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Professional Images: The end of an era? 

Two things happen this week that touched on a significant change in the creative world and how photographic images are made and who profits from their sale.

First came an e-mail message from a very talented designer of outdoor gear who asked if I'd take a look at his photo website and offer a critique of his work. "I'm trying," he wrote, "to find a way to make money as a photographer."

I looked at his site and his work was exceptional. But was it exceptional enough for him to make a decent living as a photographer? I doubt it because as things are now similar images to his taken with a cellphone and manipulated to death by clever software jockeys are being sold for next to nothing.

So as to the "trying to find a way to make money," I was tempted to write back something along the lines of : "Good luck. About every photographer who used to make money is trying to figure out how to do it again and are not having much luck."

Instead I let a New York Times story entitled "For Photographers, The Image of a Shrinking Path" do it for me.

In that story, writer Stephanie Clifford tells how the market for photographic images has swung away from professionals and become, by in large, a market dominated by images taken by amateurs who are more than happy just to see their byline next to a photo or receive a small check for the use of one of their images.

The culprit is the digital camera revolution, or as one person in The Times story put it the importance of knowing how a camera worked and how to create images in the film era has given way to just shooting away and fixing everything up in Photoshop or Lightroom.

Holly Stuart Hughes, editor of Photo District News, notes that, "there are very few professional photographers who, right now, are not hurting."

The president of the Oregon Chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers group, put it to me thus earlier this year: "A few top end photographers are going to continue to do well because of their names and reputations, but the vast majority of working pros are having a very difficult time staying in business."

A well-respected local professional photographer offered: "I think there will always be that one percent of photographers making it big time more because of their chutzpah and/or marketing skills, the rest of the gang are going to teach workshops or find another job and join the ranks of us who make a few bucks selling our services for professional rates. I can't imagine photography remaining a potential sole source income for the very reasons cited in The Times article."

On the surface, this new state of photography looks like the most dramatic change that's ever happened to photo business. It isn't. In fact, it's history repeating itself.

Back when I first started into making images I had the good fortune to live next door to photographer Milton Halberstadt. Hal, as he was best known as, was the premier food photographer of his generation, a man called one of the most influential photographers of his time by Black and White magazine, and an associate and good friend of Ansell Adams.

After years of success, Hal's career started to falter when the 35mm SLR camera became popular. For a large format camera, make one or two shots in a day person like Hal, the speed at which new photographers could turn out work, and do it so much more cheaply, killed much of his advertising and magazine work.

He turned to teaching with stints at the University of California Berkeley and at the University of Oregon.

Fortunately, he held onto his 5,000-square-foot studio on San Franciscos's Telegraph Hill eventually selling it for a hefty figure that allowed him to live out his life comfortably.

His eldest son, Hans, went into photography, but was smart and picked a niche that very few others have shown interest in -- photographs of historic battle fields. Sounds arcane but he apparently does very well by it.

But even that highly specialized field may soon be taken over by image makers who hold down good paying day jobs, shoot on the side and are very talented at image enhancement.

The new generation of image makers are, I suspect, probably much like the woman I met at the Cascade Cycling Classic a couple of years ago. Armed with absolutely the latest and greatest gear, of which I was very envious of, she fired away with the working photographers. When I asked her whom she was shooting for, she said, "Oh just for fun. I'm a supervisor at (insert name of well known Central Oregon employer)."

Close to $6,000 in gear in hand and a desire to get published were enough to make her happy and for me to first realize that the days of getting paid for professionally made images was fast coming to a close.

And it's not a bad thing. Times change and soon the give-the-images-away crowd will be replaced and digital will become passé and who knows, there might not be any magazines or newspaper left to publish outstanding images.

Until that time, I'll sit in my office with file cabinets filled with images and good memories of what may be looked back on as photographer's golden age, the time when you could actually make money at photography if you knew how to make good images in the camera.

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