So to end this fine week of transition from February to March, let's pull together a few of the open threads.
• Ken Tanaka objected to the "Ideal Outfit" post, opining that such equipage* is a thing of the past (while admitting that he himself is equipped as well or better, I'll remind him with a wink and a smile): "This extremely intimidating list of costly paraphernalia represents a perspective on participation with photography that's becoming...increasingly marginal. [All that people] really need is a good smartphone or a good WiFi-capable pocketable travel camera to fully participate with photography today. [...] Exotic specialized paraphernalia is the way in which 'boomers' like us have learned to enjoy photography. And it's still a requirement for precision work. But it is certainly a model that's quickly evaporating from the popular culture." (Here's Ken's whole comment.)
• Mark added: "Not really surprising younger folks use a smartphone—or an old film SLR—if the modern alternative means putting $15–20k on the table and then having to refresh it with another $5k or so every few years. Ye gods."
• And then there was the news from CIPA, via LensVid (which Hans says snarfled up their graphics). Be that last as it may, the message is clear: we're past the period of the Digital Transition; we're now in the period of the Digital Contraction. The camera industry has suffered a precipitous fall since the height of the boom in 2010. The wonder is (as LensVid gets right) that we haven't lost more cameramakers yet.
Maybe we need to remind ourselves of the historical perspective here. The Digital Transition was an anomaly—a period when photography suddenly was a...well, I don't know the economic term that's the opposite of "saturated market"—open, booming, fresh, young, dynamic growth market? There must be a real term for it, but I'm not an economist. Before digital, I was in the darkroom side of photography, and, believe me, that was a saturated market—sleepy, staid, stale, static. The only real excitement came from a Japanese enlarger manufacturer (LPL) selling a product with actual up-to-date engineering (imagine), a few small hobbyist/atelier Mom-and-Pop shops (SaltHill, Zone VI, Nova Darkroom [now called the Imaging Warehouse] in England), and, of course, a number of garage entrepreneurs making better mousetraps (East Street Gallery, Versalab, etc.).
Art photographers—or whatever you want to call us—advanced amateurs, serious hobbyists, whatever you choose—have always, always been a minority among photographers, with an unsettled, delicate, tenuous, and mostly arm's-length relationship to the mass market. The mass market itself shifts and changes, grows and contracts, and changes course this way and that as photography's vogue and popularity ebb and flow. And, along with it, people who are really smitten with photography and who are either working seriously or who want to work seriously, whether technically or aesthetically, well, we do get carried along like a dragging anchor attached to a storm-tossed ship; we are connected to the mass market, yes, and we have always benefited from it—sometimes more, sometimes less. But for the most part, we live on its fringes and we always have. We go our own way.
And it would be absurd to believe that most "passionate photographers" (there's another one of those names) have always had the best, or even good equipment and materials at hand. Deliberate, conscious photography (hey, there's another) has always been expensive and involved...and that hasn't changed yet. I remember how dispirited I was when I learned how many just famous photographers were independently wealthy. (Eliot Porter threw a party when his income from his photography finally equaled the income from his trust fund). Most of the rest of 'em—from Curtis to Weston, and even a lot of savvy businessmen like Mathew Brady—spent all or parts of their careers poor, scraping by, and/or on the hustle. Or ended up old and broke (blind too, in Brady's case). Far from always having the "ideal" equipment like that list I published yesterday, most either made do, or scrimped and saved for what they had. Some even used castoffs—the view camera revival of the 1970s was due in part to the fact that there were big old wooden view cameras all over the place at the time, cheap as can be. A teacher of mine bought a Deardorff 8x10 for next to nothing, just because he could. Art photographers are scroungers, adapters, repurposers.
Howl on, photo dawgs!
And the fact that pop culture is shearing off and going a different direction now is really nothing new either. The same kinds of alarums that you've been hearing lately were being sounded in the 1880s during the "hand camera craze." And do you know why 6x9 cm film exists? Because it was used in folding cameras from 1898 through the 1930s so drugstores would could create snapshots that were contact prints from the negatives. You'd get back little tiny snapshots with scalloped paper edges or maybe stylish little graphic devices on each corner. The smartly turned out snapshooter of that era would have thought an enlarger was as preposterous and unnecessary as any smartphone ninja thinks an inkjet printer is today...if he or she even knew what an enlarger was. When ambitious but impoverished young photographers in the 1960s were saving up for all the disused Leicas on display at the local camera shop—leftovers from the 1950s—the great innovation in mass market photography was the 126 cassette in Kodak Instamatics...because Kodak's research revealed that the one thing people had the most trouble with was loading their film properly. Who among serious photographers cared about Instamatics? They were so basic and bad you couldn't even make them be ironic.
Study up on your Ecclesiastes
The situation now might be the same old same old on steroids, but it's nothing new. There's always been a few people who are photo nerds and photo nuts and artists going their own way and doing their own weird little things. And we've always been a little bitty fringe, a drop in the bucket, a small province of the big country. Just like full-time pros who could handle any job have always been a tiny minority of all photographers. It's nothing new.
So don't worry too much about the nosediving market and the fact that the fickle public is starting to grow bored with our toys. Yes, it matters to the companies, and yes, the companies do matter to us, but we'll get by. It's just a return to the normal state of affairs, really. We're too small to support the whole market alone, but we're big enough that someone will always find profit in providing what it thinks we want. Even if the market gets sleepy, staid, stale, static and saturated. And if we don't have what we want, we'll make do with what we need, or just use whatever is out there that we can get our hands on, to see what we can make it do. We always have.
Have a great weekend. See ya on Mon., same as always.
*a: material or articles used in equipment: outfit. —Merriam-Webster
I can't believe it, but this is already starting to look scarce,
before we've even reviewed it. Amazon is showing used copies only.
Check it out at the BD while you still can! (Thanks to Ken.)
Original contents copyright 2017 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:
Stanleyk: "The Fred Herzog book is absolutely fantastic (with the exception of a few too many gutter photos). I think mine was in the last shipment before it went out of print."
David Dyer-Bennet: "The digital part of photography is somewhat more dependent on the manufacturers of equipment, particularly bodies, than the film part was, though. Digital bodies have a shorter lifetime, and can't be repaired without custom electronic parts available only from the manufacturer. People routinely used 20-year-old bodies and more. In 50 years, I don't think people will use 20-year-old digital gear much. (They don't today because there isn't much from 1997, and it wasn't very good.)"
Michael: "I agree with you. As waves of Schumpeterian Creative Destruction upend one business after another, our mistake has been to think of it as a one-time process—vinyl gets disrupted by Digital CDs—but as we saw, it didn't end there. Film got disrupted by digital sensors, and we thought continuing to make the same cameras but replacing the film with a sensor would work. It did for a while, but the next wave is here. To survive, companies have to be willing to disrupt their best products when better technology comes along. Most photographers (including myself) romanticize the gear and confuse it with the process of ideas and image-making, because that's the way we have always done it. The new generation grew up with digital. As Mr. Monk says, 'A Blessing and a Curse'...."
Dave: "An interesting aspect of the developments in the larger photo/camera world is what (from the sparse information available to someone like me) looks like a continuing increase in sales of film. Yes, film! Related to that is the surprising numbers of small companies manufacturing brand new cameras. This includes multiple companies in Europe (Cambo, Walker and Lotus for sure, but also some new companies like Gibellini, VDS, and the quite inexpensive but apparently very useable plywood Intrepid), China (Shen Hao and Chamonix), Japan (Toyo) and the good old U.S.A. (Canham and Ritter). The plastic point and shoot zone focus 4x5 Travelwide seems like it will not be generally available after its Kickstarter, but samples are selling at multiples of its purchase price on eBay! View cameras will never take over the photo world again, but when looking at your list and the associated expense, a 5x7 camera, a few lenses, some holders, a tripod, a few trays, and the periodic expense of film, paper, and chemicals seems downright cheap! A lightbulb and a room you can make dark is all you need on top of those supplies to make some really beautiful photos of the highest quality."
Mike replies: View camera photography is a splendid and very satisfying hobby/pursuit, but the sales numbers are tiny. Back in the '90s when I was following it closely, the leading view camera manufacturer in America bragged of selling 30 cameras a month. Today I'd be amazed if Shen-Hao sells 600 cameras a year, although I know nothing of its sales. Compare that to the 230 million iPhones Apple sold in 2015...and Apple is second to Samsung in smartphone sales. So, no, view cameras will never take over the photo world again. But using one sure is fun, gratifying...and exclusive!
Ron Hiimebaugh: "This is a beautiful book. It has most (all?) of the images from the earlier Fred Herzog: Photographer book plus many more besides. The layout is less compelling because the book is square format but more compact and ready to hand. My everlasting gripe is with the intrusive gutter spanning that plagues too many photo books, but it is restricted here to a dozen or so images and is a small complaint. The three accompanying essays are interesting and well written, and as a bonus reappear in the back of the book in German! Printed in Germany and well done. Altogether a real nice presentation of a master of color quietly working for half a century."
Kenneth Tanaka: "I'm not at all confident that historical perspectives apply in this case. There really has been no point in history in which the confluence of consumer electronics, social communications technologies, and social change have resulted in such a tsunami of change. This is not simply a matter of shifting the medium of photography. Nor is it simply a matter of more people taking pictures. Photography now occupies an entirely new, larger and far more democratic role in world societies. And while most younger people recognize that 'better' cameras have their place, they realize that they don't need them to pursue most of their own photographic interests. I just spent time in one of the most beautiful places in the world, a place brimming with camera-totin' tourists. In over a week I doubt that I saw more than five DSLRs in use. The cameras being toted were all in phones. As if to underscore my argument Petapixel ran this CIPA-data story on Friday."
Doug Thacker: "I said a few months go that if camera manufacturers had to rely for sales only on photographers, they'd go broke. Instead, they cater to, and market to, consumers. Now, consumers are content, more and more, with their phones and a Wi-Fi connection. That combo does everything they want it to do. And, sure enough, camera companies are in the process of going broke. Or, at least, having to adjust their business models, and their expectations. So along comes Fuji with its X and GFX lines, clearly targeted to the needs and desires of photographers—serious amateurs and pros. Nikon, meanwhile, is finally shaken out of its complacency and announces that from here on it will focus on mid-to-high DSLRs and mirrorless cameras—in other words, they're going to cater to photographers, because consumers have deserted them. Surely it won't be long before Canon follows suit. All these companies focusing their firepower on photographers exclusively can only be a good thing for us. In the end there may be fewer companies, and we may have fewer things to choose from, but when we speak we're a lot more likely to be heard."
Charles S: "Stepped off the gear hamsterwheel. I used Canon DSLRs, Leicas, P&S etc. Each time I though the kit would be sufficient for a lifetime but then would get suckered into the next thing. As my photography changed and I became a 'deliberate' photographer, I pared everything back to a Hasselblad 500CM with a 13-year-old digital back, an RX100, and an 8x10. This is my 'sufficiency kit' for the kind of photography I like to do. Your mileage may vary."
Thomas Rink: "this time I have to disagree. We really should worry about the rapidly shrinking market! The reason is that it will drive camera manufacturers towards upmarket products with higher profit margins, and they will try to push us customers into this direction. Of course, there are still entry level to mid-range products—but what if you want dual command wheels? a usable viewfinder? prime lenses? Then be prepared to spend at least €2,000 on your camera.
A good example is Nikon—have you had a look at their recently released lenses? These are a couple of all-plastic kit lenses on one side, and a couple of lenses way above €2,000 on the other, but nothing in between. Currently, we customers profit from the shrinking market, since the manufacturers suffer from overstocked inventories and short product cycles. This means fire sales, rebates and lots of perfectly fine, pre-used equipment. But this will be over in a couple of years, and then we're going to bleed."
John Camp: "I think one problem with many of the comments is the apparent belief that a more 'democratic' photography (meaning more photography by more people) is somehow better and will eventually take over Photography with a capital P. I don't believe it. One of my most treasured photos is a picture of my young mother holding me in her arms when I was only a couple of months old, taken with (I think) a folding camera using black-and-white film. But: there are probably ten million photos like it, and it is photography with a lowercase p and has always existed. What has happened is that segment of photography has greatly expanded, and now everybody in the world seems to have a camera in their pockets. But if you really want to see thousands of photographs with a small p, go to the Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena, Ca., some Sunday, and you can look at thousands of these photos, boxes full of them, that are being thrown away. There may be some minor masterpieces among them, but nobody cares, because they're old anonymous photos and time has stripped them of any particular meaning. You want young mother with baby from the era of WWII? The flea market has 'em, as many as you want.
"But that's not Photography with a capital P, where somebody who has put a lot of time and thought into developing a vision of the world, and capturing that vision with the best possible fidelity, whatever the fidelity may consist of. Look, let's say that there are now three billion people taking photos with cell phones—but there used to be several tens of millions of people (probably) taking pictures with point-and-shoots. How many of those people merged as 'masters of the point-and-shoot?' If democracy is all that counts, there should have been hundreds. But there weren't.
"Once again, many people seem to have lost track of the idea that equipment doesn't really matter as much as the photographer and his vision, and that from each generation, a few dozen people emerge as masters. It's really not the equipment that counts as much as the photographer and his/her vision. That's a cliché—people say it over and over, but somehow, that seems to not be what they really thinking their hearts—what they really think is that some particular kind of equipment, either everyman or elite, will make a difference. It won't.
"I think perhaps you give a kid a cell phone camera and he finds the photos and the photographic process compelling...and then what? I'll tell you what: he finds the cell phone restrictive, and he decides he needs to move to more suitable equipment for whatever kind of work he wants to do. In other words, he moves up from the point-and-shoot.
"Are the camera companies going to go broke? Well, if they continue to staff on the basis of sales like the sales they had during the film-to-digital transition, probably. If they go back to staffing like they did in the sleepy '80s and '90s, probably not. Companies may not last forever, but I do believe that 'move-up' digital cameras will always be made by somebody and somebody will make a profit from them."