It’s a myth that it was easy twenty-five years ago

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And so for all the challenges which young photographers face, and they do face serious challenges, I am not making them smaller than they are, there are also tremendous opportunities that didn’t exist then that do now.

First thing is the opportunity to have your work seen

It’s essentially a golden era.

via david alan harvey in conversation with jim estrin | burn magazine.

There Are 18 Comments On This Article.

  1. Interesting article. Still, I know of no one who feels it was “easier” in the past. I think that’s the wrong word to use. It’s simply that “the path” to success was a lot CLEARER in the film/pre-digital era. You choose the type of work you wanted to shoot, had a plan, and worked hard at it. Nearly everyone you were competing with went about it the same exact way, and it was much simpler to “keep score” at how well you were doing, and how quickly your career was progressing…

  2. It’s a time of flux in the photography industry for sure, but it’s been in flux for over 10 years now. We’re on the cusp of things, but it appears that we’re riding that cusp for all it’s worth. Too much pontification in my opinion.

  3. Having represented photographers and photography businesses for 34 years, my opinion is that is was far easier to make a living as a photographer 25 years ago than it is today. Not even a close call.

    Most working photographers in the ’80s and ’90s supported middle class and above life styles. (Many were able to do so while paying overhead on a studio to boot). That is simply not the case now even though many photographers no longer need studios .

    Statistically speaking, a young person is now more likely to play in a major professional sports league or be a professional athlete than make $2 – 250,000 a year as a professional photographer. It has been reliably reported that most professional photographers earn well under $100,000 per year. The flight of shooters from the business has been palpable and is directly related to the diminishing economic returns – or as can be said in plain English – photographers now find it very hard to support themselves, let alone a spouse and children.

    • Edward,
      What would you say are the top reasons for the decline in receivables in the photo industry? Are you referring specifically to commercial photography?

        • From what I can tell, the portrait industry is contracting for most people (thankfully not us!), but the commercial side is picking up in general.

        • Indeed I am. I am not talking about gross billings which in a solo business may or may not have any relevance given a particular shop’s overhead. The “real” income of more than 50% of the photographers in America inclusive of what you call “commercial photography” (an ambiguous term by the way) is less than $100,000.

          Many, many well known NYC, LA, Chicago and Miami advertising photographers haven’t shot a job in 6 months or more. They don’t exactly advertise that fact. We do divorces and are involved in bankruptcy actions involving photographers. We see their finances and talk to their accountants.

          I have been interviewed on the subject of photographer’s incomes and am quite confident to tell you based on my experiences – anecdotal to be sure, but extensive in number and expansive in terms of geography – the incomes of the relatively few assignment shooters who are left is far less than what is generally reported in the photo trade magazines and blogs.

          Lawyers and accountants actually see the tax returns, the unpaid bills, the bankruptcy filings, the lawsuits, the foreclosure actions etc and are prohibited from discussing them in detail with third parties as they are bound by confidentiality. Photographers and reps can BS and boast all they want and there is no way to verify or discredit them.

          • Reminds me of the Markus Klinko and Indrani Chapter 11 filing. Some of the details at that time were eye opening for the wrong reasons.

            http://blogs.wsj.com/bankruptcy/2010/05/07/double-exposure-stars-strike-settlement-with-creditor/

            Thank you for sharing your experience. I find too often photographers are unwilling to really state things as they are with bookings and finances. No doubt some are doing well, but if one only listened to what photographers say about their business, it can be easy to get a false impression that all is wonderful.

            The economy has not been great, and a photography business is not recession proof. Even with my corporate bias, I have noticed a shift in spending amongst corporations. Uncertainty about the economy will cause some corporations to hold off on spending, though at some point the uncertainty becomes self fulfilling prophecy. Even advertising spending overall is down, and many agencies are doing more in-house projects. I think we have a long way to go until the economy improves.

            • Everyone out there needs to know that copyright infringement is not dischargeable in bankruptcy. In plain English that means that a debtor who has or continues to infringe, on a registered work can not use the bankruptcy court to beat the creator.

              Very simply put – any such claim by the author must be heard in a Federal Court and outside the bankruptcy. Better for the creator and yet another reason to register your work, always, all of the time and without exception.

              • If you would not mind adding more to this, Annie Leibovitz had a sale/licensing of copyrighted images as part of her work-out on bankruptcy. Any idea if that set a precedent on the value of copyrighted images as assets? Thanks.

                • For numerous reasons I can not comment specifically about Ms. Leibovitz.

                  As a general question – copyrights, patents and trademarks are typical assets of an indvidual creator or entity (especially an entertainment or hi tech company) which has filed for protection under the bankruptcy act. These assets typically can be sold, licensed or assigned under the auspices of the bankruptcy court. Happens every day.

                  The concept of valuing intellectual property for bankruptcy purposes pre-dates by centuries Ms. Leibovitz’s birth.

  4. The list is so long Jack Reznicki and I can’t cover even a majority of it in our lectures, columns and blogs. Here’s a short list (in no particular order) of major factors depressing income for photographers in the post digital age.Pay special attention to numbers 6 & 7:

    1. Being out-negotiated and out right scammed by stock agencies both large and small;
    2. Photographers and creatives lack negotiation skills and often turn that job over to a rep or agent who possesses even fewer skills and training than the creative possess paying a fee or even stealing fro the photographer in the process;
    3. Failure to conduct their businesses on the same profit/loss/cost of doing business concept as any other business would do.
    4 The desire to “be liked” and the work “seen” often often outweighs the profit motive and agencies and clients well know that this causes photographers to be easy marks during any negotiation;
    5. Utter failure to use basic paperwork as all other businesses both small and large do without giving it a second thought;
    6. Failure to copyright register their works – the single most important thing any creator can do to assure monetary recovery in these times of rampant theft and to prevent some of such stealing from ever occurring.
    7. Make inexplicable, irrational and often childish excuses not to obtain written, signed model releases resulting in being sued for big bucks and for no reason;
    8 Advertisers for the most part don’t care about slight variances in the quality of work submitted by competent shooters using modern “correcting” equipment. As a result photographers have permitted the “price is everything” mantra to rule the market, thus lowering their fees to levels which can not possibly support a single adult in 2012. Fear has caused a generation to in effect, work for free rather than not work at all.
    9. Reliance on urban myths and “fakelore” perpetuated by un-trained photographers who put false information on the web not based on solid legal, accounting or tax advice given by professionals. Its on the web, its free, its written by a photographer so it must be sound legal and/or tax advice. Totally illogical? Yes. Just because a photographer can type does not make him/her an expert on law, tax or podiatry for that matter.

    The list goes on and we address many of these other factors elsewhere but the bottom line is that photographers have largely brought this situation on themselves by acting like sheep when negotiating with clients and ad/stock agencies. Our predictions made decades ago that this would happen have turned out to be spot on. Candidly, we simply read the ten foot high handwriting on the numerous walls out there. Jack and I never claimed we has some unique view into the future. Rather we (then) likened it to an oncoming locomotive which its lights on high.

    Ahhh, if we could only pick lotto numbers with remotely the same accuracy our wives might have to try looking for us on a very remote beach somewhere.

  5. It’s much easier today to get started with photography, but much harder to make decent money at it. Sure there are new opportunities and business models that didn’t exist 20 years ago, but as far as I can tell there are far, far more “working” photographers now than their used to be–many of whom are happy to work cheap or even free for the thrill of seeing their work published.

    It’s easier to learn about photo technique and photo business than ever before; easier to share your photos (although there is the needle in the haystack problem); easier to get technically good images without much training; but harder to make money since budgets are often smaller while competition is stiffer.

  6. I disagree – it was easier 25+ years ago. Just the fact that 20-30,000 photo students/year have entered the business means competition has increased and multiply that by lower costs due to digital technology. On the positive side; the images themselves have become much more sophisticated because smart shooters have studied those that came before them.

    For me; I no longer compete. I shoot what satisfies me. Should paid work come my due to that I am grateful. I have taken myself out of the fray and am much happier for it.

  7. Mike Smith

    As a young(ish) photographer, one scary thing I notice which relates partially to some of the things Mr. Greenberg has written, is that there is a weird stigma attached to protecting your copyright. Even putting a statement on your webpage stating that you are the copyright holder and theft or misuse of the images will result in you getting mocked by certain groups of tastemaking internet photo fans and self-descibed “curators.” This desire to “be seen” as Mr. Greenberg mentions, is a huge part of it. It’s as if it’s better to be cool (and childishly affected by peer pressure) than protected. I personally was mocked for having a very small watermark which was essentially my signature. Jay Maisel was brutally raked over the coals for suing for the appropriation of his Miles Davis album and I have seen people claim that Richard Prince can steal all he wants from Sam Abell because he is a “Marlboro shooter who contributed to people’s cancers.” The world is a f**ked up place now for photographers.