Photographers try new styles while casting a wary eye toward the digital world
It’s been 10 years now since the gentle first wave of digital photography licked the beaches of the profession. Even in the days when $1,200 scanners and $10,000 digital cameras were the rule, a few dreamers saw in those early ripples a coming reinvention of the business, and a new golden age of photojournalism.
And why not? With technology providing virtually free reproduction, instant publishing, and a worldwide distribution made possible by the Internet, every barrier to competition was going to be removed.
Only in the past two or three years have darker clouds gathered behind this sunny prediction.
Many photographers are scrambling as they realize that those decades-long barriers to competition actually worked to their advantage. And removing them may do more harm than any wily publisher dared dream.
The second wave
Individual photographers have been dabbling in digital imaging and electronic distribution since the mid-1980s. In recent years, their longtime allies and natural adversaries, the global publishing companies and photo agencies, have been spending billions to stay ahead of the feared revolution.
Now rolling in to wash away those cheery early forecasts is the specter of pure capitalism. The digital third wave brings a worldwide electronic market that strives to make every image, every assignment, and, ultimately, every photographer up for auction on the Internet.
Photographers and publishers are learning that in the digital age, there’s more to lose than ever. But a few are realizing there’s even more to win.
Who will survive the third wave? With the Internet, not only the publishers decide.
Not your father’s Time Inc.
Portland photographer Robbie McClaren launched his career with reportage and documentaries. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, and Fortune, where his recent work focuses on day-rate portraiture.
"I’m working for the magazines that I always wanted to work for," says McClaren, "but I originally thought I would be doing photo essays.
"Most of my stuff gets done in one or two days," he says. "It [photojournalism] has gone toward a one-shot style, trying to condense a story into two pages and two photos."
Few national magazines - with the exceptions of Life, The New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic — are looking for photo essays these days. Day rates have stayed about the same as in the heyday of the huge general-interest magazines — in the range of $350 to $450. While the trend away from long-term assignments is clear, photographers like McClaren are happily responding to the market’s demand.
Gone are the good old days
Still photography wasn’t the first to feel the chill of the electronic age. Television news was shot on 16mm film as recently as the early 1960s. Many news photographers from that era can recount weeks-long assignments in the jungle, a far different world from today’s independent news bureaus with expensive satellite time allowing only minutes on air.
In the same way, print magazines that first heavily invested in Web sites have begun shaving costs — and attempting to resell anything not nailed down. Often the first target for revision is the freelancer contract, whether for photos or articles. To mount a defense, photographers must at least get in the game. That means negotiating hard and, whenever possible, retaining rights to remarket their own work in the same way the web sites and magazines wish to.
Lauren Greenfield, a Los Angeles photojournalist, works day-rate assignments regularly but has balanced those with several high-profile personal projects.
Greenfield, whose photos have run in publications ranging from Vogue to U.S. News and World Report to The New York Times Magazine, drew critical acclaim for her photo-essay book Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood.
"The really good assignments are getting scarcer," she says. "The bulk of assignments are a day here, a day there. The problem with doing day work is that people become expendable. On longer projects, your unique voice comes through."
Who owns your vision?
Often through no intent of either party, the relationship between photographer and editor/publisher is being stretched to its limits as technology allows photos to be distributed instantly around the globe. Nowhere is this more evident than in breaking news stories such as the April 20 shootings at Columbine High School.
During the shootings last April, Denver Rocky Mountain News photographer George Kochaniec Jr. captured a photo of a teenage girl crying in agony upon hearing that her best friend had been killed.
The Rocky Mountain News fed the Kochaniec photo simultaneously through the Scripps newspaper network, the Associated Press wire, and Sygma photo agency. Rocky Mountain News photo editor Janet Reeves says that while the News sent the same photos to all the wires, the paper still got calls from around the world requesting — and often bidding — for more or exclusive photos of the shootings.
In an arrangement set up during early coverage of the JonBenet Ramsey story, Reeves contracted with Sygma to manage these requests and all secondary distribution of the Columbine photos. While that released the pressure building up on her staff, it also removed the opportunity to directly influence the editors around the world who ultimately published the Rocky Mountain News photos.
The phenomenon is not limited to breaking news. A photo taken on assignment may be represented by an agent or put on a wire, sold with a few dozen others to an agency, purchased in lots of a thousand by an international stock house, and distributed for use in multiple media outlets worldwide, all within a few days.
In the digital world market, it becomes less and less likely that photographers will be reachable, or that a far-flung photo editor will have some understanding of the context the original photographer or photo editor was striving for on deadline. The only way to guarantee that an editor has full latitude to use an image is to secure those rights up front.
While it makes sense from the editor’s perspective, the upshot is that publications are demanding more and more rights to photographers’ images, both in print and online.
And so, in a strange irony, it’s the worldwide market itself that is eating away at the photo-grapher’s worldwide market.
"It’s practically impossible to earn a living as a photojournalist anymore," says McClaren. "Publishers are increasingly trying to force contracts on photographers that impose embargoes and exclusivities."
Photographer Jim Bryant of Port Orchard, Wash., agrees. "A lot of the big editorial magazines want you to sign contracts saying, ‘We’ll pay you $375 a day, and we want the right to rerun the photos over and over.’"
If a photographer doesn’t like a magazine’s terms, some magazines will negotiate. But more and more, the publications just turn to younger, more eager freelancers — or to stock-image Web sites that may not have the perfect photo, but in most cases have one that is good enough.
Some well-known masters of the digital domain became so after realizing that to make a living, they had to practice the art of instant documentary. For these few, there is no turning back.
Tom Kennedy, former photo director of National Geographic, has moved to the digital side as photo editor of The Washington Post Web site. He says he still has empathy for offline photographers.
"Serious documentary photojournalism, which was the lifeblood of Look and Life in the ’50s, just doesn’t have the resonance anymore," says Kennedy. "The ones who have been marginalized are the serious photojournalists."
As much as possible, Kennedy tries to work those margins, offering his audience much more than a steady diet of crisis wire photos.
"Our work is more psychological," Kennedy says. "One of the things our photographers are constantly seeking is providing context to events, rather than slam-bang peak-moment stuff. We are going to delve into the psychology of the event as much as the raw peaks of the event.
"We are taking people behind the scenes of whatever it is we are covering. We are going to show them subtlety. We sail against the prevailing wind on purpose. We give people more by doing that."
That effort extends to every section of the paper and Web site, Kennedy says.
"[Photographer] Lucian Perkins does these wild fashion things that are completely different than almost anything you would see in behind-the-scenes fashion pictures, and they capture the essence of the event. A lot of people just would not even look at that and recognize the context and power of the image it puts across. That’s what makes us what we are."
Taking this one-day documentary style to the extreme is Day In The Life creator Rick Smolan.
"For 30 years, photographers have fought very hard for ownership of their pictures," says Smolan. His Sausalito, Calif. company, Against All Odds, publishes the well-known Day in the Life photography series and sponsored "24 Hours in Cyberspace" and "One Digital Day," two popular one-day online photo events.
While industry-leading photo agencies such as Getty and Corbis are sometimes criticized for trying to acquire rights from photographers, even one-man agencies such as Smolan’s have to play the game to stay alive.
Spending months coordinating 24-hour shoots around the world, Smolan secures all rights from photographers ahead of time. He remarkets the images he assigns in CD-ROMs, coffee table books, his website, magazine excerpts, and seemingly every other media outlet he can find.
Like Smolan and Kennedy, many photographers are realizing they must look to their own ingenuity, alone or collectively, to survive and prosper in the digital age.
In June, the Natioanl Press Photographers Association, traditionally composed of newspaper and magazine staff photographers, responded to growing pressure from freelance members to speak out on rights issues.
In San Francisco, a handful of those top photographers recently compared notes on their negotiations with Business Week. They didn’t like what they found: The publication was paying a $350 day rate and claiming photo rights for foreign editions.
Freelance photographers — and their trade association, the American Society of Media Photographers, ASMP, — are prohibited by law from collectively bargaining. But the San Francisco photographers agreed to individually push for better contracts.
They also formed an e-mail group to urge their peers to dig in their heels during negotiations with publishers.
Business Week soon raised its rates by $50 — though it denies this was in reaction to pressure from the photographers. However, the magazine refused to budge on the issue of foreign rights.
The e-mail group has launched a Web site, [editorialphoto.com], which provides a forum for photographers. Photojournalists traditionally have avoided discussing negotiations with one another, but the Web site now boasts 650 members.
"As a freelance photographer, you’re working on your own and you might be afraid to compare notes, because you don’t want anyone to steal your work," says McClaren. "So it’s been easy for publishers to take advantage of that.
"That e-mail group is the source of most of my optimism. I think it’s really lit a fire under the ASMP."
The American Society of Magazine Photographers has issued an online statement supporting the new group. The association is also opposing a proposed standard agreement by Time magazine, citing its disapproval of day rates and rights issues.
Be a sport
Mike Powell, director of photography for Allsport USA in Los Angeles, has been on both sides of the camera. Powell worked for many years as a sports photographer for the Allsport agency, which provides sports images to major Web sites. Powell says the trend toward quick-hit assignments has had little effect on sports photographers because their work has always been single-event based. However, a slump in the sports-card market has hit many freelancers hard, he says. And in general, times have gotten tougher for photographers.
"Across the board, the per-image prices are coming down, what with royalty-free images," Powell notes.
"I think, with the formation of larger and larger corporations, people with more of a corporate background are looking into how they can leverage what they’ve got.
"It does seem a little one-sided when you’re dealing with a freelance guy. How can you stand up to TimeWarner?"
Dark side of progress
Many of the changes in the world of photography are intertwined with advancements in technology. The most powerful of those new tools, the Internet, is the sole habitat of Powell and Kennedy. Both see this dynamic new medium as holding new hope for the future of photojournalism.
There is, of course, a downside to the Web: the risk of having one’s photos downloaded for free. But the Internet also creates an immense new distribution channel.
With startup costs a fraction of what it costs to start a print publication, online magazines are continually popping up on the Internet. Many of these sites buy images, but for much lower fees than photographers have come to expect from offline outlets.
"It’s a large marketplace we didn’t have before," says Powell. "You’ve got the possibility of sites where the images change every hour."
The Washington Post’s site is one of those with frequently changing graphics. Kennedy hopes to create new markets for photos on the Internet, but is less optimistic about the long-term marriage of the Web and photojournalists.
"I think there’s a lot of marketing potential, but I don’t know if photographers will take advantage of it," he says. "I see a lot of clinging to the past.
"I think photographers have always presumed that their livelihood would be provided by print and that limits on distribution would drive the value up. But the whole idea of the Web is to turn that model on its ear, moving from economic scarcity to a model in which everything is suddenly open."
Photographers have mixed feelings about the Internet, recognizing its value as a marketing tool but worrying about issues like copyright infringement and the tendency of many publishers to claim Internet rights to anything they run in print.
"Now everyone’s got a Web site, and they just use your pictures and think they’re free," says Smolan. "On the other hand, there are many more people out there buying photographs."
Photographers are also somewhat ambivalent about another major change in technology: the digital camera. It eliminates the darkroom, speeds delivery, and enables photographers to digitally manipulate their art in programs that allow color-correction and enhancement, like Adobe Photoshop. But some professionals worry that digital photography is taking the art out of the art form.
"Even writers think they’re photographers now," complains Bryant.
Kennedy adds: "I think we may be on the edge of a technological cycle, the movement to digital. [But] I think the photographers who are true artists will still be working with film and chemicals."
Some photographers see a possible bright side to the boom in digital photography. Perhaps, muses Smolan, the heightened interest in photography will lead to a new respect for photographers.
"Maybe photography is going to explode now and people will appreciate talent once they try it themselves," he says.
A recent development is the affordable digital video camera, such as Sony’s DCR series and Canon’s Elura mini-DV. While the quality of still shots from video is almost ready for prime time, MSNBC photo director Brian Storm thinks it will be years before the average photographer will be required to bring back mixed media elements from the field. For the near future, he says, "it’s just too hard."
Room for optimism
In the meantime, there are many ways to make one’s work marketable — through the speed of delivering images, the quality, the price. But as the Internet increases a pub-lisher’s ability to quickly compare photographers’ work, fees, and even their personalties, by reading their e-mail postings on message boards such as the ASMP Web site, the choices will become all too clear for most photographers. Many will actually choose to avoid the digital world to retain their competitive edge.
"We made the transformation from film to digital, and now we’re going to have to make it from digital stills to video," Bryant says wryly. "Dinosaurs like me are going to have to learn to do something else."
In the midst of all the doom and gloom, some optimism does emerge among photojournalists.
After all, says Powell, the changes taking place in the photo world are not unique to that industry, and other industry professionals have survived the digital revolution just fine.
"The business world has gotten leaner and meaner, and people are asked to work more for less. I think, generally, people are working harder to get the same standard of living as 20 years ago.
"I think professionals across the board have to negotiate harder for themselves."
Greenfield says photojournalists just need to look at their craft from a different perspective, one uniquely their own.
She urges young photographers to focus on their own lifetime body of work — shown through books and gallery exhibits — and do whatever it takes to pay the bills in the meantime. That includes commercial work, such as the photography Greenfield has done for Nike; online publishing; and even weekend weddings.
"I’m not really seeing the magazine work as the end product of my work," she says. "I think photographers have to be more creative. I love working for magazines, but if magazines aren’t publishing essays, I look for alternate financing for my essays."
Experienced professionals needn’t worry, says Greenfield.
"There are always going to be young photographers who are willing to do any assignment at any price," she says, "but that’s not always who the magazines want to work with.
"I think there’s a huge hunger for good content and good stories, and nothing in the new world is going to change that. I think it’s a tough time in traditional print photojournalism, but I think photographers have to tell their stories and stay true to that. If times are tough at magazines, then go somewhere else."