For photographers and graphic artists, not a pretty picture out there

Almost every day, my in box fattens with e-mails from America’s freelance writers -- adding their voices to those I quoted a couple of weeks ago about the devastating downturn in the writing market.

In bemoaning the need for speed, the flight from quality and the persistent decrease in pay, it turns out writers have a lot in common with photographers. And graphic artists. And architects. And musicians. And, well, with just about anyone who sees his creative endeavors being commodified or who is exposed to low-cost foreign competition via the Internet.

I’ve now heard it hundreds of times: fear that the technology providing the world entree to an unimaginable trove of art, images and information is also obliterating the boundaries that once allowed the creative class to make a living.

Jaron Lanier, a computer programmer, UC Berkeley scholar and onetime champion of the Internet’s freebie culture, complains about “digital Maoism” and “cybernetic totalism.”

“The dominant tech culture says everyone should just give away their content and their expertise,” Lanier told me this week. “Then they are supposed to make money later through personal appearances, or selling T-shirts or whatever. That doesn’t really help the photographer or the graphic artist who is trying to make a living right now.”


Since the electronics revolution seems only to be gaining pace -- with smart phones now putting the world right in our pockets -- the artists and the artful need to learn how to fight, every day, to make sure the multitude of media does not overwhelm the message.

It’s been several years since traditional advertising began to slide into a swamp of confusion and fragmentation. But only recently have big, ad-driven “content creators” finally begun moving toward other sources of revenue.

The New York Times this week announced a plan to charge frequent online readers for the stories and photos it spends millions to create. Hulu executives said they plan to begin charging for some of the TV shows they previously put on the Internet for free.

Now the freelancers -- the sensitive, right-brain souls who sell their creative power one byte at a time -- are going to have to get just as aggressive as the big boys. That means struggling mightily to find the audiences who appreciate their work and make them pay.

It won’t be easy.

Photographers are among those who found out most painfully what happens when their work (or a reasonable facsimile) becomes readily available online at little or no cost.

A decade ago, professional photographers thought nothing of selling pictures to stock photo houses. But what once provided a source of income went into catalogs of nearly endless size and accessibility.

Seemingly overnight, a publisher who wanted a picture of a sunset could choose from thousands on any number of databases. Why pay a photographer hundreds, or thousands, of dollars to go out and shoot a new one?

Horror stories among professional shooters have become legion. Last April, Time paid $30 for an iStockphoto shot of a jar of change (illustrating “The New Frugality”) that ran on the magazine’s cover. Other photographers complained that a Time cover in the past (commissioned, not stock) might have paid thousands. Britain’s Independent newspaper recently pulled photos of snow scenes off Flickr and declined, for a time, to pay, even though the photographer clearly labeled the shots with a copyright.

The Times uses stock photos sparingly; when it does, it typically pays $100 or more per picture.

Spokane, Wash.-based photographer Al Berger e-mailed me about his frustration in seeing once-lucrative event sessions slip away to the “do it yourself” crowd.

This winter, for the first time in two decades, Berger didn’t shoot a single company or family Christmas party, work that used to bring him as much as $5,000 once he’d sold prints to all the participants.

Berger sent me a few of the photos one group had come up with as a substitute. “They stood them against a wall, wide angle, with an on-camera flash, looking up their noses. Static. Lame. Absolute junk,” Berger said.

The 54-year-old photographer has maintained his business, in part, by shooting rodeos -- a genre filled with fervent fans and specialty publications willing to pay for quality work.

Survival will increasingly depend on such niche-mining, since the stopper won’t ever be put back in the stock-photography bottle.

A travel editor told me this week that, with all the other cutbacks he faces, it’s hard to justify spending more than the $6 he pays an online photo distributor for a decent picture. The picture might not be great, or fit the story perfectly, but it will suffice.

The chief executive of one of America’s biggest newspaper chains told me a couple of years ago he feared readers would accept this “culture of good enough” as much as anything, not noticing the difference between blog slop and thoroughly vetted news and analysis.

My friend Blue, an ace with graphics and art reproduction, told me how his field has been beset: Amateurs produce Photoshopped pictures that once wouldn’t have made it out of a darkroom. Workers in India draw corporate logos for pennies on the dollar and e-mail them stateside.

What he can’t overcome in the “quicker, faster, cheaper” sensibility, he tries to co-opt. He’s now teaching others the finer points of Photoshop and other software.

Another pal, Brian, told me how architectural renderings his firm once charged $10,000 for have recently been contracted out to China. Draftsmen there will turn the work around, often overnight, and charge as little as $600.

American architects like Brian can take solace that they need to ride herd on the foreign imports. (Lest “anomalies” -- like the Chinese-drawn sketch of an American police station with officers carrying combat-style machine guns -- slip through to clients.) And locals still control the detailed final drawings that go to building officials. But the loss of the other work, Brian said with pronounced understatement, “is a little nerve-racking.”

Those who continue to distinguish themselves and thrive manage to carve out niches where their expertise and the quality of their work shine through. I’ve learned in recent weeks of websites focused on such topics as investing, national security and radio production -- novel enough to draw a loyal base of paid subscribers.

It’s not ground-breaking news to suggest that the Web has created substantial challenges. But as the damage to the creative community has become more evident, even once-ardent Internet triumphalists have begun to expound on the collateral damage.

they planLanier, just out with his book “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto,” said he would like to offer some balm to the artistic community, but he’s not optimistic.

“Other people have to outgrow this false ideal they have built” about the benefits of the Web, Lanier said. “It can take 10 or 20 years for people to give up those sorts of ideas. In the meantime, people are getting screwed.”