SELLING THE VISION
In her article for this issue, our business writer Rosemary Ann Ogilvie brings up an issue I’ve covered a few times on this page over the years – namely how do we promote professional photography to an increasingly challenging marketplace. Rosemary is suggesting a few ideas for individuals, making the most of the potential avenues in social media, but there is a wider concern that’s never really been properly addressed. Ever since George Eastman came up with his affordable rollfilm cameras for the masses, photography has become progressively more accessible and familiar. The digital revolution has taken it a lot further, putting very complex – and thus highly capable – cameras in the hands of anybody who wants them. In technical terms, these cameras deliver exceptional results at the push of a button… so how hard can this photography thing be? That’s not just the way consumers now think, but also the clients in control of the purse-strings that once paid professionals to take pricey pictures. With a half-decent starting point, the Photoshop whizz in the ad agency can finish the job… assuming, of course, they’re not already doing the whole thing with CGI, by-passing the camera completely. And this erosion of professional photography is happening in a lot of areas… weddings being an obvious one. And portraiture where perhaps the difference between a professionally-executed image and anything is the most obvious, but potential clients are only looking at the bottom line and probably wondering why it costs so much to take a couple of snaps. What they haven’t considered is all the elements that make a great portrait look great (lighting, posing, coaxing, etc, etc) and that most nebulous of concepts, creativity.
For as long as I’ve been in this industry we’ve never been able to get our heads around the idea of promoting creativity… visions, ideas, insights. We’ve tried to promote – or at least define – professionals via credentials, memberships of associations and awards – all worthy in their own right – and, less helpfully, by the camera gear they use and even how much they charge. In the bad old days, if you turned up with a big bag of cameras and charged like a wounded bull for sheets of films and test Polaroids, you obviously had to know what you were doing. It worked while the amateurs couldn’t keep up in technical terms, but has been exposed as fatally flawed once they were able to achieve the same results with cheaper gear. Snag is, this mentality still prevails, albeit in the slightly more subtle manifestation which implies that, if all the how-to-make-a-professional-photographer boxes are ticked, then clients will beat a path to your door waving credit cards. But the market isn’t buying any of that anymore… literally. As they say about flying… any fool can take-off, but it needs a pilot to land. In photography, everybody has now got the technicalities tied up – even if they mostly don’t understand how – but what needs to differentiate the pro from the rest is the ability to see, interpret, innovate and make imaging magic. Creativity is the professional photographer’s most valuable asset and, increasingly, it’s all we have to sell. Professionalism – in terms of business practices, honesty and integrity – is of course, important, but in the end, it’s the product that counts the most. And that’s no longer a tangible thing… it’s conceptual which is a lot harder to sell, but we have to do it.
In her article, Rosemary quotes agent Maren Levinson who says, “To stand out, photographers need to offer something nobody else can and the only way they can do this is to have their own distinct voice and vision – they have to have something to say.”
Today we’re deluged with imagery. We’re using pictures to communicate almost more than we use words, but these are ephemera of no lasting consequence and quickly forgotten. The truly powerful picture is still something special with the ability to start debates, change opinions and, of course, promote ideas. Great photographs still get noticed, but it’s likely most viewers don’t really know why they’re responding to what they see which is where photography ventures into the realms of emotion and psychology. If we’re going to compete successfully here, we need to better understand these elements too, but this is also all about a quantum shift in emphasis… i.e. away from all the processes and towards the unique inputs which coalesce into creativity.
There have to be the building blocks for a more effective marketing campaign for professional photography here… it just needs a bit of, ahem, vision.