Ever noticed how absurdly self-important and earnest semi-professional photographers can be? You know the type: the ones who scream blue bloody murder at every perceived “infringement”, taking time out from brewing their home-made beer and making marmalade for their nine invariably publicly funded children to blog furiously because a newspaper used one of their shit snaps of Romford.
Every uncleared use of their dodgy drudgery is now cause for nuclear war, prompting furious tweet battles as the poor dears rope in their mates. Pity the poor blog that unwittingly uses a copyrighted but identikit snap of a black cab when the uptight freelance brotherhood catches a whiff.
Their friends in high places don’t exactly do them any favours either: yesterday I was shown a legal letter from Getty Images sent to a small London start-up, demanding over £2,000 for a single online use of one of the most banal photographs I think I’ve ever seen. Getty’s business model appears to be morphing into ambulance chasing.
Well, perhaps now we know why they’re all so miserable: plummeting rates and encroaching irrelevance as software like Instagram shows up just how easy it is with modern technology to transform yourself into a modern-day Annie Leibovitz. Because the truth is that just about anyone can be a photographer these days.
For one thing, pick up a D-SLR for five hundred quid and it does all the technical work for you. I’ve no idea what an aperture is, or what ISO you should use to take a picture of a hummingbird at dawn, but these days I don’t have to know. My photos come out looking terrific – and, what’s more important, they’re mine, each one engraved with my own memories.
And that’s before we even get on to the wave of idiot-proof smartphones and WiFi-enabled Android handhelds currently flooding the market. I defy anyone to take a bad picture with an iPhone 5, for all that phone’s various other faults. These days, your grandmother can take photographs that rival the best mid-tier professional shots from less than a decade ago.
And then there’s Instagram, which blends three irresistible ingredients: a high-quality handheld smartphone camera with sophisticated and automatic software processing, beautiful filters and nostalgia. To the consumer’s eye, there’s little difference between professional portraiture and an Instagrammed snap your mum puts on Facebook.
In fact, there’s more to be said for the latter: it introduces turbo-charged social affirmation into the process of taking and sharing “arty” photography. Bespoke art is now a standard to be demanded, not a luxury to be coveted.
It’s one example of Silicon Valley’s democratising windbaggery actually yielding fruit: consumer electronics and attractively designed social software have utterly disintermediated the middle tier of the professional photographic industry. Why would anyone hire a photographer for their child’s christening again, except to show off?
There will always, of course, be demand for the very best. News photographers will always be able to rake in vast sums for snaps of celebrities looking worse for wear and other front-page fodder. Fashion photographers, too, are unlikely to fall out of demand: marketing spend in the luxury goods industry is generally resistant to recessions, and will only grow in the future.
But for those angry white men making a bit on the side at births, deaths and marriages, those who invariably kick up the most fuss when “wronged”, the game is up. Awe-inspiring images are now available at the tap of a touchscreen. In the future, it’s only those with access who will be paid for their ability to invade privacy. Photographers who are invited in should be looking for new jobs.
Interestingly, and despite the rise of content farms and a race to the bottom at many large media organisations, which foolishly pursue quantity over quality despite the evidence that the opposite is what will save them, the business of writing remains stubbornly immune from the internet’s corrosive devaluing effects. Why? Because, quite simply, no algorithm can ever write a Christopher Hitchens essay, or anything that sounds remotely like it.
Until artificial intelligence becomes a reality – at which point, let’s face it, we’ll have bigger problems to worry about than the economics of paid content – there is no realistic proposition that a clutch of code would ever be able to hold forth on the issues of the day in a compelling, attractive and entertaining way, nor that a computer could ever develop the sort of personality that drives star columnist salaries.
This is why Boris Johnson can still command £250,000 a year for his column in the Telegraph and why the Sunday Times pays out such enormous salaries to its best writers. The impending devastation of the photography industry by ever more complex and gorgeous software reminds us of the prestige and power of the written word, and of the enduring primacy of prose as the highest art form and the greatest method of communication to which man can aspire.
Personally, I look forward to this exciting new photographic landscape. Sharing images is still the thing Facebook is best at and not for nothing is it the task so many Californian start-ups preoccupy themselves with. And, frankly, I can’t imagine many people on picture desks or running media businesses shedding tears over the demise of an industry populated by so many jackasses.