Magazines are in trouble. Circulations are down, advertising revenues are down, paper prices are up, printing costs are up, distribution prices are up and retailers are closing. They are cutting back to avoid closure, not all magazines but many magazines. How do I know? Well, through a combination of personal anecdote and factual evidence.
The personal anecdotes come from friends and family that work in magazines. I also am a photographer who works for magazines. The facts from the magazine publishing audit numbers, the ABCs that indicated actual sales, free magazines given away and year on year sales. You can see these for yourself online. What they show is an obvious decline. Not all magazines submit to the ABCs, it is not compulsory but it is used by advertisers as a trusted source before they invest in advertising with a title. Small independents don’t submit and neither do magazines who want to keep their progress secret.
Magazines have been a source of income for photographers since the latter half of the nineteenth century, photography transformed them and newspapers, the two became intrinsically linked. All forms of photography, travel, documentary, art, news, portraiture and landscape, figurative, modernist, conceptual and realist.
Magazine photography has never been restricted to meeting client needs without creativity as it is often believed and suggested. Photographers have always used the editorial commission to experiment, tell stories, build bodies of work and develop a profile whilst being paid to do so. If you believe that ‘art’ photography is harder, more important or more personal than a magazine commission then think again and consider the photographers who have begun and continued their careers thanks to magazines. Not just photography magazines, they have little if any relevance they don’t pay! I mean magazines covering all subjects from Vogue to Picture Post, from National Geographic to Life, from Interview to The Sunday Times Magazine. You can fill in the blanks.
Without magazine photo commissions photographers lose an important revenue stream, an essential showcase and an opportunity to meet and photograph people and places they would have no access to. However, they are disappearing.
The rise of personal work being created is a result of this. Photographers are taking the initiative and making work from a personal perspective which is to be encouraged. Unfortunately such work is not only self-motivated it is also self funded.
I have been involved with magazines and photography for forty years, I am passionate about both, but despite my optimistic nature I see no future for magazines. At least the printed magazine or the magazine that photographers can look to as an employer. I hear of many that will publish images for no payment and others that even ask photographers that to pay to be published. Neither of these are respectful or sustainable.
I am always writing and speaking about the need for today’s photographer needing to be flexible and light footed in their expectations. Tangential thinking is required to monetize a photographic practice today. However, I think it is rapidly coming to a point at which the magazine commission will no longer be one of the viable options.
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 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2023