5.25.2013

The death of the professional photographer.


We like to talk about trends here. And a trend I've heard a lot about is the death of the "professional" photographer. It's true and it's not true. The problem with the discussion is that lay people think of photography through the lenses of their experience. It's the "big, all encompassing tent" concept. To the typical family in America that is not directly involved in imaging or advertising fields, or publishing, the "idea" of a professional photographer is a cliché. It's a guy in a bad suit who photographs weddings and bar mitzvahs. It's a chubby woman in a black outfit who does "available light" weddings and it's a bunch of blue collar guys who swarm around children's soccer, baseball and Pop Warner football leagues snapping a zillion photographs of Johnny and Suzie kicking the goal or sliding into home plate and hoping to sell some prints to moms and dads who want something more, photo-wise, than can be snapped with an iPhone.

Depending on your generation your stereotype might include "Animal," the scruffy and unclean photojournalist on the TV show, Lou Grant; Ron Galella, the paparazzi photographer who stalked Jackie Kennedy Onassis, or some chubby girl in bad boots giving an online class on "Boudoir Photography" on Creative Live. The pervasive idea conglomeration is that all photographers work for retail customers or for newspapers. The generic American knows that newspapers are a dying medium for the very reason that they no longer subscribe and neither do any of their friends....

Most Americans either can't afford the luxury of a classic portrait session or they don't see the point. They've been able to embrace immediate gratification results with their iPhones or a cool, new Canon Rebel. And in many instances and in many locales the "professional" who handles baby photos, senior photos and other portraits is so far behind the cultural cool curve that the products offered are aimed at markets that stopped existing in the mid-1990's. Along with cassette tape players. And answering machines.

Is it any wonder that a whole generation has come to think of photographers in the broadest sense as no longer relevant? And when I look at the work of most generic "shooters" I am reminded of the Kodak books on portraiture I used to buy in the 1980's. Some of the styles were wonderful in the moment but the rest of the world seems to have moved on.

So the person whose pressing need is an image for Facebook will turn to their network of friends and invest in a bit of quid pro quo rather than looking in the Yellow Pages (do they still exist?) to find someone who they can go to and pay to get something that doesn't look as cool, in the moment. All the simple imaging stuff has migrated to the handheld devices of friends and family.

But there is a different reality that most people don't see. It's the reality of professional photographers who are lighting architecture and shooting it with tilt/shift lenses (and good taste). It's the reality of bright young (and older) advertising photographers who still routinely command low to mid six figure incomes per year co-creating a new visual language for national and international clients. And it's teams of image makers who are delivering hybrid collections of still images and wonderful motion for more and more companies and agencies. The people who can light impeccably and topically. The people with a good radar for style and trends. The people who can see (or help make) a visual future. What's the next chapter? Instead of "let's re-read the classics."

I'll conjecture that between advertising, catalogs (OMG, have you seen the massive, new Restoration Hardware catalogs???? Shot in the USA and absolutely amazing!!!!) corporations, retailers, healthcare and travel and leisure clients those photographers (not wedding/baby/senior = retail) who serve those markets are thriving just as in the "golden years."  When you add in the massive increase in video and even short motion pictures the profitable market is probably far larger than it was in the go-go 1990's. It's just spread out a bit more.

Most of us (photographers) took a giant hit in the last recession because most of the country (USA) snapped their wallets shut and wouldn't answer the doorbell, much less the telephone.  And there were two trajectories that photographers seemed to take: One group tried doing what they had been doing for the last twenty or thirty years and they saw their markets shrivel and die. The other group changed direction and served up a whole new recipe for servicing clients. They zigged with the clients and then zagged with the clients and now they are busy and business is growing.

We didn't have to dumb anything down because we're not working with the masses. We had to smarten things up because we're working with professionals who both see the value of our work and who also want much more. Give it to them and you win. Whine about the glorious past and you lose. Count on it.

The image above was taken many years ago in Paris. Back then a man with a plain camera and some boxes of film could make a living shooting couples on the Place de la Concorde with Kodacolor film and mailing them the prints. Cameras were hard to use back then. Most people didn't carry them about. But you can see that the street vendor/photographer in the photograph was hedging his bets even then. The box over his shoulder was filled with one use, disposable cameras for sale. And sell them he did. 

Photography is changing. You can jump into the river and swim with the current or you can cling to temporal rocks and hold on tight until you succumb and drown. The choice is yours but the market for interesting, new and exciting imaging with always exists. And people with checkbooks will want it because it says something interesting about them or their businesses. 

We're all visual creatures. The power lies with those who keep reinventing the visual language. Professional photographers are not dead, they're just not as visible to the masses as they used to be...the ones that remain or have recently arrived just found better clients.