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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Democratic Image (Giddy Up)

As I was discussing with my friends and artists Ida and David over brunch Sunday, Photography is in crisis. Photography has always been a medium in debate and apart. It is true, with luck (and especially with today's cameras) anyone can end up with a good picture. Taking consistently good pictures however is a different story. Producing imagery meeting commercial standards is also a different story. And creating good photographs beyond aesthetic consideration is again another matter.
However because anyone can take a picture, the world is flooded with photographs. In the past editors and curators mostly controlled what imagery would be published, the net has changed this. Obviously technology has not just altered photography. Journalism faces similar issues. The 24 hour (news) cycle has changed everything. Content is constantly needed. Same in the photography world. Whether it is a daily blog about photography or a site offering affordable prints weekly, content is needed at an accelerated rate.
The net is great, don't get me wrong. I do like that it is easier for people to show their work, speak their mind and reach a large audience. But at the same time I also know that the pressure to constantly make & release new content dilutes quality. It also drives down compensation. It decreases, in my opinion, the appreciation of the work. There is image fatigue. (Hey, I love champagne, but I do not want to drink it at every meal).
What we value most in life, remains that that is particular and unique. You love your husband, your wife, your child, your family, your friends, your cat, your dog, your house, your city, etc. That that cannot easily replaced is what we cherish. And what is essential is what we will always be willing to pay for (food, water, medicine, shelter)
I started out in painting, but I liked the commodity & non-exclusivity of photography. I liked that I could keep a print for myself and give or sell a copy to others. I liked that photography had commercial applications. I liked the blurry line between art and commerce. I liked that a magazine, and therefor the imagery in it, was easily affordable. Like so many of my friends, my bedroom growing up was covered with images from magazines.
Magazines, I might add, I paid for.
Much as the music industry before, the business of photography has completely changed. Of course if you are on top you still make money. And if you are good live and are willing to tour you can still make a very very good living as a musician. So I wonder what is the equivalent of a live performance in photography?
The practice of editions for art photography has always been around as an artificial counter measure to the very thing that made photography such a sensation to begin with: reproduction. I am not against it. It is a practical measure. Just as copyright is. Creatives cannot just live of passion & satisfaction, as much as we would like to.
There are many efforts to educate the public about intellectual property rights. At the same time commerce erodes those efforts and in all honesty I fear it might be useless anyway, because instinctively most do not grasp or are willing to accept the legitimacy of copyright. My husband likes to say that a law is only as good as its enforcement. I agree.
If you are Disney or even Getty you have the means to go after offenders. And if the offender has deep pockets you might even be able to go after them if you are just an individual. But if you are just your average photographer you soon will end up spending even less time creating work and instead spend more time on paperwork pursuing infringers.
And maybe there is the rub. Maybe my problem lies within just being an average photographer.
My nephews are both at Ivy league schools. One is studying engineering and the other is teetering between engineering and veterinary medicine. I would be proud of them regardless of what they were studying or where they would be studying. I am ecstatic however that for them no doors have closed. Hard work and luck has put them in extraordinary positions. Which means they will have choices. And choice is true freedom.
Where am I going with all this? Well, I am trying to figure out where my place is and what is next. It is easy to just blame and not take responsibility.
The market has changed. It will not revert. But what about my part in all of this?
Stock photography was the cushiest of jobs. Especially if you actually had talent. The past decade produced a golden moment for stock photography and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Technology made it so that you could shoot affordability and deliver your work from anywhere. You traveled and make beautiful pictures, agencies sold them for you. And you didn't even even have to bill. Your royalties were simply transferred to your bank account. However the easy days are over. You can still make money in stock for now. But you have to be very organized, produce a lot more and let go of a lot. Working harder is fine by me, but letting go of ownership while staying liable and without proper compensation, I might not be ready to do. Nothing is black and white. There is lots of gray. We all have different boundaries. I might just have tapped one of mine.

Michael Schmelling once said to me that he would never want to shoot stock. Many people I went to school with thought of stock as beneath them. I never saw it like that. But maybe I should have. Because today's market tells me that photography is not something you can do casually. Ego is probably a prerequisite for success. There is no room for the middle anymore. And maybe in the end this is how it should be. Not everyone can or has to do extraordinary things in life. But art should be extraordinary or at the very least strive to be. If you do photography and do not see it as art, that is fine. Adapt to the market conditions, don't forget to stand up for yourself and make it work. And if you can't, learn a new trade. Many people have to do this. Few people spent their whole lives in one profession anymore. And if you cannot think of your work as just a commodity, well then it is time to seriously giddy up.

Ok, I am getting off my high horse now and getting back to work. I might even giddy up ;)


fabusdr said...

Hi Nina,
Rona Chang sent me the link to this article, i think because some days ago we discussed about the image overload and consumerism approach to photography.
Actually I run a blog/magazine where I try to slow down and publish only long and in-depth articles about photography, it's my contribution to "fight" against some market rules. If you want to have a look it's here: http://cameraobscura.busdraghi.net/
Thank you very much for your thoughts, it's an interesting reader. I agree that there are too much images today, but I'm a little bit less pessimistic. When camera manufactured invented the 35mm films, a lot of photographers, used to big and heavy large format cameras, complained that everyone could take a picture, that the quality compared to the large format camera was very low and so on. The argument are quite similar to those we use today. But the invention of small format camera made possible for example the war photojournalism.
Hope is will be the same today. After some years of a low signal/noise ratio, I hope talented photographers will use all the new opportunities in a creative and interesting way.
I mean, the biggest problem is not the easiness of the medium itself, is people usage of the medium.

Rona Chang said...

Thank you for your thoughts on these issues. I often think about this as well and have backed off from reading photo blogs because it is an intense amount of imagery flooding my intake capacity. But we can and do control much of what we see. And as Fab said, it's the usage of the medium... And I've also been thinking about the choice of photo careers. I'm not so happy about spending the majority of my day in the dark!

nina said...

Thank you both for your comments!
I agree with you both.
Today I went into a store in Soho where they were selling photographs that were mostly rip-offs of more famous photographs and images printed from the Library of Congress. And it def. made me think about the lack of appreciation and/or knowledge on the part of the consumer and wonder about the people who put this store up in the first place.