Two first-time contests this month draw attention to the directions in which photography is changing in terms of both production and distribution practices. Both Photoshelter’s “Shoot the Day! ” contest (for which Foto8 is a sponsor) and Blurb’s “Photography Book Now ” contest that closed a couple of weeks ago make a virtue out of independent creative production. Both contests use web-based tools to allow photographers access to the photobook and stock industries that until recently had much higher barriers. But of course it’s not just that the technology lowers barriers to entry to these industries; the industries have themselves changed.
Photoshelter invites photographers to sell their work non-exclusively through the Photoshelter site, and for 70% of the selling price. PS editors vette contributed images, and the site provides tips on how to best promote your images, and how to choose and create salable pictures. If you want to get a better idea of where they are coming from, have a look at “How Getty is Killing the Stock Photo Industry”.
The contest is a pretty creative way to register photographers, and if you “Shot the Day” on 20 July as part of online stock marketplace Photoshelter’s call to “make the stock photo supply fresh again” then you have until 27 July to submit your images. (From the FAQ : “While the spirit of the competition dedicates one day, July 20th, to replenishing content in the five key areas, if you're busy on the 20th, we're happy to accept images shot anytime during that week through July 27th, the last day to submit.”)
Selling stock has always been a way for some to supplement their incomes, and for others to make their living. The fact that it’s as easy to upload an image to Photoshelter as it is to Flickr suggests that there’s no reason for a stock photographer to not go a nonexclusive route, unless it was cutting them off of a good agent that wanted exclusive rights.
But will a proliferation of photographers with newly found access to a distribution agency actually change what sells? On one hand, there are the same two levels of gatekeepers: the editors at the agency and the buyers at the publication. While there will be daring publications, institutional change can be slow and industry change slower. On the other hand there will be buyers looking for something fresh and new, and if the routes that pictures travel change enough, then the expectations surrounding them will too. I’d be interested in hearing from photographers who have changed their stock shooting/ selling practices because of access to microstock agencies like Photoshelter.
One thing about stock: regardless of how interesting a photographer you are, it is the picture that sells, not the photographer. Stock pictures are sold to be recontextualized and are thus far away from the ethos that guide documentary photography and photojournalism, which demand attention to the umbilical relationship between the picture and the world.
However, as it becomes easier to sell stock, or at least, to contribute stock to an agency, the character of the stock pool will change. Browsing through the Photoshelter collection, there appear to be many images that come from the photographer’s personal life. There’s a lot of images showing a real intimacy that isn’t always evident in collections of stock pictures. Most publications and ad agencies, I’ll guess, will continue using the visual language of posed models in controlled situations. But with a critical mass of quality personal photography offered up for sale as stock, there’s the potential for a new kind of emotional language to be introduced to stock photography. (Interestingly, this comes at a time- the last fifteen years of so- that a great deal of fine art documentary photography espouses detachment, whether contextualized or not. If the way that stock “feels” begins to change, how will the mediascape change?)
The Photography Book Now contest, which closed earlier this month, and for which the winners will be announced in September, invited entrants to send in “commercially bound” self-published photography books. The contest is produced by Blurb and a number of other sponsors. An upcoming series of salons in different cities will feature entered books.
Blurb is an online photography book printer. Like Apple’s iBooks and the books that you can order from Snapfish or any number of other online digital photo services, Blurb allows you to combine images and text through a selection of a la carte options and online page layouts which are then printed, bound, and shipped.
Photographers have praised web-produced photobooks: Stephen Shore exhibited his iBooks at his ICP show, and shared his thoughts on technology with Jörg Colberg in an interview last fall. Taking inspiration from Shore, Jonathan Elderfield has made photobooks based on personal projects that were shot over anywhere from several months to one hour.
One interesting and convenient aspect of the Photography Book Now contest is that entries could be uploaded to Blurb and not actually physically sent to the competition. The competition will produce Blurb books submitted electronically if the entry reaches a final stage in the contest.
And, books entered through Blurb can be previewed on the Blurb site- there are more than 1700. The range of design and subject matter is impressive, and evidences that the unmediated offerings are individual expressions. That is, there is something very raw about these books. Whether the execution is professional, proficient, or poor, each book makes the photographer’s case for how their pictures make sense of the world for them. With their own words, edit and display, it is an unusual opportunity to visit with 1700 different sensibilities, in a way that is very different than the flickr photostream format.
These very personal photobooks are not things that are easily shared because there has been until very recently no very easy way to make, nor to circulate, a photobook. This month Steidl has published Robert Frank’s Peru , a book that was originally made as a hand-made book by Frank for his mother as a birthday present; only two copies were in existence, including one that he made for himself. Similarly, Frank’s Black White and Things was made in an edition of three in 1952, spiral bound with original prints, and given to his parents and to Edward Steichen. He kept a copy for himself which he donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC in 1990, serving as the basis for a 1994 paperback edition. It’s a fitting coincidence that Peru is published at the same time as a contest that celebrates the selfpublished book.
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