Stephen Mayes – Liveblog from Flash Forward
Stephen Mayes, Managing Director of VII Photo and one of my favorite photo thinkers, is presenting a lecture titled, “Restructuring the Photographic Process,” during the Flash Forward Festival today, June 3, at noon EST.
If you’d like to see what he has to say but can’t join us in Boston, please check in here, where I’ll liveblog his talk and any subsequent discussion.
Studied psychology in college. Always been in the supply side of photography.
Started in photojournalism, ran a photojournalism agency, creative director for Getty, then to Ice Storm working with top artists selling large editions of work online, Art+Commerce in NYC, then back to photojournalism with VII.
Gives me perspective of the same landscape but from many different vantage points. Not stuck in silos like happens so often.
I’m an optimist: a pessimist who doesn’t know all the fact.
Talk: Two parts
2. Nitty gritty of actually selling pictures
“Life must be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” ~Kierkegaard
This is what we are going through now. Best analogy for us now is most like the invention of the printing press. This technology is changing our relationship with information.
If you look back at everything the printing press has effected in our world, the internet is taking us through a similar transition.
But internet is only part; the very nature of photography is changing.
Many of us in photography are still living under the delusion that what we’re working with is still the photograph.
It’s now a fundamentally different medium.
What the photo is built of, how it works, where it’s going is totally different, despite the fact it still looks like a photograph.
The shift from film to pixel, something strange happens: the PHOTOGRAPH is about nailing something down, “fixing” something; the DIGITAL MEDIUM is antithetical to “fixing,” it’s absolutely fluid. Fred Ritchin’s book After Photography has helped me come to understand this.
Once you make the image, there are still an infinite amount of changes you can make to it.
Image is no longer understood as a physical image. It now lives online, and therefore the context is moving constantly. It is NEVER static.
“Quantum photography”: a photograph can exist in completely opposite contexts at the same time (from Fred Ritchin)
Because of this, we have to redefine ourselves and rethink how we use this new tool.
Traditionally: Photography used to record something real that happened.
Now: We take pictures as part of the experience of being.
Example: Annual meeting of VII photographers, slightly bored, and a photographer starts taking unflattering photos of colleagues and sharing them on Facebook. And it immediately became a game they were all doing. Even though this was antithetical to the “serious” approach they all have to their professional photography.
Photograph as experience: Not necessarily the full-fledged new thing, but it’s a crack in the door that allows us to see what’s coming.
Also: Photographers are no longer in the driver seat. They cannot control the way their photographs are used once they are taken and shared.
Note: That sense of control has long been a slightly false illusion.
Getting down to the nitty gritty
The photography business IS in decline.
But to me, this is a moment of invention rather than dismay.
I. Fees for photography is declining rapidly
~ From stock to editorial and commercial
~ The internet has changed the value of advertising. Photography was before a pyramid which advertising was at the top of.
~ Now, advertising money has been split across millions more distribution points (online)
Our Response: Value comes not just from the image
~ Now, we are stuck on licensing/selling intellectual content by the “unit” (a book, an album, a photograph)
~ However, we are now participating instead in a “streaming culture,” that moves away from the unit
~ Even iTunes music now, you are essentially renting the music, not buying something physical that you own
~ Netflix accounts for 25% of web traffic in the US = streaming
~ Art objects may be the exception to this, the collectors’ market
II. Starving to death in the midst of plenty
~ I believe if you have good data, value is there
~ Like the monkey trap: Delicious nut in the bottom of a jar, monkey reaches in and grabs it, can’t remove it’s hand. We’re hanging on to something we think is so precious, but it’s actually killing us. What are we hanging on to? The idea of value being attached to a “unit”
Work at VII
~ When arrived, prices for photos were very low and fewer units being bought.
~ Traditionally: thought of ourselves as producing images
~ Now: with VII, the real value is integrity (also the case with many other photographic institutions)
~ In last few years, more than half money generated by VII has come from integrity, not the sale of images
~ Example: Canon sponsorship, want to be associated with the integrity of VII
~ Example: Project celebrating 150 years of Red Cross, who is also built on their integrity, trusted that VII would contribute to that and not put it in any jeopardy
~ Example: Working with MSF
Traditionally photographers have always been “suppliers”: buyer decides how much they want to buy, pay, etc. Can be a very vulnerable position. A closed relationship.
With Canon, Red Cross, MSF, we were partners. They came to us for almost a consultancy on media and communications.
Working with MSF, came with totally open dialogue. They said: We want to reinvent the dialogue on malnutrition. It’s very abstract and in some ways invisible. They asked VII, how can we tell this story visually?
Here we were, MSF and VII, both thinking expansively and as partner. Then what happened was that funding came from LG. They weren’t the client; they were buying into a project we were doing. Rather than selling something to them, we were inviting them to join our partnership.
With each addition of a partner, the project grew. LG not only contributed funding, but also technology.
Then added HC Films as a partner. Stories typically are told chronologically. But with film trailers, it’s a collage, totally non-linear, but you get the story and a call to action (to go see the movie). Experimented with that style of storytelling for the project. One lesson learned: They need to come in early as possible to the project.
What’s Interesting about Integrity
It puts the value on the photographer, not the image. This fits with what’s happening in culture. 70% of American’s primary news source is recommendations from friends. Distribution through trust networks. We pay more attention to things recommended by people we trust more.
This is also better for the photographer (or content creator). Readers are less interested in a large brand (like Time Magazine), and more interested in who is saying what. So there is the opportunity for the audience to become acquainted with and trust individual photographers.
VII photographers are now interacting directly with readers, without the mediator of the magazine.
Example: I did a talk a few years ago, and Jim Casper, blogger, asked to record the talk to 150 people. A week later was stunned to find I was addressing this HUGE audience online. Now, the feedback I was getting had found me because they were interested in what I had to stay. Suddenly there were people out there keeping an eye on what I would have to say. Then I gave an article to a friend to put on a blog, which now was coming up on Google searches and went viral. And suddenly, without working on it, I had a brand as “that guy who talks about the changes in photography.
It’s better to be small than big
You can be very fluid and mobile in a way a big institution can’t.
Most complaints you hear comes from big institutions who are having trouble paying these huge bills they’ve gotten used to and have a hard time changing to adapt to quickly changing landscape.
Small companies, little overhead, can change rapidly, and don’t have to earn nearly as much to be doing well.
We are all on the same plane
People say, well sure, you’re VII, you can call up anyone and get a response.
But there is this huge population of 18-40-years-olds out there, who don’t care about newspapers, but care about the issues. How do I reach them? I’m in exactly the same position as any other photographer out there. Already as an agency, we are boxed in by expectations and our history.
The evaporation of competition
10 years ago, to be recognized you had to get your stuff in print, and there were a very finite number of titles where you could do that. It was all about elbowing competition out of the way to get your cover story in those.
Now there are infinite outlets for distribution. Now, the greatest currency is imagination and ideas. So I can talk openly about how VII is approaching the market, and you can come up with your own ideas of how to do that, and we don’t have to be in competition.
No longer a top-down relationship of “I’m telling you this,” you’re making every reader a partner in distribution, information gathering, etc.
We think about the content producer, the editor, the publisher, the distributor, the reader. But we tend to forget about the subject. One of the things I’m excited about is finding new ways to bring the subject into that relationship structure. They understand the issue better than anyone, right?
Old model: Cross-platform. One story that you would put in several different places: book, magazine, exhibition, etc.
Doesn’t work because: Each distribution is different. Transmedia: Apply your story in different ways that are tailored to each media/distribution platform specifically.
Effect: Incredibly engaged audience. People are investigating, inquiring, interacting. Has been very effective in advertising. Each small element builds up a more complete, collaged sense of the product. How can that be applied to media and photography?
Slideshows, interviews with photographers, videos. Fairly traditional at this point.
Engaged an advertising agency to help create the magazine. Had worked with Magnum in Motion and found it very exciting, but also frustrating because of certain limitations.
We wanted to go far beyond that and give lots of space.
Traffic was most important: more readers = more possibility for advertising
But rather than driving traffic to OUR SITE, we created an iFrame based platform that requires a bit of code to be embedded on other websites, where audience already exists, and they get the complete VII magazine.
It’s free for them. BUT: We have complete editorial control. We get the commercial benefit (they can place ads around it, but once they click on the story, traffic counts for VII).
Give away free content: Allows you to bring in more viewers, therefore more partners and sponsors.
Old model: Amount of money you make is linked to how much work you do.
In this model: Money comes from having something interesting to say. Could do ONE great story that blows up and supports you for the year.
Example: Life Without Lights by Peter DiCampo
No Single Solution
The trap: What’s “the answer”?
My answer: There is no one answer. The “answers” are limitless.
We should not be trying to replace one monolithic structure with another.
Big message: Let go of what you think is precious and valuable. Take risks. Think big. The biggest risk is STANDING STILL. What you learn as you evolve and move forward is of equal value to any money you can earn.
Q. This works for VII, can partnerships work for individual photographers also?
A. You can do it on your own, you just have to learn how to do a lot more than take photos (social media, website, etc.). Or you can partner with people to help you with those things. I have this fantasy of new photo agency, a few photographers, plus a PR person, a lawyer, a web designer. Partnership is also great because you can work from trade, not just money.
Q. How did it work, partnering between MSF as NGO and LG as commercial entity.
A. One of things MSF did, they held rigidly to their principals, and LG ended up accepting their terms. In part that was because of the inclusion of VII in the partnership. VII provided a promise of serious distribution.
This is not a new problem but people ask it a lot. We have to be very very careful, it’s true, but it’s something we’ve always done. We can’t forget that our role, even when we associate with big brands, which is to bring integrity and honesty to any work that we do.
Q. I was interested in the idea of editing a topic across multiple platforms. How do you show something that is linked, without ever repeating yourself?
A. MSF was a great example. First, no single photo story tell the whole story of malnutrition. First there is a website that points to other things, then a traveling exhibition that is very short but takes you to the website to see more. Social media is like the blood that pumps between all these different organs.
Q. NY Times has put up pay walls, but Al Jazeera is letting you stream everything for free online. Thoughts about where things are heading, especially as far as monetization?
A. I cannot imagine. And neither can the NY Times. With credit to them, they are experimenting and very publicly.
Q. How does this apply to fine art photography?
A. Fine art photography is in a bit of a bubble. I divide fine art into two categories: 1. In museum, all about the idea. (Place of the work in the history of art) 2. In gallery, all about the object. Artists can use the internet to create a brand for themselves, but fundamentally their value is based on a physical object.
Q. Does VII Photo engage in the fine art world?
A. Yes, but it’s kind of bizarre, because the content of the photos is often very sad or upsetting. One thing we do is auctioning prints to raise funds for non-profit organizations. One print went for ,000, which is now recorded in the art market, even though it was really an excuse to give money to the non-profit.
Q. How do you contend with more competition and constantly lower rates in the advertising realm?
A. I think the answer is in diversifying. Print sales, teaching/lecturing for fees, books. It will take imagination for that, but it is a necessary process right now. When I was working at Art+Commerce with people like Leibovitz and Meisel, I was just stunned at the day rates they were getting. If I’m Dolce&Gabanna and I’m paying that kind of money, it means I really really believe in that work. So one answer is to actually increase your fee, people will assume it is more valuable. In the same vein, never do anything truly for free, without any negotiating, people won’t respect the work.
~ All done! Signing off….