Photos are Worthless

It is an interesting period in photography right now.  Technological advances in camera bodies, lenses and software, along with a burgeoning social media revolution and widespread availability of training and tutorials, have all converged to make advanced photography available to the masses.  That’s a good thing, right?  Well, not so much.

There was a time when knowledge of light, physics, composition and good design were required to be “a photographer”.  Formal training was often pursued through a college degree, art school or apprenticeship.  Years of special devotion and dedication to the craft were required to elevate one’s skills and establish a reputation for great work.  And while there may have been countless working photographers making images on a daily basis, some emerged as superstars of their era – Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, to name just a few.  They emerged as remarkable photographers because of the quality and consistency of their work over the course of their careers.  In other words, they earned their reputations.

In today’s scene, however, just about anyone with a couple decent digital photos and an internet connection can be an overnight superstar photographer.  There are, in fact, a few photographers who will grow to earn this status.  But there are countless more who are merely today’s “flavor of the month” and will soon be tomorrow’s “never heard of ’em”.  (By the way, the same can be said for today’s music industry.  But that’s a whole different blog post!)

To be sure, decreasing costs of equipment and seemingly endless methods of digital distribution have made it possible for most people to obtain gear and experiment with photography.  That’s fine.  But just because someone owns a camera and has a Flickr account, doesn’t make them a photographer.  What if everyone who owned a car considered himself a NASCAR driver.  Or if everyone who had a hammer boasted they were now a carpenter.  Not only would the quality of the results be sub-par, but the value of all work in that field, good or bad, would be diminished because of the abundance of supply.  This is what has been happening in photography in recent years, just as it happened with video production in the last decade, home recording in the decade before that, and desktop publishing in prior years.  As advanced technology becomes cheaper and more readily available, the number of practitioners explodes, causing the value of that craft to fall over time.  And because the perceived value of these services drops, the practitioners lower their rates to get more business, adding even more fuel to the downward spiral of value.  Ultimately, many are forced out of business because they can no longer earn a living from their craft, regardless of talent level.

Concert photographers now have to deal with onerous “rights grab” contracts from some artists, in addition to the problems outlined above.  Several prominent performers (Lady GaGa, Coldplay, Taylor Swift and dozens more), now require music photographers to sign contracts, prior to receiving photo credentials, which require the photographer to forfeit all copyright claims to any images they shoot of that artist.  Previously, editorial use was commonly allowed and appropriate licensing fees were paid to the shooters, by publications, for the use of the images.  Now, that is becoming less and less permissible.  Artists and management are so concerned with their “brands” nowadays, that they are strangling virtually all uses of freelancers’ images – essentially cutting off their noses to spite their big ugly faces.  In response, many concert photographers are choosing not to shoot a show requiring this type of agreement, rather than spend their time and talents for naught.

So, in the end, what does all this mean?  For some, it means they now have equal footing with the “pros” in getting their work seen by the masses in an economical manner.  For others, it means the end of a career.  For those somewhere in the middle, like me, it means the path of their emerging photography journey will not be a smooth ride.

As always, I’m interested in hearing your comments.