mobility (actual, physical mobility) has caused this recovery to be slower and less effective than previous economic recoveries. Jobs are portable (ever more so) and move from market to geographic market pretty quickly. The most successful people across many industries are the ones who can move to follow the rise of markets in certain areas and then leave the markets during their decline. It seems that previously in our national history this was a recurring pattern with as much as 20% of the working populace relocating in pursuit of work every year. Photographers can be mobile. If one is stuck in a rust belt city with a declining population and a receding business market it can be more or less impossible to "market your way out" or "just up your game."

You might want to consider targeting the markets that are doing well and to relocate, or at least visit and test the waters. You may find that there are many support jobs available in hot markets that will allow you to work part time in a different field while settling into a much more active and profitable market for your skills.

Also interesting because it ties into a book I read several years ago about this upcoming generation being the "renter" generation. Renting bikes, skis, camera lenses, etc. instead of buying them because, well, it makes economic sense. The book also talked about the nations in Europe (at the time) with the highest rate of home ownership and the lowest rates of home ownership and how this effected income and career success. The poster country for home ownership, with over 90%, was Portugal which, not coincidentally, had the lowest income levels in the E.U. (at that time). The country with the lowest level of home ownership (a nation of renters) was Switzerland which, you guessed it, had the highest per capita income and the most entrepreneurial success.

The finding pointed to geographic mobility as a predictor of job success and income levels. A renter can leave to pursue opportunity while an owner is tied to his location by his single biggest financial asset. A Swiss person plying a career is able to take assignments across his country or around the world with short notice. He is able to follow the flow of success. While a home owner, particularly in a declining economy, is moored to his investment and unable to pursue the same opportunity.

Americans may argue that home ownership is vital for economic success but study after study shows that there is continual financial/investing opportunity loss, and that homes, in general, rise and fall in value slower than equities markets. It's something to think about when someone starts to rant on about, "The government is fudging those employment numbers! Everyone in my town is out of work!" Yes. That the second part of that argument may be true but it's up to the individual to create as much opportunity as possible for himself. Sometimes that means following the work.

The above is about the idea of home ownership and job mobility and NOT about politics. Political responses will be moderated into the void. You are forewarned. 

9 comments:

Mike Rosiak said...

Hey! You're back. And with a very interesting piece. Though, I have to say, I was struck by how "corporate" you sounded at the beginning. E.g., "... people who can guide companies through the part of the process of branding by creating innovative visual work that reflects the feel and dress of the business entity. It starts with their portrait assets and diffuses into the rest of the visual, public facing representations of the company."

This "stickiness" of unemployment rates and wage levels seems to be an unintended consequence of the decades long encouragement and subsidizing of (via the tax code) home ownership, I think also aided and abetted by financial advisors who preach the tax advantages of home ownership.

Back to the thrust of your article, I'm glad that the overall state of the business has turned around for you. It was becoming apparent in the nature of the work, the various gigs, that you have reported on, distinctly different from just a few years ago.

amolitor said...

So, let's see, something like: working with the client, figure out what you want to say. Then develop some specific ideas for both subjects and visual motifs that might express and support that. Shoot, experiment, look, rethink and refine. Ultimately, develop a set of visual materials built around the subjects and visual motifs you have developed, that in turn delivers the message you have ultimately settled down on.

This sounds exactly like Fine Art photography as it is actually done. The only substantive difference is that you are your own client, and the timelines can be a lot longer.

But you have stated it so eloquently!

Kepano said...

So, when are you adding a drone to your kit?

Kirk Tuck said...

um....never. If I need drone footage I'll hire someone.

Michael Matthews said...

The highly mobile, rent-don't-buy approach makes pefect sense during the ascendent arc of one's life and career. But when the music stops, it's important to know there's a chair left upon which to sit down.

Geoff from NZ said...

Hi - Interesting commentary on home ownership. Here in New Zealand we're experiencing massive increases in house prices, fueled by a combination of high immigration, no capital gains tax, investor tax benefits, and a lack of land supply preventing high enough build rates. It's mainly immigration (wealthy Asian folk looking to off load their wealth in a stable political & economic environment, with good education system etc etc) that kicked it off. I think this has also happened in places in the US & Canada as well.

People are paying massive rents (relative to incomes) to live in hovels, with no secure tenure - really at the mercy of very poor investor landlords. Formerly well maintained family suburbs are turning into unslightly "slums" (well not quite) as investor landlords don't do proper maintenance etc. The aim is tax free capital gain.

This has become the biggest socioeconomic disaster in NZ, probably since the Great Depression (late 20s early 1930s). The next generation are now effectively locked out of home ownership and this will create multiple generations to come with no secure places to live. Their money is being channeled into investor's pockets (& into the banks via massive mortgages). When they come to retirement age, they will have nothing - nowhere to live (rents are too high to afford) & no capital to get by on. A real multi-generational socio-economic disaster creating massive division between wealthy home owners & life-long renters. No easy fix now - maybe revolution will happen?

Anyway, a lot of studies show there are major benefits in home ownership compared with renting - better health, children feel more secure and are able to get a stable schooling etc etc.

The renting approach works in places like Switzerland and Germany where there are secure long-term leases available to people at reasonable prices (relative to wages), but not in places like NZ where no such thing exists.

Mobility relative to work is also OK when you don't have children to consider. They need a greater level of stability to foster friendships, familial support, progression through schooling etc than a mobile lifestyle can provide.

Anyway, enough rant. It's just that this has now become THE social issue in NZ, so you touched on a topic of great concern for us here.

Love your blog - nice mix of real world commentary, camera nerd stuff, a glimpse into the life of an Austinian (?). Thanks

Signed .... concerned middle aged bloke from NZ.

typingtalker said...

"Americans may argue that home ownership is vital for economic success but study after study shows that there is continual financial/investing opportunity loss, and that homes, in general, rise and fall in value slower than equities markets."

This is the result of comparing the growth in value of residential property to the growth in value of a stock portfolio over some period of time. But you can't live in your stock portfolio. Properly calculated, the return of an investment in a home has to include not just the capital gain but the rent that would be paid if you didn't own a home.

With regard to the photography business ... a picture is still worth a thousand words. If you're good, 2,000 or more. Maybe its the copy writers that should be worried.

David Mantripp said...

Hmm. I think it is very dangerous to generalise so much. I'll refrain from commenting on markets I don't know about, but the driver for high rental ratio in Switzerland is mainly the eye-watering cost of property (and indeed everything else). Yes, we have very high per-capita income, but we also have, and by a massive margin, the most expensive Big Mac in the world. We make NORWAY look affordable! Also, as Geoff from NZ mentioned, we have long term leases, which are a blessing and a curse - a safety net for the tenant, but very tricky to get out of at short notice. A 3 year lease means you are liable to pay for 3 years, full stop. And finally, with the high demand for rental property, it is actually hard to find a good place - very hard. So none of this encourages mobility, quite the reverse.

On the other hand, it probably takes about as long to get from one end of Switzerland to the other as it does to cross Austin :-)

Mitch said...

In terms of still photography, we may have arrived at the point where all that matters is what is referred to in movie/motion circles as "the treatment". Great directors rarely run a camera nor set a light. But they have the vision.

Bringing a vision or a "treatment" to your clients is the differentiating factor now that making a photo is physically easy. Thank God we may be past all that "it's a digital photo, I have a digital camera" baloney

It's interesting in light of the NYT article I read yesterday that emerging photographers in the consumer space (weddings, portraits) are often dumbfounded why all these workshops and those marketing materials don't have them earning riches in their small isolated communities.

We may be returning to a time when making "it" in a major or secondary market may be the only way to survive as a full time image-creator. I may live 2 hours from NYC but going forward most of my clients may have to come from there.