The photography site for sore eyes. Featuring: Art, photography, performance and theatre. With extra writing because I'm also a writer.
Photo: Ian Clegg
Since photography became a mass-participatory past-time – i.e. everybody is taking photographs these days, all the time – practitioners and their academic overlords have been freaking out about the future of photography. Basically people have been worrying about over-binging on images and how photographers can carry on making money in the digital age of camera phones.
Every few years some writer or lecturer publishes new figures of daily uploads to Facebook and Instagram (currently 350million per day for Facebook and 95m for Instagram, if you’re interested) and tell us how the landscape has changed, the industry has been undermined, exhausted and fractured – and nothing will ever be the same again. And they are right.
There are a lot of people who used to earn a lot of money from photography who now don’t earn as much money. And it’s worrying them. A lot.
Photography has been a victim of technology in a way that technology could never have predicted. Once cameras were the preserve of the rich. Images were taken by the elite few. That number of image takers has grown over the years with each technological breakthrough (compact camera, Polaroid) but none of these really threatened the professionals because of the simple fact that image quality of these new technologies was never that good. You needed a good camera and a good lens to be up there with the big boys.
Then, just over a decade ago there was another revolution when digital slr cameras began having a real impact on the professional photography industry. That was the first game-changer. The second was the more recent, non-stop development of mobile phone cameras. These cell phones do not offer the same versatility as a dslr, particularly in difficult low-light conditions, but they can produce exceptional single images.
Either way, the business-model of photography – stock, editorial, wedding, events, portraiture – has changed forever, been cut back, re-sized and now has (some say) nowhere to go.
So, what can photographers do apart from get depressed? I think there is only one way to take on innovation technology – and that’s with innovative thinking.
As a profession victimised by technology, photography is not alone. Journalism has suffered just as much (the internet has slowly been choking print for years). The music industry has also suffered (from illegal downloads).
And it is the music industry which, I believe, photography can take inspiration from.
Bands used to make their money from selling singles and albums. Tours were booked just to support their latest vinyl release. Then the internet came along. Downloads – usually illegal – punched a huge whole into the business model which the music industry never really recovered from. Online streaming only exacerbated the problem by giving users access to massive song libraries while rewarding the artists who wrote and performed the songs with almost nothing in return.
Record companies are no longer the free-spending giants they once were, while new bands have a hugely difficult task in getting their music heard.
But the musicians themselves realised that the one thing the streamers and illegal downloaders could not steal and distribute themselves was the live experience. And so, in 2018, singers and bands tour more than they ever have before, with increasingly intricate shows at alarmingly expensive prices. Gig-goers were contributing around £200 for a standard ticket to the recent U2 benevolent fund tour.
But how, I hear you cry, can photography emulate this hugely successful business model for its own end? How can an art form which sits closer to fine art than it does to performance ever hope to swap an art gallery for a theatre?
Well, I’m here to tell you photography can be performance and images can be shown to a live audience.
My practice over the past five years has been developing photography-related performances which are delivered to a live audience. I’ve been delivering these pieces – incorporating performance, spoken word, poetry, music, audio and video – to live audiences at live art and contemporary performance festivals, and the odd photography festival.
And doing these lecture-based photography performances – Outsiders, Worn, Northern World, Pub Karaoke Photography Exhibition – I have seen the future. And the future is where a working professional documentary photographer makes their money not from exhibitions or by being featured in a glossy magazine (as if this ever was a source of income anyway) but by delivering their photography in person to audiences in theatres who have paid for tickets to be there.
You might sit there thinking a photographer is never going to sell-out an arena gig – and you’re probably right. But I believe this kind of presentation – think lectures on speed – has limitless possibilities. Images are already used extensively in arena gigs, visuals backing up songs. Can this process be inverted so the music – and the band – is supporting the visuals? Imagine if it was the documentary photography project which 5,000 people came to see projected on to 100ft big screens?
Think Adam Curtis’ revolutionary documentary work with Massive Attack at Manchester International Festival. Think big, that’s what I say.
My definition of performance does mean you have to be singing and dancing on stage (although I do actually do that) but can be as simple as an enhanced lecture-based presentation of your work. The key is to deliver that with a dollop of theatrics to make the work stand out and, most importantly, make the experience memorable.
And that is what the live thing is all about – the experience. Giving an individual, an audience, an experience which makes them remember you, your work and that moment in time in their lives where you both collide.
This photo by Andy Ford