Lost in the Sea of Photography. No roadmap ahead. No legacy behind.


TTArtisan 21mm f1.5 lens on a Leica SL2 camera.

"The Butterfly Bridge"

When I was working hard at the business of photography I think my single biggest worry was whether I would ever have enough money to retire or whether I would turn into a charity case with an endless supply of stories about the "good old days." While I wasn't paying attention my partner/spouse/super-hero wife stepped in and took care of the financial stuff. In spite of my best efforts to spend money on an ever changing gaggle of new toys she figured out how to backstop me. But now I'm grappling with something different and in some respects more sinister. To wit: "What happens next." 

From 1979 to 2000 change in the photo world seemed fast but was glacial by comparison to the years from 2001 to 2022. There are similarities but the differences between the earlier days and the start of this century are almost overwhelming. Client still need images but what they want is profoundly different. Where they put the images is wildly different. Clients will still pay but figuring out how to charge for social media use versus national print campaigns is a total mystery to just about everyone. Gear kind of looks the same but we never had to deal with so much obsolescence. Gallery shows have vanished while NFTs are proliferating?

Today I am thinking about obsolescence and commercial photography. I landed on this as I was setting up the studio for a portrait shoot I'm doing tomorrow. My mind snapped to obsolescence as I looked at two floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with binders that are, in turn, filled with CD-roms and the DVDs. Digital images have always been ephemeral compared to film. Keep film cool, dry and in the dark and it has the potential to outlive the photographer by a factor of about 2 to 1. Our biggest problem with film storage was just getting a slide we used back into the right folder. 

Digital content lives a fragile existence. The images have to be stored somewhere but every potential residence for photographs made with digital cameras is subject to some peril or another. Store everything in the cloud and you run the risk of waking up one day to find that the "trusted" service provider has gone bankrupt and shut down without notice. The servers are gone. The images flushed into the virtual sewer. Rendered, in one stroke, non-existent. Those CD-Roms from Kodak and Verbatim? Maybe they'll decay over time and we'll find once again that moving a few bits off the trail renders the whole disk non-readable. Or maybe we'll just, over time, run out of disk players that will read whatever format you happened to write to back then. Or maybe we'll just get to the point when no one is still making the disk readers/appliances that read CD-Roms altogether. Already the drivers for older readers aren't being updated anymore....

The same goes for DVDs with acres and acres of images on them. What happens when those become unreadable? Of course, you could spend the rest of your working life iteratively transferring/migrating to whatever the newest media is but wouldn't you rather enjoy the fleeting promises of a happy life instead of laboring over files which, if you are like me, you barely remember taking and haven't had a reason to revisit in...maybe decades?

In the ancient times, before Wi-Fi, arrogant photographers believed that people would always hunger to re-use (and "re-pay-for") their glorious images. They called it, "stock photography." Those large format photographs of the Eiffel Tower or those poignant medium format pictures of chubby office workers looking purposefully into desktop cathode ray tube computer monitors. The photographers saved everything. Every image was going to be part of a legacy they would leave to their loved ones which would provide never-ending residual fees for an every brightening future. So....how's that working out?

Truthfully, the number of photographs being taken every day is now unimaginably huge. The number of photographs that need to be taken by trained professionals with super advanced gear for demanding media insertion is probably smaller as a percentage of images taken (per capita) than at any time since the introduction of flexible film.  Almost everything is headed to the web. Almost every shot can be taken with a phone. Almost every use can be satisfactorily fulfilled by the happily untrained person who just knows when the image on the phone screen looks good to them. And since most uses are fleeting and non-recurring the downside of a less than perfect photo is minimized.

I've written many times before that photography made the jump over the bridge between "precious object" to consumable commodity. Every image has an ever-shortening "use by" date now. Mostly measured in hours. Days are saved for really special work. So how do we navigate the "brave new world" profitably?

When my son's millennial friends call up and want to "pick my brain" about "how to become successful photographers?"  I am truly at a loss for what to tell them now. I wrote a book in 2010 called "Commercial Photography Handbook." It was published by Amherst Media. You can still get a brand new copy from Amazon.com. The book was very popular and we sold tens of thousands of copies. Many of which were used in college courses teaching commercial photography. A lot of the book's content was about marketing and usage rights. Some parts about pricing. And I tossed in what I learned about branding and strategies of specialization, mostly gleaned from working at a regional advertising agency for a number of years --- in a non-photographic capacity. 

Much of the general information in the book is still practical but only at the highest echelons of our industry do people still negotiate and get paid for usage licensing now. You can protest but you know that the great unwashed, new masses of "pros" and part timers have probably never heard of the concept of licensing their images.... They just accept a one time payday and hand over the images to a marcom person who then tosses them onto the social media tire fire and, perhaps, somewhere on a company's ever changing (consumable) website. Next to the free stock photography.

When the kid's friends call we meet for a while, I give them a copy of the book, I urge them to figure out what they need to make in order to live a good life and how to estimate all the numbers involved to gauge how much they need to be charging clients. If they are going to be "professional." We'll see how many make it. And these are smart kids who've gone to the best colleges or universities and have gotten degrees in something other than photography. I think it's just currently fashionable now, during the "great resignation" to try one's hand at something fun....like photography. And being smart, young people if they can get paid for it then so much the better. 

I keep getting calls inviting me to work. On one hand it's good for my ego and my self-esteem but on the other hand it gives me a front row seat to see how much photography, as a business, has changed and how so much of the challenge and fun of it --- from my perspective --- has been sucked dry by ever diminishing expectations on the part of clients (less time, less budget and less imagination) and ever more paper work from the spreadsheet mavens who seem to have taken over control of all creative businesses... to the everlasting detriment of the actual product. 

Last night I noticed that the price of a Sigma 40mm f1.4 Art lens has fallen from $1500 to about $799. Everyone who has ever used the lens praises it to the heavens as one of the sharpest "Art" series lenses ever made. Go see Gerald Undone's YouTube review of the lens if you aren't familiar with it. The price drop, coupled with the reputation of the lens triggered my gear infatuation cycle and got me excited about another acquisition. I checked the local camera store's website and saw that they listed the lens as "in stock." I started rationalizing the cost of yet another big, heavy but amazingly good lens. 

And then I stopped and reflected. What project could I possibly do better with that particular lens and that particular focal length? It's not my style of portrait lens. I have good lenses in focal lengths of 35mm and 45mm so what the heck would the new lens really allow me to do that I can't already do?

But underneath it all my pervasive thought was --- who will ever end up using images I might create with this lens in any medium that might even remotely challenge the sharpness and resolution of it? Would I ever realize its potential?

Could I instead justify buying it in order to walk around and do "Art"? I already have a tremendous surplus of heavy lenses all across the normal focal length range and experience tells me I might put a 3 pound lens on the front of a 3 pound camera and walk around in the Austin downtown heat exactly one time before I got horribly bored and exhausted by the adventure of it all. And on a high resolution camera, using everything handheld, would I ever be able to really discern the difference between a legendary Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art lens and the 40mm? I have decent eyes but I can pretty much guarantee that I won't. 

The only place a lens like this might really shine is if you are doing a comparison between two very elite lenses and you put both on tripods, anchor the tripods onto concrete, use a flash aimed at a static target and carefully compare the resulting files at 400% on a great monitor. And who has time for that? I can't imagine anything more boring. And yet people seem  to do that all the time.

And with that decided I came to the realization that I'd finally hit the wall. Starting next week I'm purging every non-personal CD-rom or DVD that is over five years old. Everything goes. Next we'll toss out the older stuff on film that hasn't already been squeezed out. And then, and then. And then they came for the lenses...

I love taking photographs and being an extrovert, or an extra-extrovert, the thing I like best about assignments is working with fun people, but the whole last century obsession with legacy stuff is so overblown and overdone. I think people in general and artists in particular need to be focused on "What's next?" And to stop looking in the rear view mirrors. 

If you worked hard and socialized well you can probably name drop all day long. But does it matter if it all happened a long time ago and anyone younger than 50 has never heard of the people whose names you are dropping? Should anyone give a damn about how we used to selenium tone our double weight prints? Does it matter that you still know how to trim the leader on Tri-X film so you can load it in a screw mount Leica? Does your Linhof camera still make you look cool?

Can you look me in the eye and tell me you really, really like most of the old black and white landscape photography from the second half of the 20th century? Are some of the popular photographers of that era really worthy of sainthood? Have we already forgotten Judy Dater and Jack Wellpot? 

I was so excited to buy the enormous book of Peter Lindbergh's life's work a while back. I always liked his black and white fashion photos. And there was a lot of good stuff in the book. Maybe 25% of the work was like the stuff I fondly remembered. But the other 75% was repetition of style and point of view, or just boring, or time dated, or on par with what the rest of us were capable of. And to be honest seeing the totality of his work made me understand his place in photo history a bit more rationally. 

It's funny to me that some work from a number of "famous" photographers from our shared past hasn't aged well at all. There are standouts like Avedon, Penn, Frank, HCB, and Koudelka. Their work seems to this day as timeless as ever. But there are legions of photographers from the last quarter of the 20th century who had their day in the sun, their spread in a magazine, their profile in Communication Arts or Graphis but looking back retrospectively and with a time-trained eye most of the work hasn't aged well at all. 

Some of it is down to the fact that great technical photos were much harder to pull off back then and so in no small part we respected the craft and the novelty of innovative work. But the innovation didn't guarantee timelessness. Anymore than watching Gilligan's Island or The Beverly Hillbillies in reruns raises the stature of the programs for audiences in 2022. The jokes are played out, incorporated into the fabric of popular culture. Who collects Ford Taurus automobiles? 

Save me from having to ever look at one of Herb Ritts's "portraits" ever again. And warn me, please, if I am about to walk into a gallery showing work by Scavullo. But I'd be thrilled to spend a couple hours looking at Albert Watson's work...

I have an acquaintance who made hundreds of millions of dollars in high tech in the 1990s. He bought an entire edition of Ansel Adams photos, printed and numbered by the artist, and had them hung proudly in his penthouse apartment. I'd seen a lot of Adam's work over the years but mostly on posters and in books and magazines. Never up close and in person. Framed and lit and proudly displayed. And achingly boring. As boring as an evening shopping excursion to a middle American mall. I smiled and nodded to my friend and congratulated him on buying art that he liked. Next up he was looking to buy some John Sexton work. I'll decline another invitation entirely if he starts collecting Paul Caponigro. Then again, my friend does have good taste in expensive wines...

I'm sure I've insulted the fans of a handful of photographers today. If I were to buy prints for a collection for my home they'd be by Elliott Erwitt or Duane Michals. I tried to buy an Avedon 20 years ago but the gallery sat on their hands until the prices doubled and at that point we had other priorities... (bastards). But there's no guarantee that the print's appeal would not fall flat with other people. Including other photographers. 

So much of the wish for legacy is a sublimated fear of mortality. And of lapsing into irrelevance. So much of our feeling that photography is becoming more diluted and less meaningful is a reflection of our own wish that things hadn't changed or the wish that even current change in our chosen field would slow down. Or the wish that someone would write a manual of how to negotiate life when the process that created your own cherished identity becomes different, changed and almost unrecognizable. Yeah. That's the next big thing to grapple with. And I don't have any clear answers here. 

If someone asks why I continue on doing what I do I can assure you that it's not to pay the bills, it's not that I think museums will hang my work years from now either. It's because it's what I really know how to do in the moment and that gives me comfort. I guess I'll get it figured out some day but for now I'm just glad I finally figured out that some new gear isn't going to move the game forward in any meaningful way. 

going forward is about greeting the future with enthusiasm and trying new things. That's the secret.