Recently it came to light that no less venerable a publication than Time magazine has used microstock photographs from sources like iStockphoto on a few of its covers. In some sort of bad joke, Time used a microstock photo on the cover of its “The New Frugality” issue (April 27, 2009). In the spirit of the frugality theme, Time paid a reported $125.00 for the image. The photographer, Robert Lam, got paid the princely sum of $31.50. The original article about this on The Online Photographer and the four followed it sparked a lot of discussion about the use of miscrostock, particularly by a publication as august as Time magazine. While I agree with most of the commentators, I think a larger point is being missed. Sadly, we are witnessing the commoditization of photography.
I suspect that more photographs are being taken now than at any other point in history. Professional quality DSLRs, compact digicams and cell phones with cameras are ubiquitous. Even the New York Times has printed images taken with Apple’s iPhone. So what are we to make of these billions and billions of images? As an example, just think of the thousands of images of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley that have been made over the years by seasoned professionals and amateurs alike. Assuming equality of quality and aesthetic, is one image of Half Dome really that different than another? And, when you consider that this is being replicated for every conceivable sort subject matter from aardvarks to zebras, how unique can any single image be?
The scarcity value factor dictates that an item's relative value increases in relation to its relatively low supply. For example, the price of newly manufactured products depends upon the cost of production. The prices of many other goods – including artwork -- reflect the scarcity of the products themselves. Therefore, an original print made by Ansel Adams of Half Dome will be worth more than an original print by me. Setting aside historical and reputational value, the scarcity value factor makes this so. As far as we know, Mr. Adams is not making any more prints. Of course, the scarcity value factor works the other way around. As the supply increases the relative value decreases.
Commoditization and scarcity value should be very chilling notions for photographers to contemplate. If a photo editor or an art director can purchase the exact same image for $1,000 or $1 why should they pay the higher price? Worse yet, why should they hire a photographer to make that very same image for $5,000. As Time so aptly pointed out it’s the “new frugality”. For commercial photographers I paint a pretty bleak picture, but the same holds true for the “art” market. How can those of us who wish to make a living at this in our retirement hope to distinguish ourselves? Why should someone buy my image of Half Dome rather than someone else’s? How can we increase our scarcity value and avoid being seen as commodities? These are all tough questions and I wish I had some answers, but I do not. Sometimes economic forces can be grim realities. Ironically, I cannot think of a better time technologically or a worse time economically to be a photographer. As Charles Dickens wrote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”.