Thursday, September 13, 2007

Complaining complainers complaining

I have noticed out there on the web a slew of photographers whining about the state of the industry. For sure there is a lot to be concerned about in our business: Magazines going out of business, WFH contracts, Getty under cutting us all etc. But it has been my experience that as a class: photographers are a big bunch of whiners.

When I was 17 I worked as a photo intern for the Baltimore Sun and I got to spend time with guys who had been at the paper since Eisenhower was president. They were protected by the union and were constantly on the phone running one or two side businesses usually revolving around some real estate enterprise. They all went home for three hour lunches and would drive out in the country (where the radios didn't work ) to go "feature hunting" (features are images of slice of life that newspapers run to fill the giant news whole). Invariably the photographer would come back to the office empty handed at the end of his shift and you swore you could still see a little drool in the corner of his mouth where had taken that nap on the side of the road.

I did not have a car and could only do assignments I could walk to so I spent a lot of time hanging around the office. I would be on the recieving end of many a harange from these old timers. The advice was always the same. Photographers are getting screwed. They are not appreciated and to get out while I still could.

So I went to college to become a photojournalist. I interned at a bunch of papers around the country and got burned out at 23. I sold my cameras, moved to San Francisco and worked a series of deadend jobs.

I worked as a temp in an office for a few years. For six weeks I looked at a rows of numbers on a of stack paper and checked them against other rows of numbers on Microfiche looking for numbers that were out of place. Each day I counted down the minutes until my break at 10:15, half hour lunch at 12:30 and another break at 3. Then one day a recent MBA grad my age came back to see the four of us who had been working this project. He said he had made a mistake. The numbers were fine and we could go home.

I drove an airport shuttle bus. Not one of those slick blue ones where the drivers wear cool satin jackets. I drove for an off brand company. I would arrive to work at 4:30 in the morning to drive and half my co-workers were still drunk from the night before. The vans were in such bad shape I couldn't go up steep hills in San Francisco and the Nob Hill passengers were always confused by the routes I would take.

I worked as a nanny, a bartender, a day laborer. It got so bad I decided to apply to law school. I was all ready to go back to a school in Baltimore when at the last minute I took a job as a photography intern at a small San Francisco magazine making minimum wage. Soon after that I got a job as a staff photographer at that paper and the rest is photographic history.

One of my first assignments was to photograph the head of a company. I set lights up in the parking lot and was ready at the appointed hour. 10 minutes passed and then 15. I was pissed. Where the hell was this guy? How could he keep me waiting? Didn't he know who I was? I was about to pack up the gear and tell my editor the subject was a no show when it occured to me that just six months prior I would have been willing spend the night in the parking lot for a chance to be a photographer and to be in this position.

I knew what is was like to work for a living and this was not it.


Armando said...

Thanks for the perspective.

Jeff Singer said...

I think the problem is, times are changing in a way like never before WRT photography. Yes, everyone dreams of "the golden years." Everyone thinks "it was better when I was starting out."

But never before have the barriers to entry into photography been so low. Never before has the proliferation of the belief that intellectual property should be available to everyone so great. Never before have the clients wanted all rights to images the way they do now.

I'm sure the old large format guys used to think "Damn, these 35-mm cameras let any idiot take a picture." And, relative to large format, that was true. But, today, with digital cameras as good as they are ANYBODY, even a monkey can take a picture. And given that outside of the cost of the camera, it costs them basically nothing to take 1000 pictures, even that monkey will take a pretty damn good shot in that 1000 picture "roll of film." Not only that, they can see if you got the shot. The same can't be said with 35-mm film. There was still some skill needed and a cost to every crappy shot you took.

So yes, I do agree that photographers complain too much. But, I think now more than ever there is reason to be worried. Because, unless you're in the upper end of the market, you're competing with all these "dentists with digital cameras" that have a real job and are all too happy to give their photographs away on iStockphoto just to see their picture in a magazine. And you can't always assume that quality is what clients are looking for as illustrated in my post here:

Yeah, getting paid for that shoot where the guy didn't show up was better than working a real job. But what happens when you don't get calls for those jobs any longer because rather than 1000 other photographers out there who can do the job, there are 100,000 photographers who can do it. Not only that, they are IT engineers who are more than happy to do it for the chance to see the photo in a magazine. So if you do get the call, the budget doesn't exist any more and you don't have that IT job to pay your bills.

Erosion always starts from the bottom up. 35-mm eroded the low end of the market, digital is now eroding the middle. It will eventually work its way up the ladder in the form of larger rights grabs and lower fees.

I'm saying all this as a person relatively new to photography and the business. Not only that, as an Ex Network Engineer who picked up a digital camera and now "thinks" he's a photographer. So, you won't hear me complain about being a photographer when compared to having a "real job." If you're making a living as a photographer, you have nothing to complain about. But you can't be so naive to think that you'll always be able to make a living as a photographer if you don't watch your back, regardless of what step on the ladder you're on.

Timothy Archibald said...

With all due respect to Jeff Singer, his post above could not be a better example of what you are talking about. I think photogs really can not break themselves of this habit and are not even aware how often they engage in this...its part of their dna or something.

Jeff Singer Photography said...

It's easy to have nothing to complain about when you're a consistently busy photographer, not dealing with the (daily) mundane calls from people wanting "your great work" but the other guy will do it for $100. You can only take so much before frustration sets in. And now that everyone has a voice on the internet, they speak it... for better or worse, case in point :-). As I said, as long as I'm paying the bills, I have nothing to complain about... even the complainers. said...

My favorite line of your post was the last. It seems to be my daily humility that makes my work better. I am a new, struggling photographer who wants to make "family images" and my own art. I am always aware that if I wasn't married, me and my two kids would be living in Iowa trailer park - but I'd still be taking pictures wouldn't I? As far as commentary about the threat of your changing commercial world - change is inevitable. Always we will be asked to rise to change, not cower from it. Again I am thinking Thomas Broening may benefit from developing a book proposal.

Robert Holmgren said...

This should be must reading for anyone struggling in their photography career. There was a time when I'd get upset because a subject would only allow 15 minutes for the shoot instead of the 45 I'd requested,--until it occurred to me that what they offering was less work for the same money. Adjusting one's thinking is easier than changing someone else's.

Jonathan Saunders said...

haha, i love the advertising photographer ($ making, family supporting, nice lifestyle), starting the ball rolling in complaining about having to hear the struggles of those less fortunate then he, thomas, if its so offensive to you to hear the struggles of others, don't read it, i have dropped reading you regularly as your constant bragging is equally annoying as those that bitch. so this was the perfect thread to create, a backhanded insult to other photographers not as successful as you disguised again as a chance to brag.

every one here in this thread bitches, most just have the sense to keep it private and not back it with words on the internet. timothy, thomas, me, we all bitch. so i challenge you, myself and others to stop the bragging and bitching altogether and leave this for more interesting photographic fodder.

if this blog was to be another tool for you to pimp yourself, make it that way and leave it that way, don't piss on others to further yourself.

Jeff Singer said...

Not that Thomas needs defending, but... I haven't known Thomas long, but I do know his history a bit. And he was once an editorial guy working to get into the bigger $$$ advertising world. Well, through a lot of work and a lot of his own $$$ (first spending a lot of money on a portfolio that was way off the mark) he did a 180 with his work and is now an in demand advertising photographer. So, while I agree that too often the big guy's forgets what its like to be the little guy (why do Annie, Norman, and Mario work for magazines that only offer WFH contracts to every photog but them) I wouldn't say that Thomas is there. He speaks at APA sponsored events where the goal is to help other photographers figure this business out. He even was more than happy to speak at a group I organized with only a few other new photographers on how he got started... something others may have deemed a waist of time. So, while I may not always agree with Thomas or anyone else I respect, I will (usually) listed to what they have to say.

Clearly I am on of those idiots that don't have the sense to keep my thoughts to my self... oh well, that's the way I roll :-)

Timothy Archibald said...

Oh no...I think you all are out of control with this post.

Holmgren: that attitude of "trying to see how little I can work" on assignment work infuriates me. It is just as fun to work hard on a photograph and make it great, as it is to accept it when it is easy. This is not about getting the shot overwith, its about engaging with the process.

Singer: If you think I have it easy,please come over my house and witness it in all it's splendor.;)

Saunders: Glad you are chiming in. I don't think this was a backhanded insult, but it would be cooler if this energy was put toward solving the issues of contemporary photograpy. Just cuz TB drives a Lexus doesn't mean that...oh, never mind.

OK...all good. Dialogue is a good thing, right? See y'all later.


Jonathan Saunders said...

yeah, well, i won't be chiming in again. all this pitter patter between photographers hurts my brain and goes nowhere, truly. i already regret getting involved and falling victim to the me too me too my thoughts matter role of comments on blogs, it's a waste of energy. the i am slower then you, i am busier then you, the i know so and so better is a revolving door of photographers trying to one up the next, and i made the mistake of listening to photographers that support famlies, live in houses and brag about jobs effect me. but really, i know you all and the level of where all of you are at, so to hear someone doing well, bitch about those that aren't venting their troubles was too much and yes, an insult no matter what alley you lived in or hard you once had it too. i should of let it go, i don't read here much anyway, i said my part, it was heard or wasn't, i regret caring or letting it effect me, i am done with this conversation.

be sure to not catch my thoughts at a 'we only pretend to help photographers but are really just a sorority, but others will think you're more special for being a part, pay your dues please' locally sponsored event.

btw, archibald, you should be more fired up about something, don't the play the patronizing calm voice of reason with me, yet again, let it all out archi, let it all out....

Jeff Singer said...


What time is diner?


Timothy Archibald said...

Jonathan- I need calm and reason right now for all sorts of other reasons that I'll fill you in on will be gossip worth waiting for! So for me,I want harmony. But I love when others go right for the jugular and I can watch.

Robert Holmgren said...

TA--I may have miscommunicated. I totally agree with the notion of striving to craft better photos. The point I hoped to make is more in line with the point Thomas was making. When presented with a situation I couldn't change I had two options; wallow in a cloud of complaint or substitue another reality. I fail to see how living under the cloud is helpful--something I try to suggest to my own kids with mixed results.

victoriaremler said...


Can a small time girl like me still try & break your balls here? This post has been the most revealing and indicative (disturbing?) of the reason I am trying desperatley to remain funny & humble.


DeBoerWorks said...

uhem ... uhhh... You guys do remember that everything you say on the internet is there for eternity for everyone to read, right?

BTW - all you guys are talented as hell. It seems to me you've all found your life's work. So what's the problem? IMHO - I say just do and find fun where you can.

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