There was a time when I could describe myself as an editor of a photography magazine. In fact I over saw four. One for professionals (Professional Photographer), one for the enthusiasts (Photography Monthly), one for the ‘wannabe’ professional (Turning Pro) and one for the trade (BPI). I remained editor of these titles for a brief period, stirred things up, made some friends, a few enemies, made some money for the magazines and left to found my own magazine for the photographer interested in filmmaking and photographer (Hungry Eye).
That time was ten years ago and photography magazines were having a tough time.
Reader numbers were dramatically down thanks to the web and online forums of the time, as publishers sought salvation in digital editions, that proved to be expensive to produce and unwanted by existing readerships. Advertising revenue was also down as a flooded market of too many titles founded in the bountiful days of analogue advertising found itself begging for ever decreasing page rates from an ever decreasing base of camera and memory card manufacturers.
Too many of these magazines were chasing the same readers; enthusiasts and those seeking instance riches through wedding and event photography. Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Sony, Olympus and Lumix were the ‘go to’s’ for essential big spend funding and editorial too often reflected the need to keep the paymasters content. As a thank you ‘reveiwer’s’ were treated to drink fuelled trips to Stockholm, Los Angeles, Croatia, the Highlands, South Africa, Tokyo and New York just to name a few destinations, pampered whilst ‘testing’ the latest camera release.
I said earlier in this article that I made a few enemies in my time as a photography magazine editor. I did, by removing the false promises of instant riches, photoshop ‘how to’s’, event photography and wedding photography from Professional Photographer as well as 90% of the camera reviews. By doing this it had a USP and by featuring the photographers we did it spoke to the professional photography community I had known for the previous twenty five years or so. It had a reason to exist.
After I left it reverted back to what it had been and soon closed. The other titles closed along with it and since then there have been further closures within the enthusiast market. Professional Photographer had a short lived re-birth as Professional Photography closely following my original template but times had changed and it closed as well.
The remaining titles have looked to extra curricular activity to support their core magazine business. Competitions, events, annuals, even setting up agency’s on the side to offer commissions. PDN (Photo District News) in the United States tried most of these and eventually had to accept failure. The BJP (British Journal of Photography) is still going, but having adopted a membership scheme, and various pay to enter awards alongside an agency offering commissions, the question of the importance of the magazine and the size of its readership is an interesting one. The question has to be, would all of the extra activities continue without the physical magazine at £9.99 each and every month?
Other magazines have recognised the importance of running on a skeletal crew and focusing their content on an academic approach to the photographic medium. University libraries have an expectance of paying for journal subscriptions, often at extortionate prices, therefore looking to ensure that you get put onto these lists can provide subscription security and a guaranteed audience that you don’t need to chase every month. Even better journal subscriptions are rarely assessed and can run for many years as the subscription price goes up. The audience may be small and advertisers may not be interested in that audience but at least the newsstand battle is avoided.
The term ‘specialist’ magazine is often used within magazine publishing and you may believe that this refers to photography magazines just as it would to interiors, gardening, sewing or any other genre of magazine aimed at a specific interest. However, within the umbrella genre of photography lies further areas of specification. Outdoors and black and white photography are two obvious examples of this. It could be argued that titles focusing on a narrow sub genre such as these will survive based upon a loyal audience that connects with a title dedicated to its specific passion. Time will only tell if such audiences can remain large enough for the titles to meet their publishing overheads.
That just leaves the independents. Magazines that are created by passionate people with the flame burning strong to launch and publish work they love. The problem is in keeping that flame burning. Magazine production and distribution is tiring and costly, its a team game and when people aren’t being paid teams can quickly fail apart, with the resulting magazine closure. When I produced Hungry Eye my experience as an editor and art director allowed me to produce the whole thing from commission to sending PDF’s to print myself. The team issue was not a problem.
So is there a future for the photography magazine? Sadly, I don’t think so. I say sadly, because I began my career in magazines in 1985, cutting and pasting with Cow Gum and scalpels, I love magazines but I am also a realist. I remember and worked during the golden days when on Elle magazine we would have 400 page issues filled with revenue rich advertising. Times have changed and our information access points are now multiple and far more interactive and accessible than that of the printed page.
For too many years the publishers of magazines have lacked the creative confidence to evolve what they had. They continued to look towards the same advertisers and readers as both left them looking for new ways of selling and engaging. You may agree with me or you may not, but whatever your opinion please answer just one question. When was the last time you bought a photography magazine?
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.