The Biggest Change in Photography in 25 Years

March 2003

by Dirck Halstead

Last week I got a call from American Photo Magazine. They were planning their 25th anniversary issue and they were asking photographers around the world what, in their opinion was the biggest change in photography in the past quarter of a century.

My first impulse was to name the obvious.. Digital, Computers, and the World Wide Web. But as I was thinking about it, two words roared out of the synapses of my brain, and I impulsively blurted out ‘BILL GATES.”

Since then, I have shared this idea with audiences and have been astonished at how quickly they agree.

My reasoning is that indeed, photography has been subjected to more change in the past decade than ever before in its 164 year old history. It has gone from being an art that required capturing light on a sensitized chemical surface and reproducing it through mechanical means, to becoming an electrical process in which microscopic pixels can be arranged and rearranged on tiny chips at will.

The results of the earlier process resided in huge collections of plates, negatives, prints, and transparencies housed in countless areas of real estate around the world. Human beings had to file and retrieve those photographs. Agents sold the pictures. Photographers were represented by Agencies, who would be responsible for collecting payments from clients, which included publications and corporations. The Agencies would also share the costs of undertaking a project by the photographer. This was the commerce in professional photography. I underscore the word professional because one of the purposes of this endeavor was to make enough money to support the photographer and his or her family. For a free-lance photographer, which made up the great proportion of the practitioners in this trade, long-term survival and well-being was dependent on ownership and resale of images.

By 1989, Bill Gates, who had already made his huge fortune at Microsoft, started to build a gigantic new home in Seattle. One of his ideas was to install large plasma screens throughout the house, which would be able to display interchangeable works of art programmed to reflect the viewers taste activated by a badge that he or she wore. The question was, however, where to get the images that would illuminate those frames?

At first Gates made partnerships with museums such as the Seattle Art Museum, but as his zeal for acquiring images grew, he created a privately held company called Interactive Home Systems or IHS. The name was later changed to Continuum, and eventually to Cobis.

Its humble goal was to acquire as many photographs in the world as possible, and to digitize them. Corbis started to buy up individual collections, in the beginning for serious amounts of money. Photojournalists were included, such as David and Peter Turnley, as were portrait, personality, and fine art photographers. In 1995 Corbis bought the Bettman Archives, which contained the entire collection of International News Photos, Acme, and United Press International. Over the next few years, Corbis began to buy out major picture agencies such as Saba, Sygma, Westlight, Sharp Shooters, Outline, The Stock Market, LGI, and Temp Sport . Once Corbis took over, in most cases ongoing production was dramatically reduced, and long-term relationships between the Agencies and photographers were terminated. The highly respected owners of these Agencies who had guided and sustained the photographers left.

Meanwhile, another multimillionaire, Mark Getty bought Liaison, which was the major competitive agency to Sygma. Getty also scarfed up Tony Stone Images, and other stock agencies around the world In fact, the agencies had collected so much material in such a short time that they became overwhelmed by the torrent of images that they would have to catalog and digitize.

This led Corbis to decide to transport most of the images to a gulag in a mine in Pennsylvania.

All of the above has had devastating effects to the industry from the standpoint of photographers.

The number of images available to publications and researchers has been substantially lowered. Manual searches of boxes full of prints and transparencies have all but been abandoned.

Millions of photographs have been returned to the photographers who took them. That should be reassuring, but the problem is those photographers do not have the wherewithal to sell them.

The concept of an aggressive agent who would walk into a client or publication’s office prepared to do “rug trading”, on an individual image that would maximize the sale is now gone.

In fact, the very valuation of photographs has dramatically suffered. It is hard to think of something that can be plucked from the screen of a laptop as being a distinctive and unique property worth real money.

The people who had over the years made so much money for the Agencies are now considered “Legacy” photographers, but few are encouraged or supported in new work. As a result few can afford to undertake the kind of projects that used to fill our publications and went on to become exhibitions and books.

Of course, on the good side, this does offer employment prospects for young photographers, The cost of acquiring new digital cameras and items like satellite phones that are now necessary to just do their jobs is prohibitive. The Agencies are about the only place left who can supply this equipment. But in most cases those photographers will be required to give up any rights to their work in exchange for a salary and benefits

Addressing an auditorium of eager young photographers at the University of Texas recently, I told them, “Imagine if I told you a plague had suddenly swept the globe, and all photographers over 35 years old had disappeared?”

The fact is, the plague is real.

© Dirck Halstead

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