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The Exposure Economy & The Diminishing Value of Creative Currency

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This image of Ingmar Backman and his huge method air is an early example of an image that saw its value skyrocket purely out of demand, and with the 20 yr anniversary this month; its value has gone back up. p. Jeff Curtes

by Sean Sullivan

I have to admit… Coming up as a photographer in the snowboarding industry in the 90’s, it was a relatively charmed life. If one could put all the pieces in place to where they were consistently shooting decent photos; it was indeed possible to eek out a living. The primary reason for this was that, at the time; photography was still a specialized art form. ‘Gittin’ the goods’ was far more challenging on film, the uncertainty alone would be enough to drive a modern day digital shooter mad.

Due to this challenge, great snowboarding photos commanded top dollar for print magazines which at the time were the dominating source of information. Between ads and editorial, the demand for quality imagery has always been strong. There has however been a shift in the past decade or so in how content is both gathered and disseminated to the public, this shift is synonymous with a global movement away from print media and analog photo systems. While the demand for great imagery has always been high, a prevalent trend across the majority of media driven industries is acquiring content by mining the web for cheap or free imagery that they can ‘share’ across their various social networks.

Combine a digital camera and a wifi signal and you are, in this era; a photographer. Everyone takes pictures, whether its on their phone, or using a stand-alone camera; the average human is shooting, then they’re posting, to Instagram, Facebook, snapchat, etc.. Well over a Billion (yes, with a B) photos are being shot and posted online every single day around the world.

“How many photos did you say are shared every day”? An article about this, and its from 2014!: http://tech.firstpost.com/news-analysis/now-upload-share-1-8-billion-photos-everyday-meeker-report-224688.html
MORRY_SELKIRKS

This photo of Marc Morrisset from Revelstoke was recently chosen as one of the top twenty most iconic snowboarding images of all time, as such its value went up sharply in sync with the demand for it.  As the hype subsided though, so did its value; but its classic status will always keep it at a certain level well above the value of an average image. photo: Sean Sullivan – @Sulliphotoz

While not everyone is Ansel Adams, there is little doubt that with a decent camera, and a bit of practice; people can generally take pretty good photos. And some shoot masterpieces! With this explosion of amateur creators has also come a tidal wave of digital content, flowing across the internet to friends, to companies, to everyone, everywhere. The world is literally awash in better than average imagery, and as happens anytime there is a glut in a market… Prices go down, value goes down.

I’ve worked with a stock agency, Getty Images, for more than 20 years. For many of those years it was a lucrative arrangement, but over time it was the same story; the diminishing value of digital assets forced a rethink on how stock imagery would be sold. Getty in fact recently launched a new program whereby their images, when poached off the web, are tagged to link back to their site. Instead of pursuing what is a never ending flow of copyright violations; they have instead chosen to make exposure their payoff from these poached images.

Kind of ironic when you think about it, one of the worlds largest photo providers trading exposure for usage.

Sound familiar?

An interesting article talking about Getty’s shift in image sharing : http://www.americanphotomag.com/getty-images-enables-embedding-photos-free-no-watermark

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With recent events surrounding Noah Salasnek, the value of his imagery has gone through the roof as magazines and websites around the world jockey for the best shots of which there are only so many. In many instances, the same images are being used by several publications which lends credence to the notion that demand create value and vice versa. Thankfully most if not all of the photographers supplying imagery of Noah, including myself; have chosen to donate their imagery, or donate the buyout for these uses; to Noah’s assistance fund… which can be found here: https://www.gofundme.com/NoahSalasnek   photo: Sean Sullivan – @Sulliphotoz

(Before proceeding, lets make an important distinction… a photographer rarely “sells” his photos. More often they will sell a “use” of the image. That is, they are selling the right for a person or a company to use the photo while actual ownership of the image remains in the hands of the original photographer).

For an example of how ‘too much content’ has effected the value of digital assets on a grand scale, one can look at sites like Dreamstime where a better than average photo of just about anything can be downloaded for just a few bucks or less. By accepting all comers, these agencies are able to sift out a few good shots from the masses and sell them for pennies. Its a brilliant model but its not especially lucrative for all but the most prolific shooters. For the aspiring photographer the value of these sites lies, once again; in the ‘Exposure’ one gets from it more than the actual licensing revenue.

It is this desire for exposure that is fueling the masses to push the flow of content out across the planet; we live in a media driven society and the digital content is its lifeblood. If you put these assets into the context of digital currency, then its possible to assign value to them based on several factors, including among other things; timeliness, image intensity, specific relevance, and technical quality. Photography is subjective, so one person’s A grade is another person’s garbage. This demand for quality however is not what it once was, and we have become accustomed to accepting less than 5-star content in exchange for cheaper and/or quicker access.

With print mags more of a boutique luxury these days, the web is obviously where the majority of the content is being consumed. Besides being less costly, pushing content on the web has no lag. It can be same moment, from anywhere in the world. Where do you find out about current events in your specific interests? Social Media, insty, FB…. And the content there is free and coming from all directions. This shift in the timeliness of content delivery has no doubt played a measurable role in the erosion of print medias influence on popular culture. “Who cares what happened 6 months ago, I saw it on youtube the day after it was shot.” Magazines in particular have become almost a luxury; a perk reserved for the well heeled or well connected. Perhaps rightly so? It is the print magazines where the very best imagery is being shared, in turn; it is its nature as a tangible, physical object that a print magazine validates fully the value of the imagery within.

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Craig Kelly has always been one of the most highly regarded individuals to ever ride a snowboard, and with his passing, like all artists; his work has not only increased in Value but also holds it value over the long term.  This might be because, well, he’s Craig… but its also because there will never be another photo taken of him.   photo: Sean Sullivan – @Sulliphotoz

There are endless scenarios where a photographer might be offered exposure in trade for usage of original content .. new companies, blog pages, brand name instagram feeds … To a large company, that image is worth half a day in the feed and perhaps a few hundred (or a few thousand) likes, or more. Often new content is added later the same day. There’s no easy way to truly quantify the value of that one post to a large company. Predictably, it is the ambiguous nature of the connection between a post and its true value that allows for the downgrading of this digital currency.

It is best not to interpret this essay as an indictment of this system. Fact is; no content creator is immune to the exposure economy, and every artist has a choice whether or not to participate. Here in-lies the conundrum, by sharing imagery for free one is in a sense perpetuating the devaluation. Does a shot lose or gain value when it shows up on Instagram? The answer is complicated, but one thing is not; the global appetite for fresh, new, current content is insatiable.

Every photographer who has ever sold a photo has likely given away dozens of images to get that first sale. And they will continue to give away image uses for free from time to time for various reasons throughout their career. As one is just starting out, the desire to get ‘exposure’ can be intoxicating; and as their photos begin to appear around; this hunger for more is what pushes many photographers to work harder and in some cases rise to a professional level. But it can also create an unrealistic hyper-sensitivity to both ends of the ‘sharing’ spectrum, being too guarded over ones intellectual property can hold back an artist from realizing their true potential, while oversharing ones work cannot not only over-saturate their sphere of contact but also open the door to rampant poaching. Finding this balance is one of the most difficult steps for any artist to surmount as its a moving target, its comes down to recognizing the realistic value of the work at that moment.

There is of course those images that do not end up on social media, at least until they reach ‘classic’ status. They are the images that photographers put aside for the most coveted of placements. Its no secret that, what we see online is rarely the best shot of the day, its often the B roll; stuff thats good for insty but wouldn’t make the cut for print. Many of these images are also often edited and curated to offer a surrealistic view of reality. An argument can be made that this perpetual flow of manipulated, B-grade imagery also contributes to the overall trend of devaluation.

An interesting article on how what we see online is manipulated: http://www.boredpanda.com/truth-behind-instagram-photos-cropping-chompoo-baritone/

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During his time, Pat Abramson was one of the hardest working professional riders in Snowboarding, but his images didnt command a ton of value… that is until this cover came out from Mt Hood of Pat A hand planting a giant box at Windells Camp.  Recently Pat also won the Masters division f the Baker Banked Slalom and as such his imagery saw a spike in demand and as a result, value.     photo: Sean Sullivan – @Sulliphotoz

Eventually, each photographer/artist/content creator who tries to sell their work will be forced to develop their own ideals for how their work is valued. Often times it can be a fluid proposition based on which image it is and who wants it. Ultimately, the value of a single piece of content is constantly shifting. In a media stream that is moving at hyper-speed, timing is everything. If you ask any seasoned photographer who has long since gone through the process of establishing their own personal guidelines, they will likely tell you that in the long run not only is the exposure economy a necessary evil… it is also a system that can be made to work in the photographers favor. IE, it never pays to give something for nothing <<< and this, is really the point of it all …

>>> When photographers, filmers, and artists of all kinds keep a high value on their work, the entire creative world benefits. But it is also on the companies of the world to support these artists by being fair in recognizing this value and compensating them accordingly.

>>> A “for-profit” company asking for photos for free is not right, paying for imagery is one of the costs of doing business and if they cannot afford it… then they should not be in business, period.

>>> In the end, it is this exchange that is so fundamental to keeping the quality of work high and the evolution of the various art forms moving forward.

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Comments (24)

  1. Don’t know the Pat A photo, but every single of the others is a certified classic.

     
  2. digital killed the photography star

     
  3. the cream rises to the top.

    take better photos?

     
  4. its not about the camera–its not about the photographer ….its about the boarder puking colt 45 into a urban trash can in tecknacolor

     
  5. That Mark M shot is one of my all time faves.

    Nice job Sully.

     
  6. Killer article, thank you. So was this story that includes A grade shots paid for or was it done for exposure on a for profit web site?

     
  7. THE FEAR OF FAILURE SHAPES ART.

     
  8. This is what snowboarding is about, capturing moments of talent…in front of and behind the lens. Donate to Noah so he can keep riding pow in Tahoe.

     
  9. Pat A is a legend! 🙂

    And this was a really awesome article that will be bookmarked and shared by me for years to come.

    Really great work!

     
  10. We steal videos not photos. Dont follow us.

     
  11. Great article! Peeking behind the curtain is something that intrigues all of us. Thanks.

     
  12. film me PUKING OR don’t even take pix

     
  13. In an age when everyone is a professional photographer, no one can be a professional photographer. The money isn’t coming back; taking pictures can be a fun hobby, but “pro snowboard photographer” is never gonna be a real career for someone coming up today.

    In the 90s barriers to entry were stiff and limited supply imputed real financial value to quality photos. Now every 12 year old shoots HD and there’s an unlimited supply of snowboard shots servicing a limited market demand.

    Just ask buggy whip salesmen, newspaper editors, and travel agents. Technology changes and occupations get wiped out.

    But on the flipside you couldn’t make six-figures as a Social Media Manager or four-figures as a Pro-Blogger in 1995. Complaining about the immorality of for-profit companies failure to prop up a dying business model isn’t going to pay any bills.

    2016-world sucks. I want to go back to 1983 and blow everyone’s tits off with nose butters and switch-back 5s.

     
    • Your ideology is flawed and dangerous to those who wish to make snowboard photography or video a career.

      If you can’t make a career in snowboarding photography, the only person to blame is yourself, not “12 year olds shooting hd”. Kids are more saavy with technology, and social media is their way of expressing themselves.

      The fact that the older guys can’t keep up and lose touch with the youth is really what it comes down to. You need to set yourself apart from the rest to survive in a saturated market, and if you’re not willing to do that, you better have a fallback plan.

       
    • Dude, you could make a career out of back 3s until about 1992.

       
    • HOMIE, ABSOLUTELY NO ONE IN 1983 WAS BUTTERING A DAMN THING OTHER THAN TOAST.

      1990-91 WAS THE START.

       
      • IN 1986, THE SNOWBOARD NOSES WERE LONG, THE TAILS WERE SHORT, THE BINDINGS WERE NOT RELIABLE OR COMFORTABLE AND MOUNTED WAY TOO CLOSE TOGETHER. THE BOOTS WERE ALSO MAJORLY FLIMSY DEPENDING ON HOW MUCH DUCT TAPE YOU CHOSE TO APPLY.

        ALMOST EVERYONE SNOWBOARDING AT THAT TIME WAS ABLE TO DO NOSE SPINS IN ALL DIRECTIONS. YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD THIS BEFORE.

        IN MY OPINION, MACK DAWG’S FIRST THREE SNOWBOARDING FILMS WERE THE BEGINNING OF WHAT A SHREDDER REFERS TO AS “BUTTERING” ON SNOW. I SAY THIS KNOWING FULL WELL THAT THE OTHER GREAT ASPIRING FILMERS OF THAT MOMENT IN TIME SUCH AS WHITEY MCCONNAUGHY (C&C UNDERGROUND), STEVE BLAKELY (SEVENTH YEAR), JUSTIN HOSTYNEK (ANTHEM), MIKE HATCHETT & PATRICK SOLOMON (TOTALLY BOARD & TB2), AND JERRY DUGAN (SNOWBOARDERS IN EXILE) ALL HAD TO DEVELOP A VISUAL STYLE OF THEIR OWN DESIGN. THEY KNEW THAT THE MOST POSITIVE RIDING ENERGY RESIDED ENTRENCHED DEEPLY WITHIN THE RELENTLESSLY FREE SPIRITED CULTURAL MINDSET THAT ENCAPSULATES THE ESSENCE OF SHREDDING ON SNOW WITH YOUR FRIENDS IN AN EARNEST FRENZY OF STOKED VIBES.

        CONSIDERING ALL OF THE REALEST OF INCREDIBLENESS THAT THESE TRULY VISIONARY ARTISTS LISTED ABOVE CREATED FROM SCRATCH ON EXPENSIVE $100 MOTION PICTURE FILM REELS AND LOW DEFINTION HI-8 VIDEO TAPES THAT WERE BEING POWERED BY CUMBERSOME DYING BATTERIES, ONLY TO PAY SOME EDITING STUDIO $275 AN HOUR TO PLOW THROUGH POST PRODUCTION.

        HOWEVER, WEATHERING A BAD STORM BACK THEN MEANT THERE WERE FRESH RIDEABLE OPPORTUNITIES ARISING UPON THE SCENERY AROUND YOU, AND IT STILLS DOES TODAY.

         
    • Anything is possible with the right knowledge and provided you know the right people. Who ever said everyone is a professional photographer these days? That kind of goes against the premise of this whole article. I mean just look at the subjects of these photos, all legends in their own right. These speak for themselves.

      Those who produce good work will continue to get work, provided you know the right people/talent. There may not be a clear path toward working “full time” as a “professional snowboard photographer” anymore (if that was even a thing to begin with), but I’ll be damned if that doesn’t mean you try your hand at shooting other subjects. If you have a good eye and knowledge of your craft. the only thing holding you back is your refusal to get out of the corner you have backed yourself into.

      Other than super in-demand top level photographers, it is very rare to find people working in one specific genre these days, be it skating, snowboarding, basketball, food, fashion, etc. Work goes where the money goes, that’s just the world we live in…….

      Learn your craft and diversify your bonds. You get what you give. If you wanna do this whole “pro” thing, quit focusing on just shooting your hobbies and just focus on your craft if you really want to do it legit.

      Coming from a guy who wanted to be “pro snowboard filmer” and ended up as “Pro video guy” as a matter of practicality. Bottom line is you have to embrace your medium of choice for better or worse; Or else it won’t happen.

      If you want to go the pro snowboard media guy route, just fucking go out to Hood already and meet some people.

      The path is clear, go take it. You’ve just gotta want it that much more than the next guy.

       
  14. I don’t understand the captions on old photo values going up and down. Ingmar Backman’s method is a dope shot, but who’s shelling out cash money in 2016 for a 20 year old photo and why?

     
  15. Mori=1080 Gap.

    I feel he had the best sequences on print media-especially his Special Blend layouts.

    Amazing style.

     
  16. Hello! I’ve been reading your weblog for a while
    now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Houston Tx!
    Just wanted to mention keep up the excellent work!

     

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