Without doubt in these Days of Digital, there has never been a better era to be interested in photography and to want to take photographs. We have the tools at hand to enable us to produce the finest images that have ever been possible almost effortlessly and with diminishing costs. I have been a commercial photographer for thirty years and I honestly believe that my current work is technically the most accomplished I have ever produced.
How ironic that at this very moment in the evolution of photography, I have watched in horror as commercial photography hurtled towards and ultimately tumbled over a cliff within the last eight or nine years. It has come as such a surprise that many businesses and colleagues have been unable to recover. At the very least, to survive, professionals have all had to adapt to an uncomfortable new life. Yes, I know I am generalising, so there will be exceptions, but I see a sea-change in the business I have loved and lived for half a lifetime.
I did not set out to be a commercial photographer. After college – a degree involving Photography, Film & Television, I worked as a Theatre Manager. I saw that there was the possibility to specialise as a Theatre photographer and eventually jumped (before I was pushed – another story). I soon found it was tough going because theatres’ budgets for photography turned out to be pretty-well non-existent. It was only when my friendly local theatre critic rescued me by suggesting freelancing for his newspaper and introduced me to a very professional and ambitious Picture Editor, that a way forward emerged.
I was lucky. My picture editor was a tough, decent Geordie but a huge influence. His advice was my real training after college. He once stopped me in mid-moan about an assignment by saying ”only dull photographers take dull pictures – get on with it” – or words to that effect…. It also proved my great good fortune that he heartily disliked responding to requests from PR agencies to cover their PR events for free. His staff photographers were not to be distracted from putting good newsworthy shots into the paper.
It was an era when big-budget agencies streamed these requests out to picture-desks nationwide. So once I was deemed a safe pair of hands, who would not disgrace the recommendation, those leads to cover PR photo-ops were passed my way, but as a freelance I was expected to charge. By now I was working night and day on the newspaper’s weekly free paper that had four editions in the county and depended on photos of every tiny event in the area to bulk out the ads. I was paid only for the repro fee but it was a volume exercise. Pitching up at a fete or award ceremony, I had to create an arresting picture from any opportunity however mundane. I became pretty good at it. It was great incentive to make every shot good enough to get published and make my living. A double-page spread of a big event eg nine shots of a vintage car rally made quite a handsome return. I also soon noticed that the income from invoicing big, busy PR agencies was beginning to dwarf the repro fees for the press work. A growing number of major agencies now knew me, trusted me and contacted me directly – I would love to say it was mutual, but I also discovered getting paid took some doing.
I invested in better equipment and a professional darkroom. On my travels, I had a natural introduction to a lot of businesses and I leveraged that at every opportunity to suggest shooting pictures for them. In turn the commercial clients began to require bigger and more lucrative photo-shoots and the importance of PR work began to diminish. I was able to stop renting kit and buy my own gear, lights, power-packs. I could commit to quite daunting large-scale projects. I had become, to my surprise, a significant commercial photographer in the area.
Of course I have smoothed over a lot of bumps in my little road-trip. I doubt you’d still be here, if I’d ground out every inch of the way. What I have set out to describe is probably what many of my compatriot photographers would see as a common experience of getting into the business in the 80’s and later. It might have much in common with many of you in your own lives and business start-ups. I would be interested to know.
We could not know it but we all were fortunate to be fishing on the edge of a well-stocked river bank. Our lucrative pitches allotted to those with a blend of nerve, talent and well-earned luck. The water teemed with a strong healthy catch that was readily hooked and made a great living for a vibrant community. We in turn provided a living for another host of creative talents. Who could guess that the river would one day be abruptly diverted?
Now photography has moved into that new digital world of wonderful devices and software, giving access to everyman to document our lives and businesses in ways once undreamt of. Yet for a handful of professionals and an army of aspirants, I now see a vast open valley, where once a river flowed, trampled into dust by thousands of hopeful hunters, running blindly around, waving elaborate butter-fly nets at every fleeting flash of colour. Whenever we stop to catch our breath, we all claim to be having fun and doing brilliantly. I doubt we have much to put on the table when we get home.
From the hill-sides, watching ever-so-slightly cynically are the new beneficiaries of the digital revolution: a host of suppliers of butter-fly nets and those who readily train us in how to wave those pretty nets around. For them it matters not a jot what we catch, as long as we are having enough fun to keep coming back for more and we do. I have no fight to pick with these opportunists. What they provide is first-class and meanwhile, charging down the hill are those crowds of new prospects, all eager to have their go and get in on the fun, so who could blame them.
We live in interesting times, which as the Chinese know, are never comfortable times to experience and these days we should all be taking note of what makes sense to China, shouldn’t we?