Art Will Solve Photography’s Problems

Photography:© Susan Carr

Microstock isn’t the problem. Microstock is a symptom of the problem. The problem’s cure, the solution that will reinvigorate creativity, deliver paid work to photographers and help them to build secure businesses, is art.

That’s the optimistic message contained in Susan Carr’s new book The Art and Business of Photography. A professional photographer based in Chicago, Susan Carr is a former president of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) and currently serves as the organization’s Education Director. Her book, which came out last month, is intended to help struggling photographers understand the changes affecting the industry and to provide a guide to the artistic and business elements that they’ll need to develop successful careers.

The most important change to hit the photography industry, she argues, has been the speed with which photographers can now create images and publish them immediately online. That’s clear enough but less clear is the way that speed of production and market placement has affected not just photographers but their clients in the advertising industry.

If the Advertising Industry Can’t Deliver, It Can’t Demand

Drawing on the ideas of Seth Godin, an author and entrepreneur who is said to have formulated “permission marketing,” Carr points out that in a period in which consumers have a wide range of choices, advertising companies can no longer guarantee that a bigger spend will produce bigger returns for their clients. It’s now harder for products to stand out, harder for advertising to make an impact — and harder for photographers to demand more money for broader usage of images that can’t always deliver results.

“That is why the market changed for advertising and then photographers,” she told us by email on the way to the ASMP Strictly Business 3 conference in Philadelphia. “There was no guaranteed return for the investor (our client), so the money was harder to justify spending.”

Part of the solution for advertisers has come in the form of low-cost stock images that allow them to reduce expenses to meet their clients’ demand for lower risk, but at prices with which independent photographers can’t compete. It was a development that Carr saw in her own business. By 1996, she recalls, clients were only hiring her to shoot images of specific people, products or places. For shots with generic elements, they were turning to the stock industry.

At the same time the demand for specific images was shrinking too. Companies were merging and consolidating, creating fewer marketing departments, fewer advertisers and two giant stock companies with the power to set market rates.

The solution for photographers hoping to meet the demand that remains, Carr argues, is to compete not on price when there are so many free and nearly-free images available, but to offer the kind of unique, creative service that stock agencies can’t provide. Personal projects, she says, don’t just help photographers grow as artists, they’re also an essential part of a successful photography business.

“If we are not creating genuine and meaningful work, we won’t find clients. The product has to be special and unique or buyers will simply use the readily available cheap or free options for imagery.”

It’s something we’ve heard before from commissioning editors as they look for photographers. The personal work in an online portfolio provides an idea of the style and look the photographer is likely to bring back when left to themselves on a shoot, they’ve told us. The tearsheets and samples will demonstrate technical skill but it’s the personal stuff that shows how the photographer thinks and how they’re going to use the resources at their disposal. It’s the part of the portfolio that delivers the strongest sense of trust.

The Cost of Being Creative

The idea that forgetting commercial pressures and shooting whatever you want can be good for your business as well as your soul is certainly encouraging. But it’s not a solution that comes without cost. Carr works with a business partner who can cover for her when she’s working on her own projects, but other photographers have to find their own way to schedule personal shooting time. That could involve setting aside an hour a day, a day a week or a couple of weeks every few months. However it’s scheduled though, it will mean taking time away from either work that brings in guaranteed pay or marketing that brings in new clients.

Fortunately, just as the changes in the photography industry have made distribution easier, they’ve also made the marketing simpler. Those personal portfolios can be placed on websites, email marketing costs next to nothing, and you don’t need a large advertising budget to use social media.

Intriguingly though, while Carr argues that the availability of free and low-cost imagery should force photographers to compete on quality, she also recommends the use of Creative Commons licenses as a channel for photographers to distribute their work. Photographers need to think about copyright in a new way, she suggests, demanding compensation for commercial use but giving consent for non-commercial use and broader use packages for paying clients:

“[O]pening up some uses of your work will hold more benefits for you and your business than being overly restrictive,” she writes in the book.

It’s all a reassuring idea. Whether the rise of low-stock imagery is a response to changes in the advertising industry or whether the lowering of financial barriers against entry into commercial photography has driven prices down, there’s no question that photographers have to battle harder now to make a living. There’s less demand, less work and greater pressure for relaxed usage licenses. If being more creative and more artistic, rather than harder-nosed and more commercial, is the solution then the photographers who survive should find that even if they’re not making more money, they are enjoying their careers even more.

“Our product (our photographs, service, creative solutions) are the most important thing,” Carr says. “If we do not deliver an exceptional product, we are sunk. “

3 comments for this post.

  1. Ted McAusher Said:

    Being an artist has never had an easy gateway to entry. Art wouldn't be valuable if it were easy to come by or create. And many of the world's best photographers would be bored if their creativity were easily attained. I like this post a lot, I look forward to re-reading it.

  2. Paul Said:

    Thanks for interesting reading, I agree to some extent.

    To be creative is all fine and fun, but still one should think of the business aspect. Who will watch these photos, and why? More importantly, who will pay to do so?

    I find that art and business is converging in the world of photography. One without the other is often no longer complete - addressing independent photographers and their work.

    The thoughts are interesting, looking forward to reading more about this!


    PS I agree entirely that microstock is a symptom of the problem. But then again, to rephrase this.. Microstock is evidence of technological progress. And business must then adapt. Whether we're independent or large scale companies.

  3. Rachel O Said:

    Interesting thoughts. Definitely think you are on to something. I think the hardest part is surviving as a photographer long enough to develop a real sense of style so you can stand out. It tends to take time for a photographer to be recognized as different than the crowd, but it does seem to be a key factor in surviving the brutal, over-saturated market.

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