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.