OpEd: How Much Is That Photograph Worth On The Web?

“I don’t think anybody has any idea of what anyone should be paid for a piece anymore,” Sicha says. “It’s more than $25, but less than a thousand . . . I think?”

The Times Magazine had an interesting article on the state of the online media landscape and how difficult it is for publications to make a profit or even become sustainable.  This is no secret to anyone I’m guessing but it touched on some issues that relate to photography on the web.

The most widely read pieces on this blog have been the OpEd’s that touch on something topical, and or controversial like Blake Andrews post on Paul Graham article, or the few times when we’ve made lists and provided tips.  If traffic mattered that much to me, I’d be cranking out Top Ten lists every week (warning, I’m going to put this to a test this week.)  It would be nice if people paid more attention to the work than the opinions, but I certainly understand the appetite for opinion. I probably consume more than what’s good for me.

Thankfully in the art photography space you don’t see too many link bait headlines.  But you don’t have to go far to find them, just peruse the gear or how-to related blogs.  People are suckers for lists and the secrets to success.

What this all relates to is the value of content.  These articles that drive huge amounts of traffic are clearly more valuable for sites that are ad supported.  And this is why companies like Demand Media crank them out all day, paying around $10-$20 per post.  Conversely, the more in depth, longer articles that don’t carry flashy headlines tend not to be as widely read, but are more expensive to produce.  This is the state of web publishing these days. What ends up happening is that smart publishers use the link bait articles to subsidize their more serious journalistic endeavors.

The most salient point in all of this comes from the quote at the beginning of this post from Choire Sicha about compensation for content creation.  I’ve often wondered, how valuable is a photograph on the web?  Clearly, celebrity images are at top of the list.  But I’m not really concerned about that segment. I’m more interested in photojournalism and documentary and art photography.

As more and more photography moves exclusively to the web, this issue is going to become more salient because it raises some rather thorny issues. Photojournalism and documentary photography are expensive to produce.  But is there enough demand to financially support it?  And with the photography landscape so fragmented can any one destination bring in a large enough audience to build a sustainable model?  Again, I don’t think advertising is going to be the answer. The numbers just don’t work.

I’m not sure anyone knows the value of this type of imagery on the web.  With art photography it gets even dicier because the audience shrinks even further. Then again, since those photographers are likely banking on making money on prints, perhaps the photographs on the web are really just marketing or PR. Which might make most blogs (including this one) that promote that work quasi PR agencies.  There’s nothing wrong with of course, I clearly enjoy numerous art photography blogs, but there’s not much hope that they’ll ever compensate photographers.  Online magazines might be a different story as they emerge and grow their audiences.

Last week, David Alan Harvey announced that Burn Magazine was going to start paying contributors.  What a breath of fresh air.  Right now, the money is coming from the surplus left from the submission fees for the emerging photographer grant, so basically, other photographers are footing the bill.  Still it’s the right direction and I know there are plans to bring in sponsors as well.

It’s an interesting time for publishers and photographers.  Hopefully there will be more clarity in the next year but I doubt it. Until then we’ll still probably left wondering how if photographs have much value on the web.  What do you think?

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    Who cares if the people consuming music make more money than the musicians? Why should artists be highly paid?

    I don’t happen to think the situation before the internet was some eden for artists and photographers, or publishers.
    So the idea that the internet is responsible for a fall from grace doesn’t resonate with me.

    How many publishers, writers and bloggers have been able to pursue their passion because of the internet? And make a living. Yes, there are countless out there who are making a living.

    The major problem with the media industry was that it was extremely top heavy, usually owned by greedy moguls. Add to that the advertising monopoly they had in print and what you have is a system where the prices were out of whack. With the web, advertisers have more choices and better metrics. The cost of distribution was dramatically slashed as well too as everyone knows. Now those moguls are looking at the media business and it doesn’t look so lucrative any longer. This is good.

    So I really fail to see how the media or artists are being hurt by the atomization. Whose exploiting the situation? Are you saying huge, bureaucratic , wasteful conglomerates are better for artists? Making a career as an artist or publisher has never been easy. Nor has pursuing entrepreneurship. Most fail. And that’s not going to change.

    The fallacy of the web is that people think that ‘attention’ some how equates to profitability & success. That’s the wrong equation and I think that’s what many, many artists & publishers are learning right now.

    If you want to be successful you need to build a real business and offer products and services that your audience/customers/clients find valuable and desire. This is not easy, especially given the numbers you need in order to be successful. Add to that the competitive landscape, and it’s an uphill struggle. But ask any entrepreneur or small businessman, and they’ll tell you just how hard it is.

    With the internet, you have substantially less risk and overhead though. I find this situation much more appealing than the trajectory of serving media or art overlords, even if the odds are against you.

    In my opinion, artists need to not only own their creative output, but they need to own the modes of distribution. They need to become publishers and distributors as well. Can it work? Yes. Will it work everyone. Nope.

    What’s happening now is that everyone is still figuring out best practices. I think we’re getting closer to understanding how certain individuals, companies and brands become successful on the web.

    What it boils down do is that there are substantially more people producing content than consuming it. If we really want a revolution in arts and entertainment we need to change our consumption habits & not be so susceptible to mass marketing. Instead of buying 5 DVDs, buy self-published books, or prints. Instead of spending $400 on a portfolio review, invest that money in other artists by buying their prints.

    We all spend X amount of dollars on art and entertainment. But how often do we really sit down and think about where that money is ending up?

  • http://www.facebook.com/johnlegweak John Legweak

    I take your point about focusing on the top of the pyramid to the exclusion of the lower part. This was one of my main issues with Don Thomson’s study of the art world.

    At the same time, I’m reluctant to believe that the indie music scene is thriving, at least in economic terms. My sense is that when you look at the typical live gig the people who come to hear the music are likely to be better paid than the musicians who are making it.

    I personally don’t think that people need to make a lot of money to be successful. On the other hand I do believe they have to make enough to support of themselves and their family if they have one, month after month, year after year, without major interruptions. If you always need a day job to make ends meet, or your partner always needs to play the role of primary bread winner, then I’d say your artistic career is not really a career. If it’s because you’re just not good enough then maybe it’s your fault, but if you really are good and you still can’t make it, then maybe the problem is with the industry itself.

    This goes for music, and it goes for photography too.

    I’m not saying everybody needs to go activist and devote themselves to changing the situation, but I do think they should be aware of what’s going on and notice when changes happen that are advantageous to someone else and disadvantageous to them and maybe squawk every once in a while.

  • Bryan

    Dude, you’re focussing on the top of food chain. What do you know about indie music? There are plenty of bands out there touring and surviving.

    Indie music is thriving like never before. There’s more press and coverage because of the web, providing people more access to music.

    It’s a niche world and you’re focussing on superstar model. That is dead, and it’s for the better.

    The age of any one piece of entertainment saturating the entire culture whether it be a book, movie or musician is a thing of the past.

    It’s telling to me that you always focus on artists getting ‘rich’ and not on them creating a sustainable career. But then again, isn’t the ‘get rich and live the American Dream’ ethos of the boomers why we’re in such a financial mess?

  • http://www.facebook.com/johnlegweak John Legweak

    [Dan and Jane, continued.]

    Interesting how comfortably the Rolling Stones career fits into the 25 year window of opportunity Sir Mick describes. Interesting how all the big tours are by aging (to use your word) bands who made it during that period and the only thing people care about going forward is American Idol. If it weren’t for Lady Gaga the whole music scene would seem pathetic beyond belief.

    I wonder if the window of opportunity for photography is also over. Because there definitely was one – it’s what gave the Joel Meyerowitz’s of our world a chance to get rich. Not that they weren’t deserving – but can it still happen today? Maybe still yes in fashion photography, which needs its stars. Yes also in the artworld (as in Gagosian), only for a very, very few. Otherwise I don’t think so.

    In terms of optimism and pessimism, it all depends on what question you’re trying to answer. Is it possible for to make money on the web from photography? Yes, for sure. (Optimism.) Is it possible for a whole lot of people to make money on the web from photography. Probably not. (Pessimism.) In particular, it seems very unlikely that a significant number of photographers will be able to support themselves from sales of their work on the web. Or at least photographers who are not making money already, in traditional ways.

    Of course, as you go from decade to decade and quarter century to quarter century you always see big changes, and a lot of them are relatively unpredictable, butterfly effect type changes. Maybe some huge opportunity for photography will open up that we can’t see now. Or that most of us can’t; maybe you can. But if you can, I don’t see it in your op-ed. If anything, you seem as pessimistic as I do in your piece. Or am I missing your point?

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    Jagger: Well, it’s all changed in the last couple of years. We’ve gone through a period where everyone downloaded everything for nothing and we’ve gone into a grey period it’s much easier to pay for things – assuming you’ve got any money.

    BBC: Are you quite relaxed about it?

    Jagger: I am quite relaxed about it. But, you know, it is a massive change and it does alter the fact that people don’t make as much money out of records. But I have a take on that – people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone!

    Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone. So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.

    http://www.boingboing.net/2010/05/14/mick-jagger-talks-do.html

    There have been plenty of musicians who have used myspace to build an audience and eventually tour. Animal Collective built their empire completely through the web, and for awhile their they were considered rather innovative musically too.

    I don’t view the effects of the web in binary terms – good vs. bad.

    I do know that the future isn’t going to be created by aging pessimists…

  • http://www.facebook.com/johnlegweak John Legweak

    I can’t remember Bryan, have you read Lanier’s book? Everybody knows his lock-in idea because that’s what he talks about first, and they may have some awareness of the virtual reality stuff he did in the 80’s, but by his own admission his real passion in life is music – not just following it, making it..

    And his position, as I read it in the book, is that, for all its promises, the web has done nothing good for music and nothing good for the musicians who make it. His specific clains are: (a) the web has not improved musicians’ ability to make a living from their music and if anything has reduced it; and (b) the web has not supported either the creation or the promotion of truly innovative music, and if anything has done just the opposite, supported conservatism and mediocrity.

    I don’t know how much of this comes from objective observation and how much from his own personal frustrations, but he says similar things about the software industry, and I know from my own experience (20 years worth in hardcore R&D-based areas) that everything he says here is true.

    The implications for photography on the web – photography, that is, as a purely digital new media thing – are pretty clear. Basically, that the web will do nothing for serious photography and nothing for the people who make it.

    You’re free to disagree with this. But if you’re going to, I suggest looking at music first and deciding on the basis of your own knowledge how good or bad the web has been for it, and then extrapolate your conclusions to photography.

    As I’ve said before, I think things are set up for the web to play a huge role in the evolution of art photography in the 21st century. But as I’ve also said, I have no idea how things will play out or who will be the winners and losers. The basic situation seems to be one of an increasingly glutted market – supply is going up exponentially, at least for now, while demand, which is hardly large, is increasing slowly at best, again at least for now. What I am willing to bet on is that the web will produce a more efficient market and also a more global one, both on the producer and consumer sides. The number of winners will stay about the same as now, the number of losers will go up and up (until people tire of the game).

    If there’s big money to be made, it will be in something different than art. Like maybe buying as many 20th century snapshots as you can – like tens of millions of them – and storing them in warehouses until the center of world power shifts to Asia, and then selling them on the web to the new First World as collectible occidentalia.

    Is that old fart enough for you?

  • http://www.facebook.com/johnlegweak John Legweak

    I just saw this announcement in the online WSJ:

    Yahoo To Buy Web-Content Company Associated Content

    http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20100518-713758.html?mod=WSJ_Deals_LEFTLatestHeadlines

    I’ve just reread Jarod Lanier’s grim account in his You are not a Gadget book of the fate of music on the web,and it doesn’t exactly raise my hopes for the fate of photography. My top-level take from the book is that we have taken a terrible wrong turn in our treatment of content on the web that we may never be able to backtrack out of. Very depressing.

  • http://www.derekpoore.com Derek Poore

    I think the greatest value pictures have on the Web is in high-quality journalism. The only problem is — who will pay for it? Take zReportage.com for example. The Scott McKiernan venture produces top-notch photojournalism, selling picture stories to big media outlets. Many of those packages are splayed free on the Web, but they do make money.

    -Derek (derekpoore.com)