Sunday, June 5, 2016

Richard Sexton on Photography Now

Richard Sexton's long promised second segment to his big think piece (which I first took issue with here) on photography: then, now, and the future. He's doing the Now segment.

He starts off with a spirited defense of some of the things he said in the previous parts, almost as if someone took him to task on some points. His defense, alas, consists of repeating the same remarks with the same total lack of support. The 1970s were special, etc, photography was being just then accepted as Art, the usual parade of stuff one writes when one wants to hand-wring about the history of photography.

He then repeats a bunch of things people already know, the internet, digital cameras, the pairing of the two changed everything, etcetera and so on. He equates the internet with the web, a mistake that drives me crazy but which is ultimately unimportant.

He gets the summary basically right, though. If you're in need of a refresher for many of the major forces that crushed the old order, he's got the high points written down in one place for you. If you want a description of the new order which is replacing it, he's missing the mark in some important ways. See below.

Then he goes on to denigrate blurb and, in general, self-publishing, referring to them as mere "self-printing". Interestingly, he recites the various tasks that a publisher does beyond the mere printing, and repeats one (1) anecdote from a friend to the effect that publishing on blurb sucks. He fails to make the obvious leap that "self-publishing" actually means something, it means that ones "self" must do all the tasks that a publisher does. You print, you market, you sell. His friend found that if all you do is print, the book does not magically sell itself, amazing.

The other thing he's missing is that the major publishers he cites (Steidl, Phaidon, etc) are being crazily conservative. They're just not giving book deals to brilliant young unknowns any more. Wanna get a book deal with Phaidon? You better already be famous. You have to bring a fully tested market with you, you have to be a "name" already. You can be a "name" chef, interestingly, and get a photography monograph deal. You cannot be a new, unknown, talent. In fact, if you haven't already done a monograph with one of the majors, you probably aren't going to get one (unless you're a celebrity chef).

By all means, fact-check me on this, I just checked the New and Upcoming Photo Books on a couple of majors, and it was 100% instantly recognizable, known quantities. Maybe someone I didn't check is still breaking new artists.

Blurb in particular, and self-publishing in general, isn't a replacement for Phaidon. It shouldn't be. Self-pub is a platform for reaching your own small audiences, but as Sexton implies but seems never to state, you have to do the spade work yourself.

He then blames amazon for a lot of woes, because they sell used books. Gasp, used book sales don't pay the author! Yep, the author got paid the first time around. I'm not sure what on earth he's on about on this point.

The fact that amazon eliminates the impulse buy is an excellent point, however. Amazon also makes the happy accident, and browsing in general, problematic, which is the biggest single reason amazon sucks for books. Mike, over at ToP, seems to be doing an awesome job of reviving the impulse buy, however, on this crazy new medium of the world wide web.

A little later, Sexton grumbles about certain unspecified choices made by creatives which have resulted in a public that thinks content ought to be free. I don't know whether he's just carelessly repeating a truism here, or if he's revealing something important about himself.

Yes, "the hordes" as he so decorously puts it, demand a lot of free content. The content they insist be free is the fungible content. One cat picture is much like another. One video of a dog falling off a skateboard is interchangeable with another. It is basic economics that when the cost of producing a commodity (that is, a fungible product) drops to zero, so does the price. The change wrought by the internet and digital cameras was to drop the production cost close to zero, and to open the market to a large swathe of producers who are willing to price at $0. This, I suppose, is the poor choice creatives have been making. While it's standard grumbling to state it that way, when you're dealing with a million suppliers and a billion consumers, it's really better thought of as just market forces.

But in that statement the seeds of a solution lie. Don't make fungible products. If your pictures are pretty much the same as everyone else's, the price is set by the cheapest supplier, who is always operating at $0 these days. Is Sexton explicitly saying that he wants to return to the glory days when people could and did produce absolutely fungible photographic products, and could and did get paid a lot for them? Or is he just mouthing an oft repeated truism without looking at the underlying causes? I dunno.

But the point is, don't be in the commodity business. More on that anon.

He seems to believe that the one inviolable market is Selling Fine Art Prints. He explicitly tells us to not research this, but to trust him that more prints are being sold for more money than ever. I cannot imagine what he is hoping to accomplish by telling us to trust him. Anyways, sure, I'll take him at face value. The market is not inviolable, though. It will rise and fall, and the fact that Fine Art Prints are doing well at the moment seems to have nothing to do with any sort of current zeitgeist around the current state of photography. At least not that I can see. It might simply be that they're cheaper than ever? Certainly Fine Art Prints are, mostly, a commodity for which the cost of production is not $0. It still costs real money to deliver a big canvas wrap, and when there's real money in play, the artist can still clip a percentage for themselves. But remember, commodities are still a fool's game, here.

Sexton wraps up with a few paragraphs that, to be honest, I can't make much sense of. He seems to be trying to sort out the various career paths that come under the broad head of "photographer" but no particular points managed to gel in my mind. He seems unsure of the viability of various career paths. Welcome to the fabulous modern era, where venture capitalists are furiously trying to disrupt out of existence every job except their own.

He describes Janson as an "epidemic of artworks" which I have to admit is a phrase I adore. Makes the whole piece worth it.

In general Sexton's piece is mostly a sort of boring reiteration of basic stuff everyone knows, salted liberally with exactly the sort of total failure to understand the current state of things you'd expect from an old dude who's been pretty successful for a few decades. As the kids might say, he just doesn't get it. He treats the problem of "success" as one of "how can I reach a global audience, and rise above the rest to be one of the few, the exalted top 50 players" which is an approach to success that is completely, utterly, dead. The globe is simply too big. When our world consisted of a couple hundred million people and a media controlled entirely by 100 men, that made sense. Sort of. The globe is 7 billion strong, now, and the media is shattered into a million brilliant little deadly shards, mostly covered with ads.

Photography Now has a lot more do-it-yourself small run publishing going on than these old guys know. They don't see the interlocking system of social media, crowd-funding, and self-publishing. They don't see the methods you can use to refine your work, find your audience, pre-sell your books, and fulfill the orders, all out of your bedroom. He's stuck in some fantasy land of the 1970s when you could get a book deal from Steidl or Aperture and make a mint selling books through their superior, global, reach. Except I'm pretty sure you couldn't. You might sell 1000 books, but you wouldn't actually make any money, or very little.

Frankly, I would not be surprised to learn that self-published photographic artists routinely make more money on a book than anyone but, say, the top 5 traditionally published artists ever did. Turns out that global fulfillment and marketing network was very expensive, and also the publishers held all the cards. If there is money to be made, and one party has all the marbles while the other one has none, guess who makes all the money? Not the author!

Anyways, the point here is that correctly using social media makes your product no longer a commodity. You've reached out to people, one by one. They like you, the like your work. Your photographs, your drawings, whatever Art you're making, is personal to these people, these potential customers. The product is not fungible. This could be because your work is truly unique, it could be because you're a great guy and you helped them out with their book. It's probably some blend. It doesn't matter. When you go to kickstarter to crowdfund your blurb book, your social media followers will fund your book because, to them, it's special. It's unique. They want to help you, because you're you, and they want to buy that specific book, because it's your book.

At a completely different point in the spectrum, we find Kirk Tuck, who writes essays regularly which can (I feel) be interpreted as "I remain successful, because I am at great pains to not be seen as a commodity", for example, this one. But there are many.

Whether your ambition is to take photographs or drive trucks, in this modern era you have to stay on top of the global situation, to a degree. You have to control your destiny as best you can. You have to, whenever possible, take charge. There are no "safe" career paths any more, where you can simply learn the skills and then coast along doing the job, with occasional skills updates, until it's time to retire.

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