On the Money, Part I

I'm taking a very quick trip back to the US next week and ordered a new computer yesterday to pick up while I'm there, finally replacing my 2007 lap-tank. I was also able to squeeze in some new film on my current budget that I'll also pick up, but not as much as I'd hoped given 220 film is now apparently $12 a roll. Then I realized I'd forgotten to include developing costs for the exposed film I'll be bringing back with me in thinking through my expenses – budget: overshot. Anyone need headshots or dog portraits?

All of this got me into a line of thought about the role that money plays in contemporary photography. To what degree does money define contemporary photography in terms of what is produced? How does it affect how photography is distributed? In short, how does it impact what photography we see...and therefore what we know and how we think?

My conclusion after spending some time with those questions is that money is an increasingly complex and deepening problem in contemporary photography which significantly affects both production and distribution. While the issue is deepening more quickly on the distribution side, the problems in production seem more intractable. In this post I'll take a look at some of the ways money functions in photography today and in a second, subsequent post I will explore ideas for improving the situation.

On the production side, the issues around high and increasing photography expenses have been discussed and also written about on this site and in posts on other sites. It's worth pulling those ideas together into one single post, however, as a reminder of the various conversations and in order to see the extent that money impacts photography production.

The relatively high entry fee for even semi-professional photography equipment affects who is able to participate in the medium and who might be likely to pick up a camera in the first place. This equipment barrier exists for the average citizen of roughly 160 countries of the world as well as those living in lower-income rural and inner city areas of the others.

On top of equipment, the movement of a post-graduate education to a standard part of the training of the photographer – and a necessary one for those interested in becoming educators or being taken seriously by segments of the art world – builds upon and reinforces the problematic dynamics of the high cost of taking part in the medium. First, entry to post-graduate programs largely assumes an extensive previous experience in undergraduate programs, a first round of educational costs. MFA photographers who built their application portfolio working alone are rare.

MFA programs deliver a second round of financial body blows. Full-ride MFA scholarships remain in the same conversation with unicorns and elves. The best programs – with some notable exceptions - are generally clustered in major US coastal cities plus Chicago, with the rest scattered between major European cities, some of the most expensive places in the world to work and live. This creates an additional round of expenses, in addition to the cost of tuition, for those that aren't from those cities who are also almost exactly the same photographers who would face the equipment barrier for entry to the field - trips home, high rent, and a higher cost of living index.

For those that make it through an MFA program, making a living in the art or documentary fields is notoriously difficult to the point of being a clich̩; paying work is hard to come by, with teaching the most obvious route, reinforcing the role of the MFA. Few options exist besides (shudder) commercial work. To make commercial work, however, involves costs that go beyond those of art photography, including Рpossibly Рadditional lighting, back-up camera bodies, studio equipment, etc. While the Internet has made living far from a center of artistic production more viable, there remain advantages to living among artistic communities of peers, also congregated in expensive cities, generally the same cities where MFA programs exist and also where access to more teaching and commercial work exists.

Additionally, the level of professional equipment and the quality of image needed to be considered seriously in art and documentary photography by much of the on- and off-line community repeats the issues of entry into the field. Digital 35mm projects remain rare birds in these worlds, and the digital projects exhibited and published almost entirely come from high-end equipment. Medium and large format remain the preference, leaving photographers already behind in equipment further behind.

This collectively results in a field with a lot of young photographers in bad debt huddled together in expensive cities competing for minimal work and a field largely dominated by specific demographics – middle and upper class, US and European, suburban. It gets worse, though, when we look at recent evolutions in distribution.

The photography world works, like every other field, through connections, knowing people that would be interested in your particular project among the increasing flood of contemporary work. Many of those connections begin in educational settings. I've talked with photographers who have told me that they considered MFA programs largely based on the connections that they could offer upon graduation. The financial issues around access to well-considered MFA programs are compounded, then, because in addition to being about production they become about distribution as well.

Financial factors also limit access to other spaces where connections are created. Festivals, reviews, consultants, and the nascent movement of photographer retreats are propositions of thousands of dollars, yet increasingly are spaces where "things happen": shows are agreed upon, publication offered, purchases made, relationships formed. Increasing the problem, the same faces in command of distribution show up across these events, closing the circle to a small group of gatekeepers available through pay-to-enter spaces. It's worth noting that these elements are particular to the photography world. Painters and sculptors, to draw the comparison, are not going to thousand dollar reviews and hiring consultants to help them network.

As we discussed on this site a while back, new trends in alternative funding for distribution, i.e. Kickstarter and similar pages, heavily rely on connections as well, reinforcing existing networks of privilege for participation. They require English, social media prowess, the ability to offer tempting giveaways, in some cases a US address, people with money that know you at least by name or by reference, and people willing to help you get the word out about your drive. Point blank, it's much more likely that a photographer from a New York MFA program with solid connections will complete a funding drive for their book than a student from one of my programs in Colombia.

What's more, and importantly, photographers have been increasingly asked to carry the burden of distribution costs in recent years. Many photography book presses – including respected names - are becoming pseudo-vanity presses, requiring a significant ($8-10,000) investment from the photographer for publication. Most photographers I know with a book published by a solid press paid part of the costs to get it done. Galleries have also moved many costs to photographers, including postcards and flyers, framing and – in some cases – rent, creating de facto pay-to-play rental spaces, and I'm not just talking about infamous pay-to-play galleries like Agora Gallery in New York City, but real galleries with respected owners.

Contests and competitions have multiplied and have also upped their fees. Applying to some well-known competitions – like Center Santa Fe - is now a multi-hundred dollar gambit if you apply to different segments of the competition. Photolucida's popular Critical Mass charges $75 – and they charge $90!! for international entries. They give no feedback on initial entries, instead justifying costs by promoting the networking opportunities available by participating - jurors looking at your work might have interest in it for their gallery/publication/musuem/site.

One has to ask what the ramifications of the money game in photography are and how they are evolving with the increased placement of the burden on photographers.

While I don't think that these issues are new, I do believe that these new models and trends in photography – particularly in distribution - have reduced our medium. They have had a homogenizing effect, limiting participation and putting a premium on access to the limited number of faces at the gates of entry and to publishing and exhibiting. These trends have eliminated views from photographers not able to surpass the equipment gap, get an MFA, survive post-graduation, and pay for networking. They have had the result of a more simplified collective vision: less can make work, a narrower range of work is distributed, and I think an argument could be made that it also affects HOW work is made. If the stakes are high, less adventurous work will be made to ensure some degree of reception to it once the necessary payments have been made for access to the right eyes.

I'm not just talking about photographers from "under-privileged" areas; I'm also talking about you and me. If I had more money, you'd see my work more; if you had more money, I'd see your work more. The stakes for participation are at a point for the average photographer where there is a relationship now between money and visibility. It's not just about who you know anymore, it's about who can pay to know people. The increasingly crowded field of photographers, while great in terms of image creation, in terms of economics creates a glut of photographers who have no leverage; if they don't pay, others will. Those in control of distribution hold the strong hand, although they have their own financial concerns.

The bottom line is, the more photography costs increase and the more burden is shifted to photographers, the more visions are lost on the way, the less we see, and therefore the less we know. In short, the ultimate cost, we – as viewers - pay: we see and know less. That being said, let's not leave this here; let's also consider some solutions and ways to work with the situation.

Part II can be found here.