Clinging to the Photography Wreckage: The Good Old Days are Gone

How many times have you heard a grizzled, dyed in the wool, battle scarred photographer refer back to the halcyon days of their career, the good old days with a small nostalgic tear in their eye? Those days when commissions rained down like a tropical storm, when budgets were as plump and rich as a good red wine, when expenses were as flexible as Stretch Armstrong. I was working during those days with photographers, setting budgets, giving commissions and checking submitted expenses and I can tell you that they were not quite as are being remembered.

I started working on Elle magazine in the UK on the 6th January 1985 and I can confirm that photographers working for the magazine got a good deal. Creative freedom, no rights grabs, good budgets and a day rate of £750.00. That is a good fee today, but it was a very good fee then, especially when you add on the accepted mark-up on film and processing. The art director received boxes of alcohol from grateful photographers every Christmas and a sense of the good times was in the air. Maybe these were the good days.

Despite this, photographers still complained, particularly when we introduced the idea of the half-day rate of £350.00 and the AOP now, then the Association of Editorial and Fashion photographers suggested we should be boycotted. Perhaps this was the end of the brief good old days.

The 1990s saw the beginning of budget cuts and accountant interference in how a magazine was run. Economic turmoil combined with Desk Top Publishing bought the coin counters into the art departments. They thought design was easy, photography was to fill boxes and therefore both should be cheap and easy. I spent the next ten years at Condé Nast fighting on the photographers behalf concerning fees, budgets and creativity, but as life became more expensive income started to lag behind for photographers used to a good life.

Fast forward to the digital revolution – which I pin firmly onto 2006 and the launch of the original Canon 5D – and we find the client no longer willing to pay for film and processing or wait for a lab to process, print and deliver their commission on a bike they would pay for. It has been sixteen years since I worked with analogue for a client. Were those the good old days?

Since then fees have stagnated or dropped, budgets have been restricted or disappeared. Clients need everything immediately and the opportunity for creative risk has been replaced with a desire for conformity.

Despite all of this I am sure that some photographers will look back at this time many years in the future as their own good times. Many of you reading this may find this hard to believe, but experience suggests to me that this is the case.

We are nostalgic for many things in our lives, it’s a human condition, something we cannot escape, particularly as we get older. However, such nostalgia can be destructive if not recognised as memories rather than realities. The reality of photography today is that it has never been so democratic and yet so under threat from its own development. Such a threat requires an open mind and a sense of vigilance. Developments and new possibilities require reflection and analysis, but not necessarily immediate adoption. They similarly should not be derided from a position of fear of change.

You don’t want to go down with the wreckage, but you also don’t want to jump onto the wrong lifeboat. A simple understanding, but one that is not easy to implement. I regularly hear photographers talking about how things have changed for the worse from their perspective and yet they are unwilling to change themselves to meet new challenges. Change in their thinking and actions.

We cannot be involved in a technology based practice without accepting that technology will evolve and that evolution will impact on how, where and how that practice is undertaken and perceived. The good old days were not quite as remembered, just as today is not as bad as it may appear to some. There is a future for photography, it just won’t be the same as it was. Is that a problem? Yes, if you cannot accept that, no, if you can, either way those good old days will not return, but they may just be replaced with some good new days.

Dr. 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, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2023

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