So, there was something very interesting about the photo news the week. On one side, you have the mighty Getty ( aka, the whale) who took a deep plunge in pricing with its subscription RF offering, combining microstock and pro , and on the other, legendary Magnum who manage a great coup by selling some used prints for an estimated $ 30 million dollars.
Like two extremities of the same stick, this is a great reflection of where the business of photography stands today . On one side an entity that has reduced its photography to a cheap commodity to be sold as individual snapshots and on the other, a photographers coop that is so highly respected that it can sell old back and white prints full of written notes as highly valuable historical artifacts.
Yet, both are selling the same thing : photographs . According to numerous interview given by Mark Lubell, director of Magnum New York, one key condition for the members of the coop to approve the sale was that the images would not be scattered and sold as individual entities. Magnum photographers have a long established tradition of selling pictures as a story, a group of images, that tells a story. It has been numerously debated, over the years, that Magnum could have maybe had made more profit if it had broken these stories and sold them as individual images.
But none of the photographers-creator would have it any other way. Shot as a story, sold as a story. Part of the condition for the deal with the Michael Dell owned fund is that images cannot be separated from the story they belong to. On the other end of the spectrum, Getty does the exact opposite. It extracts images from their context, their stories , and sell them as individual files. There motivation is that the image, alone, has more chance of finding a buyer than a group of images, sold as a story. Also, individual files sales can easily be automated while photo essay, and photo journalism in general, needs a pitch, an explanation, a real human sales person.
And there is where a key differentiation appears that is reflected everywhere in the marketplace. If your business is about licensing individual files, then its all about volume. You do not take a proactive approach to selling. Instead, you try to cover any possible potential need for an image that could humanly be conceived. You stick them in an archive. And then you wait . You wait for a buyer to come and be hooked. or not. The market creates the demand.
If you license a photographer’s work, a story, a career, an inspiration, the approach is completely different. You cannot wait for a client to come and find it. You have to go out and fetch it. You have to take the photographer’s work, find a potential client who could be interested and close the deal. The photographer, in this case, creates the demand.
If you want the market to create the demand, the prices are low, very, very low. If you create the demand, the prices are high, very high.
Unfortunately, most photo agencies these days have gone the route of competing with each other on the individual file sales path. Mostly because it much easier, cheaper, and demands almost no special skills. The more the agencies, the more the offer, the more prices go down. Getting amateurs to fill these image banks has recently greatly lowered the costs, with the pervert effect of also lowering the prices.
Magnum, and others, like Contact, Redux, PictureGroup, Aurora have deliberately chosen to represent photographers’ work and not distribute individual files. Their production is the reflection of its chosen creators, their image bank set up to license stories , and their sales staff experienced in the complex art of pitching. Sure, it’s more expensive and much more complicated. It demands talent and sometimes obstination against frustration. However, the prices are dictated by the value perceived by the creator, not the by the market. The result : deals like Magnum just made.
In photography, it’s not the market who dictates the pricing. It’s how you present it.