Hansen: Photographs are telling a sad story

The person who said a picture is worth a thousand words obviously did not try to sell the photo.

Modern professional photographers are struggling, reeling from the onslaught of cheap digital equipment, ubiquitous camera phones and unrealistic consumer expectations.

Everyone is a "photographer," which means the real photographers are fighting for their lives and rethinking how they do business.

"Now you have moms down on the beach taking baby pictures and basically putting us out of business," said Katie Clark, who has had her Laguna Canyon studio since 1992. "I have put the lower half of my studio up for lease and it breaks my heart. I can no longer support myself with my overhead. I've had to cut my prices in half because of the saturation of the industry."

Clark is not alone.

Laguna Beach photographer Cliff Wassmann has a small studio downtown and has had to be creative to survive. He does a variety of photography jobs, such as commercial work and Web design, plus he paints.

"The business is even worse for my paintings than it is for photography," he said. "There's a lot of competition out there now, and the equipment has gotten so good that it's not as difficult for people to get good shots. I used to do large-format film photography, and that was very specialized. It took a lot of work to get a really good image."

Now high-end digital cameras can perform even better — even when operated by novices.

"Even without any training or skill or anything, they just go out and buy top-of-the-line equipment and look at other people's work and start shooting the same thing," he said.

In addition to the equipment advances, there is a cultural shift over what constitutes "free."

For example, in a controversial move, Getty Images announced last week that it will make its vast library of more than 35 million images available free of charge for non-commercial use.

Photographic trade groups around the world are saying the move will significantly harm photographers, especially independent freelancers and smaller agencies.

"What is troubling to me as a professional is the accessibility to imagery that is out there," Clark said. "Everything is free. You can pull it off the Internet. The clients are expecting that. No longer do they value a print."

Clark said the traditional studio is basically gone, replaced by trendy software that can easily create a hodgepodge of photo effects like flames, clouds or borders with cats.

"The studio is almost passé. You're very lucky to find a studio now," she said. "The younger photographers don't need a storefront. They've got their laptop and Starbucks. They're doing everything online."

But the fast-paced technological changes are not always better, Clark said.

"Now it's all so disposable. People take pictures with their iPhone, and it's a crappy photo, and then they think they can blow it up and put it on their wall," she said. "When you look at it on your computer it's a different thing. They don't get it. It's degrading the quality of photography."

It's not just the picture quality or the randomness of software filters that frustrate professional photographers. It's the lack of respect for their craft.

"I've been doing this for 25 years, and I've worked my whole life to get here," Clark said. "You can't overlook all the training and everything we've been through. There are reasons we charge what we charge."

Wassmann points out even more sinister aspects of the current state of the industry: fraud.

He said some photographers in Southern California are using photo software to manipulate images to look like paintings, and then printing them on canvas.

"There are people at art festivals selling these things as if they are reproductions of original paintings," he said. "And actually they are using photography and competing with painters. Some of them are flat-out lying about what they're doing.

"I know computer digital art very well. I can look at one of these things and tell that it was a photograph run through a filter."

It's bad enough that traditional photography has become a commodity, but now even canvas paintings are suspect.

For anyone who has ever been moved by a photograph, what is that value to you? Is it free?

"I don't know what the answer is," Clark said. "It's an interesting time right now. Vintage is coming back. I think the hand-printed photograph will have value. I'm thinking of maybe going back to the darkroom.

"What's old is new. You have to niche yourself to avoid being caught in this sea of mediocrity."

If we resign ourselves to free, we will get what we pay for.

Pictures will continue to become anonymous stock images with little corporate symbols in the corner.

And the thousand words will be embedded like cookie-cutter keywords, telling a story no one wants to hear.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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