Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Photographers and Illustrators Under Siege

I interviewed a couple of photographers last weekend as part of an ongoing attempt to get a sense of how artists can make a living in the digital age.

The answer: they can’t.

I went to this pair because they were the early adopters; at least five years ago they let me know that they had switched from assignment work (where advertisers hire you, front the money for a shoot, choose from your proofs, etc.) to stock work. For a stock shoot the photographer comes up with the concept, pays for the expenses of the shoot out-of-pocket, and submits the pictures to a stock agency (Getty’s the big player, and getting bigger every minute). If the agency chooses your pictures, you get paid a royalty on subsequent uses.

At the time, stock was not the most prestigious branch of the photography field—it wasn’t where the quality work was being done. The photographers I spoke to were among the first professional group to enter the fray, uploading high-quality work that stood out against uninspired catalogues. So at first royalties were steady, and offered a living wage. Arguably this was a more efficient system—the photographer took the conceptual risk and made the up-front investment, while the advertiser saved the time and effort of engaging photographers and setting up shoots for an end product the higher-ups might not even find acceptable. In return the artist could be reasonably certain that the initial investment would pay off in a steady stream; discussions with an editor or point person at the stock agency would ensure that the idea wasn’t way off base before the photographer went to work.

Two developments arose hand-in-hand to upset the picture: overentry into the market by amateurs and hobbyists, and the stock agency’s shift from agent to competitor. The first was the unsurprising result of the widespread availability of digital cameras; the second development was simply economic: the conditions were ripe for monopoly. Pressure on the professional photographers by the competition of passably competent hobbyists reduced their leverage with the stock agencies. Buyouts and lopsided terms began appearing in stock agency contracts with the photographers—minimal one-time fees for the photographer’s perpetual signing away of the rights in the photos, for example. The cooperating editors disappeared from agency payrolls; photographers now had no guidance and had to invest much more time and money in preparing and retouching hundreds of works per shoot, with dwindling chances of acceptance and royalty-bearing use.

The contracts offered by the stock agencies are on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. If you leave it, the photographer is blackballed by the agency. My interviewees couldn’t go on record with their names, rightfully concerned about retribution.

If this trend continues, the middle-class professional photographer will become extinct. A tiny handful of known superstars will continue to take pictures of Kate Moss and artfully nude celebrities, but we will lose a group of professionals that devote themselves full-time to learning and mastering the craft. Here’s artist and advocate Brad Holland’s assessment of the stock agency’s gleeful view of this scenario:

“Henry Scanlon, founder and CEO of Comstock, gave an interview…in which he explained the strategy by which they had successfully lured major clients away from freelancers. Using direct mail, he said, they had ‘hammer[ed] away at the market’ and flooded clients with catalogues. ‘[A]fter a long struggle,’ they created a market ‘position’ for stock that, he frankly admitted, would ‘decimate’ the ranks of assignment photographers. Photographers who could not compete, he said, should ‘go to night school.’”

Brad Holland, “First Things about Secondary Rights,” Columbia Journal of Law & The Arts, Volume 29, No. 3, Spring 2006, p.297, available here.

Scanlon appears to reflect the view that competition merely weeds out the inefficient players and lets the cream rise to the top, to the benefit of the consumer and the market. That might be the case with a level playing field, but the increasing leverage of the stock agencies distorts the picture. In a monopoly environment it’s very difficult to say that the best work will be the most successful. Hobbyists, for example, have less investment in retaining copyright to their photos; they don’t need to plan their back-to-school shoe purchases based on ongoing royalties. For the amateur photographer, anything that the stock agency pays is “found money.”

But aren’t the hobbyist images good enough? Some are excellent, of course. But it seems hard to say that generally those that are inspired to devote their careers to learning a technical and creative skill won’t, on balance, create work that is more innovative and interesting than that produced by hobbyists that simply haven’t spent the same amount of time and resources thinking about and refining their craft.

Admittedly, customers only select pictures that they like. But the trend pushing photographers out of the field will, I’d argue, lower the quality of the pool from which they can choose. The trend will continue until the minimum acceptable quality can be purchased at the lowest possible price.

All’s not lost. The Graphic Artists Guild seems to be pushing back on multiple fronts. It has posted a recent entry warning photographers away from “all rights in perpetuity” contracts. And it’s pressing hard in Congress and in the courts. GAG played a big role in putting the brakes on “Orphan Works” legislation that could have allowed use of images if the user couldn’t find the owner through a “reasonably diligent” search. The Guild didn’t oppose the legislation outright—it just pushed for changes that would protect photographers whose work too often gets flung around the Internet without attribution.

Brad Holland’s article sums up the issue in much more detail; it’s very readable and I recommend it highly. He also addresses some issues particular to illustrators.

More recommendations to come, once I look into this some more.

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