The making of a grumpy old photographer

When I was first starting out as a photographer, I spent a lot of time with a few “grumpy old photographers.” Since I was the “young whippersnapper” back then, I was the butt of many of their jabs and barbed comments. I generally took it all in stride because I knew what I was learning from them was incredibly valuable. I also secretly hoped that I would survive long enough in the business of publication photography to become a “grumpy old photographer” too. As I have slowly earned the designation of “older,” I often wondered what was going to make me as “grumpy” as those guys. That finally happened recently and it surprised me when it did.

The old guys would often say things like “the business was better in the good old days” and “the latest technology is just making you youngsters lazy.” Now that I am entering the category of “old guy,” I can say with absolute clarity that, for me as a photographer/artist, the business was NOT necessarily better in the good old days. Similarly, digital imaging may be making some youngsters lazy, but most people I know find their creativity unleashed by digital imaging. Clearly, digital imaging has upended many markets, as I have blogged about repeatedly. On the other hand, I rarely think that I would like to go back to the days before digital imaging. Digital technology, in communications and imaging, has brought an abundance of changes to photography, mostly for the better. One example is how so many different photographer’s visions, from across the globe, are being added into the collective milieu of photography.

Having said that, there is one thing that I do miss from the good old days. I miss courtesy. In the old days, photo editors/clients were people who photographers interacted with and developed relationships with. I was aware that within most publications, I was one of many easily interchangeable photographers who could be hired for a given job. But, the editors I interacted with made the process more interesting and humanized the work we were doing together. We shared bits and pieces of our lives, occasionally became close friends and we were always courteous. Always!

I have had a few interactions in the last two months with different editors/clients that reminded me how courtesy has been sucked out of the business. Without boring you with the details, the highlights of a few disappointing interactions follow:

A “Project Specialist in Corporate Communications” wrote:

The ……. company location in Providence got a new facelift and I need some photos of the facility. I wanted to check your rate for an hour shoot, including mileage, producing un-retouched JPG photos. The photos are for an internal magazine. Please let me know the estimate as well as your availability on ….

I responded:

Thanks for the query. Love to do the job but…. I price my projects based on the end use, not merely based on my time. Do writers charge by the hour for their novels? I would also need more information about the usage such as is it one time, with web rights, etc.? Then I could give you a quote.

As you might guess, I heard nothing in return.

Shortly thereafter I received the query below, which sounded like a great job.

I am the photo editor at … and I have a freelance job in … MA that I’m wondering if you would be available for. We are doing a feature article in our bi-monthly membership magazine on ….. which provides emergency care and long-term rehabilitation for wild animals, and they are located in ……. MA.

We have hired a freelance writer to write the piece and are now looking for a photographer to accompany her on the story. It would most likely be a two or three day assignment. Can you let me know if you would be interested in this assignment when you get a chance? I will also need to know how much you’d charge, and what your schedule looks like in …

I responded:

Thanks for contacting me. Sounds like an in interesting subject/ assignment. Yes, I am interested. A few thoughts: I am free …… I may have mis-read your note, but I do not need to accompany the writer. In my experience, it usually works better if I do not. Writers look for one thing in a story and photographers look for something else, so…..

As for the fee, what is your budget for a project like this? Tell me a bit more about the usage of the images. Is it one time only, in print? Will they be re-used on the web site, etc? Then I can quote a fee.

Also, if you go to: http://www.davidhwells.com/multimedia/projects.html you will see some of my multimedia pieces. Would you have any interest in a short (one or two minute) multimedia piece from the assignment?

I do not even need to tell you, I heard nothing in return.

I am well aware that the average picture editor/client is overworked with ever shrinking budgets. I am also aware that I probably come across as “old school,” asking about usage and trying to tailor my fees to their unique situation rather than quoting a simple flat rate. I am also aware that I can do the job they want done better than most of the beginners they will probably hire who price the same jobs impossibly low.

What I am most aware of is how digital technology (imaging and communications) has sped things up so much it has ripped the last bits of courtesy out of the business I love. When digital imaging came along and revolutionized photography, I thought of how the “old guys” would have complained. But I did not complain, because in totality, digitally photography’s arrival has meant change for the better. Similarly, though the business I was in, making images for printed publications, is largely gone, I am not complaining because I am having a great time exploring multimedia. So for me, unlike the “old guys,” most of the change I have lived through has been good. But when they take away common courtesy that is too much for me. In that case, take it from one grumpy old man. Things really were better in the good old days.

4 responses to “The making of a grumpy old photographer”

  1. Hear! Hear! David. Stuff like this happens to me all the time. PEs were always busy and kind of brusque, but the non-response is the newest indignity we’ve got to put up with. At least they used to be able to “just say no”….which is preferable, IMHO, than just saying nothing.

  2. I got sort of self-grumpy this week; I was sorting through both my Aperture database and some slide pages and realised that…I sort of liked my slides better. Actually, I have memories of ‘seeing’ a lot better when I was shooting film.

    So…uh…I bought an F3 on ebay and am going to shoot film for a while. (How weird is it that, when I was in school in the 90’s and really wanted something like an F3 that it was way too expensive and now people are almost giving them away; I think I’m going to work on a project about documenting the present with something that is old and discarded…sounds like a perfect grumpy thing to do!)

  3. It’s not just photography . . . it’s all of business. After 30 years in marketing, I had to get out for many of the reasons you describe. Technology, though incredibly useful to practitioners, has led to the commoditization of the creative product. Clients are driven by time and cost (by their own internal clients) and not many any more know the difference between quality and a placeholder. Nor do they care. The only solution I can think of is to find those few good, educated clients who know that they want and are willing to pay for it. I wish us all good luck with that.

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