The Death of the “Decisive Moment” Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
With respect, I have issues with the points you’ve made. I’ve culled several quotations from your article, to address them individually, if I may.
“Photography has evolved beyond the classic “decisive moment” — it’s been absorbed into the human psyche as a visual language with infinite angles and approaches.”
That’s a marketing blurb. I get that. It’s your job. However, such lofty language overflows with fuzzy implications that have no basis in fact, historical or empirical. If the “decisive moment” were passé, HCB would pirouette in his grave.
The Decisive Moment theory is as estimable — and valid — today as it was in 1952, when HCB coined the title of his book. To propose otherwise is to imply that photographs have not only become easy to create but mindlessly so; further annoying every contemporary photographer who reads your post. Not good for marketing at all.
It’s unreasonable to imply that photography has undergone some kind of evolutionary metamorphosis, only recently to become an intrinsically human visual language. Hasn’t photography been a conduit for the human psyche since Talbot and Niépce introduced it in the middle of the nineteenth century? Photography has also been, statistically, the preeminent hobby in the United States (and, I think, worldwide) since the dawn of the last century, thanks to the Eastman Kodak Company. That would make photography a colloquial visual dialect too. What’s different and new, today, is an incipient bud on the photographic family tree, not some evolutionary advancement that would supersede the way we create photographs and use them. I’ve coined a word for this new use of a time-honored technology: pixting.
Pixting is to photography (Greek; writing with light) as texting is to literature. It accounts for those trillions and trillions of images you invoked. Pixting means to engage in perfunctory conversation across a digital medium, using photos instead of words. It is the visual equivalent of smalltalk, the appropriation of a 160-year-old technology for chitchat.
Not to disparage chitchat, I’ll point out that pixting is limited to the medium of Social Media, while conventional photography has no limitations predicated on the medium in which it appears. Pixting and photography, notwithstanding their photographic technology in common, are two separate modes of visual communication. Commercially, they do not hold hands, let alone go steady. They don’t even live in the same marketplace.
The millions of people who enjoy illustrating what they ate for breakfast are pixting. And there’s an insidious twist. Instagram “influencers,” for example, with large followings, are often supported financially by advertising agencies that employ ringers to shoot pictures to look like user-generated content. They’re not UGC! They’re created by professionals, hired for their ability to produce a spontaneous-looking amateur aesthetic. Attribution of the resulting pictures is, shall we say, disingenuous. Not to disparage the porridge paparazzi, but millions of social media pixters, snap-shooters if you will, cannot accomplish what one commercial photographic illustrator — even pretending to be someone else — can do, to get millions of us to buy a brand of breakfast cereal.
There may be trillions of pixts; but photographs, not so much. I’m not splitting hairs. Tens of thousands of photographers would find fault for mixing them together as one and the same. It’s economically harmful to do so.
“As technology continues to spread the medium more than the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson could have ever imagined, nearly anyone can take photos that get close to the proficiency of the pros.”
I think it’s more accurate to say, as media continues to foster the extended use of this technology. But here’s the rub, Shenhav. First and foremost, being a professional has far less to do with proficiency, and very much to do with executive reliability, uniqueness of vision, and a consistent creative application of that vision.
There are millions and millions of highly proficient enthusiasts. Few will get hired and paid to shoot pictures. It seems to me that you are confusing a medium with a technology. My point is, any dedicated photographer, amateur or pro, can create extraordinary photographs with an empty oatmeal box, a pinhole, and a piece of film Scotch-taped inside, if they’ve got a mind to (or a CMOS chip taped inside, if that were possible). It’s the photograph that counts, not the technology used to create it. It’s the intellectual rigor underlying one’s vision, more than execution, that makes or breaks a photograph. Tools can be automated. Creativity cannot, despite what any AI proponent says to the contrary.
It’s true that many more millions of people have, and use, cameras; but only about 150,000 pro shooters work worldwide today. They are the only ones making a living at it; albeit still struggling economically — outliers excluded. That number hasn’t changed since long before photography “went digital.”
Technological advances have made it possible for camera enthusiasts, less concerned about making money but nonetheless proud of their work, to have an outlet for their photos on the Web. It’s hard to find fault with that. As for the proliferation of images you allude to, it would indeed amaze HCB to see how society has taken to using cameras to express the mundane. Mundanity has little to do with decisive moments. HCB strove for the sublime. Substitute the word art for decisive moment and we get closer to the crux of what mattered to him.
Personally, I’m bemused by the number of hits I find, searching online, about how to “take better pictures” with an iPhone. Apple’s own copywriters have appropriated all the right professional jargon about “backlighting,” “depth-of-field,” and the “golden hour,” etc., to convince the hoi polloi that they can be as as proficient with portraits as any Annie Leibovitz. Apple’s ads extol the iPhone’s dual-lens feature as the way to get professional-looking results without calling out this technique for what it is: a workaround. It surely helps tyros make headshots look more portraity (my word, not theirs). But an iPhone cannot do what a real telephoto lens can do. It’s no skin off my nose; just good marketing.
Of course, professional techniques are second nature to, well, skilled professionals; and for good reason: pros have the photo in their mind’s eye before they pick up their cameras. They are certainly prepared in advance to react, in anticipation of a decisive moment. (What was it Malcolm Gladwell wrote about 10,000 hours of practice makes perfect?) It’s no wonder that some of the complexities pros have mastered have now been automated, to enable any layperson — no experience necessary — to achieve consistently satisfying results.
“But images are everywhere and their perceived value is decreasing by the minute.”
Again, what’s the difference between pixting and photographing? Would you say that an exponentially greater number of words, distributed throughout the Web, has diminished the value of writing?
One has to ask, What dynamic is in play? Photography is the lifeblood of commerce and communication. Its inherent value, memorialized by the the famous 1000:1 ratio of words used to describe it, cannot be downplayed. But its monetary value has indeed diminished. Why? How?
Nearly thirty years ago, Bill Gates and Mark Getty bought the photo business, full stop. They pulled it right out from under the feet of photographers and the clients photographers served. Gates (Corbis) and Getty were instrumental in offering professionals shelf space inside the store, so to speak, but only if they shared it side by side with amateurs at pathetic prices. Thus, it took the wind out of their sales (pun intended). Consequently, low licensing fees fostered an idea amongst publishers — the corporate bean counters, not creative directors — that pictures viewed on a screen were worth less than those seen in print. Baseless as that opinion was, it stuck. It didn’t take long for pros to abandon the stock photo shelves, while, at the same time, they began to lose control over pricing their commissioned photo shoots (jobs) too.
When Gates and Getty each imposed a consumer-facing business model across the board (i.e., high volume, low price), including for Enterprise-scale publishers, they set the bar for the entire industry — at dirt level. They’ll tell you rights-managed pricing was no longer sustainable. But, in my opinion, they simply failed to innovate. Just because it suddenly became free to distribute photographs via the Internet, it doesn’t follow that their commercial value should be trivialized by unimaginative middlemen.
Cameras, lenses, lights, and photo-editing software have flourished with technological innovations — all on the creative side — since the dawn of the Digital Century. But the sales side of photography is riven by technological indifference and operational ignorance. That’s regrettable because it has always been possible to shape technology to enable photographers and their clients, rather than to upend the way they work for the sole economic benefit of middlemen. It was possible, from the get go, for all parties to flourish.
Gates and Getty were good at reading spreadsheets but photographically illiterate. They expected professional practitioners to embrace an amateur ethic without regard for undermining their own economic sustainability, let alone underserving their clients. Gates and Getty failed to see any difference between an established business-to-business sales channel and a new consumer sales channel that emerged along with the Internet. They deserve kudos for developing this new sales channel; it continues to serve a class of customers that had not existed before the World Wide Web: ordinary consumers and very small businesses who previously had little need to publish photographs or the wherewithal to pay for them. But they were too short-sighted to see how a B2B channel could coexist with a consumer-facing channel.
Photography’s commercial value — to say nothing of its political and cultural values — is routinely undermined by businesspeople with no photographic experience, and sometimes by photographers with no business experience. Incongruously, they persist in applying the same business model to two totally separate markets by conflating them as one:
- Commercial Photo, the business of licensing intellectual property to publishers
- Social Photo (aka Wedding & Portrait), the business of selling tangible goods for personal use (e.g., memorabilia like photo albums)
Note: Social Media is not a photography marketplace per se because photographs (or pixts) are not transactional on these platforms. Social Media is a conduit — a medium — to reach consumers with advertising.
Investors and startup founders compound this mistake by further conflating two separate segments of Commercial Photo as one:
- Enterprise, business-to-business segment (B2B)
- Retail, consumer-to-business segment (C2B)
In a consumer-facing marketplace, crowd-sourced submissions made professional contributors superfluous. Consumers and very small businesses, who had only recently developed a need to fill lots of Web sites with photos, were very happy with low prices. But upscale Enterprise buyers, were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the mediocrity of images available online. That, in a nutshell, is why value has decreased.
Only when Enterprise and Retail are acknowledged as separate segments of a single commercial market, with each segment serving a different class of customers, is it evident how one hand washes the other.
“The bar between what makes a good and a commercially viable photograph is constantly raising and shifting.”
Spoiler alert! The vast preponderance of stock photos available online were not created by professionals. It doesn’t mean they’re no good; but it does mean the best ones, the most useful ones to publishers, are few and far between. It’s incongruous to draw a line between what’s good and what’s commercially viable. In fact, with a professionally produced, dynamically updated inventory it’s hardly necessary to make any such a distinction in the first place, let alone to suggest standards are constantly rising and shifting.
The sole criterion that matters for a commercially viable photograph is its usefulness to the buyer. That said, if a “good” photo is discovered by one buyer in a sea of crowd-sourced content, it will be discovered by many other buyers too. It will be sold over and over again dirt cheap. Thus, it gets overused; published too many times in too many places by too many different end-users. That’s bad for buyers with a brand identity to protect. And it’s bad for photographers who try to make a living.
“The endless sea of images and growing visual literacy among consumers means professional image makers must push their work further to stand out and engage their niche market.”
That’s what professionals have always done! And their commercial clients have always been visually sophisticated. In fact, they’re the most visually sophisticated people in the world, by an order of magnitude more visually literate than ordinary consumers scraping the Web for cheap and free pictures.
“So how can a photographer take photos that stand out enough to sell?”
That’s the wrong question Shenhav. The right question is, How are you going to get photographers, the same ones whom publishers already trust and hire to shoot jobs, to contribute to the stock photo pipeline?
Distributed content, smart contracts, blockchain provenance, and lots of contributors is the problem, not the solution. More specifically, it exacerbates the already existing problems beleaguering the Stock Photo segment of Commercial Photography.
You don’t have to tell a pro to “keep it real, embrace diversity, produce unique shots, stay current, get technical, collaborate with stylists to enhance your production values,” etc. All of that is second nature to a pro!
“Many photographers feel like they have to give their images away — just for a chance to be seen.”
Shenhav, since I started shooting pictures for a living in 1971, can you guess how many people have told me, “If you shoot this one for free, I’ll make sure to hire you for the next job and more in the future? P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Professionals simply do not give their images away for a chance to be seen.
There are two Bs in B2B, representing two sets of customers. The two sets do business with each other:
- Commercial photographers who create and own intellectual property
- Commercial publishers who license it
The 2 in the middle of B2B represents, of course, the middlemen, whose role is to facilitate transactions between the two Bs. But the middlemen have been remiss, failing to fulfill that roll, in lieu of the agents they deliberately and recklessly displaced. Poof! This caused a whole host of problems, of which two in particular are voiced loud and clear by both sets of B2B customers:
- Commercial photographers say, “We’ve lost control over pricing our own work.”
- Commercial publishers say, “There are too many stock photos, and too few good ones.”
The two problems are interrelated. As photographers lost control over pricing stock photos, publishers got flooded with mediocre content. The diminution of value can be directly attributed to the recklessness of the incumbent photo consolidators, the distributors, who mixed up amateur and professionally produced content — into one channel.
The last thing in the world that could successfully address this problem is a distributed blockchain channel for content. It will continue to attract amateurs like flypaper, while keeping professional shooters at bay, much to the consternation of large corporate brands and editorial media companies, who rely on unique content, and are willing to pay commensurably for it.