Darwinian competition among photographers….

I am now working out West. Last week I was in California photographing for my ongoing project on the foreclosure crisis. This week I am in Arizona photographing and teaching a workshop at the Tucson Rodeo. I am thrilled to be out of the cold in the Northeast. Since coming West, I have been watching some of the winter Olympics. That way I get to look at plenty of snow and ice, without, of course, the shivering that comes with it. Watching the competition in Vancouver, I noted the ever-narrower differences between the medalists and the also-rans. This got me to thinking about evolutionary biology and that lead me back to photographers.


On the topic of evolutionary biology, I was talking about today’s almost Darwinian competition among commercial photographers when I was giving a presentation at the Hallmark Institute of photography in Western Massachusetts early last week. I started and ended my presentation reminding the soon-to-be-graduating pros-in-the-making how digital photography has all but eliminated the skill component in professional photography.

A few years back, when I was just “going digital,” and that competition in photography was heating up, I read a fascinating essay exploring the thinking of the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Since then I have incorporated his points into the opening part of most of my presentations.

The complete article that I am borrowing liberally from is titled “Can Drug-Free Baseball Stars Smash Records?” It is by Stephen Metcalf, and was published April 25, 2004 in the New York Times. It can be read at: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/25/magazine/25ESSAY.html?pagewanted=1
Metcalf writes:

In an essay he wrote, titled ”Why No One Hits .400 Anymore,” Gould found that throughout baseball history the average batting average in baseball stayed almost constant, with the mean hovering around .260. This suggested that, over time, pitchers and hitters developed in size and skill at roughly the same pace. Simultaneously, however, the averages of baseball’s best hitters declined.

Gould explained the apparent contradiction by arguing that in a healthy, affluent society, more and more of the population approaches the outer limit of the human body’s physical capabilities. He illustrated this with a chart in which he drew a right wall that represented ”human limits.” As more people approach this wall, the distance between the normal and the stellar physical specimen necessarily diminishes. As a result, the best athletes are no longer quite the fantastical outliers they once were. Because of a ”decline in variation,” the bell curve depicting batting averages becomes steeper, with more players bunched together in the middle and fewer at the extremes.

Gould also noted that in its chaotic early days, baseball tolerated a wide range of irregularities, like erratic defense and laughably shoddy gloves. Over time, as fielding techniques and equipment were standardized, the gap between the average player and the superstar closed further. The system, in other words, ”equilibrated.”

Any trend toward equilibration, however, presents the sport with a serious image problem. We might call this Gould’s paradox: as the general level of play improves, the individual play of baseball’s stars appears to decline…. The nadir was arguably Kirk Gibson’s 1988 M.V.P. award: in that year, he batted under .300, hit 25 home runs and tallied a measly 76 r.b.i. Simply put, an equilibrated system is directly at odds with a star system. And a star system is what, increasingly, sells a sport to its youngest fans.

In the article, Metcalf then goes on about baseball, but when I read that last paragraph I was dumbfounded. The article focuses on sports but why would it not apply to any human endeavor? After humans evolve and expand the limits of their physical capability, their intellectual capabilities will similarly evolve. Replace the sport of baseball with the business of photography and you get something like:

Gould also noted that in its early days, commercial photography tolerated a wide range of media, formats, processes and personalities. Over time, as digital imaging techniques and equipment were standardized, the gap between the average photographer and the superstar closed further. The system, in other words, ”equilibrated.”

I had subconsciously understood this for a while but now Gould and Metcalf had made this crystal clear for me. It turns out I was not “crazy” thinking to myself that everyone and their brother was becoming a photographer. I was similarly correct in thinking that my particular skill set, making perfectly exposed color slides, was quickly being rendered worthless.

So in the lectures I give I mention Gould’s paradox and emphasize how the only thing that assures any photographer’s survival is a U.S.P., a unique selling proposition. U.S.P. is an established marketing term that applies to any business. The photographers who thrive are the ones who remember that their photography is a business and they usually have a U.S.P. that may or may not be conscious or obvious.

Being relatively well established as a photographer, I feel like I will likely survive the changes sweeping the world of commercial photography. I have a few of my own unique selling propositions. On the other hand, if I was just starting out, I am not so sure what I would be doing. Now that I am on the “old-guy” end of the evolutionary competition, rather than the “young upstart” end, I am more aware than ever of today’s almost Darwinian competition among commercial photographers.

One response to “Darwinian competition among photographers….”

  1. re: “my particular skill set, making perfectly exposed color slides, was quickly being rendered worthless.”

    in all skilled trades, if your skill set is defined as a sublime mastery of the tools achieving best technical results with those tools then no matter the field of skilled endeavor, you’re on a path to or just waiting to be on a path to marginalization.

    In all endeavors those skills that for some period time during the life cycle of that endeavor are difficult to achieve will eventually simply become median “conditions of employment” (COE) that all practioners are expected to have.

    Amen that your skills were not just limited to making perfectly exposed slides but are in fact rooted in the fact that no one, but you, has your vision when it comes to capturing images for thematic, professional or simply artistic purposes. The rest is just master of tools to do that and business acumen to decide what do you do with that vision to “monetize” it and make a living.

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