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Friday, September 15, 2023

The Photo Grift

A number of threads of thought crystallized this morning, abruptly. Let's see if I can write them down.

In 1800s quite a number of photographers mostly took pictures and were paid for pictures and that was that. Gradually companies formed to supply those photographers, and those companies presumably made money. There were amateurs, to be sure, but they knew who they were, and there weren't all that many of them in relative terms.

In the 1900s the number of amateurs exploded. Kodak and others enabled a several generations of nerdy fellows to take up the Hobby Of Photography. Magazines evolved to serve them, camera manufacturers built cameras and advertised in the magazines, and so on. A whole economic thing arose to serve the enthusiast. And, to be sure, many of those enthusiasts aspired to "go pro" in some sense, but most of them didn't. It was a hobby.

By the time I arrived on the scene the industry was largely funded by amateur photographers. They bought cameras, film, and magazine subscriptions, and that was the money that made the industry hum. Yes, Vogue bought photos and paid photographers, but that was not the engine that drove the industry.

Enter the digital camera. Suddenly everyone with disposable income could be a photographer. You didn't need a darkroom, you didn't need to be particularly dweeby, it became a normal, even cool, thing for basically anyone to do. Good! How fun! Now you can enjoy my hobby too!

A little later youtube arrives and the concept of a "content creator" shows up about the same time.

Poeple are blogging and setting up forums and so on. We start to see guys like Michael Reichmann on the scene.

At this point there is a substantial shift. It's no longer pretty much just photography companies selling cameras and film to hobbyists. It's Content Creators and Influencers selling workshops, memberships, subscriptions, and advertisements. It's a money spinner. Anyone can play. Set up a web site, crib some articles from someplace else, and watch the money roll in!

Well, not quite. You have to be both lucky, and skilled at being a Content Creator. It wouldn't hurt you to be pretty good at photography (Reichmann was a skilled technician, for example) but it honestly isn't even required.

In the background here there is a constant thrum of "you could go pro, you could make money at photography, all you need is whatever it is that I am selling." I don't even know why this turned up. I think maybe the Content Creators felt the need to justify their revenue, which they couldn't on the basis on their fairly thin content.

I don't mean to suggest that in 1990 everyone was an innocent and happy hobbyist without a thought of going pro, and that 20 years later it's some Lord of the Flies situation with everyone desperate to become a Pro Photographer. Not at all. But there's been a shift in mood. The vague hope, the idea, is a little more present. Maybe a lot more.

You could probably point at economic conditions, maybe everyone's a little more hungry, a little more on the lookout for a quick buck. I dunno. It doesn't matter, because the point is that it's a thing.

Anyways, to my eye from the 2010s there was an enormous wave of Content Creators attempting to take money off of photographers who were themselves looking for fame and/or fortune. The main thing to note here is that the successful ones were good at being Content Creators; they may or may not have been interested in photography, but whether they were or not doesn't matter. They're "professional" Content Creators which means they have a whole bunch of skills around attracting eyeballs. This is their actual expertise.

In some sense, this is the same as it ever was. It's not like Nikon was giving cameras away in the good old days, they were definitely making money. The difference to my eye is that in the first place when you gave Nikon money you actually got a camera, and in the second place there was less of a "you too could be a pro, you could make money at this." In fact, Nikon had several lines of camera, and only one was explicitly the "many money with this camera" line. The others were all implicitly "have a good time taking photos with these cameras."

In the 2010s you often didn't get anything. You could watch a Tony Northrup video or read a Lloyd Chambers blog post, with the result that you would be older and dumber by the end. You could pay a few thousand dollars for some workshop, with the result that you'd have a folder with 10,000 completely uninteresting photographs of icebergs or whatever. Even then, though, at least everyone was trying to give you some value. Lloyd at least did (does?) detailed if pointless testing. I'm sure Tony thought he was telling you.. something useful?

Somewhere in here MFA programs arose or were retooled based on, apparently, little more than "we can put butts in seats at $10,000 per butt-year" and guys like Colberg got jobs teaching in them. Based on the results it's honestly unclear wtf they were even trying to teach these kids? Most of them, of course, have not become successful artists although many have given a bunch more money to glorified vanity presses. Again, there was at least an attempt to deliver value, kinda. I am sure that Colberg really thought he was helping. I dare say some of his colleagues were more cynical.

And now here we are in the 2020s. At this point to be honest I think everyone's given up, and they're just trying to extract as much money as possible for as little effort as possible.

I, for instance, am apparently still publishing articles on Luminous Landscape (no, I am not, I wrote the piece currently at the bottom of the front page in 2017, not the August 2023 date indicated.) PetaPixel and fstoppers are descending rapidly toward click-farm link-mill stage, with articles about reddit posts and other articles describing videos they found on youtube. The filler doesn't quite dominate. Yet. It will.

Andy Adams, a relentless engagement farmer across many platforms, has a substack newsletter he's making thousands of dollars a year on, which is insipid to the point of transparency but which offers "exposure" to photographers who almost certainly make less money on photography than he does.

And this is the theme. The money flows from photographers to everyone else, the same as it always has.

The difference is that the photographer's aren't getting anything for their money, or for their attention. Andy's newsletter is read by absolutely nobody except your peers, who are all also vaguely hoping to "go pro" or become well known, better known, something, some day. Nobody reads PetaPixel or fstoppers except the same crowd, and on and on. The content available is essentially nil on all fronts, it's just the same recycled drivel, or often literally nothing at all. Newsletters about "how to find inspiration, we interviewed 5 photographers" will tell you it's "light" or "taking a walk." Youtube videos will begin and end with 3 or 4 minutes "like, share, and subscribe" with 2 minutes of content in between which is even more insipid than "I am inspired by the light!"

All of the "content" around photography has been reduced to a way to destroy some time. A ten minute video doesn't do anything except make ten minutes of your life go away. An 800 word blog post makes.. well, how long does it take you to read 800 words? That's how much time it will destroy. It will not make you a better photographer, it will not even entertain you particularly, it will not inform you. At best it will validate some life choice you made, and tell you that you're special (despite the evident fact that you are not.)

All this empty content still produces money for someone. You're paying for it, either with your wallet or your attention. You're getting nothing in return except maybe a little empty validation, a little tease that one day you might be someone.

At least when you went to the Galapagos with Michael Reichmann you got to see some turtles. It mighta cost you $10,000 a turtle, but at least there were turtles.


  1. As a hobbyist/enthusiast, you typically consume all this content at work to make the time pass while pretending to work. So actually no time is wasted.

  2. "You're getting nothing in return except maybe a little empty validation, a little tease that one day you might be someone."

    But isn't that enough? Validation, hope for improvement or hope of any kind is central to so many past times.

    If these aren't enough then what would be? A career is hard work. For an amateur the love and the dream are the point!

    1. I mean.. kinda? I guess? It really really really depends on how honest and transparent you're being, and ALSO on how realistic the expectations are, right?

      Like if I'm "I would love to publish your photos on my blog but I'm a nobody so, you know" and you're "got it, but I like you're blog and that would be fun" well we're probably ok, right?

      But if I'm real vague about whether or not photo buyers read my blog, or if I kind of hint that maybe the MoMA staff drop by now and then, or if I'm making a bunch of money off my blog and not mentioning that AND if you're privately thinking "please please please let this be my big break!" then we're not so ok?

      There's a range or something.

    2. If someone is being misleading about what result may come from tapping their audience then sure that's misleading. I think it was Eric Kim who coined the idea of cross pollination, where you share on many third party sites, blogs, YouTube etc for better links to your own space, SEO etc. It may not be a valid method anymore as the online landscape has changed since he was in a real spotlight, but the mindset has remained. Appear on others podcasts, funnel their audience to you. Same for blogs, interviews, competitions etc.

      The Internet is a one armed bandit, gambling to success with every share, comment etc. I don't blame people for following or encouraging a formula when engaging with a communications system they don't fully understand.

      If course yes as you say wilful dishonesty is wrong, but who really has the knowledge these days for wilful dishonesty?

      If sharing work on someone's blog is their idea of success ten that's in and of itself already enough!

  3. Grift seems a tad strong. Is there a deliberate scheme to deceive, lead on, and defraud? Are highly-educated people really that suggestible? I don't know, I suppose hope always carries an element of self-deception. Lottery tickets, horse racing, and dslrs. Most of these influencers are pretty low stakes ('will work for food' about covers it). At the low end a patreon sub, at the high end pricey workshops for lawyers, dentists and clueless postgrads, and all the dumb gear to cosplay at their highest level. Most of the marks can afford to lose. If they bet with borrowed money, that is sad. This is no different from other cultural activities such as sports and music. All the kids wannabe rock stars. Supply and demand.

    1. I am frustrated that the people who say they love and support artists are invariably hoping to take money off the artists. In most of "fine art" but especially photography, everyone gets paid before the people who are actually making the art, and that seems kind of off.

    2. Yep, forums and contests.

  4. "a relentless engagement farmer across many platforms" —Nicely put!

  5. Thanks for saying some things that have been eating at me for a good while. Every time I click on fstoppers or PictureCorrect, I kick myself for wasting my time scrolling through lists of derivative "great video reviews." At least I don't rot my brain by watching them. I'm doing myself a big favor and deleting them from my favorites. Ought to do the same with Jared, but he's occasionally fun, if not particularly informative.

  6. Just take look at "respectable" camera review websites and their band of drum beating followers - sellers of yearly increments for almost no effort besides taking the latest iterations out for a walk and coming up with some fancy titles - tis all about gear and this is what photography has become in this age of abundance and redundancy.

  7. If you're interested in how the powers that be have ended up grabbing all the money and power from creatives, I recommend Chokepoint Capitalism by Rebecca Gilbin and Cory Doctorow.