I believe much of photography is already a commodity and I plan to speak about it during the ASMP Symposium next Thursday the 27th in New York at the Times Center. The topic for the event (more details here) is “Sustainable Business Models: Issues and Trends Facing Visual Artists” which is a topic I’ve been thinking and writing about since I started this blog. the ASMP goes on to say “the rules of the game have changed and it’s no longer business as usual in today’s crowded visual arts marketplace” which to me leads to an obvious conclusion: photography is a commodity.
Commodification is a scary thought. It means you are competing on price and racing to the bottom.
Ok, so that’s the bad news. But, there’s an upside. Before we get to that, let’s destroy this cliché that I hear all the time how “photographers brought it on”, because they didn’t do something to prevent it. All the bitching and whining about weak willed photographers who wont hold the line and clients who wont pay the fees. Commodification is a natural market process. You cannot stop this.
To see the upside you need to take a more nuanced view of photography. You need to consider photography services a value chain and the act of taking a picture, what I like to call being a “camera operator”, as one part of this value chain. You also need to understand that commodification occurs when the improvements to a product overshoot the needs of the client. Better equipment and techniques matter little to the majority of clients. There will always be exceptions, but sadly, it seems we are all past the point of good enough (even if in some parts of the industry good enough is distirbingly low). Nevertheless, don’t dwell on it. Technology that blew your mind ten years ago is now completely commodified. It can’t be stopped.
The upside is that if you have commodification, somewhere else in the value chain a reciprocal process of de-commoditization is at work. In the book I’m reading now (The Innovator’s Solution) author Clayton M. Christensen goes on to say that “commoditization destroys a company’s ability to capture profits by undermining differentiability, de-commoditization affords opportunities to create and capture potentially enormous wealth.”
You just have to find the spot in the value chain where performance is not yet good enough, where you can differentiate yourself by being better than the others. Exciting, right?
I have lots of thoughts on this that I will get into during the symposium but here’s one simple observation.
Not too long ago your personality mattered little in photography. You could be the most abhorrent dick-wad and land all the work you wanted if your photography was awesome. I see plenty of evidence now that this is not longer possible. An art director I sat on a panel with even said “the top 5 photographers for a car shoot are all qualified to do the job. it comes down to personality as to who will get the job” Personality is one tiny part of the value chain, but it’s now more important than the photography. That’s astounding.
Sad if you enjoy operating cameras, but very exciting if you enjoy the entire value chain of photography services. My favorite photographers to work with have always been the creative problem solvers. Now I can clearly see the de-commodization at work.