The Future Of Photography Is In The Photographer Not The Photograph

- - The Future

Stephen Mayes, Managing Director of VII Photo and former Jury Secretary for the World Press Photo Awards (2004-2009) is a leading thinker on the future of photography and of photojournalism in particular. He was speaking at the Flash Forward Festival in Boston last week and Miki Johnson live-blogged his talk (here). Reading her notes, Stephen talks about the traditional role of a photograph as recording something real that happend. Analog photography is about fixing something and creating an artifact but digital is the opposite of this. The photograph becomes more fluid and online it is never static, there are an infinite amount of changes that can be made to it. He goes on to say that while the photography business is in decline this is a moment for invention not dismay.

His solution involves rejecting the idea that the value of photography is in licensing/selling content by the “unit” (book, album, photograph) and instead focussing on the integrity of the photographer or institution. His evidence is that with VII Photo, more than half the money generated has come from integrity, not the sale of images. Companies come to them, not to buy images but to partner and find solutions. This all fits in very nicely with the Blog, Facebook and Twitter information feed that people are plugged into. Distribution of information depends on who it comes from not what it is.

He goes on to outline the different ways photographers have advantages in this new ecosystem: being small and fluid is better than big with large overhead, there’s a huge population of kids who don’t care about newspapers but still care about the issues, you don’t have to rely on print to be recognized, bringing the subject into the relationship structure is very exciting and tailoring the story for the specific distribution platform. He concludes that there is no single solution but instead the answers are limitless.

Good stuff.

There Are 36 Comments On This Article.

  1. Mike Moss

    Many have come to the conclusion that the difference between film and digital photography isn’t a matter of film vs sensors but rather the contrast in their relationship to the objects or events being captured. Film photography “signifies” that an object existed or that an actual event took place and digital photography is more “fluid” ( the author’s words) Most of our current understandings of still photography are based on qualities that were specific to the medium of film. But digital photography doesn’t share these same qualities and should be viewed as an entirely different medium altogether (possibly digital imaging) A difference in medium distinction would eliminate a lot of the confusion that currently exists within the photo industry because it could help to define the role of the digital photographer as separate from that of the film photographer. It’s interesting to compare the differences between film photography and digital photography using Marshall McLuhan’s Tetrad of Media effects.

    • Digital imaging is no more “photography” than cinema is photography. They both grew out of photography, but represent their own genre now.

  2. Been reading two excellent books that focus on building and marketing the photographer by Dean Sanders. After reading this post I feel certain I’m on the right track.

    If a client is interested in the photographer then there really is no competition but if you’re looked at as a heartbeat with a camera then is just a money game and the lowest price wins.

  3. Thank you!

    It’s the photographer as a brand that is the value of the photographer’s business, not his/her individual work. And blindly catering to the market instead of focusing on improving their artistic voice and vision is the downfall of many photographers!

  4. great article, i agree that the photographers who are able to effectively incorporate themselves into their brands and maintain their own voices will continue to succeed in this changing market.

    i love that last line “there is no single solution but instead the answers are limitless”.

  5. ” Companies come to them, not to buy images but to partner and find solutions. ”

    Such as?
    What companies?
    What solutions to what problems?
    Is this about selling more products, or providing news, information, journalism?

    • Yeah, I’m not quite getting this. From the Liveblog link:

      “value comes not just from the image,” then talks about iTunes and Netflix. I get what those companies are doing, I don’t get how this applies to photography or what VII is doing.

      “Now: with VII, the real value is integrity (also the case with many other photographic institutions)

      ~ In last few years, more than half money generated by VII has come from integrity, not the sale of images

      ~ Example: Canon sponsorship, want to be associated with the integrity of VII

      ~ Example: Project celebrating 150 years of Red Cross, who is also built on their integrity, trusted that VII would contribute to that and not put it in any jeopardy

      ~ Example: Working with MSF”

      I read the examples, but I still don’t understand specifically what is going on. “more than half money generated by VII has come from integrity, not the sale of images” How specifically is integrity monetized here?

  6. Photography is an act, a way of life. It is about seeing and translating what we see into images. I would hate to see the growth of the photography repressed by dogmas about which capture and print mediums are allowed.
    I’m sure that Jay Maisel considers himself to be a photographer.

  7. I’ve often found that companies who talk about our “partnership” the most are the first ones to pull the knives out when the going gets tough. They talk like Ghandi and act like Ayn Rand.

    Wish it wasn’t so because what Stephen Mayes says really strikes a chord in me, but he must know a lot more people who are pure of heart than I do.

  8. A Photographer is a photographer. He uses his unique vision, creativity and skills that are continually honed, to capture a truth, reality or moment of time with a camera.
    Analog and digital both create artifacts. There used to be limitations with what could be changed with a film image, now days a simple scan and the reality is no longer the original truth but mutated to fit the need. So where is the difference between the two. It remains with the Photographer and the story he created and how much he will allow it to be changed.

    • Mark Harris

      Well put, Ed. And it is a good post.

      When you look at any value proposition, what is of value is what is scarce. When making copies is so easy, a copy loses the value that was placed on the original. And when digital copies are identical to the original (or so close that the eye can’t be bothered trying to find the differences) even the original image may not be worth what it was in pre-digital times. So what is scarce? The photographer’s eye, knowledge, skill and experience.

      I have to chuckle when I see the strictures photography societies put on their competitions – “no manipulation, no editing” – as if analogue photographers don’t manipulate images in the choice of lens, settings, print medium, development chemicals etc. I, for one, don’t miss the dark room and I don’t see any difference in how I approach taking an image, moving from film to digital. And it’s the approach that people will find valuable.

      There were a lot of jewelers in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, but there was only one Fabergé…

  9. john mcd.

    I would highly recommend anyone interested in a deeper discussion of these issues check out the writings of Fred Ritchin, presently a professor at NYU and formerly the picture editor of the NY Times Sunday Magazine, among other things. His blog, After Photography, can be found at http://www.pixelpress.org/afterphotography/.

  10. “Analog photography is about fixing something and creating an artifact but digital is the opposite of this. The photograph becomes more fluid and online it is never static, there are an infinite amount of changes that can be made to it. ”

    I can see where this is meant to be going but I have never been a fan of ‘Frenchie’ linguistic analysis. To me is always sounds like (& ultimately turns out to be) Orwellian Doublespeak AKA, the Emperors New Clothes!

    Yes change is happening, always has, always will. This is just marketing in sheep’s clothing.. Ba Ba Baaaaaaa

  11. This all depends on who you know once again. You’re not gonna get business if nobody knows who you are, clients won’t come, etc.

    So once again, in this new system the top 5% photogs are gonna own everyone.

    Time to get famous…

  12. A photographer is like an author or a writer.A writer uses a pen & imagination to write a story , a photographer uses his camera to create a story. If writers have their own writing styles,photographers have their own ways of capturing a subject too. Film photography and digital photography are just some of the many options for photographers. Just sharing my thoughts guys.

  13. What counts is our style, personality and working ethos – these come together to form our brand and this is what sets us apart. The time of the cookie cutter photographer is coming to an end because there are just so many of them.

    Also, I believe some above are trying to make an artificial distinction between ‘film photography’ and ‘digital photography’. Photography is photography, no matter which medium or format you use. The argument that shooting on film signifies some physical reality is facetious as the basic processes of shooting – aperture, shutter, iso, and the photographer’s perspective – haven’t changed. One is merely a digital version of the analog process. Both film and digital images are still finished in a variety of ways that can be stretched and shifted and formed into whatever the photographer desires.

  14. La boheme

    Sorry to be unkind but this is bs. Show how integrity is monetized with some clarity for goodness sake.

  15. The flawed argument that “film = photography” while digital does not stems from the ease of manipulation of the image produced. The equipment obviously behaves the same way whether I’m shooting film or digital. In fact, I shoot both on my Mamiya 645AFD. The camera frankly doesn’t care what I expose on; film or sensor.

    This is where the “integrity” comes in. I can make an image, process it essentially as I would film, and print it more or less as the camera saw it. Conversely, while shooting a landscape for example, I can pull out the sky and add a more interesting one, clone in some flying birds from another image, remove a couple of buildings that I wish hadn’t been there, etc, etc. Even some photojournalists have been caught “enhancing” their images.

    Market plays an important part in this. If you’re shooting advertising, I think it’s assumed the images are manipulated. It’s done all the time. If you’re shooting photojournalism, whatever comes out of the camera should be it.

    People mistakenly vilify the medium, in this case digital, when it’s simply another tool in the toolbox. It’s the photographer who is responsible for disclosing whether or not they are fabricating “photo montages”, “photo realistic paintings” or whatever you want to call it.

  16. I’m still curious about this, and a couple other people seem to be as well (see posts 8 and 21 above).

    “His solution involves rejecting the idea that the value of photography is in licensing/selling content by the “unit” (book, album, photograph) and instead focussing on the integrity of the photographer or institution. His evidence is that with VII Photo, more than half the money generated has come from integrity, not the sale of images. Companies come to them, not to buy images but to partner and find solutions.”

    I read the live-blog notes, but I still don’t get it. Could someone ‘splain how the “money (is) generated…from integrity?” Is this some kind of branding thing…consulting…what is VII specifically giving for the money they’re getting? I’m not criticizing or challenging them, just trying to understand what they’re doing.

    • Mark Harris

      My read is that they’re monetizing their reputation rather than the product (i.e. prints). Which says to me that the future is in commissions, not reproductions.

    • Mark Harris

      I think selling it as “monetizing integrity” is pretentious BS, by the way, as is the distinction between digital and analogue photography. But the message to me is clearly “don’t count on your inventory to make your money” – the stuff you’ve done will only get you the next job.

  17. Thanks for the reply Mark. Maybe I’m dense, but I still don’t get specifically what they’re getting money for. How are they monetizing their reputation? What kind of commissions are you referring to–getting commissioned to shoot an assignment, or consult or ?

    • Mark Harris

      Both, I guess. Getting a reputation Brings in clients (same as it ever did) but now there’s little value in keeping a stock catalogue. The value is in developing a singular “voice”, so that people look at a photo and say “Jim Newberry took that” as we do now with Ansel Adams and the like.

      • I agree, the idea seems to be that the photographer is an artist. You go to her to not to get a mere photograph of the subject. You go to her to get a photograph *by* that particular photographer.

        Which is really nothing new. There has always been “anonymous” photographers who made money by taking photos of things, and “named” artists who used photography as a medium for artistic expression.

        There is also still room for both uses of photography. It is just that there are seemingly many more people competing in the “photographer as anonymous provider of images” role than there once were.

  18. Mike Moss

    Determining qualities that define medium specificity are not the same as picking between a winner or loser in a contest of mediums. It’s simply a way of distinguishing the strengths of a particular medium in order to better define it’s role within the context of all the communication arts. There’s no reason for anyone to feel threatened by notions that digital imaging is a different medium than traditional film photography because it doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. It just means that they are different. These distinctions are especially necessary for the folks that want to continue working exclusively in still photography but not necessarily for those that wish to switch between mediums (motion,sound,still etc) The folks that are comfortable switching between mediums might be better described as “content producers” instead of photographers since they are capable of creating work that exists beyond the traditional restraints of still photography. The internet audience demands content that blurs distinctions between medium. This means that the “content producer” should be very highly prized in “quantum” environment.

    It might also be worth considering that the term “brand” might be a product of the industrial age. Corporations have brands, but people have “reputations.” If we’re entering an era dominated by social media and personal relationships, then it might be better to think of ourselves as individuals with reputations rather than as mini-corporations with brands.

    • Well put, Mike. While digital imaging evolved out of photography there are distinct boundaries between the two. Aside from the technology, the culture and usage are different. The physics are different. Film is a more direct impression, an etching with light. Motion pictures also evolved out of photography. Both use cameras, but the media produced are distinct from each other. Before that the camera obscura was used by painters to create images.

      Worth reading:
      http://www.imx.nl/photo/Analysis/Analysis/page106.html

  19. Mark Harris

    Of course, the elephant in the room that no-one seems to be addressing directly (so I will) is copyright, which is the foundation of the current unit-based business model that Mayes says is dead. I think he is right – you can spend more than you earn trying to police copyright on images you’ve already shot, and while you’re doing that, you’re not creating new ones.

    There are some interesting discussions over at http://www.techdirt.com about the need for new business models in creative areas such as music and photography.

    • Meanwhile some of the leading (succesful) image makers images are bringing 6 and 7 figures at auction. Those individual images (a stock of sorts) are protected by copyright. This great ROI can’t be ignored, even if it is only a fraction of the market. Very little of the market is producing a healthy ROI.

  20. Very good post! It’s right – we cannot stop photography from joining the bandwagon of technology advancements. Most photographers now use digital cameras to take their photographs. Still the same – photographers in different fields of photography, such as business photography, fashion photography, glamor photography, still life photography, etc. have one goal in mind – to take be best shot. The only difference is the type of camera used. This only means that while the camera and photograph produced play an important role, the most important role still goes to the photographer.