Did a Stay-at-Home Mom Really Ruin Professional Photography?


We’re on our way to Java after some much needed R&R in Bangkok. It was there that I read the  recent article in the New York Times detailing the decline in photographers’ career prospects that is being whipped around photo circles like some kind of new gospel.

It’s the same old song we’ve heard since the dawn of microstock. Amateurs shoot millions of pictures and sell them for pennies a piece, commodifying the output, and vultures like Jonathan Klein of Getty make a folk hero out of a stay-at-home mom who’s shooting cool, creative pix of her kids because she doesn’t care what they sell for, it’s all found money to her. And that’s just the kind of contributor Klein needs to keep his shareholders happy and his shooters hungry.

Duh. What else is new?

Do I blame her? Certainly not, it’s a new marketplace, and from what I can see, she’s got a great eye (and professes a total ignorance of the basics of photography, so she is a hero to many—-not just Klein—-having attained great results and instant notoriety without quite knowing how or putting in the years of practice).

It’s the YouTube/Flickr model of instant artistic success. Why not dangle that as the new career model for photographers if you’re running a publicly held stock photo agency? You have about as much chance of succeeding in photography this way as you do winning a lottery, but that doesn’t stop billions from buying those tickets!

But if you’re tired of reading this same re-hashed obit for professional photography and want a really probing, far-reaching and intelligent analysis of the future of content producers, you have to pick up Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget.

Lanier is a famous virtual reality pioneer and major thinker in the field. He’s also a musician, so much of what he references in terms of content is music, but just substitute “photographs” for “music” and you’ll get the gist.

For a quick read of some of Lanier’s thoughts on the future of creativity and why virtual sex may soon be better than the real thing, hit the jump.

Honest to god, I didn’t understand a lot of what he was talking about in terms of the sex technology (except maybe that someday, virtual sex could be as good as real sex because everybody will at least feel as if they have the choices that Brad Pitt really has today).

But, admit it, the virtual sex stuff did at least get you to the jump page:-).

When Lanier started on the future prospects of content producers for the “hive mind” that is our virtual world, however, I got it loud and clear:

If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty.

If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and content-less.
The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion.

Culture is to become nothing but advertising.

It’s true that today the idea can work in some situations. There are a few widely celebrated, but exceptional success stories that have taken on mythical qualities.

These stories are only possible because we are in a transitional period, in which a few lucky people can benefit from the best of the old and new media worlds at the same time……

Anyway, the book is full of really stunning insights and long range outlooks on the future of creativity  and crowdsourcing in the hive world. The ramifications go far beyond photography careers, and it doesn’t bode well for real innovation. But, on the bright side, you’ll fully understand why people can ask you to work “for links” with a straight face.

Lanier explains how a few odd success stories (like the Utah mom) get promoted into legends by guys like Klein to promote the mistaken idea that new business model is good for all.  He also asks, quite pointedly, why all the digerati columnists and bloggers who gang up on newspapers and magazines for being architects of their own demises never offer any ideas themselves on how to do it differently or better.

Well, give You Are Not a Gadget a look.  Because, really, the NY Times article is already old news!

Next Stop: Java!

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Thanks for the link, Bob. I still think there is hope for us pros.

  2. I’m not a professional artist but for some reason I find those Lanier quotes resounding. As if they’re important to keep in the back of one’s mind or something. Thanks.

  3. Hi Bob. Been reading your blog for quite awhile, and I’ve been familiar with your work for years. Many years ago I was a “semi-pro” photographer/writer – back when magazines thought it a bonus that a writer could also supply photos. I stepped away for a long time, but have become creatively re-energized with digital. It’s so darn much fun. But thinking about how to make any money from it now (I’m sorry, “monetize” it) is just depressing. Sure, I’d love to build a stock library; to shoot for mags again; to sell 20×30 prints. But I have to believe that the model really is evolving in a different direction. Just wish I wasn’t the one feeling like the dinosaurs.

  4. Below is a link to the Getty flickr collection images of the photographer (D. Sharon Pruitt) mentioned in the New York Times article. A brief check of the pricing of these images compared to most other Getty collections leads me to believe that the article started with a premise and didn’t let any fact checking get in the way of that preconceived conclusion.


    1. Jim: Not sure, but I think the reporter might have been talking about the fact that the low end spectrum of royalty free pricing is fine with her as well as the rights managed pricing. Of course, I’m not sure how you can sell the same image that way, but then I don’t understand a lot about how Getty does business. BK

  5. Thanks for the link,Bob. As a professional writer, and decent but by no means professional photographer, I know what every newspaper reporter has known for years: if I want a front-page story, I better have a great photo with it. So when I sell travel stories I always provide photos with them.

    Ironically, the harder I work to be a better photographer and the more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Here’s the difference between a pro like you and a decent amateur like me: you can get the shot every time. I can’t.

    I recently shot a guy carrying a cross on Good Friday and never could get anything that captured the necessary religious mood. The crowd was mainly picking its nose. The background was streets with ugly cars and people in lawn chairs. The local newspaper reporter got the shot of the guy dragging the cross with the priests and the crowd in the distance. Most important, he used the horrible bright light to catch the cross’s shadow on the street, evoking the whole Jesus ghost metaphor.

    So real pros like you don’t need to worry. When I shoot people, as a courtesy I show them the photo on the LCD. If it’s decent, they always want to know what kind of camera I’m using. I tell them it ain’t the camera, it’s the shooter and if they want to get good shots… learn the equipment and practice, practice, practice.

    I wish I had started doing that years ago. Thanks for your insights.

  6. Hi Bob,
    Galen Rowell said (at least once, and in the film days), “The only difference between a pro and an amateur is the pro takes more bad pictures.”

    A simplification, for sure, but it took me awhile to fully comprehend his viewpoint, but now I realize that with digital, the amateur can now ‘afford’ to take more bad pictures, hoping to get one or two good ones out of a few hundred or thousand.

    I sure think and shoot differently when I shoot film, which I’m doing more of lately. For commercial assignments, though, I, too, can afford to take more bad pictures. 😉

    Thanks for your additive comments.

    1. Hi Bob: I’ve heard something similar, but it always ends with “but the pro just doesn’t show them (i.e. the bad pictures)!

      1. Hi Bob,
        Ah! Now I know your secret to success… 😉
        Just kidding. I imagine your ration of good to bad is very high (toward the good, of course).

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