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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ephemera III

The for-pay world has long known about the concept of ephemeral photographs. Marketing materials have finite life spans. Major brands use new photographs monthly, or more frequently. Bulgari's been using a specific photo of Carla Bruni for at least a few months now, and it really jumps out at me. These are photos that actually do tell a story (albeit often an abstract one), that's their job. Generating the right mix of feelings around a brand seems to require constant updates, new pictures. This is partly because the message is constantly refined, partly because there's ground to be covered, a campaign to eke out picture by picture, and partly because novelty matters. There are probably other reasons.

There's a reason social media photography more closely resembles this kind of marketing rather more than it resembles art photography, or street photography, or landscapes, or whatever. This is because on social media, people are after a fashion, marketing themselves. A beautiful portrait of myself is totally uninteresting on social media, its marketing value is near zero. What matters is pictures that show me as cool and interesting. This is me at a party. This is me sailing. This is me kissing my hot hot wife.

A blurry phone selfie of me in an interesting context, the supports my narrative of myself, has value.

The only value in a formal portrait or other "good" picture is as a prop for my "I went and had good pictures taken by a professional" story.

I see this on a forum I skim from time to time, quite regularly.

I did a Senior Session with this little bitch, and she went and shared my Professional Images All Over Facebook! With Instagram Filters!!!1!1!11111

Which is to totally miss the point. Your stupid senior session pictures have literally no value to your client outside of the social media universe. You might be able to sell them a couple prints, maybe, if you talk it up right. Mom will probably buy an 8x10. But ultimately, what the client wants is the story, the narrative of being a hip, cool, high school senior, getting professional shots taken because she really is All That.

She's gonna tell that story, ain't nothing you can do about it. You can blather on about no digital rights and no editing and blah blah until you're blue in the face. One of two things will happen: the client will respect the contract, and get 0 value (and probably walk away), OR the client will ignore the contract.

She doesn't want some shitty photoshopped portrait of herself looking like a portly Barbie doll holding a guitar, she wants a Story about how she is All That, and she wants to tell that story on social media.

So, stop selling her prints, and start selling her a marketing campaign. Sell her limited digital rights. Sell her an hour of time where you'll work with her to instagram the shit out of her session's pictures. Don't sell her crappy pictures, sell her your alleged story-telling skills. You can tell a story, right? I mean, it says so on your web site, it says you have a passion for telling people's stories with your camera, or some similar bullshit. So, you can actually do this? Right?

Protip: BMW executive don't hire people to take pictures of their cars because they secretly crave airbrushed 8x10 prints of the cars to hang in their bedrooms.


  1. My major dose of marketing information and theory for the quarter. Right here.

    1. It was actually your piece on how marketing guys are using your work for social media that got me thinking on these lines. It's the opposite side of the same coin.

      I think kids these days might be way more savvy about marketing than we think -- they've been soaking in very sophisticated visual marketing campaigns literally their whole lives.

      Us old dogs went through our formative years with only primitive versions of this stuff inflicted on it, so we have to think about it to make sense of it. I don't think an 18 year old thinks about it one bit, but they get it in their bones.

  2. Another good post - and it comes just as I'm thinking how to improve my online presence.

    I was a bit upset the first time someone posted "edited" versions of my photos, but I got over it. They got lots of likes and they spelled my name right. "There's no such thing as bad publicity." And sometimes people do clever things.

    As long as they have fun with the pictures and say good things about me I'm happy.

  3. I think you are forgetting one important point about social media: only the people who are marketable can market themselves.

    For example: my son is a nerd in his school. He will not put pictures of himself on Facebook, because he fears (and rightly so), that he would be bullied for it. As far as I know, the same is true for all the less popular boys and girls.

    What this means is that the only market for the kind of portraits you have in mind are the celebrities among their friends. The prom queen, for example. Except that there is a little problem: these people will not pay you. They will not respect your contract. They are so used to have it their way among their contacts by bullying the others, that they believe that they are above the law. And in a sense, they are above the law within their local group.

    Of course, as a photographer, you could go to court and sue them. But it is not worth the effort. Besides, if you win, you will lose further customers. By definition, these "local celebrities" are well connected.

    The only people they will respect are people who are even more famous than they are. So if you are a well-known photographer, that may work. But if you are an unknown beginner pro photographer or, much worse, an amateur, don't go photograph the prom queen.

  4. Since I first read this I have seen 3 local professional photographers put up family or senior photos on FB with "Do not crop or edit" type of notices. I'm thinking I should send them links to your post.

  5. I know that for those who responded the topic seems to be portraits of the "younger set" but this can be applied to more fields than that. Folks with pets post as many pictures of them in social media as people post of themselves. I do livestock portraits. I will certainly be looking to incorporate some ideas this blog has generated. Thank you.