The winds of change have been gusting through the world of professional photography ever since digital made its debut, and this world is about to be turned upside down. For some genres of photography it has come sooner than later.
The younger generation of emerging professional photographers is facing an uncertain future, a world where everyone has a camera, everyone wants to be famous or recognized for something, and where the general public seems to have no concept of what makes a photograph good, let alone great.
Yahoo’s CEO recently ignited a firestorm with a comment that included,
“. . . , with cameras as pervasive as they are, there’s no such thing, really, as professional photographers. And then there’s everything that is professional photographers . . .”
The Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photography staff, and plans to use freelance photographers and reporters to shoot photos and videos. Add to that the myriad of “amateur photojournalists” who bombard the media with their mediocre photos for the opportunity to be “published” or recognized, quickly giving away their copyright for the hope of becoming famous, or at least noticed.
Facebook claims that 208,300 photos are uploaded every minute. Yahoo!’s Flickr service reported that it logged about eight billion photos during its whole run, and 27,800 photos are uploaded to Instagram every minute. In fact, according to Yahoo!, this current trend suggests that as many as 880 billion photos will be taken in 2014.
From Whence We Came and Whither We Go
In the days of film photography, cameras were much more complex and there was no such thing as “program mode.” Anyone using a camera had to understand things like f-stop, shutter speed, film speed, and how they all tied together. There were the darkroom and touch-up issues as well. This was why we went to professional studios for those timeless portraits, and there was a certain skill that had to be mastered before a photographer declared him or herself “professional.”
Today’s digital cameras can do it all and it seems that almost anybody can take a good photo. Nikon, Canon, et al, cater to this vast market of consumer photographers by making higher resolution cameras with an almost excessive selection of automatic settings –“menu driven” photography.
So where does this leave the professional photographer? Is this the beginning of the end of a time-honored profession?
As I see it, those of us who embrace photography as a serious art or profession can do one of the following:
- go the way of the wedding photographers who continuously moan and groan about the masses of “pseudo-photographers” to the point of banning them at any wedding they cover;
- give up and find something more lucrative;
- or take the higher road because we truly love what we do and become part of the re-defining of photography as a profession.
Resisting the Seduction of Social Media
Part of the reason that the market is so flooded with photos is that no one takes the time to self-edit, perhaps because the difference between a poor and good photo is unclear. In today’s society it seems to be more important to be noticed. It doesn’t matter for what, and the more outrageous, the better. The same holds true for the photos that are posted online.
Remember the days when grandma or grandpa would pull out the family photo albums or made us sit through slide shows that spanned ten years? Well, it’s so much worse on the internet. At least the slide shows and family albums had a limit . . . film was expensive, and actually the album and slide show experience was much more interesting, especially from an historical perspective, than what is on the internet today.
Images are meant to be seen and we photographers love to display our work. But not every photo made should be displayed online or elsewhere. I think one of the biggest distinctions between the professional and amateur is discernment in the presentation of their work. The amateur will take 50 photos at an event and post every one of them to Facebook and other sites. The professional will scrutinize every one of those 50 photos and select maybe 1 or 2 as signature photos, and only those will be posted to professional sites or online galleries –not Facebook or Flickr.
Vision, Style and a Body of Work
Why do many celebrities choose Annie Leibowitz for their photography? There are many glamour and fashion photographers who are experts in their field, yet many of the world’s celebrities seek out Annie Leibowitz for their photography because she has the ability to “think out of the box” and come up with an image that reflects the uniqueness of her subject. She’s able to translate her vision into an image and from that has developed a style –you can recognize a Leibowitz image as quickly as you can an Ansel Adams.
As a group, we photographers tend to be self-centered, self-righteous, condescending and sometimes plain rude and envious. How many times have we looked at the works of “famous” photographers and thought to ourselves, “I could do better.” We seem to gravitate to one of two extremes: Either we guard our “trade secrets” so ferociously that we alienate well-meaning friends and colleagues, or we believe that our way is the only way to the point of becoming obnoxious and stagnant.
Vision and creativity have a difficult time pushing their way through this kind of garbage. Vision needs a clear highway to rise to the surface, not one strewn with egotistical fantasies, fanaticisms and other negativities, and it begins before we even click the shutter. What are we photographing? Why? What do we want the viewer to see and more importantly, feel?
It takes a lot of planning, hard work, and especially editing, to come up with a successful body of work. It doesn’t happen by post processing 500 photographs and grouping the “prettiest” ones together in an attempt to glean a vision.
A New Frontier
Good photography is not easy. We have to take time to experiment and play –it’s an important part of growing in our craft. There are also times when all we want to do is be a “snapshooter” and simply capture the moment for posterity or for no reason at all. But if we want to make a living through photography or take it to a professional and artistic level, we have to use our mind, heart and soul before we even pick up the camera.
I think the label of professional photographer is going to gradually fade out of existence and be replaced with a term such as “artist photographer.”
The “artist photographers” will be the ones who work at their craft, know what message they want their work to impart, adopt techniques to match their style, will be fearless in their creativity, ruthless in their self-editing, and will demonstrate a consistent sense of vision in all of their “professional” work, whether it’s a wedding, event, portrait session or a lifestyle series.
For those of us who call ourselves photographers, now is the time to step up to the plate, forego the narcissism and drive to be recognized, reach down into our souls to nurture a vision that is true and unique to each of us, and simply enjoy the ride!
Welcome to the new frontier of professional photography. . . it is not dead, just being redefined.