I recently suggested over on TOP (I don't think it went down too well) that the apparent death of what used to be called the 'music industry' due to the internet might well be what's about to happen (or has already happened) to the occupation of 'professional' photography. I've been talking a lot about evolution lately as part of a wider interest in what's happening to the internet. I've been fortunate enough to have been an observer of pretty much the entire 'consumer' element of the internet, having been at University when the web first started to impact on popular and commercial culture, and to have taken part in a very small way in the chattering of images, information and opinion that's been this blog over the past few years...
As part of the education I picked up at the University referred to above, I tend to see the internet and the communities within it much like a beaker full of bacteria all scrambling to evolve something useful like a set of wings so that they can get out of there and really have some fun. The internet has changed over the past 20 years. It has, and as a result it has fundamentally changed the world in a way that certainly back in the mid-90s I had absolutely no concept about.
The ways we humans express ourselves and communicate do change and evolve of course, some faster than others. Think for example of how a simple group of grunts and sounds representing 'words' in several species as well as humans in us have turned over thousands of years into even more useful things like oratory, conversation or even just sarcasm. How wall-painting eventually turned into TV, or how early writing became (via the printing press) comic books, the novel and the bureaucratic forms of the governmentally obsessed.
Business and commerce changes too. Society essentially evolves to a point where an established technology or industry becomes obsolete (or extinct if you like) because it is no longer required in order for the individuals within the society to get the product or service that they require. The thing with photography is that effects and technique that in an earlier decade required some serious skill and know-how has become really accessible to the masses. Where once, dedicated professionals would devote long years of their life to an apprenticeship and journeyman-ship to achieve real mastery, nowadays free apps and the intelligence of the modern-day camera mean that almost anyone can produce something visually quite appealing.
I'm not claiming that everyone can be a master here, just that so many people are now producing so much (and for fun rather than to earn a living) that the market may be getting saturated. (And maybe, like those infinite monkeys, everyone will eventually photograph everything that ever occurs?) Capitalism is all about supply and demand. Professional photography is just about the most capitalist, fashion-driven, technologically and visually motivated jigsaw-piece of capitalism that it's possible to imagine. Photographers are both hugely significant consumers of technology and the drivers of that and other consumption. With all the micro-stock, Getty imaging, Tumbling and all the rest going on, companies don't always have to commission specific work any more. And whilst stock photography has always been a feature of advertising, the catalogue is now unimaginably big - getting your images seen is as much about key-wording them effectively as what those images actually are. If you're just relying on shooting stock for your income, you may have a problem.
Need a wedding photographer? Nah, what you need is all your mates to shoot the wedding with their smart-phones, that way it'll feel more 'real' and be a good deal cheaper too! Need some wall-art? Just find something fun, turn on that nifty filter you've found in that new software app, then email it to a printer. Nobody really cares about iconic images any more since making and distributing images has essentially become fast and free, and as a result the value of those images diminishes significantly.
Maybe in the future, just like with the modern music industry, we'll still have 'celebrity' photogs. Maybe we'll even have big competitions and reality shows to find them. Like the music industry though, I suspect that the careers of these 'stars' will be short-lived, that their 'art' will be of dubious quality and that the integrity of it will be questionable. Someone will still make some money, but it probably wont be your jobbing photographer.