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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A New Age?

In the latter half of January Sports Illustrated (The American magazine) laid off the last of its staff photographers. Perhaps the correct term should be retrenched which has less of the media hysteria that accompanies ‘fired’ or ‘laid-off’. Still, the fact remains that the premiere photographic sports magazine no longer has full time staff photographers. Rather, in an effort to cut costs, they have announced that they will continue to publish first class imagery, but that it will be provided by freelance photographers and wire services (such as Getty Images).

The announcement brings with it a certain sense of deja vu as we cast our minds back to the laying off of all the photographic staff from the Chicago Sun Times in early 2013 (28 staffers lost their jobs in one blow). The Sports Illustrated and Chicago Sun Times are perhaps two of the more prominent magazines to make such cuts, but they are not the only ones. In America USA Today and the Daily News have also undergone massive layoffs. Still in the US, visual professionals have experienced a 43 percent decrease in jobs since 2000.

The job cuts in the publishing world are an unfortunate but predictable side-effect of constriction in publishing profits since the inception of the internet. When the internet became a household resource, traditional publishing enterprises bled money. What were powerhouses in the past, have had to scrabble for paying readership. The problem for the professional photographer is further exacerbated by the rise of the ‘every-photographer’. The premise amongst many camera wielding individuals is that, “if I own a camera I can make a living from it”. To be fair, a significant percentage of the images produced by the every-photographer are good. Certainly good enough to be used as publishable material.

If the owners of newspaper A sees images from every-photographer as costing less than the maintenance of a staff-photographer, then bean-counters at the paper will suggest using the every-photographer (it’s cheaper after all). On paper it makes sense, but does it make sense in reality?
I recently read an excellent article on the Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz in The Atlantic. Deresiewicz suggests that the concept of the artist is already decades out of date. Following the rise of ‘the artist’ he points out that prior to the 18th century  artists were essentially craftsmen, makers of things. Painters didn’t produce art for art’s sake. In fact the concept of art as we know didn’t even exist. Patrons paid the wages of these craftsmen and those who came to be admired were simply master craftsmen.

It was after the turn of the 18th Century when thinkers began to ponder the existence of God, and the world - the European world at any rate - became a more secular place that artists rose to the rank of seer or sage. The artist was seen as a genius who shunned the marketplace. Leading from this came a formalisation of art as colleges appeared, museums and galleries were founded and the individual artist was admired and seen as above others.

From the artist emerged the artist as professional. Universities and colleges trained artists and publishing houses hired them. Training institutions and the institutions that paid for artists essentially buffered the individuals from the market and its vagaries. In many ways the institutions that artists worked for formed a new type of patron under which work was commissioned. Think of the incredible photo essays in National Geographic, Life, Time and several other leading photographic publications, not to mentioned the amazing coverage of the American depression by the Farm Security Administration (funding such seminal photographers as Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Walker Evans). The content published in their pages would likely not have been done to such excellence had they not been there to foot the inevitable bill that comes with producing stunning imagery (the production of good imagery always costs money). Another important side effect of photographers as professionals working for institutions is that the tastes and styles were dependent on mastery of craft and quality of content.

Now we are entering a stage where the marketplace reigns supreme. Job cuts are one example of this. The free fall price of imagery in the stock industry is another example. But, another side effect is that the professional photographer has to be more than a photographer now. They have to be their own accounting, marketing, PR, sales, post-production and photographing team. There seems scarcely enough time to get through the touted 10 000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell writes about in Outliers.
Out of necessity the professional photographer has had to become their own miniature publishing house. As Deresiewicz puts it:

“We have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial self.”

Now as photographers we are obsessed with building our own brands, pushing our names out there in the hopes that we will be noticed; for to be noticed is to be successful (or so we surmise). The goal seems to be to grow contacts rather than skills. To accumulate ‘likes’ rather than images. Along with the entrepreneurial spirit comes the fact that photographers are increasingly unable to specialise. Rather, they have to be a jack-of-all-trades and like many businesses, photographers now have to diversify. Starting out everyone is told to find a niche. Now when I talk to professional photographers I hear how they dabble in several genres. Where can this lead the industry? What can it potentially mean for the image?

David Hurn in the book ‘On Being a Photographer’ argues that there is no such thing as a photographer artist in the sense that a photographer would produce a set of work for art’s sake. He points out that the very best work of several photographer luminaries was commissioned work. Admittedly it was commissioned work by the institutions that are now forsaking the photographer, but it was paid for nonetheless. We may like to think of the photographer as an independent artist, but the argument could be made that the photographer, or at any rate the vast majority of photographers, never left the paradigm of the patron and artisan. That is until now.

The problem though, as pointed out by Thom Hogan in a recent internet article, is that along with the trends in the marketplace, entrepreneurialism, digital photography and the internet is the mundanity of the resultant images that we see splashed across our screen and in our newspapers and magazines. We are rapidly entering a period where ‘good enough’ is good enough. The images that graced the coverage of the Chicago Sun Times a month after they laid off their photography department were glaring in their banality compared to the work their staff photographers had produced. A year later the difference was even more pronounced (see this article).

As a side note, the extraordinary $6,5 million sale of a print by Australian photographer Peter Lik only seems to confirm an age of the photographic ordinary. The print itself is a black and white conversion of a colour image that is available from his website (reference). Several commentators have pointed out there is very little that makes the image stand out from the plethora of similar images of the canyon that have been produced over the years. Yet, the image sold for more than 50% more than the previous ‘most expensive photographer print’ which itself was extraordinary in its complete banality.

Going back to the story of the Sports Illustrated layoffs. Individual photographers, bent of financial self-preservation cannot afford to take on major artistic projects. In the past institutions used to foot the bill and the reader was the one who benefited. Apart from this, photographers, especially photojournalists, played a genuine role in changing the world through perceptions (see this article on why a picture is worth more than  thousand words). Photographers like Kevin Carter almost single-handedly opened the eyes of the world to the reality of the suffering in Somalia in the early 90’s (admittedly Kevin Carter flew to Somalia as a freelance photographer, but the reality is that some of the best photo essays and stories have been paid for by institutions). John Stanmeyer’s work following journalist Paul Salopek on his journey around the world is allowing the journey to potentially make a difference. It seems absurdly ironic that in an age where the image is all important, the photographer and her art are concurrently so devalued.

In a world where success is measured in the number of ‘likes’ you receive, art is going to increasingly become entertainment. Photographers, to succeed, will be forced to shoot what sells rather than what questions. If photography is about business and business is about selling to a customer, then the customer’s wants will be the driving force behind the creation of the image. The adage, ‘the customer is always right’ could very well be the death-knell of original work.

But there is hope. Amongst all the banality and the mundanity photographers whose work shines will rise above the multitude of the ordinary. A readership stunned into stupefaction by the banal will respond to the extraordinary. It’s just that there is likely to be less of the extraordinary. There will be plenty of prettiness (cats and puppies on Facebook anyone?), and plenty of clever marketing ploys (can you say Peter Lik?),  but the extraordinary will stand out. There’s a reason that there appears to be a cult in photography with its grand masters; SebastiĆ£o Salgado, Jim Brandenburg, Nick Brand and the like standing proud above the multitudes of camera wielders. It is because aesthetic vision and quality will triumph. It’s just that much harder to achieve now than it was before.

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