The Barbarians at the Gate: In the Digital Age, Is Photography a Trade or an Art?
Yes, the "barbarians" are at the gate! Run, hide, and feel insecure about your craft!
The following was in my email this morning. I didn’t really want to take the time today to write a long post, but I’ve had some thoughts on this subject brewing in my head for a while now and seeing this article this morning brought it all together for me.
So, here we go…
First, a clip from a post on the MCP Actions blog on the terrifying photo below...
MCP Thoughts on editing photography images:
I had posted this image on the MCP Facebook Page in February showcasing our newest Lightroom presets (InFusion and Illuminate). I never expected to hear anything except, “cute kids” or “how did you do that?” or “great save.” No laws were being broken. No kids were harmed. It was an image that was not exposed properly. That’s it!
Wow. …though anyone with any familiarity at all with the current state of the photography industry will recognize these reactions immediately. Fear is the driving force in the trade right now.
This process will take a while, perhaps a long while, to work through and I do know that photographers are really suffering out there right now, and this is sad. A lot of the reactions to posts like the one above are not driven by fear but by a real loss in revenue that people are experiencing right now. This is unfortunate and I feel for these individuals. During this transition, people are going out of business.
Some full timers may need to become part timers, or even dedicated hobbyists, supplementing their income from other sources while many entering the profession at this point in time may not ever be able to earn a full time income from photography alone. But I do not believe the profession is dying, just changing. Things are less dire than it was for those working in trades such as manufacturing and logging in the 1980s and 1990s, who watched their jobs disappear never to return.
Additionally, some of the vitriol, fear, and angst pervading the photography community these days seems a little over the top and silly considering that the photo trade has always been one of the easiest artistic fields to earn a living in.
Advances in technology are revolutionizing not only the photography business, but other fields as well. In fact, I think it is fair to say that the music and publishing industries are being shattered in ways that make what is happening in the photography world look like silly, small stuff.
However, there are differences too. For example, in the music industry, the new digital realities are hurting the big business record labels the most, and some of the most successful bands and performers, not the small mom and pop style shops that are being affected by these changes in the photography world.
In the publishing industry, much the same can be said, that those being hurt are really the large publishing houses more than the individual writers themselves. If anything, the digital age has the opposite effect there, because more new writers are making money through digital self-publishing then ever before.
Now, in both of those industries, there were small, local businesses that were devastated by the rise of digital media, just as local studio photographers are suffering now, though most of the damage to local book and record stores came from competition from big box retailers and chains, long before digital downloads and amazon.com arrived to finish the job. However, I do tend to draw a difference between retailers and photographers, because we are talking about artists, not retailers.
It can be argued that there are positives and negatives across the board to the new realities of the digital age, but one of the overriding themes in the arts is that these changes are bringing a new level of democracy to these fields. In a perfect world, this means that the talent will, eventually, rise to the top after we sort through this crazy transition period. Perhaps this is also the cause of some of the fear among professional photographers.
Compared to painting, music, writing, filmmaking, dancing, acting, etc., photography has always been one of the easier of the arts to make a living in. In the pre-digital age, to make a living as an artist in most fields, you, for the most part, needed to have well-above average talent to succeed. Of course, there is a lot more to any artistic success story than just talent, but it needed to be there.
Now, I am not saying that talent is not a requirement to make a living as a photographer, but I will say that, compared to the other arts, the level of talent required to make a living has been lower than in other fields.
What has been required for success in photography, beyond creativity and talent, was making a significant investment in training (formally or informally) and, especially, in equipment. In many ways, out of the arts, the business of photography has, until recently, been more of a trade than an art in that, much like electricians and plumbers, you receive some training, buy some tools, and then you go to work selling your skill set in the local market with a reasonable expectation of earning a living. With the changes happening now, though, photography may not survive as a trade, though it may become stronger as an art.
Of course, there are also ways for musicians and writers to approach their craft as a trade, to make a living without becoming a best selling author or a top ten recording artist, and, on the flip side, photographers will still dream of being the next Ansel Adams, Robert Capra, Annie Liebovitz or Herb Ritts, but, in general, most photographers set out to open a studio, to work for their local papers, or to sell prints through local vendors, happy to make a living through the practice of their trained skill set, and there are many more of these living wage jobs out there for photographers than there are local, living wage jobs for writers and musicians.
Another difference between the other arts and photography is that most people participate in it. Since the early days, almost everyone owns a camera; almost everyone takes family photos, almost everyone takes vacation photos. Because of this, photography is often less mysterious to the consumer than other arts. In fact, it could be said, that it is the professional equipment more than the training or talent that has even enabled most photographers to be in business for the last 150 plus years.
Everyone who wants to write can write with no specialized equipment, everyone who wants to play music can, for the most part, afford instruments to get started with. So it was not access to equipment that determined whether someone would be successful, but their skill and talent. However, with pre-digital photography, the darkroom equipment necessary to produce professional level work was generally unavailable to a large segment of the public.
Sure, we can all point and shoot, once with our Kodaks, now with our phones, but what really kept the local photographers in business, more than their talent or skill, was their studios and darkrooms.
The space and the equipment served as the gatekeeper, keeping the barbarians out and the public willing to pay for professional services.
I experienced this myself. Photography was one of my main pursuits through my childhood but, once I left high school and no longer had access to a darkroom, I pretty much quit. I still liked taking pictures, but it ceased to be a serious professional or artistic pursuit for me, though I always planned to get back into it once life brought me to the perfect intersection of income and space where I could afford darkroom equipment and a home large enough to have a place to put it.
As the last decade has proven, there were many dormant photographers out there. For us, the digital revolution has not been a career threatening nightmare but a liberating experience where we can once again pursue an art we love with a dedication unavailable to us before the digital revolution replaced the need for enlargers and chemical trays with a desk and a computer.
Sure, having studio space is a factor for a lot of portrait photography, along with the lighting equipment and the training to use it properly, but many photographers out there are now focusing more on documentary style, naturally lit work which eliminates that need for dedicated studio space and most consumers, at the moment, also seem drawn to that sort of work, as well.
I, and the other barbarians, are now unleashed and, yes, we are coming for you. Is there nothing to hold us back, now? Now that everyone can produce pro level work, is there going to be anyway for anyone to make a living?
Yes, there is.
As a gatekeeper of the profession, expensive darkroom equipment is essentially eliminated now. However, training, skill, and talent now count for, well, everything. And above all these, talent. As with writing and music, the playing field is leveled and everyone now has a chance to compete, but this should mostly have the effect of raising the artistic bar and eliminating mediocrity. Those who succeed will be the ones with the best combination of skill and talent. Learning the basics of the craft will always be a necessity, and it will not be a small task for those who truly wish to compete in this new environment.
As a film / darkroom photographer, I know how difficult it is just to transition to digital. The camera, once a light box with a couple of knobs and dials is now a fairly sophisticated computer in its own right requiring a more sophisticated understanding of the different settings and how they affect the outcome of each exposure, and digital editing is even more complex.
Sure, there are presets at both ends of the workflow, but any real photographer, beginning to advanced, will be frustrated by these more often than not, though they can be valuable tools worth utilizing from time to time, in the right circumstances, regardless of one’s experience level.
It has taken me over a year from the time I upgraded to a DSLR and installed pro level editing software, and thousands of pictures, to reach the point where I feel anywhere close to having the skill set required to go pro as a digital photographer. Beyond that, I still feel that I am only a beginner, with much, much room for improvement (though this is how all artists feel, I suppose, regardless of their medium).
Mind you, this struggle is just to adapt to digital equipment. Someone starting from scratch won’t be bringing 30 plus years of experience with composition and basic exposure principals to the table, either. Leaning that? Well, even if I am a slow learner, it still takes years to master those skills.
And if all of this is not enough, then there is the fact that the hardware and software is always changing now, and just keeping up with it means that training will always be an on-going time requirement of the professional photographer if they want to keep performing at current pro standards. For most of the photographic age, once you learned the basics, not much changed until about 10 to 15 years ago, and then everything changed and will continue to keep changing forever.
So to me, the idea that everyone who gets a DSLR for Christmas is going to hang out their shingle, undercut your rates, and put you out of business is really a fairly silly myth, because if Instamatics, Polaroids, and one hour photo developing didn’t kill off professional photography, there is no reason to think that digital cameras will now because the training and skill required to produce professional level work is still there, now more than ever!
Of course, we are in a period of technological transition where some of these folks are undeniably diluting the market by hanging out their shingle and by undercutting your prices, but if you are a skilled and talented professional, your superior work should allow you to continue on much as before the digital revolution, once things smooth out a bit.
And really, if you really are being put out of business by a bunch of folks who just received a DSLR for Christmas, there may be more issues involved with your photography than just a diluted market share.
Let’s face it, the consumer’s familiarity with photography can be seen as a plus in this environment. They are used to looking at pictures, have probably taken more than a few of their own, and they can recognize the difference between mediocre shots and great, stunning shots. If they choose their cousin over me to shoot their wedding, and price is not the only factor, then I have to assume that either their cousin is a pretty damn talented photographer or that I have a lot of room for improvement if my work isn’t clearly superior to his.
In the long run, though it may take a while, I do believe that most of these newcomers that are diluting the market right now will be weeded out by these forces, leaving only the most dedicated and talented. Everyone owning a film camera did not put professional photographers out of work; because of their professional skills, the pros’ photos looked better than everyone else’s, so they got to stay in business. In the long run, the same forces should balance the playing field once again.
So, while the gatekeeper of gear may have fallen, the gatekeeper of skill, while taking a beating right now, should survive the storm.
However, not everyone will survive because a lot of photographers with tremendous dedication and talent will be entering the field, folks who may not have been able to compete before the digital age, lacking access to equipment, and some will discover a love for the art that they might have missed if they needed a darkroom instead of a desktop. Because of this new, more “democratic” environment, photography as a learned, skilled trade may be coming to an end. Talent will become more of a factor than ever before, making the art of photography more like the other arts in this regard.
Up to now, one could choose to become a professional photographer, much like one could choose to study any other skilled trade. One doesn’t enter a trade school on the hope and prayer that you’ll be talented enough to work once you’ve received the training necessary for success, and this has been how the photography industry has been up to this point.
But now, studying photography will be a lot more like studying music or acting than it will be electrical engineering. Training or a degree will not guarantee living wage employment.
I believe that the professional photographers with the most to fear are exactly the ones who treat their craft more like a trade than as an art, because photography is returning to being an art practiced by trained and talented artists than a trade developed by skilled technicians, who have more in common with plumbers than artists. Talent and vision, in the new digital world, will count for so much more than ever before.
In the pre-digital age, professional photographers really were in the business of selling their skills, not their art, but now that the barbarians are storming through the gates, talent will more than ever determine who makes it and who fails.
If you are a brilliant photographer with a unique vision and an established business, I don’t think you have much to fear in the long run because, while more people will have access to the same gear as you, and more people will develop the skills required to effectively utilize that gear, no one can receive a camera and an Adobe Cloud subscription for Christmas and put you out of a job a year later unless they are just more talented than you are.
I know that is a controversial statement in photography, but in the other arts, it is just day to day business.
Likewise, it will also be harder for newcomers to make a living in this environment, because there will be a lot of talented people able to pursue this art now that were blocked at the gates by the equipment barriers of the past.
If I was an established photographer right now, this would scare the pants off me, and I would spend a lot more time on improving my craft to fend off us charging barbarians than I would spend trolling the comments on photography blogs.
In fact, considering the reaction to the picture at the top of the article, I might suggest that these comments were left by the very folks that have the most to fear.
As a developing professional, it scares me even more, to be honest, because my level of skill and talent is still relatively untested.
Professional photography is not dying, but it is getting more competitive. Not because of the numbers of photographers entering the field, but because the number of talented photographers entering the field will push the artistic quality factor a lot higher than it has been in the past.
We’re not talking about those “one lucky shot” folks here, we’re talking about the truly skilled and talented amateurs who will be taking over as the next generation of professionals.
The quality of work necessary to make a living, even as a portrait photographer in a local market, is going to be a lot higher than it ever has been before and, much more than ever before, artistic talent will determine who succeeds and fails. This will obviously make it much more difficult to earn a living, because photography as a learned trade is probably coming to an end. Talent will now not only be a necessary factor in being successful, but the most important factor in one’s success, causing the best to rise to the top.
On the bright side, once it becomes as difficult to achieve success in photography as it is in even a local music scene for a musician or band, once these standards and expectations are recognized and accepted, at least the sheer number of competitors will shrink, though it may become much more of a battle to stay in business for a long time before being knocked out by a more talented newcomer, which also resembles the music industry much more than the current photography trade.
And, of course, this scares the working professionals, because they went to work in a skilled trade industry that is rapidly transforming into an arts industry.
As I mentioned, it is terrifying to me, as well, as I enter the industry. While the digital age allows me to enter the ring, it also makes it that much harder for me to be successful, as well.
20 years ago, with the skills and considerable experience I have at this point in time, having been a photographer for over 30 years now in one capacity or another, I would have been able to start up a photography business with relatively little concern about earning a living if I managed my business well.
Today that counts for little. Now I just need to be better than everyone else, a lot better, and I’ll need to, artistically, keep fighting to stay better than everyone else for the rest of my career…
While photography has always been an art, now the business of photography is going to become more like the other artistic industries. And like music, writing, acting, and every other artistic pursuit, even with talent there are no guarantees of success. Only the best and most talented will be able to earn a living, but in reality, while this may hurt some individuals, for the art itself, amazing things are coming!
The fact is, all the arts are experiencing this sort of dynamic and rapid industry shaking shifts right now. The only visions of the future that everyone can really agree on is that, most likely, most arts will become more “democratic” in the future. There are upsides and downsides to this, for example, in publishing, agents and editors have, though imperfect, acted as quality control gatekeepers allowing, on paper, only the best writers through to the bookstore shelves. With the digital age changes in that field, now we are seeing writers of less talent and quality slipping through the gates (50 Shades of Grey, I’m looking at you).
No one, at this point, can really predict what any of these industries will look like 25, let alone 50 years from now. But change is coming.
Even the film industry is going to experience this soon, I predict. From people like the folks who produced Beasts of the Southern Wild completely apart from the established film industry to the near future when some folks with a DSLR and a lap top inevitably break through with a feature length film that achieves undeniable commercial and critical success.
I, myself, am working towards destroying some of the gatekeepers in that industry. My Historic Columbia River Highway project was born out of that very idea… It is, at its heart, an attempt to produce a professional quality feature length documentary using consumer level cameras and editing software. It is a proof of concept project.
Will it hold it’s own against the pros? It is too soon to tell, but I can say that if I am working towards this goal, there are others out there doing the same, and eventually one of us will break through.
We are the barbarians at the gate. We are coming. We are here.
For photographers, to prepare for this brave new world, to survive in the current climate, I suggest that spending time honing one’s craft is probably a better use of time than trolling the internet and crying about how the amateurs are putting you out of business. Because those amateurs are not spending their time debating these points with you, they are out there learning and working and getting better everyday until they break through and are so incredibly good at their craft that they become the undeniable best in the industry, becoming the professional artists that replace the professional tradesmen currently dominating the photography field.
Until then, let’s worry though about how Photoshop and Lightroom presets are killing the industry, why don’t we? That sounds about right to me.
Keywords: art, Commercial Photography, creative process, essay, Historic Columbia River Highway, photography, Recreating the Historic Columbia River Highway
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