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"To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it more fit for its prime function of looking forward."
-- Margaret Fairless Barber (1869 -- 1901)
The "Greatest Generation" had just saved the world. The U.S. industrial engine was at the peak of its strength and the Baby Boom was just getting started. Television was in its infancy so everybody read the newspaper. Every small town had at least one paper and some major metropolitan areas had half a dozen. Newsmen (there were very few newswomen) wore ties and hats and lived middle-class lives on their pay.
The weekly news magazines were legion: LIFE, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and more all used photos — big and beautiful. People waited impatiently for the mailman to deliver the weekly issue.
Marcelo Montealegre was a young Chilean living and working in New York City in the mid-1960s. "Most of the work back then was based in personal and mutual trust," writes Montealegre. "I never signed a contract nor agreement and I cannot remember a single time when I was dissatisfied with a payment or treatment. It was an altogether satisfying time. My rights as a photographer were understood and respected. The basic understanding was 'one-time publication with world-wide rights,' with all rights reverting to me automatically after publication. Most publications returned negatives and slides around a month after using them."
Enter television. Enter satellite transmissions. Enter the Internet. At first, newspapers could still compete with TV because of the time it took to ship film from overseas. Telstar eliminated the time advantage with the first live broadcast to North America from Europe in 1962.
The death of the weekly LIFE magazine in 1972 symbolized for some the end of a golden age of photojournalism. Its legendary staffers were out of work. The original Look winked-out a few years later. Suddenly magazines started shedding their photo staffs and relying on a cadre of freelancers.
Meanwhile, buckling under 30 years of competition from television, daily newspapers started failing in earnest. In 1980 there were 1,745 daily newspapers in the U.S. Twenty years later that number had fallen to 1,480. More than 15 percent of all U.S. daily newspapers had died within two decades.
Readers didn't care. Market penetration fell during those same 20 years from more than 27 percent to just over 19 percent. The average age of loyal readers was growing each year. Those who remained became less desirable to advertisers.
The flood of newly-minted freelancers was a boon for publishers. Taking a cue from the AP's infamous freelancer contract in 1996, publications tested the waters by imposing work-for-hire contracts. When most photographers simply accepted the onerous terms, gleeful publishers realized that they could stem some of their lost profits by saving money on photography. Similar contracts popped up nearly everywhere.
Photographers were still covering assignments, but they were doing it for a lot less money while having their future stock earnings eliminated by WFH contracts.
Photographer Montealegre, now semi-retired in New York City, has a unique perspective: "The sea changes that photojournalism has gone through have affected my income from photography even more than the (Chilean) political onslaught of the '70s and '80s."
These things have taken decades to happen and that's part of the problem. Just as a frog can be boiled to death one degree at a time, editorial photojournalists were slow to react to the changes. Some have reached a point where they can no longer economically survive — no matter how happy they are with the work.
While newspapers have been going downhill fast, newsgathering technology has been exploding. New technology puts more of the production process in the photographers' laps. Photographers perform work that was once handled by pre-press workers. Lack of business savvy prevents many from charging for this extra work. Not only must they invest in high-speed computers, expensive software and camera technology that must be updated about every 18 months, but they're also working longer for lower fees and having to learn new techniques, which requires even more time.
Former National Geographic staff photographer and 1979 Magazine Photographer of the Year Jim Sugar recently switched away from film for his editorial and commercial assignments. Sugar, who is known as a master of lighting, describes learning digital workflow as, "the hardest thing I've ever done in photography."
Once-starry-eyed freelancers are gaining some pragmatism. The same technology that is providing new challenges is also providing new education and networking tools. Organizations such as Editorial Photographers, ASMP and the NPPA have been instrumental in providing business education resources to freelance and staff photographers. Photographers meet online to trade information about publications and to provide business knowledge support for each other.
New media means new opportunities. Still photographers are learning video and audio as the printed page gives way to the Web, on-demand video, podcasts and whatever is coming next. But no matter the medium, the message is that business is business.
I'm looking forward.
© Mark Loundy
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