Thursday, February 19, 2009

Photographers - time to get a real job?

(all photographs Simon Norfolk)

Two interesting articles recently in light of the current economic climate: one specifically about photography and photographers; and the other about the art market and artists in general.

One, from the World Press Photo online magazine "Enter", is on Marketing is by renowned and successful photographer Simon Norfolk.

He starts off:

"In the few weeks between being asked to write this piece and me actually sitting down to do it, the international financial system has dissolved and the key banks nationalized.

All the money I had squirrelled away to pay my future taxes and something for Mr and Mrs Norfolk’s old age has disappeared in a bizarre Icelandic banking collapse. So my prognosis about the economy over the next 5-10 years is not very optimistic, I’m afraid.

I gave up trying to make a living from editorial a few years ago, instead selling my work as limited edition fine art prints through galleries in London, New York and Los Angeles.

I still work for magazines - most of what goes on the gallery wall starts out as a magazine commission - but I see magazine fees as start-up capital..."

But then continues:

"...So my predictions for the future? More "name" photographers will be cashing in their reputations to teach "masterclasses" to wealthy orthodontists.

So-called "principled" photographers will be cozying up to Russian oligarchs and third-world billionaires. None of us will be saying "no" to wedding photography or lucrative teaching posts which sell to young students the rarely-realized dream that they’ll one day have jobs as photographers.

My advice? Get re-skilled. Keep your photographic aspirations but try to get a trade like film editing, web-design or accounting.

Soon we’ll all be amateur photographers with real money-making jobs on the side that we don’t tell our colleagues about. We need to get over the snobbery attached to that..."

The second article is from the NY Times: "The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!". Holland Cotter writes:

"Last year Artforum magazine, one of the country’s leading contemporary art monthlies, felt as fat as a phone book, with issues running to 500 pages, most of them gallery advertisements. The current issue has just over 200 pages. Many ads have disappeared.

The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more...

...The diminishment has not, God knows, been quantitative. Never has there been so much product. Never has the American art world functioned so efficiently as a full-service marketing industry on the corporate model.

Every year art schools across the country spit out thousands of groomed-for-success graduates, whose job it is to supply galleries and auction houses with desirable retail. They are backed up by cadres of public relations specialists — otherwise known as critics, curators, editors, publishers and career theorists — who provide timely updates on what desirable means...

...And where is art in all of this? Proliferating but languishing. “Quality,” primarily defined as formal skill, is back in vogue, part and parcel of a conservative, some would say retrogressive, painting and drawing revival. And it has given us a flood of well-schooled pictures, ingenious sculptures, fastidious photographs and carefully staged spectacles, each based on the same basic elements: a single idea, embedded in the work and expounded in an artist’s statement, and a look or style geared to be as catchy as the hook in a rock song.

...It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again...

...But there will be many, many changes for art and artists in the years ahead. Trying to predict them is like trying to forecast the economy. You can only ask questions. The 21st century will almost certainly see consciousness-altering changes in digital access to knowledge and in the shaping of visual culture. What will artists do with this?

Will the art industry continue to cling to art’s traditional analog status, to insist that the material, buyable object is the only truly legitimate form of art, which is what the painting revival of the last few years has really been about? Will contemporary art continue to be, as it is now, a fancyish Fortunoff’s, a party supply shop for the Love Boat crew? Or will artists — and teachers, and critics — jumpship, swim for land that is still hard to locate on existing maps and make it their home and workplace?

I’m not talking about creating ’60s-style utopias; all those notions are dead and gone and weren’t so great to begin with. I’m talking about carving out a place in the larger culture where a condition of abnormality can be sustained, where imagining the unknown and the unknowable — impossible to buy or sell — is the primary enterprise. Crazy! says anyone with an ounce of business sense.

Right. Exactly. Crazy"

What has surprised me is how negatively these and a few other similar articles seem to have been received in certain quarters. There have been many - "oh well - take them for what they are worth" sort of responses - mainly from those who probably have most to lose in these scenarios. Not the photographers and artists, but those who cling tight fistedly to their coat tails - the over hyped galleries and gallerists, the critics and commentators whose job it is to feed the hype (and for which they and their egos are disproportionately well compensated - the NY Times article delves further into this, which I didn't quote). And of course the art school profs who have been happily churning out Struth/Gursky/Wall/Crewdson etc. clones. As Cotter points out, this is the ideal opportunity for the art schools to become more creative and open minded in how they educate their students, though whether they are willing to grasp the opportunity is another matter.

The recession could effect photographers and artists positively in at least two of these ways (and probably more).

First it will no doubt weed out the dilettantes and uncommitted - not too much ego stroking going on when there's a living to be earned - as well as break the grip of the current narrow modes of distribution - something that's long overdue. It will also, hopefully, remove the myopic vision which decides what the current "subject" is and where exactly the centre of all this creativity is (goodbye Chelsea) - there is no centre any more.

Secondly, it will free up photographers from having to try and work "to order", trying to ensure their vision and concepts fit with what the gurus of the portfolio reviews and competition juries and micro gallerists mandate. Instead of worrying if their work is buyable, photographers will be freed up to make more work that's more exploratory and experimental. New avenues for exploration, creativity and discovery can open up. New, yet long extant, artists and practices may well be noticed now. Whole new ways of operating will be freed to be developed and explored. Many more constraints will be removed than will cosy benefits be lost. Photographers will actually be far more free to explore unknown and unimagined paths then they have for a long time. The inmates will be able to take over the asylum.

I've also noticed that some are optimistically - though cautiously - whispering of the possibility of a new WPA programme. I have no idea if it could ever actually happen - even under Mr. Obama - but done in the right way, what a great opportunity it could be. Imagine a modern day Rivera let loose in our corridors of power and influence... And then there's the Farm Security Administration - some of the very best American photography of the 20th Century came out of the FSA. What imaginative ways of creating the environment for producing similarly visionary work might come out of the next few years? The time and the circumstance are right - let's hope there's the will to find a way.


Anonymous said...

make money which ever way you can and today with the falling economies there is no room for failure and success is a must. Go get it tiger.

Rsplatpc said...



Anonymous said...

[Tim, this is from correspondence I sent BF 2 days ago...]

The information in our maternal mitochondrial genes, according to the scientists I read, tells us that at one time, the population of the ancestors that gave rise to the humans that dominate the landscape today dwindled down to 2,200 individuals about 75,000 yrs ago. Our genetic thread almost went extinct. A volcanic caldera in Indonesia named Toba, blew up, covering a big swath around the earth with 18 inches of ashes. Almost everything died, including our direct ancestors (other Neanderthals, Homo Erectus, and Homos Sapiens already in India/etc survived also, but make up less of modern man's genetic make-up).

There was little light for 5-10 years, and it rained sulfuric acid as far as Iceland. At the end of that, came an Ice Age, perhaps triggered by this. Our forebears walked out of the devastation of the African plains out to the west coast of Africa and became beach bums. They learned to make canoes, hooks, etc that enabled them to fish in deep waters (miles offshore) and that is how they survived. They became nomads in search of a better place. Those who did not adapt/evolve, died. It is called, informally, the Great Narrowing.

This is analogous to the way the economic crisis is affecting the arts in the US. The days of galleries competing by "raiding" Yale MFA student studios are over.

[Although it must be said that after 5 years, only 5% of all arts grads are working artists.]

The art machine of the past decade or three is breaking down. Scores of empty storefronts lie fallow and vacant in once chi-chi enclaves from galleries that have folded.

There's a narrowing going on here. The old order is going to be shaken to its roots, and while many survivors will be the same old faces, they'll have evolved, and plenty of new people and ideas will arise from the ashes. Art will be re-evaluated. It's going to be painful, but a turnover has been long overdue.

The mainstay of the market, the outsiders that bought works as signifiers of their acculturation and wealth are jettisoning their investments. Auction houses will soon be clogged with lesser works by great artists and great works by lesser ones.

It is in this type of situation that the wheat is winnowed from the chaff. The cognoscenti will dump the lesser stuff first, like the investors. By sheer volume and circumstance, these works will doubtlessly be devalued at auction.

Just like a family will grab what is nearest and dearest to their hearts, their photo albums (Ok, external hard drive), before the deed to the house that is burning/crashing down around them, so will collectors.

At the end of all this, relativism will be a thing of the past. We will know what is significant when things go in extremis.

Artists should take a page from our ancestors: Adapt and Evolve. Do what you have to to survive, but don't fold up or succumb to the Flood of Pessimism now filling our aquarium. This is an endtime event. Things are getting plowed under, and while it's hard to see, fertile soil is being exposed.

It will redefine art, and ground it in a way that hasn't been seen in decades. We will also see the resurrection of the real critics, those that know and love art as art.

Grim as things look, keep in mind that down the road, this is also a cleansing, purifying crucible, and a new beginning.

--- Luis

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Anonymous said...

Being a photographer is really hard. If I can capture images like these, its probably the best feeling if ever it gets published.

Anonymous said...

I assume most of these comments are spam, but in the aggregate they are seriously surreal. Nice post, by the way. I really don't understand all the whining about Holland Cotter's article.

eloise in berlin said...

thank you for these posts and discussions! I think it's so crucial in these times to let them guide us to new ways... YES. And I agree that the more open-minded we can be and more experimental, we'll find the ways that fit the times...

I'm so happy to read intelligent words that feed my musings on these very urgent issues for all creatives out there!

Anonymous said...

Oh man, even before I started looking through this entry, I got stabbed in the front, then the back, and then the side I think… the title! “Photographers – time to get a real job?” Well, that certainly doesn’t leave a lot of hope for us aspiring artists. Maybe we should all just pack up our cameras and pick up one of those monotonous 9-5 jobs; bonuses include our very own gray cubicle! A designated stapler! And everyday fights with our scanner/copy machine. It is most certainly a depressing thought, even as I am not through school yet and trying to pay tuition plus work two jobs, one full time. Is there any hope for us? I honestly don’t know if I’d ever be able to actually making a living off of my work; it is a nice thought, just doing something one loves and support themselves at the same time, but it’s a far-off dream that’s for sure.
I do agree with part of the article, about how the economic downslide will in part open up new opportunities for photographers to experiment more, instead of making the infamous pretty picture.
“… it will free up photographers from having to try and work "to order", trying to ensure their vision and concepts fit with what the gurus of the portfolio reviews and competition juries and micro gallerists mandate. Instead of worrying if their work is buyable, photographers will be freed up to make more work that's more exploratory and experimental.”

Darin Boville said...

I think it would be a wonderful thing if the current economic crisis was the wooden stake in the heart of the art system but I'm skeptical that any sort of new art order will spontaneously arise.

While we can rejoice in the apparent setback there is no alternative system poised to replace the old.

Do you remember the high gas prices last year? Remember how SUVs stopped selling and people swore that the day of the SUV was done? Guess what started selling again the very week the gas priced went down...

Same with the art world. Without some sort of intervention the same dynamics will form again because the same people and the same social structures remain in place.

Its a bit of a closed world and painfully disconnected with the "outside." It's a game, a bit of light entertainment, little more. It forms part of the social world for a certain demographic but is essentially invisible and irrelevant.

Occasionally I'll open up the pages of Artforum or Art in America or one of the other art magazines and I'll see art that is "political"--that purports to aspire to something higher than selling itself to the highest bidder.

How I laugh at such a display of impotence!

Kayti said...

I am gleefully satisfied at the aknowledgement of the "art machine." Bring on the evolution of art. I feel that many artists have been on the cusp of a new and innovative movement but seem to be stiffled by the machine of production. As an art student my self, art schools have lost focus on developing individual thought and are starting to sound like our parents. "How are you going to make money as an artist?" The simple answer: why should I?
Art motivated by profit losses its esscence. I get more insipration from my day job than listening to smug contributors of "the machine."