Golden Age of Photography. It's always someone else's Fall of Photography. Depends on context.
From time to time I get frustrated because the photography industry won't stand still and let me fully benefit from my past experience and time equity. There are moments when clients seem as though they will never call, text or e-mail the offer of even one more project. I, like many professionals who've been at this for a while, am not immune to the fear, ambiguity and uncertainty of the market place. But the idea that the markets for photography have vanished is, according to my anecdotal information, not true. And, in the last 50 years, with the exception of extreme or localized economic disasters, this pessimism has never been true.
It's 9:45 in the morning. I'm in my smallish studio/office space. It's got about 450 square feet of usable space. The center part of the large room has a ceiling that about 14 feet high and unobstructed by cross beams. The space is painted white and has concrete floors, covered with foam tiles from Costco.
I've been in the office now for a while, getting ready for a 10 am portrait shoot and also catching up on new e-mail from, mostly, clients. Ongoing, paying, relatively happy clients. I've cleaned up the clutter from my space. The bathroom is cleaned and polished. The batteries charged. I'm not jumping into any task that requires too much focus because clients sometimes come early and I don't want to waste their time.
It's January which is traditionally a slow period for our imaging industry. I'm 62 years old which pundits and photo bloggers will tell you is far too old to be relevant in the photo industry. I'm old school so social media tells me my skill sets are no longer relevant, in fact, have never been relevant to millenials or Get-X-ers. I'm choosing to work with micro four thirds cameras instead of "full frame" cameras; which camera reviewers suggest should be the kiss of death for my professional career. In fact, to judge by conventional wisdom I am doing (and have been doing for a while) everything exactly wrong. I should be destitute at this point. Ready to shuffle off to that island where there is no one besides other ancient photographers with ancient cameras clamped onto the rails of their walkers, carefully gliding around complaining about how digital ruined everything.
While it's true that few of my assignments have anything to do with the kinds of jobs we always see from "working" photographers who post every moment of their lives on YouTube. I'm not able to show you behind the scenes videos in which a horde of scruffy assistants mill around giant monitors tethered to tomorrow's cameras, watching various "fashion" models gyre and gambol on vast sheets of seamless paper, Profoto flashes blinking in time to retro-disco music. (Wait! Wasn't Donna Summers an artist from our generation?). It's not that I wouldn't like to do stuff like that it's just that those shoots don't seem to actually exist as PAYING jobs but are fabricated in order to make content for websites that try to sell workshops and push affiliate links and other new age advertising.
You may suggest that I'm just out of the loop and that those warehouse shoots filled with C+ grade models and lighting from the 1990's really do exist but that I'm just not invited to know about them. Ah. I get it. Classic denial. But the flaw here is that most of us actual working photographers have long relationships with advertising agencies in many cities. Some of us even have family, spouses who work in the art departments at big ad agencies. They laugh when I show them some of what passes for a "shoot" on the web environment. Big laughs. Hysterical laughs.
That's not to say that there are not "premium" jobs being done every day in nearly every market place. It's just that they are being done by sober, experienced hands in the business who are not surrounded by endless entourages because.....it's not profitable. There's no financial benefit to having extra people in your studio, drinking your coffee, eating your craft service and chatting up your models and clients. That's why real photographers are only surrounded by clients, stylists, and one or two good, and hardworking, assistants. If at all. And while there is a bunch of great new talent coming into photography I've come to understand that most corporations, agencies and larger businesses value proven results over new potential bling for the kinds of jobs that have substantive budgets attached. There are lots of small, micro-web-Instagramic-mini-campaigns on which new teeth get cut. The big money doesn't usually get wasted on trial balloons.
So, why do I say that the sky is not falling? Well, when we advertise our services business increases. I've worked several big projects in January, mostly for clients represented by marcom staff half my age, who are returning clients. We're in the planning stages for a multi-day image catalog project for a large radiology practice, we're finishing up a portrait project for a large oral surgery practice, we've just finished a multi-day assignment for a national accounting company. We successfully navigated a three day shoot for a high tech medical device company and the folks at ZACH Theatre just reached out yesterday to see if we could do a stunning and thoroughly of the moment television commercial for a new production.
Seems like we continue to provide a value proposition (which includes: experience, proven results, nice work ethic, teamwork oriented, the right gear for the right stuff, nice-ness, etc.) that corporate clients, smaller businesses and ad agencies still value. I think the thing that makes our business profitable is that we continue to market, go to lunch with clients, volunteer for high profile charity projects and deliver finished photos people like --- on time and within the parameters requested. Is there any other way to do this?
Some conjecture that because everyone in the world has flooded the photo viewing universe with every conceivable image that civilization will ever require that people no longer care about looking at photographs. This may be true if we're discussing day-to-day "look at me" photographs but those quick snaps of coffee cups or duck-faced selfies with crooked monuments in the background aren't what clients (mostly) are looking for. They need good images of their products, their plants, their environments, their people and their processes. None of which (typically) can be sourced from stock sources on the web.
The one true thing is that video is now part of the mix. It's not a separate thing anymore. It's part of the commercial experience of photography for business. Photography is now a bigger tent. Just as we never did our own retouching in the film days and we are now routinely called on to "fix" images, move heads around, add absent executives to group shots, and so much more, we never had the making of marketing movies on our radar back when video was tough to do, technically. Now it's growing to be just another facet of the big jewel of photography. It's another income source. It's something new to learn and offer to imaging clients. For others it's a continuation.
The bottom line is that this is the Golden Age of Photography for a whole new generation. They'll grow into it as they learn how to market and how to meet the expectations of the people with checkbooks and account balances.
The web has made a sitcom of the photographic process but people with persistence will learn to see beyond the "90210" or "Beverly Hillbillies" or "The Big Bang Theory" popular culture fictions of the photo marketplace and see the truth on the other side. Then they will learn to make the market pay them what they are worth. It's not magic. It's just not the end of the world as we know it either.
I'm happy to have a roster of mid-tier projects from good, solid clients. There's less sparkle and fewer people are impressed by our day to day work but at the same time we've worked with many of our clients for longer than a decade and there is a comfort and profit in the stability of their patronage. The bigger jobs come with bigger drama. Bigger risks. Fun for game shows, less fun for sustainable business. Go figure.