Can Photographers Succeed Without Gatekeepers?

Can photography exist outside its current boundaries? Is it possible for photographers to create and sustain a market that they create and manage directly?

Let’s step back a bit. Editorial photography has always been accessed through gatekeepers, otherwise known as magazines. It has evolved to other forms of publication, but the model is the same, whether it is a Web site or a magazine. Audiences have always been served photography through photo editors who determined which images were seen. A little bit like radio stations and DJs for music and musicians.

But the rules, they are a-changin’, aren’t they ?

Bypassing the Gatekeepers

Flickr, like Napster for music, has opened up the distribution channels of photography. Like the original Napster, no one is making money with this — but mentalities are being changed drastically. Publications are no longer in absolute control of what images are seen by the public, just as record companies are no longer in control of what music is being listened to.

Of course, no photographer, today, has completely bypassed the traditional gatekeepers. There is no one that has the notoriety of an Annie Leibovitz — and it would seem impossible to achieve such notoriety without first being published in the pages of Vogue, Harper’s, Vanity Fair or other magazines.

But how long will this be the case? How long will it be before a photographer achieves the notoriety of a Robert Frank, for example, without ever being published outside his own Web site or Flickr? How long before that photographer use his notoriety to generate not only a huge following, but impressive revenue?

We all have been witness to the impressive impact of online viral marketing and social sites like Digg. They have made some images extremely popular already — so why not a photographer? Where there is a high demand, there is a market.

So what of the gatekeepers? Will photo editors and photo agencies continue to control most of the commercial photo market? Do photographers need them to be seen and sold? Does one still need the gatekeepers?

We Still Need Gatekeepers — for Now

For now, yes. The photo industry, unlike music, is a self-sustaining industry. Publishers buy from agencies or established photographers. They have little or no desire to go and purchase images in the wild.

Would a publisher hire a photographer simply because he consistently gets a million hits a day on the Web, despite having never been published anywhere? Doubtful, as that is not the training of the gatekeeper — oops, sorry, the photo editor. Will a photo festival ever expose the work of someone who has never been published but has millions of fans online? Very doubtful.

But the rules will continue to change. Just because the photo world embraced digital technology before the music industry, that doesn’t mean it won’t suffer the same drastic upheaval. Traditional publishing is dying — but that doesn’t mean that photography will disappear with it.

Can photographers create and manage their own market without the help of gatekeepers? It will not happen overnight, but the answer is : Certainly.

2 Responses to “Can Photographers Succeed Without Gatekeepers?”

  1. I grow more and more convinced the future for photographers is within the pages of inexpensively produced books. Something cheap enough to be disposable-income friendly, which means we have to think in terms of the mechanics of book printing rather than fine art printing.
    Because whatever else is happening, books are still being printed, and more importantly, being sold.

  2. Specifically to stock and assignment, the gatekeepers are also the paymasters. Obviously not so for the likes of fine art and weddings, etc.

    I believe that the real gatekeepers that the market needs to usurp are the powerful agents and stock companies. I see models such as photoshelter and license stream creating the new market (if the buyers allow).

Leave a Reply