Musings on Photography

Globalization and the Photographic Artist

Posted in business by Paul Butzi on January 10, 2007

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The massive explosion of the digital revolution in photography and the relentless lowering of barriers to global trade seem to be making opposing revolutions.  This blog post  (found via this post at photowords) seems to have catalyzed a few of my brewing thoughts on what this means for photographers and the art world.

In the past few years, as access to the WWW has spread rapidly across the planet, we’ve seen a lot of different effects.  As is always the case, shucksters, scam artists, and pornographers have realized the revolutionary potential first, and so we’ve been inundated with the Nigerian scam, with email from con artists in Liberia happy to buy anything as long as they can pay with forged cashier’s checks (I have quite a collection of forged checks, now), and with porn web sites.  The Long Tail effect has made it easier than ever for niche markets (read: fetish porn) to be served by entrepreneurs.

But now we’re mostly past all that, and we’re starting to see the effect on the more quotidian parts of life and business.  Last year, my print sales were up again, and most of the increase in sales was due to the fact that I’m selling more prints to folks outside the USA.  Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of selling my prints to someone in Hong Kong or Singapore.  But there’s no barrier to someone far, far away viewing my website anymore, and there’s no barrier to international payment or global shipping.  Services like Paypal make international payment easy even for a micro business like mine.  Most of the prints I shipped internationally last year, shipping the print was no more arduous than what I do to ship domestically, except for filling out a little form that lets the USPS find me if I ship a bomb somewhere. 

By the same token, there’s no barrier to a photographer in Kuala Lumpur selling prints to me, either.  Suddenly, the world is very accessible, at least in a business sense.  The Long Tail means that my market is now suddenly much, much larger.  Good news.

But as David Mantripp so eloquently points out, at the very same time, we’re faced with an explosion, not just of amateur photography of dubious merit, but also amateur photography that’s excellent.  How long will it be before the vast Milky Way of stars from Flickr is trying to sell prints of their great stuff to the very same folks I’m trying to sell to?

So all of a sudden, just as the size of the market for my work expands dramatically, the number of businesses trying to fill the needs of that market is exploding as well.  Is the increase in market size larger than the increase in size?  I couldn’t even hazard a guess.

My one hope is that when we have 50 million photographers trying to sell globally, we won’t really be targeting the same market.  Ask ten people for their opinions on a photograph, and you’ll get 15 opinions.  It’s perfectly possible that the photographs made by someone in Kenya will appeal to someone here in Washington State, USA that doesn’t like my work, and that the Kenyan photographer’s neighbor will fall in love with my photos of the Snoqualmie valley but hate his neighbors work.

3 Responses

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  1. Mark Hobson said, on January 10, 2007 at 11:53 am

    There is no question that the web has expanded many horizons but if you think that “we’re mostly past all that” – the scams, con artists, thieves, et al – then it obvious you haven’t read about zombie computer networks called botnets. It’s going to get a lot worse before (if ever) it gets better.

    But that issue aside, I think that the www is evolving – some might say “devolving” – into something resembling a cross between the parable of the Tower of Babble and the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden.

    Tower-of-Babble-wise, as the noise of the www expands to voluminous levels how does your little “ping” avoid getting drowned out in the crescendo? In economics-speak, how can the “educated” consumer possibly keep track of the possibilities in an exponentially expanding marketplace of choices? The bad news answer is that those condiitions heavily favor the big players not the little guys.

    Forbidden-Fruit-wise, some think that the Forbiden Fruit was plucked from the Tree of Knowledge. If, as is currently believed, information = knowledge (power) and that nearly overwhelming knowledge base on the information highway favors the big guys, we may just have taken a bite more than we can chew.

    In any event, good luck and continued success on print sales.

  2. Bryan Willman said, on January 10, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    First, just how do you identify a bogus cashier’s check, short of cashing it and waiting for it to bounce?

    Second, language, cultural, and small worlds contact phenomena mean the market will be very fragmented until image search technology is much more advanced than today. Today, it cannot even find a good picture of a dog at the beach. Finding “a picture of a meadow I’d like to hang in my bedroom” is beyond hopeless….

  3. Erik DeBill said, on January 11, 2007 at 8:24 am

    As more and more people want to sell their photography, I think the only hope for selling artwork to make a living is to expand the number of people buying it. Right now, very few people ever buy an art photograph. Personally, I know one couple that buys them. The market is just very very small. If it could be expanded to the size of the market for music CDs or even paperback novels (at least in number of people buying) there might just be enough market to support more than a handful of people.

    Otherwise I fear we’re headed towards a world where a very few super collectible artists sell prints for very high prices and everyone else has a hard time giving their prints away. Or are we already there? I get the feeling that very few people actually make a living selling art. Everyone else seems to make a large chunk of their income doing contract work, teaching workshops or something completely outside the world of photography.

    Maybe the best case is one where there is a great wealth of nice prints available for modest prices and lots of people buy them. Or maybe we’re headed for a world where photography doesn’t make money, but ancillary things (like workshops) do. Webcomic artists can make a living selling t-shirts to their readership. Maybe photographers can do something similar.


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