There is a massive subterranean shift (no, not paradigm) happening right now in pro photography and it will define photography for at least the next 10 years. Like the movement of the continents, it is slow, hardly perceptible but irrepressible . Let me explain.
For a very long time, pro photography was defined by its editorial arm. Magazines and newspapers spent thousands, if not millions, of dollars to acquire or produce photography. In its golden age, it was not rare to see photo spreads costing ten of thousands of dollars for a few pages of photos. And where money abounds, talent follows. Pro photographers, attracted by rich paydays, would engage in vigorous efforts to produce top quality images, whether by content or by creative dexterity (or both). Publications, in return for perceived increased audience, would gladly reward them. Because it was so visible – after all magazines were everywhere – the advertising world would follow. If a photographer’s style could help sell million of copies then it should be the same for products and services. And thus you saw many successful editorial photographers with great careers in advertising and if not, you saw advertising photographers mimic editorial style.
A familiar story
But then came the internet. Print publications, unconvinced by this new medium, started offering their print content for free. Competing publications had no other choice then to do the same and it wasn’t long before the snowball effect was in full force. We can see the devastating results today. Print circulation declined dramatically ( why pay for something you can get faster, easier and for free?) and online publications never came close to their sisters’ financial successes. That meant no more big photo budgets. Instead, in an effort to save operating costs, they shopped for the cheapest solution, wire services: a constant flow of pre produced and pre edited photos subscription services. Today, from editorial site to editorial site, it is very common to see the same images, either credited AP, Getty or Reuters. Pro photographers, incapable and unwilling to compete for a diminishing market, are left on the sideline. A familiar story up to now.
who’s in charge ?
However, since editorial photography’s dominance in our cultural landscape diminished, the advertising world had to look elsewhere for inspiration. No longer can they count on their magazines to give them a hint on what type of photography is successful. Instead, they turned to the new trend indicator : Social media. For brands, sites like Instagram or Pinterest is a Godsend . Not only does it tap directly into their consumers’ macrocosm, but it comes with highly visible metrics. Facebook, Twitter , G+ can tell the ad world exactly what type of photography is trending in a very granular way. So much so that Instagram can tell them what type of dominant color in a photograph will help them sell more products. Armed with these numbers pulled from the very heart of consumer mainland, brands return to pro photographers and tell them to execute. In other words, brands will define pro photography for the next decade.
A number’s game
Why ? because since the demise of editorial, brands are the only ones with massive budgets. They are still willing, and ready, to spend thousands of dollars on photography. But now, they get to dictate their terms based on hard numbers. What they want is engagement. They want pictures that brings them sales while connecting to their audience. And while editorial photography’s success was a crapshoot driven by inspired individuals, brand photography is a social media game driven by numbers.
A reversal of influence
It will not be surprising, it is happening already, to see editorial photography influenced by brand photography. In an effort to keep pace with current trends, online and print publications are more and more looking into what works for brands and applying it to their spreads. After all, if that type of photography can sell products, it can also attract large amount of viewers. In fact, publications are behaving more and more like brands themselves, and, as such, are seeking the same results from photos. From photojournalism to fashion spread, the keywords are becoming engagements and shares. Publications are using photography to extend their readership outside of their owned url’s, an exercise very familiar to brands. They are also very closely tracking numbers.
For now, we still live in a world slightly dominated by editorial photography, only because of cultural habits. But deeper, the evolution has already happened and is progressing with patient obstination. As generations shift, the millenniums, who consume ( and produce) more social media pictures than editorial ones, will expect no less than brands using the same visual language they do. And brands will turn to pros and non- pros photographers to execute. And because they will never run out of money, brands will get to define what photography is, how it is consumed and who gets to make a living from it. In fact, they are already.