Why photography is not dying

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If you followed the blogosphere this week, then you will have read several articles proclaiming that photography is dying. Frankly I am quite bored with these end-of-the-world propaganda articles. I ask myself: ‘what’s the purpose?’ and fail to find a satisfactory answer. The core of the issue seems to arise from an unfortunate mix of different concepts of photography which I will elaborate on in the following.

On what basis do I disagree then with the anticipated end of the photographic world? For this we need to distinguish the different forms of photography. In particular, I want to differentiate between at least two realizations of photography. One of these is photography for its own sake, as art. The other is more commercial: photography to keep you alive and feed you. The abundance of photographic tools definitely impacts both, however in different ways.

Photography as art. I do not see photography as art dying anytime soon. The same apocalyptic statements were made by painters when photography started to exist in a serious way in first place. The argument that most people bring into play is the sheer availability of cameras to everybody. That is the famous democratization of photography people are talking about. Is this a good or a bad thing? I personally believe that this is the best thing that has happened to photography recently. If you look back 10 years or so, serious photography had a very high market-entrance barrier. You needed to put down some serious cash to be part of the game. With the availability of high quality photographic tools (yes, including iPhones etc) this completely changed – the field has been completely leveled. Now, essentially everybody can be part of the game. This does threaten the status quo, but only for those that happened to be unnecessarily privileged by being part of a game the did not belong to in first place. This can be due to an opportunistic or financial advantage not necessarily though through an intellectual or artistic one. The new democratization of photography weeded out a lot of those guys. This is a good thing. In principle, it leads to an overall higher quality (at the expense of more noise of course – see below).

sc_20130623_1-2 (Fashion photographer with an iPhone – Tokyo, Harajuku, 2013)

Moreover, it is good to keep in mind that photography has always been a schizophrenic enterprise. There are those people that are genuinely caring for the photographic event – the photo. Then, there are those caring for gear on the extreme ends. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. The gear type is seeking technical perfection and the photographic industry on the manufacturing side is heavily driven by that type – the photographic artist does not need that many cameras. Hell, allegedly Daido Moriyama didn’t ever buy his own cameras; he borrowed them and at some point they started to become his. What happened over the last few years is that the industry killed its golden goose: by making high quality imaging available at a low price to everyone (and hence selling a lot of cameras in the past) it increased the number of photographers in the market leading to price erosion for pro-photographic work; after all everybody is photographer now. So fewer and fewer, so called, traditional professionals can afford expensive gear – see next section. This leads to the creation of many new customer segments to make up for losses in the professional segment – hello, Nikon Df users, EM-1 users, fixed-prime-lens camera (X100s, GR, RX1) users.

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(Pro-grade compacts allow for unintrusive participation of the photographer  – Atlanta, 2013)

Photography as a business. When it comes to photography as a business, then the availability of camera phones etc. has put a toll on the business. We need to understand though what exactly happened. In the past there were a lot of photographers that were in business, merely because there was no one else being able to do the job. The guy did not necessarily need to be great as he more or less had a monopole. This led to outrageous fees for boiler plate shots of the most boring events etc that will be consumed in a few seconds by the reader as a nice addition to the text they are actually interested in. Just think how many photos are actually consumed and looked at more than once. Do we really need pixel peeping high quality for web-sized photos for some local newspaper that are snort through in seconds like a line of cocaine? I have my doubts. Is this a new phenomenon? hardly. It has always been the case that jobs or tasks requiring a replicable skill set will eventually be outsourced or automated – think of the power loom’s impact. This is in particular true for those skill sets, where a lower quality final product is sufficient – that’s why outsourcing and mass production works and that’s why Leicas are ‘handmade’ in Germany at crazy prices.

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So if photography is not dying, what’s going on? The short, economic, rational, and heart-less explanation is that the market is cleaning itself. This sounds über-harsh, I know, however I believe that understanding the core principle in its most brutal form ultimately helps us to recognize reality for what it is. I have been witnessing the pattern of renewal so many times in so many different situations. The region where I am originally from was heavily invested into coal mining in the 50’s – 80’s. Essentially everybody was working in a mine, one way or another. Then the demand for coal started to change. Virtually everybody was seeing it and people where talking about it – nobody however wanted to act on it. People did business as usual and went to great extents to ignore the change in their daily business lives. Until mines were closing down one after another and thousands of people were unemployed. People started to point fingers… the region has been essentially bankrupt for almost 20 years now and people are still searching for those responsible for their demise rather than adjusting to the new challenges and trying to align their skills with the demand.

In fact, I believe that the unwillingness to adjust is the real issue that we are observing in photography right now as well. It is arrogant and stupid to believe that one is not required to grow and develop one’s skills. Not moving forward means moving backward and the internet with its network effects makes the requirement to constantly innovate even more apparent (for those of you interested in networks and their value/dynamics check out Metcalfe’s law and references): skills that can be replicated at low cost will be replicated at low cost. Also the Matthew effect, significantly pronounced through the internet, ensures that ‘more gains more’, i.e., those whose work got a lot of attention in the past will get even more in the future. This is just the way it is going to be from now on. But fear not my friend – this offers more opportunities than threats. We can go where no one has gone before. We just need to be willing to adjust more often ultimately requiring us to not acquire crystallized skills that do not transfer to new domains but transferable skills, meta-skills if you want, that we can easily re-employ when we are adjusting to new conditions. Rather than learning to be a good portrait photographer or landscape photographer, we can focus on skills such as composition, story-telling etc, which are meta skills and that transfer more easily (I can see already the stones being thrown in my direction by the traditionalists). In essence, I think it is more the death of an (old) business model.

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Dealing with noise. One issue that comes with higher volume is typically more noise and volatility. Social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, Google+, etc. are flooded with snapshots and the bandwidth required to process all this information as a viewer is exceeding the capabilities of the best of us. In fact, browsing social networks for photography can be quite frustrating at times when one realizes that likes and +1s are driven by popularity and network, rather than quality, making it very hard to extract a quality signal from the noise: the signal to noise ratio is very low at this point. My way of dealing with it is going beyond the main stream groups or communities on flickr, google+, etc. and participate in smaller setups that are more focused on the actual photograph. Moreover, we need to emancipate ourselves from the wisdom of crowds: just because something has an outrageous number of likes or similar 1-bit affirmations of quality bestowed upon the originator by ‘the crowd’ does not necessarily constitute quality with regards to our personal needs. It is ok to disagree – have your own opinion. Just think of the process you might have gone through to refine your vision and perception that gives you a heightened or different sense of aesthetics. The broader public might not have gone through the same process and therefore appreciate different things in photographs. However, the broader public is not necessarily the audience that you are looking for: the willingness to pay is very low as photos are considered merely nice to look at and exactly at this point, their purpose is fully exhausted for the mainstream. We have to understand that the wisdom of crowds is merely an average of crowds — excellence has seldom been obtained as an average.

So what are your thoughts? — TSJ.

5 thoughts on “Why photography is not dying

  1. Pingback: Skill over tool – let’s leave the gear discussion behind #nogear | Terence S Jones - a guy with a camera

  2. I totally agree with you, Terence. I, myself, have been finding some amazing and very unique photographers over the internet. I’ve always questioned myself “why won’t these great people, who work hard for quality and art, receive as much attention as the mainstream media does?”. I guess we can kind of compare this situation to the music industry, where we have tons of great unknown artists and a bunch of average “performers” – because most of them don’t even deserve the title of “artist” – shining over everybody else and receiving the likes and the money a real artist should.
    Anyways, what a nice post! You have a good day, mr. Jones.

  3. Pingback: The Ruhr valley – repurposed | Terence S Jones - a guy with a camera

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