Taking stock

Things can be tough for professionals these days, since digitisation and the rise of the Web changed the ground rules of the commissioning game. Oliver Bennett looks at how photographers are adapting to the challenge of a shifting market

There is a mood of uncertainty in the photography trade. With fees below inflation or even lower than in the past, pared-down expenses, ever-increasing competition from big picture libraries and the new threat from user-generated work, many photographers feel that they’re in a bear market. The great days of commissioning are over, they complain. Things are not what they used to be.

Across publishing, design consultancies and advertising, there’s certainly a sense that the gravy train has slowed down. ‘For the photojournalist, it’s certainly a tough market,’ says Monica Allende, picture editor at The Sunday Times magazine. ‘Because it’s unreliable, most of them have to diversify.’

Allende notes the move for traditional reportage photographers to team up with agencies like Bill Charles, which represents Magnum names aiming to secure work in advertising, and also cites trends for editorial costs to be kept down by, for instance, reportage to be funded by non-governmental organisations. It can be harder for smaller agencies too. Helen Healy, assistant picture editor of The Guardian, has noticed a tendency for larger picture agencies to make contractual deals with picture desks, which can leave smaller providers in the cold.

Consequently, the current great hope among photographers is the desire to secure gallery representation and sell prints. ‘Collecting photography is fashionable at the moment – an Andreas Gursky picture recently sold for $3.3m (£1.6m),’ says Allende. ‘Getting a gallery is the thing.’ A show at galleries such as Trolley, Flowers East and Michael Hoppen has become the prize, and the ongoing tendency for photography to reposition into the art world continues. Fine, but the bread-and-butter work no longer delivers as it once did.

As in publishing, so in design and advertising. ‘Each year there seems to be less money,’ says photographer Jason Tozer (see profile, page 18), adding that the financial squeeze has bought a sense of risk aversion. ‘Sadly, design consultancies seem to be editing their ideas,’ he says. ‘Come up with an idea and they’ll say, “That’ll be too expensive”. But how do they know?’ Another effect is that clients and consultancies have become overly prescriptive. ‘They say, “This will be six pictures, which will be a day’s work”. Again, how do they know?’ says Tozer. Clients are stronger these days, he says, and their strictures are passed down the line.

The role of digitisation in the market chill is unavoidable. ‘The big thing has been the rise in affordable digital cameras,’ says Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks. ‘We’ve got a high-end 10MG SLR in the studio, which we use ourselves for dummies. Sometimes, when we’ve shown it to the clients they’ve thought it was the finished item.’

There is also, he adds, the competition caused by low-cost agencies, notably iStockphoto. ‘You can make something look reasonable for very little money if you’re in a deadline jam,’ adds Johnson. ‘I can understand why someone would look at their handiwork and question whether to pay £2000 or whatever for a photographer.’ In this situation, the idea that the photography trade demands specialist knowledge and equipment diminishes.

Editorial photographer Jonathan Evans claims that the result is poor professional practices, such as undercutting. ‘There’s nothing wrong with competition, but undercutting will drive things down for everyone,’ he says, adding that the tendency to use cheaper stock rather than original photography leaves clients with low-rent imagery. ‘They should realise that using cheap, non-exclusive stock is hardly likely to create a stir,’ adds Evans. ‘Using a photographer and creative ideas will always turn heads.’

Agencies also acknowledge the change in the market. ‘It’s no secret that the imagery industry has changed rapidly over the past couple of years and faster than we had anticipated,’ says a spokeswoman for Getty Images. ‘Customers are now using imagery in a variety of ways. On-line is an area seeing significant growth.’ ‹

Client needs are being met in faster, cheaper ways, and it was to this end that Getty acquired iStockphoto last year. ‘This has allowed us to offer user-generated content to customers at a time when the purchasing habits in the industry have shifted,’ Getty’s spokeswoman adds.

‘In the second quarter of this year, we licensed more than four million images from iStockphoto alone, which demonstrates the huge demand for imagery on the Web.’ Recently, Getty created a new Web-resolution image deal for a fixed price of £39, expounding the need for ‘competitive pricing’ for ‘customers looking for a cost-effective way to visually communicate’.

Still, there is room for agencies to improve, says Healy, who feels that the whole business of stock shots could be more innovative. ‘For newspapers, many library shots are too glossy, advertising- oriented and lack a reportage feel,’ she says. ‘If you request a picture of children in a nursery, it’ll come back with the kids all smiling.’ A grittier feel is needed.

So there are market pressures on all sides of the business. On the upside, there are still plenty of opportunities, including an easier entry level, lower prices on equipment, and a market that remains extensive. The young picture agency Four Corners, a specialist in travel, is building up its stock and director Carlo Irek says he detects a slight upturn of interest in commissioning. ‘Our core business is stock photography, but there seems to be a gentle upswing into commissioning photography,’ he says. ‘Our business is still growing and we’re a small picture agency, but we’re trying to generate creative, iconic pictures, and we’re pleased that there seems to be a response.’

Photographers – and, indeed, agencies – should ride with the punches and they’ll come through, reckons Evans. ‘I don’t think there’s a dark cloud hanging over us,’ he says. ‘People still need photography. We’ll just have to work a bit harder.’

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