07 December, 2008

The Gold Rush

I wish someone a lot smarter than me was writing this, but I feel like this topic is something that really needs to be discussed.

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

“Everything is going multimedia.”

“I’m learning video because everything is going multimedia.”

“Multimedia is the future.”

“If you don’t do multimedia you aren’t going to have a job.”

“Multimedia will save _____________(insert entity here, newspaper, magazine, business, pet, mortgage, education, etc.)”

Okay, I think you get the point.

We are now in the middle of the 2008 version of the Gold Rush. Over a hundred years ago there were a lot of people around the world talking about riches just waiting to be had. All you have to do was make your way to the frozen tundra, climb a mountain range in the middle of winter, confess your love of tunneling and you were set for life.

Today we find ourselves in a footrace to buy the latest digital, motion gadget and start making films.

I don’t want to be the one to break the bad new, but this will not save photography.

Photography, in my opinion, can only be saved, and will only be saved by photographers finally making sound business decisions, and as important, photography will be saved by great photography. (I have made bad decisions and plenty of bad images.)

In the past decade we have gotten away from both of these things. The number of bad decisions we have made is astounding, and sadly we continue to do these things today. Whether this is working for free, signing bad contracts or allowing ourselves to compromise our work, all of which have degraded the foundation of our “industry.” All of which have degraded the BELIEF of what photography is and what photography represents.

We are producing far more pictures than every before, but the overall quality and thought level is not what it once was, and I’m not talking about pixel vs grain, I’m talking about the SOUL of the pictures we are producing. Imagine an automaker ramping up production by 500%, what do you think happens to their initial quality? We have shifted from being about photography to seemingly being about technology.

I think as a collective we have been standing around waiting to be told what to do, instead of asking ourselves, “What is it that I REALLY want to do, and how can I present this in a way that works for me, and for whatever client I am working for?” (I once did an entire wedding with 665 Polaroid, shot like 15 pictures the entire day. It’s doable!)

Let me regress:

In the late 1990’s I was working for Kodak in Los Angeles. This was the time when digital cameras really made a leap in terms of quality and functionality, and a time when many photographers, organizations, agencies, etc, all began to look at this equipment as a legit product.

But what was it that drew many clients to this new technology? Was it the quality? No. What it the speed? Not really(PJ yes). Was it the functionality? Skintone? Highlight detail? Workflow? No, no, no.

It was price.

Yep, plain and simple. Price.

Clients thought they could get work cheaper.

No film and processing, this MUST be cheaper.

And here is where the first monumentally bad decision of the digital age happened.

Photographers, not all, but some, began to provide digital imagery CHEAPER than analog.

Even though the investment was HUGE, more time was required, more equipment, etc, they began to sell digital shoots at the same level as analog.

In fact these digital pioneers were providing something new, something exciting, and something that the analog photographer could NOT provide, but the value of that didn’t seem to transcend the photography world.

Once clients got it for free, there was no way they were ever going to pay for it.

Within a few short years, and the advancement of the equipment one more precious generation, came the “Gold Rush” of the late 1990’s.

And what did I hear?

“Everything is going digital.”

“I’m learning digital because everything is going digital.”

“Digital is the future.”

“If you don’t do digital you aren’t going to have a job.”

“Digital will save _____________(insert entity here, newspaper, magazine, business, pet, mortgage, education, etc.)”

Are you starting to see my point? Our industry is in the state it’s in, even AFTER digital was supposed to save it. The digital revolution injected revenue and excitement at a level not seen since the days of the Brownie, and yet STILL didn’t save us.

Again, good decisions, good images are the ONLY things that will survive.

Last night I watched “Trainspotting” a movie I had not seen since it’s release many years ago. I loved it then, and loved it now.

I love film. I love motion. I like the idea of film making, etc, but I don’t see it as interchangeable with still photography.

And speaking of still photography, I’ve been at it for nearly 20 years and don’t feel as if I’ve even come CLOSE to reaching the potential of what this medium offers.

I can’t imagine trying to do stills and shoot video at the same time. Throw in recording sound and I have visions of “the one man band” character playing seventeen instruments at the same time, but not playing any of them particularly well.

Case in point, look at most multimedia pieces. They are not great. Sure, there is sound, there is motion, there are images, but as a product they fall flat.


The photographs aren’t very good.

I know, I know, I’m a jerk, but hear me out.

I don’t like to give negative reviews, but the bulk of multimedia pieces I see have sub-par images. It’s true.

Why? Try patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. It’s the same concept. Jack of all trades, master of none?

Or, perhaps you need a few more images to fit the length of a song. Or a few less. Or you need to include an image of someone you have sound for, but you really didn’t get a great image of.

You see where I’m going here? Good intentions, good ideas, then forced together like two opposing magnets.

Would the project have been better served as a slideshow? Did you really need sound? Motion? Or was this what we were led to believe we had to have?

Luckily, from time to time, I see a multimedia piece that sings. Great images, a tight edit, sound that helps inform or link, but the life-giving blood of the piece…the IMAGES. The kind of piece where you pull an arm muscle mousing back to the “play again” button because you can’t believe what you just saw and heard. And typically, these pieces required another thing………TIME. Yes, that precious commodity that none of us seem to have anymore. TIME. Say it!!!!!!! “TIME.”

All I’m saying is…there are no absolutes. You don’t HAVE to do anything, other than what that inner voice tells you you MUST do.

This is not the last “Gold Rush.” What will the next one be? When multimedia is old hat, not enough to entertain our hyper-short attention spans. When multimedia has cannibalized itself to a level it can’t recover from (Hear of any photogs who are already offering both for same price as just stills?). What will the next “must” be?

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t’ do this, quite the contrary. Yesterday I was asked my opinion on a new project someone was putting together and my advice was to start with a multimedia style intro. I think people should explore every opportunity. I just think that multimedia isn’t the only thing we can do, it’s not going to save photography, and not every project is required to be a multimedia piece.

As I finish this I look up above the computer, and something stares down at me in total silence. Something stares down with power, the same power it had from the moment it was produced, and the same power it will have one hundred years from now. Something stares down that requires no motion, no sound, no electricity, nothing.

A framed, still image, hanging on the wall.


KenJ said...

Yeah, trap after trap and we just keep walking into them.

First you had to give up film. Then add sound, add motion, transmit around the clock, processing images every hour... if you count the time wasted chimping what time do you have left for just observing, let alone looking through a view finder.

If it wasn't so sad it'd be funny.

At least now, as the dominos are falling, we don't have any more excuses. I mean, at least the trap doesn't have any bait.

Great post, very insightful." Ramping up the production line", what else could you expect?

SmogRanch said...


I appreciate that. It's one of those posts I never wanted to write, but felt forced to after listening to another photographer say, "Well, I guess I gotta do multimedia."

Hope your well.

Thanks for reading.