Sunday, January 25, 2009

State of the Photography Nation

"We're between the future and the pasture.” (John Gorka)

At this point in our evolution, I’m feeling the need to review our current “State of the Photography Nation.” Warning to photographers: the following tantrum is wrapped around twisted opinions that may cause disorientation. Please sit down before reading this.

A vocation similar to photography. (c) 2009 John AshleyThe “digital revolution” truly is. Human history is now divided into BD (Before Digital) and AD (After Digital). This brave new digital world wields the twin advantages of (1) user-friendly cameras that can be relatively cheap, and (2) elimination of the chemical darkroom. The old 35mm cameras were mostly technical, pricy, and intimidating to the masses. These shiny new digital “toys” are incredibly user-friendly – some even come in designer colors. And even if there was a chicken in every pot back in the days of film, there was never, ever, a darkroom in every garage. Computers have replaced most darkrooms, and now both computers and digital cameras far outnumber garages.

The good old film days were better for the business of photography for the truly talented. But, in my humble opinion, the digital era is better for the art of photography because it is dropping millions of friendly cameras into the clever hands of the curious masses.

Does this mean professional print photography is a dying business model? Well, sort of. It hasn't gone extinct, but it is evolving into a different kind of animal. What used to be a business that relied on delivering a product (the photographic print) is turning into a business that delivers a service (education) to thousands of new digital camera owners who want to make their own art.

Education is a great thing. Unfortunately, delivering this education is turning us into a screaming clan of self-aggrandizing former-photographers who now churn out endless workshops, lectures, books, CD’s, DVD’s, online classes, etc. I sometimes think of all this as a steaming pile of “Self-help Training Until Financially Fatigued.” (STUFF for short. I avoided the temptation to create a different acronym.)

The result; you no longer have to be a talented photographer to be in the photo business. Heck, you don’t even have to be a photographer. You just need a search engine-optimized website to hock your CD guide to the Newest-Best-Software-Ever-Of-The-Month. Or your e-book on the nimble Nikon D10,000 Camera-Slash-Personal-Assistant that delivers your morning coffee before heading out to take perfect pictures while you scan the headlines and sip your drink in your pajamas. (Hold on – didn’t that used to be my job?)

It appears that there are now more photographers selling STUFF than there are photographers selling photographs. Need a detailed guide to the newest Nikocanon dream camera? You can buy the 600-page book on CD before you can even get your hands on the camera. Who wouldn’t want to learn the “Evolution of a Masterpiece” just by taking an online photography class? Just click that Paypal button, my friend. How about a very expensive vacation disguised as a photo workshop? Pick your favorite park/state/continent, and then take out a second mortgage.

How are photographers – the ones who actually used to take pictures -- evolving in the digital era? Just like the painters did after a new invention called the “camera” took away much of their paying work in portraiture and illustration. Some talented photographers are moving to new habitats in the abstract and fine art fields. Many more are piling on the STUFF bandwagon.

A long-time photographer who boasts of 600,000-plus images (now there’s someone in dire need of an editor!) said that he makes more money giving lectures than he does selling photos. Another photographer in California sells “photo safaris” on his website by dropping the name of his deceased friend, Galen Rowell, every couple of sentences. Many other photographers build beautiful websites, and then proceed to clutter them up with advertising. One of the most honest ideas comes from a photographer I like who writes a technical website. At the top of every article, he asks for a $5 “donation” to help him support his wife and kids.

Wedding and portrait photographers appear to be holding their own, financially. But even they are getting pushed in new directions. Wedding photographers used to make buckets of money by keeping the rights to their photos and then selling endless prints to the happy newlyweds and their families. Nowadays, some of the tech-savvy public wants digital versions of their wedding photos, not prints, and so more photographers are obliging. The people photographers are often paid a flat fee for his/her skills during the shoot, not for the number of photos taken or prints produced.

That seems reasonable for event-specific people pictures. But it pressures us wildlife and landscape photographers to sell digital versions of our images. That idea sounds a lot like following the lemming in front of you towards that yonder cliff. If a high-resolution digital version of your Once-in-a-Lifetime capture gets loose on the internet, you'll never get it back. At least once a week, someone emails me a different version of a “Best Photographs Ever” collection. Some are very good, some are plain bad. Very few of them even credit the photographer, and none of them help the photographer feed his kids.

Plopped down in the middle of this digital revolution like a grumpy two-year-old, I often wonder where my little niche in the “Photography Nation” will end up. I do like teaching, and I would enjoy helping people learn the artform. But I’m not sure how to morph from here to there. My personality tends to be the antithesis of self-aggrandizing (and I absolutely couldn’t stand the egotistical photographers I’ve met), but self-promotion looks like the dominant DNA in this new environment. So how does a modest guy with self-deprecating humor stand up and get noticed in the midst of all these self-proclaimed experts selling all this STUFF? I really don’t know, and that’s why I had to sit down before reading this.

"I never know how much of what I say is true.” (Bette Midler)

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