On the last day of the PhotoPlus Expo I finally got why the camera industry has hit the wall and may never come back again in the same way. The folks who love cameras for the sake of cameras, and all the nostalgic feelings they evoke of Life Magazine, National Geographic, 1980’s fashion and 1990’s celebrity portraiture, and other iconic showcases that made us sit up and really look at photography, are graying, getting old and steadily shrinking in numbers.
I can profile the average camera buyer in the U.S. right now without looking at the numbers. The people driving the market are predominately over 50 years old and at least 90% of them are men. We’re the ones who are driving the romantic re-entanglement with faux rangefinder styles. We’re the ones at whom the retro design of the OMD series camera are aimed. We’re the ones who remember when battleship Nikons and Canons were actually needed to get great shots and we’re the ones who believe in the primacy of the still image as a wonderful means of communication and even art. But we’re a small part of the consumer economy now and we’re walking one path while the generations that are coming behind us are walking another path. And it’s one we’re willfully trying not to understand because we never want to admit that what we thought of as the “golden age of photography” is coming to an end as surely as the kingdom of Middle Earth fades away in the last book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
This is not to say that photography is dying. Or that the generations coming behind us are doomed to failure and despair; far from it. They are living the golden age of photography from their perspective, and their heroes in the field are names we don’t even know. This is a generation that values a personal vision that arrives as quickly as a phone call and has a much shorter half life than the one we experienced for our work, but then again, what doesn’t move faster these days?
As I photographed in the booth for Samsung I looked out at the waves of people who were exploring the various products on the showroom floor and I became aware that most of them were well over 50 years old and the elders were carrying their big Nikons and Canons as badges of honor and with a smug attitude that their equipment choice was the one that would persevere through the ages.
But the very thing that makes a ruling party or a ruling generation is the same thing that will kill its paradigm. Our version of the market is almost a completely closed loop. At this Expo we worshipped at the altar of the same basic roster of speakers and presenters who’ve been speaking and presenting for the last ten years. We’ve closed the loop and the choice offered to younger photographers is to sit and listen to people old enough to be their grandmothers or grandfathers wax on about how we used to do it in the old days or to not come at all.
When I listen to lectures about how the market has changed what I hear from my generation is how to take the tools we programmed ourselves to love and try to apply them to our ideas of what might be popular with end users today. So we buy D4’s and 1DSmkIV’s to shoot video on giant Red Rock Micro rigs and we rush to buy Zeiss cinema lenses because we want the control and the idea of ultimate quality in our offerings while the stuff that the current generation is thinking about is more concerned with intimacy, immediacy and verisimilitude rather than “production value.” To the new generations the idea of veracity and authenticity always trumps metrics of low noise or high resolution. And that need for perfection is our disconnection from the creative process, not theirs.
Our generation’s fight with digital, early on, was to tame the high noise, the weird colors, the slow buffers and the old technology which saddled us with wildly inaccurate and tiny viewfinders and batteries that barely lasted through a sneeze. We pride ourselves on the mastery but the market moved on and now those parameters are taken for granted. Like turning on a television and assuming it will work. We are still staring at the technical landscape which rigidly disconnects us from the emotional interface of the craft. If we don’t jump that shark then we’re relegated to being like the photographer who makes those precious black and white landscapes which utilize every ounce of his PhotoShop skills but which, in the end, become works that are devoid of any emotional context. In fact, they are just endless revisions of work that Ansel Adams did better, and with more soul, fifty years ago. Technique as schtick. Mastery for mastery’s sake with no hook to pull in a new generation. Of course we like technically difficult work. It was hard for us to master all the processes a decade ago. Now it’s a canned commodity, a pervasive reality, and what the market of smart and wired in kids are looking for is an emotional connection with their images that goes beyond the mechanical construct.
It’s no longer enough to get something in focus, well exposed and color correct. It’s no longer good enough to fix all the “flaws” in Photoshop. What the important audience wants now is the narrative, the story, the “why” and not the “how.” The love, not the schematic.
So, what does this mean for the camera industry? It means that incremental improvements in quality no longer mean shit to a huge and restless younger market. They don’t care if the image is 99% perfect if the content is exhilarating and captivating. No one cared if the Hobbit was available at 48 fps as long as the story was strong in 24 fps. No one cares if a landscape is perfect if there’s a reason for the image of a landscape to exist. No one cares if a model is perfect if the model is beguiling.
My generation has long been fixated on “getting it right” and that presumes that our point of view is the one that is objectively right. But it’s always been true that “your focus determines your reality.”
What it really means for the camera industry is that the tools they offer the new generation must be more intuitively integrated and less about “ultimate.” In this world a powerful camera that’s small enough and light enough to go with you anywhere (phone or small camera) trumps the huge camera that may generate better billboards but the quality of which is irrelevant for web use and social media. The accessible camera trumps the one that needs a sherpa for transport and a banker for acquisition.
I look at the video industry and I see our generation drawn toward the ultimate production cameras. Cameras like the Red Epic or the Alexa. But I see the next generation making more intimate and compelling work with GH3’s and Canon 5D2’s and 3’s. Or even cameras with less pedigrees. The cheaper cameras mean that today’s younger film makers can pull the trigger on projects now instead of waiting for all the right stuff to line up. Cheaper good cameras mean more projects get made. More experience gets logged. More storytelling gets done. My generation is busy testing the “aspirational” cameras to see just how perfect perfect can be. And we’re loosing ground day by day to a generation that realizes that everyone must “seize the day” in order to do their art while it’s fresh.
If I ran the one of the big camera companies I would forget the traditional practitioners and rush headlong toward the youth culture with offerings that allowed them to get to work now with the budgets they have. Ready to do a video project? Can’t afford a Red One or even a big Canon? How about a $600 Panasonic G6 and some cheap lenses? Ready to go out and shoot landscapes? Will a Nikon D800 really knock everyone’s socks off compared to an Olympus OMD when you look at the images side by side on the web? No? Well, that’s the litmus test. It’s no longer the 16×20 gallery print because we don’t support physical galleries any more.
So, there we were at the trade show and the majority of the attendees were guys wearing their photo jackets with a camera bag over one shoulder and a big “iron” on a strap over the other shoulder. And they had their most impressive lenses attached. And they walked through the crowd with pride because they were packing cool gear. And the pecking order of the old-cognescenti was: film Leica’s, then digital Leica M’s, followed by Mamiya 6 or 7 rangefinders, followed by Fuji Pro-1’s, followed by big, pro Nikons or Canons and so on. While the few young people there zipped through the exhibits and took notes of interesting products with their phones.
The next generations aren’t adapting to “hybrid photography” they invented it in a very natural way. We’re the ones trying to label the intersection of video and stills and the co-opt it. But we keep overlaying our own preconditions to the genre.
If we understand that our focus determines our reality then we can try to change our focus and better understand where photography is headed, outside the parameters of our own little, private club. And that understanding will help us swim back into the current of current of photographic culture instead of swimming against the tide trying to get back to a place to which we can really never return.
Yes, some people will still use “ultimate” cameras to create “ultimately sharp and detailed” landscapes, cityscapes and artsy assemblages but their audiences will be constrained to other groups of aging practitioners. Art is a moving target. To understand the target requires a constant re-computation of the factors involved.
It’s a hoary stereotype but we need to look to the music industry. The delivery systems have changed profoundly and the music along with it. We can cling to Stan Getz and The Girl from Ipanema but we certainly won’t connect with the current market. I’m not saying we need to love hip hop or Daft Punk but we need to understand where the market is now. It’s wonderful that you enjoy waltz music or polkas but if you want to swim in current culture you probably won’t find those genres conducive to gaining general acceptance.
Cameras are and will get smaller and lighter. The lenses will get smaller and lighter and easier to carry around. The gear will get easier and easier to use. And why shouldn’t it? The gear will get more and more connected. Maybe the cameras don’t need to master the entire internet on their own but it will get easier and easier to move images from camera to phone or camera to tablet. And why shouldn’t it get easier? Making the process harder for the sake of artisanal martyrdom doesn’t move the art along its way. And why should it?
Where is photography going? Where it always gone. It’s going along for the ride with popular culture. It’s the traditionalists that feel a sense of loss but the sense of loss is from the constant evolution of tastes and styles. If you look at photo history you’ll see generational warfare at every junction. Resistance to smaller camera formats! Resistance to color film! Resistant to SLR cameras! Resistance to automation!
And in the art you see Robert Frank as the foil to the arch perfectionism of Group 64. You see William Klein as the antidote to the preciousness of Elliott Porter. You see Guy Bourdin as the antithetical anti hero to Snowdon and Scuvallo. Each move forward was contentious and cathartic. Just as Josef Koudelka was the revolutionary to Walker Evans.
The camera market is in the doldrums now because it is conflicted. Go with the aging money? Or go with the maturing new markets? Go with a shrinking but loyal market or blaze a new trail based on new cultural parameters? The spoils will go to the companies that get it right.
What do I see as “must haves” for the industry to resonate with the new markets?
Cameras must be smaller, lighter and more accessible.
Cameras need to work with less nit picky intervention on the part of the operators.
Whole systems must be smaller, lighter and more financially accessible.
Cameras should be interconnected with phones and tablets in an almost mindless way.
Cameras must no longer be precious and coveted. They need to be more like phones. A commodity that gets replaced as new stuff comes out with feature sets more conducive to the mission.
Apple has it just right. Make things that are simple to own and simple to use. Make menus easier and not harder. Eliminate the need to make unnecessary decisions. Make design more important and ultimacy less important. Change the focus of consumers in order to own the markets.
Is my advice any good? Naw. I’m as trapped into my generation as anyone else. But I do know that the first step to freedom is to throw off the resistance to change. You’ll never change the momentum of the overall market but you can always change your own focus. And then you may open new doors of perception that allow you to do your own work….but in a new way. Like a bridge.
Continue to tell your story. But make sure you are delivering it in a way that people will be able to understand. Change is inevitable and fighting it is the first step to failure.
For a while my markets drove me back into full frame cameras. But those markets have changed so much that it no longer seems to matter. Now I’m just looking for cameras that are fun and easy to embrace. They all take good enough images now. Ultimate quality is now taking a back seat to intimacy and immediacy. A big camera is no longer a prerequisite for a place at the table.
Edit: go see what Michael Reichmann has to say about all this: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/essays/pdn_photoplus_2013.shtml
Edit: Just read this at the NYTimes and found it …. familiar: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/opinion/sunday/slaves-of-the-internet-unite.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20131027&_r=0
(EZ reader translation for people who have forgotten how to read long stuff….
All cameras now good. Technical Mastery not as important as in year’s past. Old guys love technical mastery. New guys like making different style images and don’t care about image perfection. Aesthetic pendulum swings from perfect to emotive. Some camera makers evolve. Some not. Cameras getting smaller and easier to use. Old styles of shooting fading. New styles emerging. Good time to be a photographer. Change is inevitable. Change is good for young people. Change harder for some old people. Kirk is happy and now goes off swimming. May toss all old gear and just get better phone. short enough?
About The Author
Kirk Tuck is a professional photographer for a few decades and the writer of best selling photography books.
He loves shooting portraits of people, and have shot both CEO’s of Fortune 100 companies as well as men and women who work with their hands.