Photography is dead… long live the creative!
The elephant in the room.
The question of whether professional photography is dead — or at least on its way to the grave — is the kind of thought most in the industry have entertained privately but all too rarely raise in public.
The same is true for every commercial market for artistic expression. Pretty much anything that’s connected to words (books), sound (music) and visuals (pictures — moving or otherwise) are now everyone’s domain.
Who’s your competition? Look around the room.
In response, many are living in a state of perpetual (and private) terror. Like the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named character in Harry Potter, there’s this mythic fear that just by bringing the topic up, we’re asking for trouble.
I’d like to raise the conversation here.
To be clear, the reason I want to share isn’t because I’m interested in creating some intramural controversy or drama-de-jour. Not only would that be uninteresting, it would perpetuate a habit none of us have time for anymore.
Instead, I think we need to collectively discover a new way to work this stuff out. I’m hoping this piece makes a constructive contribution in that direction.
Here’s my thesis:
Whether we like it or not, the strategies and tactics many of us have used in the past to leverage our photography to make money, is decreasing in effectiveness.
In response, I believe our best bet is to deepen the skills we have around photography as well as add a more diverse knowledge base and skill set, without which we will be unable to compete, let alone make remarkable and marketable stuff.
There’s actually a fundamental paradigm shift that must take place if we’re going to successfully leverage both our growing capacities and the “seeming” negative circumstances we find ourselves in.
Where once there was a market for professionals built on making photographs, there is now less need for a guild and a greater call for a renaissance. I believe the idea of a profession leveraging one skill set is not only short sighted but radically limiting and historic.
Further, I believe what’s needed is a collective commitment to skill expansion, embracing failure as a teaching tool and adjusting rapidly based on the results that show up. These are the habits required for us to find our way in the new economy.
The age of the unorthodox.
While good people lament the loss of some nostalgic notion of a “right way” to make money with a camera, the unorthodox upstarts are creatively reinventing our world without noticing the old guard are around and in a way that doesn’t even require participants to compete as a pro.
What the heck does that even mean?
My sense is the reason many of us have a hard time getting our head around what’s happening to our industry is because we’re a little too close to it. Most of us don’t like change we don’t choose and we’re maybe a little too comfortably familiar with the way things have been.
But, if my hunch is at all accurate, understanding the implications of the change we’re in the midst of would be incredibly valuable. To help us get that understanding, I want to suggest we look at a different industry where the sort of innovation I think we need has already taken place.
Boxing is to Photography as MMA is to…
Not too long ago, the sport of boxing ruled supreme in the world of individual combative sports. Even the most casual fans were mesmerized with who the next heavyweight boxing champion of the world might be. Names like Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield were household names.
But, if I were to ask you who the current reigning champ is, I’m guessing you’d have to look it up (I had to too).
The decline of boxing, at least as a professional sport, is arguably one of the reasons why it remains one of only two Olympic events that doesn’t require participants to have ever competed as a pro. As a single dimension sport, the Olympic committee seems to be asserting that the most appropriate default category for boxing is that it should be for amateurs only (hint hint).
In contrast, when Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) entered mainstream culture — thanks to The Ultimate Fighting Championship and before that, old-school video games like Street Fighter II — the “sport” was so over the top, former US Presidential candidate and long-time US Senator John McCain described it as a “brutal spectacle.” Others likened it to a no-holds-barred circus sideshow.
The rebels on the inside didn’t care.
Instead of concerning themselves with the criticisms, the MMA crew just kept iterating (i.e., creating) new ways to practice the craft until they found a groove that worked.
Professional boxing barely noticed what was going on at first. Those that did were dismissive at best. Not anymore.
Cut to today:
As a profession, MMA has arguably eclipsed boxing as the dominant professional individual fighting sport in our culture and doesn’t appear to be slowing in their growth anytime soon.
My take is that the fundamental shift that took place underneath the feet of boxers is the same shift currently underneath the feet of photographers.
It turned out what boxers thought was “theirs”… wasn’t.
The lone skill of boxing (i.e., get paid to stand and punch) got interrupted by an accessible system of fighting that gave room for a lot more people to play. Sound familiar?
Instead of just standing and punching, the real pro’s were wisely adding new skills (e.g., grips, clinches, throws, takedowns, submissions, leg attacks, chokes, cranks and yes, standing and punching) to their repertoire precisely because there were very few rules telling them they couldn’t.
It’s worth noting too, that from the perspective of people buying tickets to main event fights (think: the people paying “talent” their wages), the entertainment value of “the sport of boxing” started to make a lot less sense.
In business speak, it began to have a diminishing rate of return (i.e., value) from the perspective of the customer.
Despite claims otherwise, there was no evil entity outside of boxing that ruined some false notion of the good old days. There was no organized conspiracy against the establishment.
Boxing (on its own) simply became less interesting when you could get that and a whole lot more somewhere else.
In fact, I would argue that it boiled down to a simple but inevitable innovation, connected to the economics of supply and demand (more on that in a second), that took boxing down as the reigning champ.
Could this be what’s going on with photography?
Some have argued that basic economics have already sealed the fate of professional photographers — at least those who sell direct to consumer (e.g., events, weddings, portraits, etc.).
With an obvious increase on the supply side of photographers and a decrease in demand relative to price… and no one having a felt need to leave the field, it’s leaving very few dollars on the table if you’re looking to make much money with just photography.
“Short sighted!” scream the naysayers. “If we only paid attention to our roots, we’d be able to bring the glory days back and reclaim a bygone era!”
I don’t think so.
What this idea has meant for me
The reason I don’t believe our past will solve our future is because despite the fact that my first bit of training in photography involved film and chemicals, you’d be hard pressed to find a photo store these days that even carries fixer, let alone knows what fixer is. If you asked, it wouldn’t surprise me if you got sent to the repairs department.
Sad as it may sound to some, the idea of resurrecting the past is a fantasy. And fantasy (unlike vision) necessarily leads to despair. We don’t need the good old days back. We need some fresh new ways of thinking instead.
I want to be sensitive here. There are many analog purists who went before me that I have a lot of respect for and none of what I’m suggesting here is meant to be personal or combative. My hope is these words would actually be a gift somehow.
Unlike these good colleagues, I was trained more as a hybrid of analog and digital, learning just enough about manipulating silver halide in the dark (and no more). In fact, it’s been so long, I had to look silver halide up to remind myself what it was called.
The lion-share of my learning was in sync with the dawn of digital. I had the privilege of seeing digital photography as a toddler taking her first steps and, like all parents, have been amazed at how much and how fast she’s grown up.
I mean it when I say it is a shame that most of photography’s history is lost on me… and certainly lost on newer photographers. We’d have a lot more perspective on the digital craft if we could understand film more experientially.
But before we get too nostalgic, I think it’s equally fair and obvious to point out that knowing film isn’t necessary to make (and sell) good images. In this way, it’s a little like knowing our personal histories.
Let me more specific: Do you know the names of all eight of your great grandparents? If you do, you’re rare. The truth is we don’t really need to know our history to live well nor to create well.
Would it make our work and appreciation of life better? Absolutely. But it’s hard to hold the argument that knowing our history as photographers is necessary to creating strong output today.
So how do we survive and thrive?
What I think we do need to pay a lot more attention to is how we intend to grow moving forward. That is, what skills make the most sense to start practicing — daily — if we’re to find our way as new world creatives.
For me, being a Creative certainly includes photography but is not limited by it. My growth has been more expansive than just bettering my image making and manipulation.
Instead, I’ve been intentionally developing additional complementary skills over the last few years (like those MMA guys) that I would argue have changed the trajectory of what’s possible for me professionally.
Here are a few examples:
1. I’ve been deepening my skills as a Creative, with photography.
Wait a second! Didn’t I just make the case that we need to move beyond photography? Yes and no. We do need to expand. But we’d be crazy to throw out photography as a skill.
Let me share what this has looked like for me personally: Despite offering workshops to photographers for some time, I made a commitment years ago to take at least one major workshop each year from someone I believed could help me make a substantive improvement with my photography.
These weren’t business courses per se (although I have been simultaneously working on my business, accounting and finance skills) but more training around the craft itself.
I couldn’t be more pleased with this decision. By throwing myself repeatedly back into the fire of learning photography, I’ve had the chance to get critiqued directly, to ask questions of, to listen, to learn, to practice and to implement.
After training with the likes of Jerry Ghionis, Cliff Mautner, Kevin Kubota, Peter Hurley and many others, I would endorse all of these solid educators without hesitation. Each in their own unique way introduced diverse new skills that I wouldn’t have accessed otherwise. In fact, I just came back from a family shoot — literally moments ago — and can think of specific signature techniques I used today that I learned directly from each of these photographers.
I already knew how to make a picture before working with these teachers. But by committing to stay in a learner’s posture, I set myself up to increase my competitive edge, not to mention my passion for the craft. I believe this commitment to deepen my skill-set around photography for the rest of my career may indeed lengthen that career.
As Creatives, it’s critical that we deepen in this space. Just don’t stop there!
2. I’ve been consciously improving my skills at communication.
After a fair amount of soul searching, I came to the realization that I love:
1. Researching ideas
2. Interviewing interesting people
3. Facilitating great conversations that others benefit from
Despite having a long history with doing these things via video, I became convinced that audio communication was the skill I needed to learn at a professional level to help spread ideas and stories I cared about further. Thanks to the popularizing of bluetooth in people’s cars and people being overwhelmed with screens-everywhere communication, audio podcasting appeared to me to be on the verge of a massive resurgence.
Add to that the fact that, as a consumer, I had become a podcast enthusiast myself. In particular, I’m obsessed with narrative driven shows like:
- This American Life with Ira Glass
- On Being with Krista Tippett
- Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin
I was inspired to make a unique contribution through audio, so I did.
To get there, on the recommendation of Chris Brogan, I decided to invest in Cliff Ravenscraft’s A-Z Podcasting Course. I also invested in some pro grade gear. Both were fantastic decisions from a skill acquisition perspective.
I should add too that the passion that came after learning the skill far outweighed any inkling I had before I became a professional podcaster.
Ask any of my close friends and they’ll tell you that I’ve become a freak about audio story telling. I couldn’t be more excited about this new value-add I get to bring to my creative work.
3. I’ve been consciously learning and improving my skills at writing.
With two authored books under my belt with a major publisher, I felt pretty proud of myself for a while. In time, I also began to notice how little I was writing since publication. If shooters gotta shoot and podcasters gotta podcast, then writers gotta write, right? Based on results, I may have been a writer, but I wasn’t currently acting like one.
To interrupt that pattern, I started hanging out with authors I actually knew and respected as well as reading more closely those I didn’t know but appreciated. Some of them, in due process, became my friends. I started noticing the skills and habits they’d employ with writing and I started taking them on myself in a fresh way. Writers like Todd Henry, CC Chapman, Ann Handley, Mitch Joel and Seth Godin were particularly helpful.
I started picking up new-to-me skills I didn’t know I could use that have saved me hundreds of hours since and opened up my love for writing like I never knew possible.
4. I’ve been consciously improving my skills at public speaking.
Once again, I have been teaching from some stage or another for most of my adult life. I love the challenge of empowering others to move the needle of their knowledge.
But lately, I’ve been reconsidering what I thought I knew about public speaking. One catalyst for my curiosity came thanks to watching Jerry Seinfeld’s brilliant documentary on what it looks like to really commit to the craft of taking the stage, for the crafts sake (not the money).
In response, I began the process of pushing the envelope further with my own stage skills. For example, a few months back I took my first stab at doing a Storyslam and then followed it up this spring when I presented at Photographer’s Ignite in Las Vegas as well as conferences to new audiences on more expansive topics, well beyond my normal circuit.
On the one hand, what I’m asserting here is obvious: All creative professions have changed for good and if you doggedly stick with doing your work the same old way, the ground you’re standing on will erode.
I don’t know how you can argue otherwise.
I’m also suggesting though that for the creative not feeling the need to do “pro photography” the way its been done in the past, a better and higher opportunity is right under your nose.
Ditch the photographer moniker and become the customized creative you were meant to be in the first place.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You
In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, author Cal Newport asserts that “skills trump passion in the quest for work you love.”
He goes on to argue persuasively how unwise it is to make your passion (think: photography) your main motivation. If you really want fulfillment in your career he says,
“What you do for a living is much less important than the skills that empower how you do it” — Cal Newport
Ultimately, the challenge comes down to this:
- Expand your vision around the skills you could learn to grow your life’s body of work.
- Trust that the career you require will emerge out of the skills you commit to mastering.
Like any of us have time to learn new skills…
I know it sounds cliché, but no matter how long you’ve been at this creativity thing, you don’t have to be an old dog if you don’t want to. If my 74 year old mom can learn how to text and tweet, you can decide to learn some new skills too… at least if you want to.
As you start researching the notion of how to acquire meaningful skills with maximum efficiency, you’ll likely run into Tim Ferriss pretty quickly. Of course, Tim looks at skill acquisition mostly from a life hacking perspective, but his methodical, reverse-engineering, research-based approach can be applied in almost any context.
On a personal note, what I learned from Tim resulted in taking on the skill of creating a muse which resulted in my first book manuscript back in 2008 and more recently my skills with food that resulted in me losing 30 pounds.
What’s interesting to me is all that Tim really models is relentlessly asking these three questions:
- What thing do I want to change?
- What chunked down steps will work best to see that thing become a reality?
- What would it take to get cardiac-arrest serious about making that thing a reality in my life?
What would happen if you got cardiac-arrest serious with your skills?
If we agree that:
- Photography has evolved to less of a profession and more of a skill many people have access to.
- By adding skills to a foundation of photography, you enhance your capacity as a Creative.
Then… identifying and acquiring the skills you believe will take your body of work to the next level are your clear marching orders from here.
If you’re like me, this is the moment when you realize the path in front of you may be hard and scary. Both sentiments are probably true.
The good news is this has always been so for people willing to put their art on the line. These very human fears shouldn’t stop you. Instead, they should galvanize you — offering feedback that you’re heading in the right direction.
As you grow your capacity as a Creative by learning the skills required to truly go pro, you up your chances of surviving and thriving.
Embrace the quest for craft — build your body of work — and maybe, keep your day job along the way. But, whatever you do, don’t stop creating.
Besides, what’s the alternative? Stop making stuff? Really?!
In response to the question of whether the era we’re in is detrimental to art or not, Seth Godin calmly asserts, “This is the best shot you’ve ever got."
The real question though is, “What do you say?”