The end of the photography world as we know it

The philosophical riddle, “if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” has become the starting point of many jokes. It also raises important questions regarding observation and how we establish/define reality. While a physicist can empirically (and easily) prove that yes, a noise is made, the philosopher is less sure about what is thruth. A recent article in the New York Times, and especially the reaction to it, reminded me of this philosophical question.

The article “For Photographers, the Image of a Shrinking Path,” by Stephanie Clifford, explores the perfect storm of forces battering professional photographers today. It can be read at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/30/business/media/30photogs.html?emc=eta1 The writer interviewed a wide range of people in the industry so the article has a good depth of information and a wide range of perspectives. I have had the article forwarded to me by over a dozen friends. Apparently it was the most forwarded article from the business section of the New York Times this week.

The subsequent reaction has been interesting. Working pros, like me, have talked (and blogged) about this issue for years. We are frustrated by the fact that now that the New York Times says it is a problem then everyone suddenly thinks it really is! For those of us on the inside it has been “The end of the world as we know it,” for some time now. I guess we should be happy that the outside world knows it too.

To follow the philosophical question raised above, yes, the tree fell in the woods years ago and it is a scientifically proven fact that it made a noise (that being the gasps of photographers.) But now that the New York Times says that it actually did fall, everyone now believes there indeed to think about as professional photographers gasp their last breaths.

I think that many people miss the bigger point of the article, which is that the same forces (technological and economic) that are driving prices down today will only continue to do so in the future. Thus, people who today are under-pricing their services by thinking that they lack experience and should charge less will eventually end up being priced out of the same market that they have recently been driving down.

The value of an image (or anything) is not what it costs to make it, but what it gives of value to the person who spends money on it. The end user paying for what they consider a “professional image” knows that they are getting something that has the impact of a photograph made by someone with decades of skill and a unique perspective. They are happy to pay much less for it because (based on the photographer’s self-perception,) they were only charged for a few years worth of skill.

As of late there has been some interesting push back by creative professionals who are confronting some of these same forces. One of my favorites, “The Vendor Client Relationship” is on You Tube. To see their view on the vendor client relationship – in situations that perfectly satirize real world situations see http://www.vendorclientvideo.com/ or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2a8TRSgzZY&feature=player_embedded

A very funny blog entry exploring this question asks “Do you ever wonder how many miles per photo credit (MPCs) your car gets? I do. I also wonder if these thoughts ever cross the mind of people whose job description includes asking me for permission to publish my images, promising only a photo credit as compensation. Don’t you?” Read more at: http://cafejoetogo.blogspot.com/search?q=Do+You+Ever+Wonder

I was recently directed to a particularly brilliant article about stock photo users who are penny-wise but pound-foolish. The lesson is that saving money in the short terms leads to long-term marketing problems for the companies that buy and use the same photograph for the same kind of marketing. That can be seen at:
http://fairtradephotographer.blogspot.com/2010/03/microstock-why-would-reputable-company.html The comments afterward are at least as interesting.

One of the many ironies surrounding the article in the New York Times is that the newspaper itself contributed greatly to the demise they are describing. The contract that they now require freelance photographers to sign in order to work for them is so heavily weighted in favor of the paper and against the photographer that most photographers I know cannot afford to work for them. I have written other blog entries on this topic so I will not beat a dead horse.

One thing that bothers me about their contract is that since it is not economically viable for most photographers, they have a lot of turnover in their contributors. In photojournalism in general and for an institution like the New York Times in particular, that is especially problematic. Journalistic excellence takes time to learn and turnover of contributors makes that hard, if not impossible. This is especially bothersome because I am a long time reader of the Times and generally trust their coverage. Still, if the credibility of their photojournalism is eroding, can their print journalism be far behind?

Truth, in the eyes of the philosopher may not be fully knowable. But we can get close to the truth and the only way to do that is through rational reasoning. The fact is that a tree makes noise when falling in the woods and the demise of professional photography has been occurring for years. Only believing something when you want to, or when the New York Times anoints it as a trend is certainly not the way to find the truth.

2 responses to “The end of the photography world as we know it”

  1. In a wonderful bit of synchronicity there is a man running a chainsaw in the woods behind my house as I read this post.

  2. I was reading an article about crowdourcing. When you think about it, it is a corollary paradigm shift to the paradigm shift of reduction of economic value of the cost associated with getting professional photographic results.

    Crowdsourcing is driving down the $’s paid to professional software people to develop immensely complicated solutions. We take for granted the crowdsourcing that has yielded LINUX, which is the most popular UNIX OS variant used for hosting the application and enterprise servers that run in the Data centers that host most of our business transactions across much of corporate America, process the special effects that we take for granted in all the movies we see at the local cineplex, and host databases, internet email and just about everything we access on the web, including this blog.

    Netflix used a “crowdsourcing” and a $1M prize to result in teams around the world competing with each other to create the best software to mprove the accuracy of predictions about how much someone is going to enjoy a movie based on their movie preferences. While they did award $1M, i am sure that the if they had to pay the going rate for software development to the teams that did all the work the actual cost for developing that software was exponentially greater than $1M.

    I wonder how value-less work content and results become how long we chase reducing cost of results until there are no more savings to be had. I wonder what that world will be like. I am still convinced that contrary to some pundits and economists that products and content want to be “free” that there is still no such thing as a free lunch and that when you get it for free or next to nothing eventually you get what you paid for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *