Everything is free now, that’s what they say
Everything I ever done, they gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score, they figured it out
That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay…
I picked up photography in my sophomore year of college at a state university. I had always dabbled, been the guy in my friend group that brought an SLR around from time to time, but I had never developed my own film, or even been in a darkroom until 1993. It was, perhaps, the last gasp of film photography’s era, but nobody really knew that yet. The trade was dominated by the tricky lack of dynamic range in chrome film and shaping contrast and chromatic reactions to black and white emulsions with colored filters. I changed my major to photography and over the next five years it took over my academic and career plans. I worked in camera stores, managed my university’s darkroom and studio, and eventually taught Introduction to Black and White photography as an adjunct at a small university. I thought, rather reasonably for the times, that if I practiced and honed this difficult skill set I would have a modest living for the rest of my life. Photography was challenging and took a particular blend of invention, attention to detail, practice, and creativity that appealed to me on a level that I had never before experienced.
When I moved to Portland in 2001 I had already been a studio assistant and photographer’s assistant in the commercial realm for around 6 years. Like almost everyone in the industry, I worked in bars and cafes for my “regular job” because the service industry offered a flexible schedule and steady money in a market that was being shaken by the digital revolution. The truth is that most people don’t make it out of that grind in my experience. The service industry is full of artists and creators quietly plugging away at their work, their real work, hoping to break out someday. I worked in photography more than most. I assisted for a great shooter that worked mostly for national shelter magazines and home catalogs. I managed to get about 10 weeks a year of work loading Hasselblad backs with Fuji film, color correcting lights, and schlepping cases between locations. My own work continued on a smaller scale, shooting portraits and staged fine art images on black and white film that I ran and printed out of a non-profit photography center in South East Portland. As time went on, film disappeared, I taught myself Capture One and Lightroom and Photoshop, just like everyone else. Photographers that I worked for told me that their rates were either going down to stay competitive, or that they hadn’t raised their rates since the 1990’s. Everyone knows this story.
It’s worse now, 15 years later.
I had thought that being a photographer was going to be like being an electrician, or a plumber. That everyone would always need images, and that someone that really knew what they were doing, and was driven, organized, and talented would easily be able to make a living providing this service. In some ways it’s still possible in Portland if you like shooting shoes. (Nike, Adidas, Keen, Columbia, and other athletic companies all have roots in the Pacific Northwest.) But, the digital age has made imaging so easy, cheap, and frankly, better, than it was before that most people can no longer easily discern the difference between a professional image and one made by an enthusiastic amateur. Imagine trying to sell a beautifully spun, lovingly handcrafted clay dish for $200 in the middle of the home section of Target.
The digital imaging revolution does have its up sides, though! People that were excluded from the pursuit of photography during the film era by access, education, or because it was too difficult now have a “voice” in photography. The digital medium is more diverse, wide-ranged, and responsive than film ever could have been. The visions and “eyes” of a huge population have been added to the world of imaging, and our culture is better for it in most ways. It’s difficult to complain about editing processes that have become comparatively automated even as a professional because, I mean, no one enjoyed pin-registering negatives to combine images, or creating contrast masks that would take all day to get just right. The imaging world has benefited greatly from the innovations of the last twenty years. Just not, you know, the viability of a career in photography.
The number of people that do photography for a living has shrunken dramatically over the last ten years in a generational shift that we all saw coming back in the early 2000’s. The trade itself has been diminished in quite a few ways:
On any given photo set the photographer is usually no longer the custodian of the vision. It used to be that the client and/or art director would tell the photographer what they were looking for and discuss with them at length the nuances of achieving it. At some point after shooting the photographer would say, “Got it!” and that was it. Now, there’s a large monitor on every set behind which the art director and the client sit finagling over what is acceptable for the application. The photographer, in many cases, is reduced to a mechanism by which they achieve their goal. From commander down to ensign.
Digital photography has allowed photographers to skip over learning about light. Mostly. There are professional photographers working in the trade today that have never held an incident meter or a color meter, and do not know how to balance the color temperature of light sources.
The budgets for photographic projects have shrunken across the board. Print magazines and print ads had much larger budgets than web campaigns do now.
Photographs themselves have less longevity. Stock photography is no longer a viable retirement for a photographer that has been working for forty years. (I could write an essay on this alone.)
It’s possible that the object, the photograph, is going to become rare. It’s also possible that whole generations of photography will be lost to less-than-actually-archival printing.
It’s not what it was, but the pictures are better. Most of the time. It’s weird to be trained in something that fewer and fewer people need as my life goes on. I feel like a trebuchet mechanic or maybe a zeppelin pilot sometimes.
Regardless, we continue the Work. I love taking pictures of people and providing portraits and headshots as a side-hustle. I’m never going to stop. It’s edifying enough on its own without providing the income it used to.
Or, at least, it is to me.