Two related items for your consideration this afternoon: first, Terry Hart's defense of professional photographers at Copyright Alliance. He seems to be making about four points at once, but the gist is clear—that people aren't sufficiently appreciative of what professional photographers bring to the table. And, no surprise, aren't enthusiastic about paying for it fairly.
More specifically, it appears that Apple's "Shot On iPhone 6" campaign is going to come to signify, in the words of Jonathan Band, "the enormous creativity of ordinary people enabled by digital technology." Okay, except that, as Terry Hart points out, we know that a number of the photographers featured in the iPhone 6 campaign were professionals. So although it's likely that from now on the Apple campaign is going to be trotted out as proof that anyone can take a great picture with a smartphone, the facts also support the opposite conclusion simultaneously—that experienced, talented photographers are still needed to make great pictures, even when using commonplace equipment.
Photography as a profession has never been easy or secure. In my day, print advertising dropped off a cliff during the First Gulf War and nobody has ever adequately explained why; it just did. It's always been a profession that's a lot easier to get in to than to succeed at, and over the decades it has wended its jumbled path from crisis to catharsis to goldrush, leaving business casualties in its wake like chum in the water behind a deep-sea fishing boat. Haphazard metaphors intended. Times are not particularly happy for the profession now, but it's not like this hasn't also been the case in the past.
Item Two: The Brooks Institute in California and the Hallmark Institute in Massachusetts are closing their doors. Founded in 1945 in Santa Barbara, California, by Ernest Brooks Sr. to serve returning veterans on the G.I. Bill, Brooks Institute of Photography (as it used to be called) was in the vanguard of the photo education wave and was known for its no-nonsense professional education programs. In recent times it has undergone reorganizations and changes in ownership that presaged its decline.
Ernest H. Brooks Sr. was described as "a commercial and flower photographer" by Deep surf magazine. His son Ernest H. Brooks II had a strong interest in underwater photography that came to be reflected in the school's curriculum.
The closing of the Hallmark Institute of Photography probably can't fairly be linked only to cultural changes and the business climate; it was defrauded of millions of dollars by its former owner, George J. Rosa III, who pleaded guilty to charges in 2014. I know enough about the finances of photo schools to guess that that was a tough blow to recover from.
It's ironic that new regulations cracking down on for-profit schools has negatively impacted photography schools. I taught at a number of schools in and around Washington D.C. in the '80s and '90s and was launched, for a while, on a career as a photo teacher. I loved the work and believed in the mission, but I was always troubled by the largely unexamined yet steadily implied correlation between schooling and jobs. Nobody ever seemed to question that a photography degree should, or at least could, lead naturally to a career in the field. Yet that connection was never terribly strong, even at places like Art Center, Brooks, and RIT, which focused more intensely than most schools on providing vocational skills and practical job training. I don't have any figures, but I would doubt the best photography school in the country saw 50% of its graduates still working as photographers fifteen years after graduation. Let's put it this way: if a business school landed as few of its students in business careers as a typical photo school lands students in viable photography careers, it would not last a hot minute.
I personally think photography is best studied in a typical mix of courses in a University setting—just as a traditional liberal arts student would take courses in poetry, philosophy, or other studio art disciplines that have great personal value but little vocational usefulness. Still and all, it's tough to see once-vibrant vocational schools in our field wither and fade from the scene.
(Thanks to Chester Williams and Chris Stump)
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Jim Bullard (partial comment): "I am saddened to hear that Brooks Institute is closing. When I was young that was my dream school. I never made it there, all the way across the country. Instead, I learned through NYI's correspondence course and the Army's Signal Center and School at Ft. Monmouth where I also taught briefly. I still regret not making it to Brooks—a matter of money and distance."
Michael Elenko: "The assumption running through your piece here is that photography is a profession—you even explicitly state it a few times. While working photographers certain can behave professionally, photography is not a profession. Medicine, law, engineering are professions. They have codified their self-defined requirements regarding education, marketing (in most, if not all states, you just cannot hang a shingle up calling yourself a physician), and ethics.
"Some of the devaluation we see in the trade is related to the ease of entry that recognized professions zealously guard against. Anyone can market themselves as a professional photographer, and many do. In my state, barbers, and salon hair stylists cannot do that without a license which is the result of passing an exam.
"There is a whole swath of newcomers to photography who after being given a DSLR by a spouse or parent, enter the family portrait market within months, quality and formal education be damned. And who can blame them? The Internet has allowed everyone to be a publisher of anything. We're all experts now.
"Economically Craigslist-driven rates have created a race to the bottom. Whereas the all-important print, and control around making the print, was a profit center for old style photographers, these days young families are more interested in the digital file and sharing heavily compressed low-rez family shots on Facebook. It’s quite analogous with 128-bit-rate MP3's being good enough to pay a buck for.
"The idea that one can make a living on photography is sweet, but statistics show that the average income is in the mid-$30,000 range. Who needs a two-year vocational program, or even a formal degree program for that?"
Mike replies: I've often wondered how professions are established and how photography could be included. (I would say that vetting the professionalism of the person who photographs your wedding is at least as important as vetting the professionalism of someone who gives you a haircut.) I'm almost certain it will never happen, but it would solve a lot of problems—on both sides. At one point I researched customer satisfaction with photographers' services and it was very problematic, especially in transactions between photographers and the public. Something like one in six interactions left either the client or the photographer unhappy. (Back when I did the research, many good photographers, like many good lawyers, would not work directly for the public).
Re your last fact, in the late 1980s I took a seminar called "Photography Dollars and Sense" from a man who who has since transitioned to the world of finance. At that time he was calling the average pro "the $39k schmuck" because that was the average take-home salary for a professional photographer after overhead and expenses. It was meant as a put-down then...and if your figure is correct, then not only has the number gone down in real dollars, but it has plummeted spectacularly in adjusted dollars—$39k in 1989 would be $75,600 now.
RayC: "I also was saddened when I heard Brooks was closing. It was on my shortlist back in the day. My parents had other ideas and wanted me to go to a 'real college' with a broader curriculum. I ended up at RIT majoring in professional photography and minoring in business. It was a great experience.
"I'd say a professional is someone who makes the majority of their income in their field of choice—whether it takes a license or not is primarily a question of defining an exclusive club, with the hope that if they are licensed they have some degree of competence.
"Without a license, I proceeded to be a commercial advertising photographer in Chicago for about 16 years and then, with the market changing, I moved into digital production (a little earlier than might have been prudent) and finally transitioned into a supplier to the graphic arts and photography market. My university experience, degree and contacts have helped open doors at almost each stage of my career. I'd also add that I've had (mostly) a wonderful time in each stage.
"Income level is often a series of choices. As a professional photographer it probably took me about five years to get to the '39k schmuck' level and I was happy as a clam. Lots of freedom, lots of fun work. Getting past that stage stage financially got also got me less freedom at work and frankly less fun but I continued to grow the business for almost 10 more years. When the market started changing in the '90s and smaller advertising photographers like me felt the pinch—bigger studios were willing to work cheap just to cover their overhead and keep the lights on, and new photographers didn't even realize they were losing money or did it for the experience. And this was before everyone had an automagic DSLR.
"Having a university degree made it easier to pivot. Turns out my parents were pretty smart! I'm still a photographer, but not a professional one."
Jake: "In 1965 I enrolled at RIT under the new GI Bill for Vietnam era vets where I spent the next two years studying photographic illustration before finally deciding that I lacked the ambition and drive so essential in the world of big city advertising photography. I transferred over to the local state university campus where I completed a degree in Urban Education and spent the next 30 years teaching science to middle schoolers while I enjoyed photography as a 'happy snapper.' No longer teaching but still snapping happily. I think I made the right choice."