If All You Have Is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail

Lens, the photojournalism blog of The New York Times, took a fresh look this week at the Chris Usher case. The case has garnered new attention because Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court nominee, was on the three-judge panel that affirmed the decision to award Usher the trifling sum of $7 per image for the loss of more than 12,600 images by Corbis.

The most remarkable part of the Times post is when a Corbis lawyer compares photography with nails:

Why would photographers be immune from the laws of economics? … If I had a 20-year-old business selling nails, and you were interested in buying my nail business, would you not look at how it performed? Would you not look at the gross revenue over 20 years and at the net and what the competition is, in order to fix a price? Why would photographers think they’re immune from these things? It’s a commodity.

No, Corbis, photography is not a commodity. But the sad fact is, you are attempting to turn it into one. To the detriment of photographers — and yourselves.

Is Photography a Commodity?

According to Wikipedia:

A commodity is something for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market. It is a product that is the same no matter who produces it, such as petroleum, notebook paper, or milk. In other words, copper is copper. The price of copper is universal, and fluctuates daily based on global supply and demand. Stereos, on the other hand, have many levels of quality. And, the better a stereo is [perceived to be], the more it will cost.

Does photography sound more like petroleum or a stereo to you?

Photography is rarely “supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market.” Every photographer worthy of being called a professional works hard to differentiate his or her product from that of other photographers.

Nor is it “a product that is the same no matter who produces it.” Whether your image is good, bad or somewhere in between, I couldn’t reproduce it if I wanted to — because the moment captured in that photograph has passed forever.

Blurring the Lines

But there is another part of the definition of a commodity that is telling. As Wikipedia puts it:

One of the characteristics of a commodity good is that its price is determined as a function of its market as a whole. Well-established physical commodities have actively traded spot and derivative markets. Generally, these are basic resources and agricultural products such as iron ore, crude oil, coal, ethanol, salt, sugar, coffee beans, soybeans, aluminum, rice, wheat, gold and silver.

Is photography priced as a function of the market as a whole? Well, this is where the lines get blurry.

Now that companies like Getty Images are offering images on a subscription model, the perception of photography is changing. Bundling images from different photographers and pricing them as a service makes the individual images seem interchangeable, doesn’t it?

Not that photography is currently marketed like crude oil or corn, but it certainly is heading in that direction. From Newscom to PixPalace to GumGum to PicApp, there are more and more places trying to become de facto trade markets for photography.

But photography is not a commodity. So why is it being marketed as one?

The real culprits are the photo agencies that have intentionally dissociated value from pricing in an effort to keep photographers under their thumbs.

They want to convince buyers that the real value of their offering is in the service of supplying photography, rather than in selling amazing, one-of-a-kind photographs. Because conceding the latter would put more power in your hands as a photographer.

Ultimately, this strategy hurts everyone — including the agencies, which are slowly destroying themselves.

For photographers, the choice should be clear. If an agency offers subscriptions, or compares photography with nails, it is not your friend. Don’t let your precious jewels fall into their unending flow of rocks — and be priced accordingly.

9 Responses to “If All You Have Is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail”

  1. This is a stimulating and thoughtful post. Your points are intelligently made. The observation about the erosion of value resulting from the photo agency marketing and sales messaging I found very insightful. Thanks for a great post. Peace, Glen

  2. Nothing like a lawsuit, and statements from their lawyers, to find out what Corbis thinks about their photographs and the people who produce them.

  3. I agree with everything you said.

    Question: Why does a photographer need an agency today. I mean really?

    Photographers are independent, have the ability and most importantly have the tools to sell, license and distribute their own work in the marketplace and more importantly in the market niche they decide is most worthwhile.

    Where was it written that a photo buyer's job of finding and purchasing pictures should be considered a priority and that we all us should make it easy on them to find our pictures and easy on their budgets to purchase our pictures?

    If we, as independent business owners, decided to side-step this whole market approach (which a lot of us already doing right this minute) then picture budgets would increase and picture buyers would start the long overdue process of developing relationships with photographers instead of agencies. It's that or they can resort to flickr...

    The time for a shift in thinking is long overdue. Thanks!

  4. I guess that's the grit of it. The agencies want nothing more than for photography to be a commodity; even if it is a tiered commodity (much like stereos: acceptable, better, best).

    Even the pricing schemes reveal this trend.

    From a business standpoint, they are not generally purveyors of art or information (with exceptions, of course); they're widget-shifters. Something "needs a picture" and it's cheaper to buy stock than contract an assignment. The agencies trade in a compound, a medium, that fills those holes.

    This is to say nothing of the quality or skill of the photographers themselves.

    The goal is to move as many photos as they can at a price that covers their operations and growth aspirations.

    And they know that photographers are lined up to do business with them.

  5. If photography is a commodity, then I'm the equivalent of Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, etc. Go me!

  6. Keep this in mind. Editorial photobuyers don't buy what they like, they buy what they need. When you visit the cubicle of a photobuyer, notice that commodities are adorning their wall, but they're signing checks for non-commodities.

  7. The choir is going to love this sermon, but the conceptual problem with it is that some photography IS nothing but a commodity. I'd even go so far as to argue that ALL photography is to some extent a commodity!

    That's not necessarily bad, because -- never mind what Wikipedia says -- every commodity trader knows that commodity goods aren't completely undifferentiated. It's not just "corn," it's "No. 2 yellow shell corn for June delivery." If a buyer's need for corn is non-specific, s/he can buy any type, which gives a broader supply from which to choose and lets the buyer pay a lower price. But if s/he does specifically need No. 2 yellow shell corn for June delivery, the choice is narrower and the price is likely to be higher.

    The photography market works the same way. If I'm designing an ad and insist that it needs Lois Greenfield's famous photo of David Parsons dancing with the baby, then my only option is to contact Greenfield and negotiate with her. On the other hand, if my design concept will work with ANY photo (or drawing, or CGI) of a man holding a baby, I have a lot more choices, including some that are likely to be very inexpensive.

    The upshot of this is that EVERY photograph slides on a continuum that ranges from "unique" to "generic," with its position in any given instance determined by its utility for a given purpose. (We like to think of fine-art photographs as being unique, but don't big-money collectors sometimes tell their dealers they want to acquire "a Cindy Sherman" without really caring which one it is?)

    Obviously, if you want your photographs to be valued for their uniqueness, you probably shouldn't be selling them as stock. But if you want to cash in on their versatility and universality, then it makes sense to make them as widely available as possible.

    Would you rather make a photo the appeal of which is so distinctive that it sells only once, but at a high price? Or would you rather make a photo that's so universally appealing that it sells at a low price, but millions of times? Everyone's going to have his or her own comfort zone along that spectrum, and needs to market accordingly. But there's no reason to condemn other people who are comfortable somewhere else, and choose the marketing model that works best for them.

  8. Great title, really sums it up. I just don't understand their argument, it just doesn't make sense.

    You have hit the nail on the head so to speak.


  9. I agree with Ranger 9 100%.

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