I had planned to move on to a post about sensors today, but my "Great Time for Photography" post the other day was the cause of some disputation, and I feel the need to clarify. A friend wrote a "rebuttal" in which he claimed that "this is unequivocally 'great times for photography' in just about every single respect," and "photography has never had better times, in almost every imaginable respect, for almost every single photographer, dilettante or consummate artist/professional."
Those statements are false. It might be possible to say that about enthusiasts and part-time independent artists; about the large number of photographers whose work is technically facilitated by our much-improved equipment; about people who were denied attention in the past and who found it on the Web; that list goes on. There are of course many ways in which this is a fantastic time. But these are hard times for many people who want to make a living taking pictures, or who want to make a living in the field to support their picture-taking. (Have I been that badly remiss in covering developments in photojournalism? Apparently so.)
But I'll get back to that in a minute.
What I meant by "photography itself, overall, as a whole" in my post might also be called the culture of photography. Now, as a blogger I don't have the luxury of writing in fully considered fashion—it's like newspaper writing, in that it has to be bashed out and set in type (figuratively speaking) to be ready for the daily edition—but let me take a provisional stab at defining that.
The culture of any discipline or field of study or pursuit encompasses many things. It includes its status in society and among practitioners (those can differ—my brother's interest is gem cutting, little known by the public but the subject of great passion amongst those who do it); its fan base, meaning the subset of people in the world who love it and follow it closely, as well as those who admire it or just are aware of it and know a little about it (like I know a little about horse racing); its communities, both overall and in microcosm, including specialized subsets (religion has many of the latter)—some of which might not get along; its history and traditions; how it is taught and learned; its major figures, who both represent the discipline to the broader society or catch peoples' imaginations, and also provide a model for what can be achieved within the field (what T. S. Eliot or Robert Frost were to English poetry when they were alive). It might have a literature (golf has such a huge literature, for example, that it's possible to be a fan of golf writing without really being much of a golfer, whereas billiards has a very meagre literature in comparison. Photography's literature is drawfed by that of art, but is still pretty decent). The way that a discipline "recruits" its adherents is part of its culture, as is the way that its adherents experience it...and when the subject is broad, those things can vary widely. "American Idol" is a long way from the Metropolitan Opera for many fans of singing. Certainly, the Internet has been busy connecting a lot of small communities of like-minded but formerly far-flung people.
A discipline might support scholarly activity, or debates about orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Scholarship might even be central to it, as it is in, say, literary theory. It might have guilds or membership organizations or certification procedures or a governing body, and there might be one of these, or many (and they might compete, as in boxing). It might require licensing (general aviation for instance). It might support institutions of various kinds, whether that's the Indianapolis Speedway or the National Building Museum or the NRA. It might support or be connected to various industries, whether crucially (people who are passionate about highway construction are almost certainly involved in building highways, I'd guess) or tenuously (knitters might teach classes, or sell products at craft fairs, but there's not a large scale call for their skills). There might be a split between large-scale professional or industrial activity and small-scale hobby, craft, or specialist involvement (farming or beer brewing might be examples). It might support clubs. It might be connected to wealth and access in some way (you need to have resources to field an America's Cup entry, and you can't live in Kansas if you want to surf), or require special skills or be limited to people with specific abilities (I am not healthy enough to be a mountaineer). All these things, and many more, contribute to what can collectively be called the culture of the pursuit or discipline.
Many disciplines have a lore, tales, myths, iconic stories, legendary figures, or signal or foundational events (the most famous distance running event, for example, is founded on a story about Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon, although the standard tale is actually a myth).
Naturally, the culture of any art or activity has a fortune in the world and in time. It rises and falls. Its popularity waxes and wanes. Its meaning can change. It shifts and changes with technology (video gaming has come up in the world, I hear), with the generations (model railroading reached a peak among those who were ten years old in 1950, the year the #1 most desirable Christmas toy for boys was an electric train; with my generation the prestige gear was a stereo, an interest which has fallen on hard times and a certain degeneracy more recently), or associated resources and social mores (fox hunting in England has had to adapt, I hear).
So, getting back to my friend's Leibnitzian claims that this is the best of all possible worlds: I'll stick by my conclusion the other day. It’s absolutely not the best of times "in almost every imaginable respect, for almost every single photographer." It’s great in some ways and not very good in others. And somewhere in between in still others. And very good for some people, and very bad (in many obvious, well-documented ways) for other people. Is it the best of times for photojournalists? For photojournalism? For photography schools and teachers? For professionals at every level? No, no, no, and no. We have one friend who had a great career as a magazine photojournalist with dozens of covers to his credit. Then he got riffed and then the mag itself went bust. So then, who's going to be the next great cover photographer of that magazine? There isn't an Internet equivalent. These aren't the greatest-ever times for him (although he's doing well). A professional I talked to in the South billed $80,000 two years ago (that's when I talked to him). Which sounds okay until he tells you that he billed $280,000 in 2005. It ain't the greatest of times for him, either.
I could write a much longer essay than this one on the many ways that photography's culture is changing. It's changing in many ways, some very good (actually, some ways are really amazing and borderline spectacular) and some either disruptive or just sad. Let's take one brief "snapshot" (sorry) of photojournalism and let that stand for all the rest. On the one hand, the digital/Internet era provides absolutely remarkable one-the-scene reporting that traditional photojournalism just couldn't match—for instance, the shot above of Flight 1549 sinking into the Hudson River. Janis Krums had to be there, and the greatest photojournalists in the world couldn't be. On the other hand, there's a well-established value to news organizations with resources being able to dispatch well-trained, intelligent, experienced, and highly competent photographers to make extended and coherent visual reports and visual records of an unfolding news event or historical event. The gradual dismantling of the organizational structure for that activity—the decline of newspapers and magazines—is a definite setback for that very distinct and valuable form of photography, and for many of its practitioners. This is most likely just a temporary disruption, and what comes next—the system for visual news reporting that will evolve and be in place in ten or twenty years—might well be superior to what we had in the past. But it ain't here yet. And random crowd-sourcing of adventitious snapshots isn't a complete replacement.
I hear from many people my friend doesn't hear from. To quote a comment written here by Joseph Camosy, "it's a great time to make images, but not a great time to make a living making images." Keeping them anonymous, let me just itemize a few actual, real examples of people I have heard from:
The bottom line is that the culture of photography as a whole is changing, and quickly. That will be both good and bad, in various complex ways. (And in other ways, it will simply be different.) This is not to bemoan change; that would be asinine. (Who said "resistance is useless"?) But photography's culture has a great many aspects, and the disruption that's been occurring and is continuing to take place now has a great many effects, ramifications, and potentialities. Both for obvious good, and not so much.
(Thanks to He Knows Who He Is)
P.S. This essay could be ten times better if I'd had three months to write it and if some big magazine were going to pay me five grand for the result. As it is, I had one morning to write it, and most of my readers won't read the whole thing because it's too long. Blogging has great advantages. My life in photography as a whole is much better in the digital/Internet age. But there are a few disadvantages, too. :-)
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Carl Schmidt: "I am a forensic pathologist (who grew up with a darkroom). We document what we see extensively with pictures. We use DSLRs. The expectation that a case will be documented with pictures is such that many people think it’s a law, but its not. We had a couple of photographers, but budget problems forced us to lay them off. They were very good photographers too. Now the doctors take their own pictures. The difference in quality is appalling. Forensic photography is not art, but it sure helps to know what you’re doing. It is its own kind of documentary photography. Most of the pathologists, with no formal training in photography, cannot take a decent picture to save their lives. They are often blurry because of hands shaking or out of focus. We often use flash, so pictures are either washed out or underexposed. The subject is not centered in the picture, or a camera strap is in the way, but no one notices as it’s happening. I have tried all sorts of things to overcome this, but if you view picture taking as a chore that used to be done by someone else, your pictures are going to reflect it. I have thought about switching to a point-and-shoot camera, but even then you have to know about the macro setting and get it right for what we need to do.
"The worst part is that no one seems to notice, or care. When a lawyer looks at a picture, all these artefacts produced by bad technique don’t matter as long as they think they can make out what they need to see. The key point here is that they think they can see what is important for them in the picture, but I have never heard anyone say something about it being a bad picture.
"This is a symptom of a widespread problem. I think we are culturally losing the ability to appreciate a good picture from a bad one. Maybe its because there are so many pictures out there because its so easy to take one today. Recently I started taking a close at the pictures in my family, and friends. They are mostly not very good. I see all these glib comments about equipment, lenses, etc. in the literature, but, so what? There is a technical virtuosity to taking a good picture which I think is a set of skills that is getting lost and few appreciate because it's so easy now to take a picture and post it somewhere even its crappy—but hey, I took it. It’s the ability to see—people look through all this wonderful digital equipment, and they get instant feedback when they press the shutter. But they don’t see.
"I want those photographers back so badly, it hurts."
Bill Frazer: "There is far less 'disposable income' in the U.S. economy than there was a generation ago. The American middle class is rapidly shrinking. If one has to choose between buying groceries or hiring a photographer, the choice is obvious."
Bill Danby: "We are awash in photographs. With almost everyone carrying a camera all the time and being able to share their photos for free, how could it be otherwise? And, in itself, how can that be a bad thing? But, as with many other endeavours (such as architecture, writing, interior design), the view from the crowd is, 'I can do that.' And, to a greater extent than ever, they can. This isn't going to change. Computer tools make it easier and easier for anyone to dip a toe in the photographic waters. And for those photographers, 'art' is a setting on the mode dial.
"On the other hand there will always be those who appreciate photography as art, and support it as art: Subscribing to fine art magazines, attending the galleries and shows, and (you'll like these, Mike) buying the books and the prints. As the tide of ubiquitous photography rises, let's hope that we can remain dry in our little boat."
David Dyer-Bennet: "Yes indeed, it's bad for some photographers, and at least questionable for some areas of photography. I've been saying for at least a decade that I'm really glad I didn't decide, back when, to go into photography professionally. Of course I don't know what kind of photographer I would have been if I'd done that, quite possibly very different from the one I am now. But, without meaning any ill to individual photographers, some of whom are my friends, I'm more concerned with the health of photography as a whole. That's largely startlingly exuberant, though photojournalism is in a troubling state (and it's an area that has wide social and political consequences). (I do nearly always read through to the end of your articles; I'm mostly like that, and if I didn't feel that way, I probably wouldn't come back checking for new ones regularly. I'm a dinosaur.)"
Robert Roaldi: "Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the futurists predicted that work and toil would be removed from our lives because of labour-saving technologies. Sounded like a good idea. They predicted we would all have gobs of leisure time and that we would have the freedom to do anything we wanted. Unfortunately, they never gave any thought to how people would earn a living in this brave new world. I watched a youtube talk (sorry, lost the link) by a academic media analyst who pointed out that various social media sites were migrating away from text in favour of imagery. How ironic that image makers can't get paid then."
Dave: "Another great post. We live in disruptive times, the losers are many, and the few winners are picked arbitrarily. I can't get anyone outside of my Facebook friends to view my work. At times I want to give it all up but then I can't think up of a more meaningful way to spend my idle time than flinging photos and blog posts into the void of the internet."
Randolf: "I wonder how many of the problems are due to the on-going depression and how much due to technological and sociological disruption?"
Mike replies: Very good point. Those threads are near impossible to untangle. Professional photography also experienced a distinct recession just after the Gulf War c. 1991, and it had nothing to do with digital or the Internet.
adamct: "FWIW, and to underline something that is implicit in Mike's posts: the decline of photography as a profession (photojournalism, wedding and fashion photography, and teachers of photography being the obvious examples) is more than just a sad human interest story. People who spend all their time on photography, who depend on photography for their livelihood, who risk their lives for photography and whose work is regularly seen by a large audience over years and years contribute to the culture of photography that is substantially different (not better) from how photography is experienced by amateurs, even (or especially) those amateurs who are extremely knowledgeable, supremely skilled and widely respected. If you surveyed 100 people on the street in various U.S. cities, how many could name a single photographer working today? Just one, whether a photojournalist, a fashion photographer, or whatever?"
Gary Nylander: "I am no writer, I wish I could write some kind of witty response. Your writing in this post is honest and heartfelt. I have been a newspaper photographer for over 35 years, but that is just the work I do that pays for fine art photography that I do on my time off. I can say with out a doubt that staying 'in the business' these days is a tough haul."
Ed Richards: "I suspect this is how painters felt as photography came into vogue. More to the point, those folks who have been bruised by the WWW comments and are trying to get visibility for their websites are hoping for something that did not even exist 30 years ago. Think of all the wonderful photographers you write about who lived lives of quiet desperation and were only appreciated after their deaths. Edward Weston barely made a living. WeeGee died lonely and penniless. I have one of those not very visible websites, yet in the six years it has been up I have had about 30,000 people visit and look at several images. A large, but unknown number have seen them on other photography forums. In the pre-Internet world, there were successful art photographers whose work was not seen by 30,000 people in their life times."
Mike replies: And a fine and interesting website yours is, too.
Tina Manley: "Photography as a hobby is alive and well. Photography as a profession is no longer a possibility for most."
[Tina is a distinguished photojournalist with a long list of publication credits who has photographed in more than 53 different countries over more than 30 years. Here is her fine art website. —Ed.]
Thom Hogan: "This is a deep topic that warrants further discussion. I have three quick comments:
"1. As traditional sources of income dry up, you have to be prepared to move to other things. Doesn't matter if you're a photographer or a writer or a software engineer or whatever. Nothing stays the same forever, and if you don't adapt to the market you die.
"2. Media is playing a dangerous game. By using more and more 'free' and amateur content to save money, they also lower their standards. Yet it was the quality of their product that generally got them to be giant cash cows in the first place. If you don't deliver quality, you can't charge as much (or sometimes anything) for it. The one thing working for a pro photographer is this: when push comes to shove they can always deliver quality, and consistently so.
"3. One problem is that we're removing the ability to grow into being a pro. You can find many outlets that'll take your images for free. You won't be able to train, buy equipment, wait out a shot, etc., if you're not making money. The real issue I keep seeing is I have no good answer for college students who say 'I want to be a pro photographer' as to how to get from Point A to Point B. Everything that does that is essentially a non-paying job these days. It's the Ogden Nash thing: you can't get there from here."
Rodger Kingston: "I can’t disagree with anything you say here, Mike, and yet as a photographer I'm having the time of my life.
"I've been a photographer for over 40 years; in no particular order (as they occur to me), I've owned a photography gallery, been a dealer in 19th and 20th century photographs and books, taught photo history in a couple of good art and photography schools, spent nearly 30 years working in my own darkroom printing my own Cibachrome prints and earning my living printing for others.
"I've photographed weddings, done commercial work for universities and corporations, done appraisals of photo collections, curated exhibitions, run a matting business. I've worked as a volunteer professional photographer for the candidates of my choice in several state and national elections. I've tutored and mentored beginners of all ages.
"I've built two important photographic collections, one consisting of over 4,000 vernacular photographs and the other publications and ephemera by and about Walker Evans; I’ve written a major Evans bibliography.
"I’ve had many both solo and group museum and gallery exhibitions, a couple of museum catalogs, and have published two artist's books of my images, with a third about to be released next week. My work is in many museum, corporate, and private collections.
"This list isn’t unique to me: anyone who has dedicated his or her life to photography for forty years or so will have a similar inventory. I've listed all these activities and accomplishments to make the point that I've been immersed up to my neck in the Culture of Photography for going on a half century, and during these years my wife and I—she’s an artist too, a singer and voice teacher with a not dissimilar list of accomplishments of her own—have eked out a living since the early '70s, sometimes barely scraping by. As I once said to someone who wondered how we managed to survive living so hand-to-mouth, we have always been 'independently poor.'
"My life has been an unbelievable rollercoaster ride through the history of late 20th and early 21st century photography. I've met many of the modern photographic masters; a few of them have been my friends. I've lived my life in the company of countless artist contemporaries—photographers, painters, writers, actors, musicians—who have greatly enriched and enlivened my life. More recently I've switched to digital photography, and if I haven't yet mastered it, I've at least immersed myself in it thoroughly enough to thrive and grow toward mastery.
"And even though I haven't become a 'famous photographer' by any stretch, I'm told (often enough to continue believing it) that I and my work have had an impact on people's lives. Many people have told me that they see the world differently after discovering my work, that now they see 'Kingstons' everywhere they go. When I get reactions like these I know that for all these years I've been on the right track. The Culture of Photography, for all its outward manifestations, is within me. I'm a happy man."