A lot of people talk about photography as a career and how it is an eroding profession. Some photographers talk about the race to the bottom of the barrel in regards to image and shoot-for-hire pricing. Others discuss the difficulty in finding work when anyone with a camera seems to be in on the act and advertising their services as a professional. Many bemoan the apparent ease with which the general public can ‘play photographer’, and worse, that the old client has the same perceptions, thinking that Matthew in accounts owns a DSLR so he can shoot the next advertising campaign. This is, in case nobody noticed, the negative perception of photography as a career. I’m not in this camp, but I am a realist in the sense that I can recognize that photography has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, and as with all things that change, if you don’t learn to ride the rampaging bull you are going to fall off.
Right now we live in an incredibly exciting period for photography. The equipment that is on offer is unparalleled in it’s ability to finely record detail and tonal range. We can do things that was previously unimagined. Looking back over the last year we see the introduction of a 36mp 35mm format camera that blows away anything that we could have done with film (in terms of resolution with that format size camera). Even the price, which is admittedly high, is still lower than comparable film medium format cameras of the 15 years ago. Then there are the advances in lighting. Going into a studio one hardly sees wired cabling anymore. We can put lights anywhere the imagination gives us whim to. And Photoshop lends an imaginative hand allowing us to craft our visions in ways that were previously impossible. I can work an event now with strobes in each corner of the room and choose to fire all of them, some of them or none of them. I can even adjust their output without physically touching the flashes or even going near them. Then, when I get back to the studio I’m able to transform images from the humdrum into something exciting by pulling and adjusting tones globally and locally, all without visibly affecting image quality. Add to this the fact that the internet allows us to disseminate our work and communicate with others across the globe and the only entrance requirement is access to a computer and bandwidth. That access is allowing us to learn from others without physically making contact with them. The voluminous information available on the internet means that there are more and more photographers who are able to teach themselves the intricacies of the camera and light. But it’s also introduced a growing trend that has influenced the photographic community as a whole; the cult of photography.
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The Cult of Photography
The introduction of digital photography didn’t necessarily introduce the cult of photography - A supposed phenomenon where there was a sudden increase in the number of amateur photographers wanting to improve their work and disseminate it to an audience beyond their nearest and dearest. The absolute plethora of photography oriented magazines in the 90’s is testament to the fact that there was already a significantly large proportion of people out their who had photography as one of their core interests BEFORE digital appeared. What digital did though was introduce considerably more people to the joy of photography. The instant feedback afforded by the LCD screen gave impetus to people’s desire to want to get better. The relative slowness of the feedback loop of film meant that the ‘bug’ didn’t necessarily bite as easily. So what exactly is the cult of photography then?
The image has become even more important in the present than it ever has in our history. Ironically the image has also been devalued as a result of it’s all-pervasiveness. While we rely on images more than ever, they have come to be seen everywhere, breeding mundanity in their multitude. Although it’s easier to create images than ever, it’s more difficult to create meaningful imagery that stands out. In this context of ever more imagery, there is an increased recognition of the photographer, due in part to the greater number of people actually creating images. The argument being that if you create images you are more likely to look closely at images and at other photographers. Couple this to a growing number of texts that celebrate the photographer and the creation of the image, not least of which is the acclaimed National Geographic publication, “The Photographs”. These books romanticized the profession to an enormous degree, even before the onslaught of digital.
In a world saturated with imagery that is banal a select few photographers rise to an exulted status of ‘acolyte of photography’ when they consistently produce work that is exciting and interesting. It used to be that photography was actually not that respected a profession. Witness the lack of WWII imagery that is actually credited to individuals. A great many photographers of this era were seen as technicians more than artists. The likes of Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Cecile Beaton and Lee Miller - who resolutely insisted on being credited for their work - were the rarity, not the norm. Today it seems unthinkable to have created images that have no byline. But pre and mid 20th century you weren’t exactly eulogized for being a photographer. Now, there is a perception that being a photographer is cool. It’s romantic and exciting. The internet and the spread of social media, not to mention it’s usage as a mode of self-promotion, means that a great deal of photographers are using it to talk about their work and themselves. So we have a world where there is a glut of imagery, but also where there are more and more people wanting to create imagery. Add this to a world where publishing has perceived the romanticism of photography and actively promoted the mystic and romanticism of creating imagery, coupled to blogs and sites run by professional photographers doing much the same, and we have a cult of photography. A vast grouping of individuals, tiered from initiate to neophyte to acolyte and adept, all striving to achieve perfection in the creation of something that is both technical and aesthetic. A ‘priesthood’ of practitioners with their status bestowed by adoring ranks of neophytes. A cult of photography it most certainly is, and it’s bound to grow as the opportunities to create images increase with the rise of the ‘every-photographer’ thanks to the ubiquitous cellphone camera and the affordable DSLR (and increasingly mirror-less cameras).
Everyone’s a Photographer
The advent of digital and the rise of the cult of photography has meant that everyone considers themselves a photographer in some sense. I love Aaron Johnson’s ‘What the Duck’ cartoon showing two ducks discussing their latest purchases. The one duck exclaims that he has just bought a DSLR, the other rejoins that he has bought a flute. The duck with the camera pronounces that he is now a ‘photographer’. The duck with the flute looks down sadly and says that he is the ‘purchaser of a flute’. Here’s the rub that seems to annoy so many so-called professional photographers: The fact that anyone with a semi-decent DSLR thinks that they are now ‘a photographer’. But it’s not just the purchaser of the camera. People who see that person with that camera also tend towards the same thought.
No matter how good the camera a photographer still
has to figure out lighting, composition and actually have a
spark of imagination to start with. The camera cannot replace
In a quick survey of practitioners of photography in the area that I work, I found that there were something like 30 odd individual ‘professional’ photographers and companies in and around the neigbourhood that I live. That’s 30 people/companies offering relatively similar services in an area that is about 2km wide and 8km long. Okay, that’s according to a fairly quick search of google, and when I looked more accurately I found that a number of these listings were keyworded such that they would have popped up for other neigbourhoods as well. Then, looking at a number of sites it becomes readily apparent that the range of ability stretches from someone who calls themselves a ‘professional photographer’ while armed with nothing more than a bridge camera and a weekend course in the basics of light all the way through to time tested professionals with a phalanx of assistants and a large mortgage of equipment. Rates were all over the chart with, and I’ll use wedding photography as the example as they were the most prevalent amongst the hits, wedding photographers charging anywhere between R1 200 to R33 000 for the special day (and the first number is not a typo). The point if it isn’t readily apparent is that there are a lot of people out there trying to make a living from photography. Some of these people are fly-by-nights who won’t be able to last more than a year. Others have grit and talent and with a little bit of luck might make it into the profession for the long term. Does the law of diminishing returns apply though.
In stock photography I have heard time and again that the photographic profession is in a race to the bottom of the barrel. I’ve read it in blogs by Art Wolfe, David Noton, heard it in discussions with fellow photographers and considered it myself when pondering my latest royalty statements. So, I went back to a magazine article from 1983 (it was a copy of one of my Dad’s Practical Photography’s) which was all about the stock industry. The industry was very different in those days. Obviously there was no internet and digital photography was only a nascent dream of some starry eyed engineers. The thing that struck me though was the article stated quite bluntly (as did another from an American Magazine - ‘Nature Photography’ in 1994) that only a very few could make a living from stock photography. For the vast majority of photographers playing in stock the sales were purely small pot-boilers. A little extra at the end of each month. So nothing has really changed. The market has shifted certainly, but if you play the moods of the image-buying public you can still shoot stock quite successfully.
The downside to the current mood of the stock buying public is it’s insatiable demand for mediocrity. Although I have been aware of it before, it struck home on a recent shoot with Joe Cornish. We were shooting the dying light as it bounced of clouds above us near the Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg. I saw a small hill and some nice light in the clouds and realised with excitement that I had a potential stock image for the picking. The shot was, from an image point of view, boring. But, as a background for a product, very useable. I could see some automotive advertiser making the light more gritty through photoshop and slapping a hulking 4x4 on top of the rocky knoll. For that reason I also composed so that there would be more than sufficient text space while still leaving the light dramatic and the composition balanced. The image as a standalone work was mundane, boring, but would earn me money ultimately. Joe was unimpressed. After looking at it more critically so was I. I was shocked and a little saddened to see that my image had fallen into the same trap that so much stock has. It has contributed to the already overflowing libraries of mundanity. The more photographers out there, and the more the world continues to demand bland imagery that can be manipulated to the desires of the advertising directors whim (just as an example - I shot a carpet fragment the other day that an adverting company were going to tile together to make a ‘carpet’ and then drop into another photograph obtained from Shutter-Stock to advertise a carpet company’s products) the more mediocrity we are going to experience. Is it all doom and gloom for the photographic future then?
Space for Photographers
In a recent web interview with Wordpress, Steve McCurry commented that, “There will always be new people and situations. In so far as there are new songs to be written, new poems to be told, likewise there will always be a new photograph to be taken”. I’ve spoken to so many photographers who seem genuinely fearful that the advent of the ‘every-photographer’ and the perfect digital camera will put them out of business. The thing is, as good as cameras get, they only help us with the focus and the exposure. Somebody still has to compose the shot. And as good as the camera is, it takes a great deal of skill to effectively light a subject, to craft an image that conveys meaning. What perfect digital cameras do is add to the ever-growing plethora of mundanity. Yes, new technology overcomes technical hurdles, but it doesn’t replace creativity.
If there is one place where there is significant change that is nerve-wracking for the professional practitioner it is the world of photo-journalism and the iPhone as the world’s most popular camera. When I was studying journalism back in 2000, our lecturers were already talking about the rise of ‘citizen journalism’. This is the use of the average citizen to report the news by the large news agencies. If one looks at the recent uprisings in the Arab States, a great deal of the reporting was done by young citizens of those countries. Reports and images were transmitted around the world - quickly latched up by news agencies - via social sharing sites, email and internet messaging services. Images and video were shot using cellphones and small cameras, with cellphones being the more prevalent. So yes, there is a justifiable fear among some journalists that there livelihoods are on the line.
But, somebody actually has to spend the time doing the shooting. Citizen journalism and citizen photojournalism might mean that the actual moment is witnessed and reported on by a non-professional practitioner, but there are still people that need to be there in places where citizen journalism doesn’t exist. The photo-essay is not dead yet. Professional journalists still fill the role of the purportedly neutral observer. Citizen journalists tend to be partisan in their reporting., Again, witness the uprisings in the Arab States.
Moving away from journalism, there is the ever-renewed anguish amongst some professional photographers that it is just too easy to be a photographer now. That their income is eroded by the multitude of young would-be photographers who are prepared to shoot for less, hell, in some cases they are prepared to shoot for free. The interesting thing is that the only people I hear saying this are those who are still struggling to be successful. Successful photographers know that it doesn’t matter how much competition there is. If you are good at what you do, communicate effectively with your clients and advertise your services sufficiently, work will come to you. Sitting on a couch doing nothing about your lack of work doesn’t exactly announce to the world that you are a photographer. The thing is, it’s always been like this. Also, it’s not just the world of photography that suddenly has a glut of practitioners. There are more musicians, painters, graphic designers, accountants, lawyers, doctors...there are more people full stop than there were twenty years ago. Yes, there are more people who want a piece of the pie, but that pie has also grown substantially.
The cult of photography means that photographers are for the first prolonged period in the history of photography truly respected as a profession. There is a poignant scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ where the protagonist has, after a late night party, gone back to the apartment of a photographer he has met and is being shown the photographer’s portfolio. The scene is set such that the photographer is portrayed as almost pathetic. A sad individual with little hope for the future, trying desperately to be noticed. Okay, so a lot of photographers ARE trying desperately to be noticed, but the profession of photography is not looked down on as it often was in the past. Now it is something that others, non-photographers at that, are almost envious of. It’s seen as being a romantic profession. It’s considered ‘cool’ to be a photographer (the reality is very different of course, but the public perception is not put off by reality).
All in, this is actually a great time to be a photographer. The equipment is stupendous, the means of dissemination accessible to almost all (certainly to anyone who can afford a camera), the need for imagery is practically insatiable and there is a veritable ‘cult of photography’ out there to pour gravitas on those who are successful. Photography is not an eroding profession, not by any means. If anything it is a profession that is only just coming into bloom.