On the Money, Part II

We left off at the end of part one of this post suggesting that in this, second post we look at some possible ways to work with the issue of money's impact on the contemporary photography landscape and its resultant influence on how and what we see and think.

Instead, however, this is going to be the second of three posts. This post will consider the nature of the problem of money in contemporary photography, a conversation that should allow us to better understand the reasons behind the various ways that money affects photographers in both production and distribution discussed in the first post, as well as the following post which will - finally - consider a range of steps and suggestions for confronting the issue.

So, let's look at the ontol...pista....malamalogical...eh, the nature of the issue. In order to do so, let's first note the central irony of the contemporary situation for photographers in regards to money. We talked in the first post about the range of negative ways money increasingly impacts the architecture of today's photography on every level, from education to distribution as professionals. Yet we are, we should also note, in an era of plummeting costs in terms of price-for-quality of digital equipment and have a free and unprecedented distribution system at our hands in the Internet. How do those things square? Why has money become the issue that it has, despite a number of economic dynamics working in our favor as photographers?

In search of an answer, I have kept going back to photography's obviously different relationship with economics as compared with every other visual art form, from painting to performance, sculpture to sound art.

Part of the basic nature of photography is the ability to make an image quickly and also to create fast duplicates of the image. That's not saying it's easy to make a 5-STAR PHOTOGRAPH MOTHERFUCKER!!!, just that it is easy to create an image. The utility offered by this unique capacity creates needs and possibilities in both commerce and art not extant in other visual media that create markets that don't exist for other visual media. This includes everything from the use of photography in advertising to large-sized editions of art photographs. Money enters into the field in a relationship tied to the ease of the creation of an image. We work in a medium that can generate income relatively easily in comparison to other visual arts. That, I have come to believe putting this post together, has also created the problem we're in.

Even though this site largely deals with art and documentary photography, the conversation starts with the commercial market, as many art photographers pick up some kind of paying commercial work to keep food on the plate and film in the camera. Falling start-up costs and increased accessibility of digital equipment has attracted other types of artists to both art and commercial photography as well as the artistically inclined, the artistically challenged, and the art curious; me, you, and everyone we know. Obviously multiplying the number of people considered capable of fulfilling a job faster than the addition of market opportunities means leverage is lost for each person looking for a job.

With little leverage, the photographer needs to consider how to distinguish themselves from competition in the market. The first would be skill and experience. This, however, no longer matters as it once did. Minimal skill and equipment is all that's required for a growing amount of commercial work; job providers increasingly seem to be concerned with images that get the job done at the lowest price and fewer seem willing to pay for experience and skill. The influx of people with cameras to commercial photography has precipitated the well-documented semi-collapse of the market and we've recently seen the further undermining of the market. Many major clients now buy images off cheap stock sites featuring the work of 1000s of amateur photographers and via Flickr from users handled DecisiveMoments or ILoveArbus - people excited to get any money at all for their photographs. (An example would be this blog-style ad for Jetblue's new service to MedellĂ­n featuring images licensed from a Flickr user.) The internet has facilitated this trend not only by offering buyers platforms for searching for cheap images, but also by demanding small images at low resolutions as a venue, allowing photographs taken with virtually any camera at any quality to suffice.

The "dumbing down" of commercial photography in terms of required skill, experience, and image quality leaves photographers looking for other ways of differentiating themselves in the market, many of them financially demanding, such as lowering their prices to compete, buying highest end equipment, and marketing. In addition, at the same time that photography's ability to generate commercial revenue has been compromised, the costs of being in fine art photography have stayed the same or risen. The drop in digital cameras prices remains largely an illusionary advantage for everyone in art photography - it has negatively affected their former bread and butter, the commercial market, and the art market has largely stayed in the analog world in which prices for film, especially, but also developing and other materials have remained the same or risen. The end result is that whatever gains there have been for art photographers in commercial work with a reduction in equipment prices and easier entry to the field have been off-set by the influx of people from other backgrounds trying to enter the market, the financial demands of maintaining a presence in the field, and a diminished overall market all while costs of creating art photography has remained stable or risen.

There is a crucial difference in the art photography market as compared with the commercial market. In the art market, falling prices don't just negatively affect photographers. They also affect museums, collectors, gallerists, art fairs, and others with skin in the game. Stakes are high - investments have been made on the order of millions of dollars in single works, the maintenance of market prices is crucial for the art industry to continue to function. Everyone benefits - except photographers and a small group of others such as agents who depend on higher market prices - in the collapse of the commercial market. A collapse of the art market would affect photographers, but mostly institutions. They avoid this in part by creating conditions - through the market - that limit the number of photographers who enter into it.

Here lies the difference between the current state of the two markets, part of the genesis of plummeting commercial prices and record auction prices. Photography has long fought to create a market through practices such as editioning, up-print sizing, and marketing campaigns around artist's names to create artist brands. These brands are a commodification of proper names underscored by academic texts arguing photographic prints are unique and collectible objects, a fetishizing of "original masterworks." Even as galleries and museums search for work to include in the inner sanctum, they also have a need to create limited access to that space. They financially benefit from a narrowed exclusive promotion of a small number of names by creating the idea of rarefied objects by unique minds. In addition, while commercial images fall in quality requirements, the art market has developed in the opposite direction (albeit with recent signs of backlash): the equipment required to make images of the scale and type that can command higher market prices remains a form of limiting access to the art market.

While art institutions benefit from limiting the field, art photographers continue to search for ways in. The strategies used in the commercial market to stand out have begun to overlap with many current art photographer strategies for navigating the art market. The result is that fine art photography seems more blatantly a business than ever before, with similar dynamics to the commercial field and photographers employing similar strategies to stand out in the crowd. Flyers, leave-behinds, sleek websites, the right (i.e. expensive) gear for creating salable prints, and the co-ordination of fonts across publicity materials. We talk openly of our "brand."

What this translates to is the creation of the perfect match for an emerging market: a group of secondary services and costs to help photographers searching for access to curators of the market who have a vested interest in limiting their access. Witness the explosion of competitions, reviews, consultants, review fees by galleries, gallery rents and flyers, pseudo-vanity presses, necessity of promotional materials, and the like. It's worth noting that our medium is custom made for this market which may help explain why we're singular in our development of this secondary service market among art media - photography's fast, social media friendly, easy to distribute, fast to create, and turns over quickly. Many photographers have a new portfolio to show around every year or two. We're set up to be repeat buyers.

People are willing to pay for any help, any leverage, any way to stand out in part because they know that if they don't, others will. This all effectively leaves us in an economic conundrum of high investment with high competition in both art and commercial photography. We have the ability to take part, but the market means most are not able to thrive. While I've never believed that the art world is much of a meritocracy, instead relying just as much on relationships, connections, investments, and money as on talent, I think that the relationship of skill and experience to success in fine art photography is becoming more distant because of the new photography dynamics.

The overall expense of all of this? I believe - experientially - that many photographers have begun to think of photography as a "career" in a way that I have to wonder might be influencing - maybe even jeopardizing - the creation of some contemporary photography. Just how our vision is affected by taking part in the new photography market is being played out. I fear for photographers when I feel that they spend just as much time maintaining a social media presence as on thinking through projects and visual ideas. It concerns me that there are mediocre photographers on the radar simply because of their marketing, connections, and because they go to every review out there.

Lastly, let me say that I don't mean this as a condemnation of reviews, consultants, galleries, retreats, and museums. I have been a participant in this world myself as a photographer and as a jury member. I apply to stuff. I went to FotoFest in 2012; it was a positive experience and I'll probably go to another review eventually. There are predatory galleries, contests, and collectors, but there are also a lot of good people involved in this world. It was an expensive experience, however, and it feels increasingly that for many this type of event has become the most obvious path forward to "success."

This relationship between money, access, and "moving forward" is why I would like to generate conversation. Part of arousing consciousness of the issue of contemporary photography and money is having this conversation, bringing it out of the shadows, and, hopefully, people responding in kind.

Post 3 will be published

This post was edited April 27th, 2013 for clarity.