It's been a long and profitable ride in the stretch limousine of photography for me. My first start in the business was back in 1979. Then came an interlude as the creative director and agency director at Avanti Advertising and Design. A regional advertising agency in Austin. When our biggest client was absorbed by Barnes and Noble back in 1987 I decided to quit the advertising business and start up again as a photographer in 1988. I can't believe that was 35 years ago.
When I made my re-entry to photography the industry was vibrant and very profitable. I came back into it with ample savings from my advertising career and tons more knowledge about how advertisers worked with photographers on one side and what advertising clients wanted from their photo investments on the other side. I'd spent eight years working with both sides and it paid off for me in spades when the time came to negotiate and work with big clients.
The two biggest barriers to entry back in the late 1980's were the need to have a large studio and the other need which was to have a well equipped studio. Sure, we did stuff on location, but we did a lot more stuff on our home turf. And spent zillions of man hours processing fun black and white work in our on site darkroom. I still remember the unfettered glee I felt when I purchased my Leica V35 enlarger. It sat next to my Omega D5 large format enlarger and both racked up many miles of usage in the seven years I spent in my downtown Austin studio. Throw money and knowledge at problems and you could mostly expect to make even better money doing it.
Starting in the 1990s and up through the 2010s we transitioned from a big studio to a smaller studio (much closer to home and much more manageable) and much more location work. We worked everywhere, from un-air-conditioned maquiladoras in Mexico to legendary museums in St. Petersburg, Russia. And lots of places in between. But starting in 2010 there were many changes to the industry. Some annoying and some existential. Throughout it all my business was buoyed up by having clients of long tenure, an ability to roll with the changes and adapt, and a certain sense of (maybe misplaced) optimism. Another secret has been having a "CFO" who was focused on moving any spare cash out of the business and into smarter and safer investments. Especially during the "gold rush" years.
It's March of 2023. To date I've booked three projects for the entire year. In years past we would have booked two or three projects in the first couple of weeks of January. The work of being a photographer is changing as rapidly as I would ever have imagined that it could. Printed brochures are becoming a thing of the past. 80% or more of advertising dollars are now spent on the web and of those dollars the vast majority end up supporting very small ads seen on very small screens on phones. Old guys seem to think that there will always be clients out there who will support the old status quo but I'm here to tell you it's not so. Just as no one went back and started a new trend of shooting 8x10 sheet film for magazines in this century no one is going to go back and start up more and more long form magazines that actually get printed. Or super glossy print ads. Or super sexy direct mailers.
Most photographers plan their careers with a certain blindness, or on the strength of their own anecdotal experiences. I prefer to talk to people in the industry I work in. My son is a rich source of reality therapy when it comes to current technology company marketing. My spouse is a recent retiree (former art director) of an advertising agency that handles the 1st or 2nd largest computer maker's advertising. One of my swim buddies is a global strategist for a huge software/hardware icon. Another friend works in making predictions for a global company from Cupertino. They have different opinions but all their insight trends in the same direction.
Eventually all meaningful advertising as well as visual engagement in the arts will take place on the internet, will not require huge files, acres of pixels, mountains and mountains of dynamic range or even very detailed photographs. The emphasis will almost always be, going forward, fast impact. Which means filling the frame with the main subject and using bright colors and high contrast. Easy work for phones and an ever accelerating move away from large and complex production. That's more and more reserved for video. Anything on a big screen will be high def video. Count on it.
Thinking long and hard about this I'm loath to spend the money, and especially the time, to continue jousting with the windmills. Or remaking lances with which to do so. Especially as the population of windmills of merit are disappearing quickly. And not being replaced by profit centers I either recognize or really want to be part of. Could I learn to make interesting photos with A.I.? I'm pretty sure I could. But do I want to? Is that what I really signed up for? Not a chance.
I read yesterday on theonlinephotographer where Michael Johnston laid out his own financial situation and showed how the market for all things photographic (in traditional ventures) is shrinking and shrinking. How his income is reducing year over year. He's trying to find an exit strategy and I wish him luck and also send him my genuine condolences. It's like being wrapped up in a boa constrictor...squeezing, squeezing.
Reading of his business experiences and melding that information with my own view, and the predictions of well qualified friends and business partners, convinced me that commercial photography (as practiced by my generation) is in a death spiral and isn't going to recover in any recognizable way. At least not for me.
So, what to do now? My best guess is that I should spend more time photographing just for myself, spend as much time as I have routinely spent swimming and otherwise exercising, and spend more time traveling with B. And B. if he wants to tag along (pretty sure he's focused on the start-up...). I'm not "officially" giving up working as a photographer. I'll gladly accept any fun projects that come over the transom or through the genuine desire of smart and creative art directors to work with me. But the fervor to market myself and lock in work has fallen off the table as a priority.
And it's important, I think, to say that this is not about aging or losing energy or stamina. It's about a market changing and shrinking and my lack of need to change with it. Am I still relevant? Frank counsels me that I shouldn't care and that sooner or later I will perforce need to embrace my own irrelevance as time goes by. I think he's right about that. He usually is. ( find a mentor to get older with.... ).
The French see life differently than Americans do. I just read about this in an opinion piece in the Washington Post. They see life in three chapters. Childhood, their work life (with which they keep at emotional arm's length) and the good years from 62 onward that provide time and security for enjoyment, hobbies, travel and fun. In the USA we seem to have a prevailing idea that once one becomes an adult the passion to work becomes overwhelming, all consuming and for most very necessary. For many traditional retirement is not even an option. That written piece also gave me pause.
From this point on I'll have to admit that my expertise on what's driving the photo market is slipping toward the muddled mainstream. That my visual style will be more and more at odds with prevailing commercial styles (if any continue to exist). I'm divorcing myself from the idea that I have to be a successful working photographer to be happy and fulfilled.
I still enjoy writing this blog so now you'll just have to accept me as a peer and fellow participant. That's my new role and one I can get behind. I'm not willing though to accept the responsibility of becoming a geriatric influencer by any stretch. If readership falls off that's fine. I'm not monetizing this in any way now. Haven't for years.
Don't fire up a Patreon page for me and don't send me money. Smarter minds than mine have already taken care of all that detail work. From now on it's photography for fun and occasionally for profit. But without the laser like focus on profit I've maintained for the last 38 years of running a business. Time to cool my jets a bit and take a deep breath.
More to come as I grapple with the future of the future. Nice and comfortable here. More time to walk around with a camera.
Well, following your own path and accepting it may differ from the main trend is an expression of your consistency and by no means a resignation.
And by the way, welcome to France, Kirk ;)
Interesting. Are you going to take a big lifestyle hit? Have you already?
Interesting personal question. No. And no. Future planning excellent on all accounts. (Accounts! see what I did there?).
Landscape photographer here. Realized several years go very few people are hanging big color images of national parks on their walls, either personal or corporate. Hi-res screens are the way to show off your preference for scenery, be they in your hand or on your wall. I've moved to serious hobbyist, enjoying the effort to identify where good images live and piecing together the equipment to capture what I want to remember.
In photography school we had a photojournalist rant about the demise of their profession, who indicated marketing efforts would be next. Looks like that prediction is rapidly coming true. Wonder who's next?
Kirk, keep up the commentary - you've got lots more to teach us.
When I got out of the army I wanted to have a portrait studio. That was right at the point where small-town portrait studios were going out of fashion. I had a chance to buy a camera store in the town near me but lacked the money. That was a good thing because the 800 number phone ordering places ( and later the internet) killed the local camera store business. The two guys I know who opened shops around that time both went belly up. The nearest camera store to me now is over 3 hours away. I did shoot a handful of weddings for friends and relatives only to conclude that wasn't something I wanted to do. Either your timing or your sense of what would work was clearly better than mine. Being in a city helped you too I'm sure. I was set on living in a rural area. In the end, we are both in the sesame place though, shooting for ourselves and open to projects if they come along. The last 60+ years in photography have been quite a ride. Enjoy your avocation.
That should say "same place' not "sesame place'. No magic intended.
vive la france :-) ! i speak bad German and super super bad French. Alore, I would to like to spend 6 weeks a year in Germany and/or France plus cross country ski 100 times a year when I retire!
that would be "Alors"! not "Alore" :-) see what i mean about my bad French :-) !
Roland, I had such a good time in Berlin I came home and asked B to move there with me. She trotted out a spreadsheet and a little while later I decamped, bleary eyed to my office, chagrined. But of course, she was right...
I rather like the French attitude. Congrats Kirk. You've planned for this day and here it is. I've got three more school years to go. I'm ready. Just read an article on A.I and student writing. Something called chatGTP. Feed it a question, perhaps something about feminism in Virginia Wolf's work, and voila, this AI program spits out a full essay for you. In seconds. I like to think of myself as a cool, forward-thinking, tech-savvy teacher but I think I've met my match. Time for a younger generation to take this on while I go play tennis, go hiking, travel and take photographs.
CRsantin, pretty much my thoughts as well. I'm just tired of chasing diminishing returns. If somebody calls and the project is fun I'll gladly do it. But to keep tossing $$$ at marketing, gear, etc. doesn't make a lot of sense. I'm going full French as far as work goes. More time choosing fish at the market and less time sending emails to maybe clients. Kinda got the message as so many of my long time clients retired, got downsized and never got replaced. I can pay myself to shoot.
Good luck with those kids. When you get a paper that you know was from A.I. you might consider using A.I. in return as a method of grading.... ChatGBT says, "Your grade is C-. Try to do better next time."
Welcome to the club! Come on up and lets go hiking! We might have at least 2 or 3 weeks of summer some time between July and the end of August.
I was checking out at the bookstore this morning, and the French retirement-age demos were on the front page of the paper I was buying. The clerk (a friend) sighed when she saw that and said, "Ah, to be French and 64...I'm 80 and I'm still working."
Berlin is excellent Kirk 100% agree! I wouldn't mind spending 6 weeks there some time along with Munich, Stuttgart and many other places in Germany. As for France, I want to spend six weeks in La Dordogne and many other places! I respect B's spreadsheet of course but I think you can afford a 6 week stay :-)!
You know Kirk, back in the early/mid 70s I was making a lukewarm effort to make a living as a photographer. My dream was to follow in my commercial photographer father's footsteps who, when he was "forced" to retire (due to failing eyesight) in his eighties said, "I wouldn't change one single bit of my life". I saw myself as having a successful lucrative career and then retiring gradually by only accepting assignments that interested me.
Well that didn't quite work out that way since I gave in to the siren song of higher earnings in corporate life (always regretting I had given up on photography). However, the silver lining is that, for the last few years, I have been living the photographer's life, vicariously, through you and you are performing exactly as I had envisaged "our" career would progress. :)
Congratulations on your semi-retirement and I look forward to the next years of "our" career trajectory. :)
About thirty or so years ago, I read a book called "The Three Boxes of Life." Those three boxes fairly describe the French perspective. The wrinkle is, instead of dividing your lifespan that way, think about dividing a day similarly. Or a week, or month, or year. (Can we say it's thinking outside of the box?)
Welcome to Chapter or Box #3! Looking forward to seeing how the blog content changes. Probably less new gear acquisition posts because you can no longer justify them? More photowalk posts with accompanying pics? I hope so! :D
I live not so far from the French and German border. French is my second and German my third language. I love to visit my neighbor countries but after ten days, I also love to come home again. Six weeks should definitely be too long for me, both countries can be....hm! overwhelming.
Not a photographer, but have had a somewhat similar career path. I spent virtually all of a forty year career in various aspects of publishing. I retired at age 62 for a variety of reasons and at a time when the industry was moving towards a digital existence. Happily I left before everything changed. I did as much planning as I could while working and, with my wife working, managed to get two kids through college and graduate school without them carrying any loan debt. Fortunately, we made more good investments than bad, and are reasonably comfortable.
I enjoyed many aspects of my career, had some great experiences and worked with some wonderful people. When I was done, I was done and very rarely look back. Welcome to the next phase and move forward.
Can't believe this isn't getting more comments. We've seen the arc of a complete career here over the years.
The decline that you write of in commercial photography has also occurred in news photography. I was one of those lucky and relatively numerous photographers that got sent around the world by print news publications. It allowed me to witness events and spend time with people who afforded me a better education than the university I went to. And opposite the university education, I got paid pretty well for the photo education. Today if a news publication needs a photograph taken in Indianapolis or India, they call someone who lives there. The local is pressured by his compatriots to make them look good - especially in a war zone where it can be a little dangerous for them if they don’t. There are now very, very few photographers who are sent around the world by national and international news publications, and a number of those are freelancers.
In 2018, Ryan Kelly won the Pulitzer for breaking news on his last day working for The Daily Progress. He had left to start working for a local brewery. I presume it was because he needed the money. I like taking pictures. I probably have as many pictures of my family and friends as “professional pictures.” But as a news photographer I was paid well to have adventures, education and, every once in awhile take a really good picture. I’m sorry that’s not available to some really good young photographers.
Having that “lack of need to change” in a rapidly changing techno centric environment is the Holy Grail in hand. It didn’t come without a lot of work. Certainly not by luck, except for the good fortune of having a CFO willing to swat your hand away from the “buy” button as needed. Having the moxie to stick with an upscale pricing structure based on licensing for use in a downward-spiraling buyout world contributed a lot as well. You’ve done it, and done it well. Relax. Enjoy.
My days working in photography ended in 1991 after over 16 years as a news photographer. It was evident even then that the future had no place for me doing news photography. I took a lower paying civil service job that entailed boredom and near starvation but some sense of security and stability after a few years. I retired from that job as soon as I hit age 62. It scared the hell out of me at the time but now, 13 years later, I can confidently say this retirement gig is the best job I've ever had.
I can't stop working. It's kind of a shame, but when I think about quitting what I'm doing, I think, "Well, what would I work at?" Having been born at a time when the Great Depression was still fresh in the minds of everyone (1944,) I must have been asked a thousand times while I was growing up, "What are you going to do?" That created a kind of psychological pressure that means I can't really escape the need to work. Started when I was about 13 or 14, doing Iowa field work in the summer (corn detasseling, haying, and even hoed beans once) and have never been able to quit. I suspect you'll find it harder than you think. Whatever kind of work I would do would have to have some kind of useful economic return, or I'd have the feeling that it was fake.
Good for you, Kirk. Make the most of this stage of your life in the way you wish to do so.
I reitred a bit over 5 years ago, and Connie & I have been doing much as you described the French doing. We're traveling now while health and our minds are still good.
I've always only been a photography hobbyist, but I do enjoy that and have no reason to change that. But I'm buying less camera gear and enjoying what I have.
Sourcing more and more material now on the intricacies OF retirement rather than planning FOR retirement, I came across a guy who said 'you can always take a sabbatical'. From retirement, too. That was a bit of a revelation, of not having to fit myself into a narrow definition like you have to during your working years.
And as self employed photographers we might have that luxury of dipping in and out. As the industry does, indeed wind down as a whole.
I want to keep working for the social and intellectual benefits. Just not 24/7 as you aptly said at marketing, researching and buying gear, taking jobs to pay the bills, etc. So maybe taking jobs that interest me, or that good longtime clients want me to do, is the way to move forward for all of us soon-to-be former full time photographers.
Interestingly, as I posted in another comment on another post, I'm busy as hell this year. Jobs aren't big and pushback is strong on rates. But I'm having trouble fitting them in and invoicing is falling behind.
My conclusions are that things are finally revving up after 3 years of economic torpor and a false start in 2022.
And that there are few of us left.
Congratulations for starting a new phase in life. It will require not less learning then being a professional photographer. But it will be learning of a different nature.
Best regards, Yoram
I wish we would adopt the French attitude. I recently had to tell my wife that thanks to Reagan she has to work until 67 before collecting full social security (you can take a permanent loss if you do it earlier). He parents retired at 65. In France they are burning Paris at the thought of moving it from 62 to 64. Macron might be toast. We need to be more militant about advocating for our basic needs in this country or they will have us working as Walmart greeters until we have a heart attack in the parking lot.
John, Agreed. But if you wait until 70 to claim S.S. you'll get about 30% more $$$ each month than you will if you go for 67.
Put aside an account that allows you to stop working when you want to stop but will cover the gap between retirement and taking the cash at 70. Unless you are planning to die young....
Kirk, if your analysis is correct, the commercial provider of photography won't need anything more than a good 12 mp camera. Or certainly nothing approaching the zillion-megapixel monsters now coming over the horizon. So the camera-makers will be increasingly dependent on a tiny market consisting of amateur, preferably rich, obsessives. Pretty much like hi-fi today. Not very encouraging commercially for a big Japanese electronics company.
I was lucky. As an editor (and later editorial director) in book publishing I was able to make good use of my basic photographic skills and technical knowledge. In my seventies I continued to manage and/or write some very interesting book projects. So I 'tapered down'. Not everyone is so lucky.
I don't know for how long Pentax will carry on, but I suspect Ricoh/Pentax have made some pretty savvy decisions recently.
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