From hot type to bottom feeders
This is a long piece, I know, but I hope it will all make some kind of sense to at least some of you, especially those interested or already involved in wedding photography. I thank everyone who inspired and encouraged me to finally write this- you may or may not know who you are.
Sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, my great grandfather started a printing and publishing business in Philadelphia, which, for many, many years was one of the finest and most successful letterpress shops in that city. Nearly every male descendant of Charles Jefferson Armor, including my great uncle, my grandfather, and my father, worked there for most if not all of their lives. I recall with great fondness the occasional Saturday mornings when I would accompany my dad into work, stopping first at the Horn and Hardart automat at 8th and Market St. for cream donuts and hot chocolate. Incidentally, and an interesting tangent to my story here, H&H (as it was known for nearly a century) closed its doors in Philly forever in the late 70‘s. It was another victim of the fast food craze being led by more ubiquitous, lower cost chains like McDonald’s, whose shiny new franchise quickly occupied the automat’s former space at 8th and Market.
After breakfast we’d walk the several bustling Center City blocks to a tall brick building at 10th and Race. Painted on the wall seven floors overhead, a bold sign proudly proclaimed my family’s name Lyon and Armor, Inc., Printers and Publishers to the city skyline.
I always marveled at the full suit of armor that greeted visitors to the firm’s front office on the sixth floor. It was fake, of course, but for some reason my great uncle felt the need to put evidence of his Anglo-Saxon heritage right up front (as if his name, C. Wesley Armor wasn’t enough of a tipoff). The warren of offices and low partitions– refined, businesslike but maybe a little dated for the swinging sixties– would make a postmodern design-obsessed retrophile froth at the mouth with its bent maple and frosted glass art deco-ness. My dad’s small office was in the front, but for me, the action was always out back on the shop floor. That’s where my grandfather would be working behind his steaming, clanking Linotype typesetting machine (pictured above). From across the vast room I’d see him sitting there typing away contentedly, pipe in mouth, transcribing copy from a sheet of paper into the huge greasy contraption that looked like a prop from the movie Brazil (but without the ductwork). He’d look up from his work, smile and shout “hello, kiddo!”, and in the time it took me to make my way past the presses and the composing tables he had punched out a thin slug of hot lead type that read John Randall Armor backwards on its narrow edge. Some of my most cherished possessions are a Parker fountain pen blackened by his permanently ink-stained fingers, along with a few beautiful books with endplate inscriptions reading Linotype Composition by the Master Printer John Pharo Armor.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Lyon and Armor was in trouble back then. Technology was changing the printing business in profound ways, first with the advent of offset presses, then with early computer technology in the form of photo typesetting. These cost-cutting and time-saving innovations were driving prices down and competition up. Faced with the overwhelming challenge of converting what had for over half a century been a mature and static infrastructure into a more modern facility, my grandfather and great uncle cashed out and reluctantly sold the business in 1971. Under new ownership, Lyon and Armor, Inc. moved from downtown Philly to a nondescript industrial park in the northern suburbs. With the sale went the good name of the business in the person of my father, Charles Winston Armor. As the only Armor remaining in what quickly became just another small print shop trying to compete in a rapidly changing industry, the pressure of maintaining the family name and reputation in a business that could no longer afford to care much about either took its toll on him, and he died a very young man at 50 in 1980. The mostly abandoned building with its fading sign at 10th and Race survived into the early nineties, when it was demolished without ceremony after a fire.
It took many years, but technology killed the printing industry’s traditional business model as dead as fast food chains killed H&H, while at the same time spawning entirely new ones. Cheap, high quality print-on-demand products like the Moo cards and Blurb books on the desk in front of me as I write this are but two examples of what grew from that revolution.
I remember a conversation I had with my dad toward the end of his life. I was maybe 17 or 18, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my own, and he said to me “whatever you do, don’t go into printing”.
And yet I somehow soon found my way into the periphery of his world. In 1987, I took a part-time job as a production artist with the art and design supply retailer Charrette while I was trying to get a freelance photography business off the ground. It was a fortuitous gig that would eventually lead to me running their in-house photography studio for almost 5 years. It would also allow me to participate first hand in the desktop publishing revolution that pushed our drawing boards, parallel rules, X-acto knives, stat cameras and photo typesetting system into the dumpster, replaced by shiny new beige Macintosh SE30 computers running Aldus Pagemaker on 7” monochrome displays.
Like the printing industry before it, technology killed both the process and the business model of traditional commercial design and pre-press production, this time seemingly overnight. The woman who used to run Charrette’s photo typesetting system reluctantly adapted to the boxy little Mac computers while teaching the rest of us some of the finer points of typography. Suddenly we were all designers, production artists and typesetters, and all of our work improved as a result of the new tools and integrated skillsets. Those who ignored the sea change soon became none of the above.
If you’ve followed my story in previous posts on this blog, you know I went through the same change yet again less than a decade later, as traditional photography began its own inevitable shift toward digital. Those who didn’t change with it saw their businesses and relevance decline, slowly at first, but unsustainably at last. And now, everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) is a photographer, and all of our work has the potential to be better than we ever could have imagined. The fact that surprisingly little of it ever does rise to meet that potential has nothing to do with technology, but everything to do with the belief that technology alone makes our work better.
All of that is meant to present my bona fides as someone conversant with the concept of change in my professional specialty. And all of that now brings me to my point.
In this past Sunday’s New York Times Style section, an article entitled For Photographers, Competition Gets Fierce caught my eye. The main thrust of the story describes the struggle many established photographers are having trying to compete with the growing numbers of newcomers and part-time “mamarazzis” charging $1000 or less to shoot a wedding, delivering nothing more than a disc of digital files and a handshake to the happy couple at the end of their big day. In many markets, this is already destroying the traditional studio’s business and profit model of selling high-markup items like prints and albums after the shoot itself. Needless to say, established wedding photographers are pissed.
The article closes with one of them describing how, instead of staying pissed, he decided to adjust to the evolving nature of the business and his clients’ expectations by closing his large studio and moving to a warmer climate with its longer shooting season. Understanding that $1000 for less than a day’s work is not exactly chump change for a one-man business with little overhead, he seems to have happily found a way to make it work. I can only assume that this photographer shoots other types of work to supplement his wedding income– even a wedding a week is only $52 grand a year, before taxes.
The argument against what many consider “bottom feeders” like these tends to be couched in terms of “quality”, “artistry”, and “service”. Many photographers invested in the overhead of studio space and staff (and maybe even fueled by just a touch of ego) say that their clients expect more from them (and are willing to pay for it) than the folks who hire the lowballers.
And that may be true, for now.
Look– the only thing that doesn’t change is change, and change these days is forging ahead at a pace that is almost incomprehensible. New technology always drives prices down and competition up, and the creative destruction it causes always results in fertile new ground for those with brains and balls. The technology and tools are changing, but so are our clients– yes, even wedding clients. As it becomes easier and easier to learn more and more about photography along with just about everything else, not only are professional photographers taking it all in, so are their wedding clients and guests. They own the same gear and software, frequent the same websites, study the same tutorials, follow and sometimes even set the same trends, and may even occasionally take the same classes and workshops that we do.
The digitalization and democratization of information since the mid-90‘s has brought change to every aspect of photography, and professionals who have stared that change in the face without at least considering its implications to their businesses have done so at great peril. Just the aesthetic and immediacy of cellphone cameras and Instagram filters alone have become the new standard of coolness and creativity for many, and no amount of professional spin will convince certain young, hip clients who may know as much (if not more) about Photoshop than we do that our years of experience, training and business investment justify our high price tag. “Good enough” has become good enough, as we all have suspected for some time. But what some often fail to acknowledge is that nowadays good enough can be pretty damn good, and in many ways is better than its ever been.
So where does that leave today’s wedding photographer, or any commercial photographer for that matter? What’s the solution?
While I don’t profess to have a definitive answer, I do suspect that it comes down to an ongoing focus on innovation, adaptation and reevaluation, which is how healthy and forward thinking businesses and individuals have always responded in times of upheaval and opportunity. It’s the solution that my grandfather and great uncle were either unwilling or unable to accept and implement in my family’s printing business. It’s even the solution that wedding photographers have turned to in the past.
When I shot weddings in the early 80’s, I worked for a studio that practiced what was at the time a pretty typical approach to the business. While we didn’t twist our brides into 1950’s Monte Zucker PPA-approved pretzel poses, we did stress a certain formality to weddings and portraiture while being mindful of so called “contemporary” trends, just like most other successful studios of the day did. We were trying to appeal to both our young couples as well as their parents, who were usually the ones, historically, paying the bill.
Around that same time, perhaps as a response to the yuppie phenomenon of couples marrying later after becoming successful enough to call their own shots and pay for their own weddings, some innovative photographers started practicing what came to be called the “photojournalistic” style. By hanging back and shooting a lot of film with small cameras, they sold themselves as being uniquely suited to capture the day faithfully without interference or manipulation, and for a while, they were. Those savvy and conspicuously consumptive couples loved the freshness, individuality and authenticity of the look so much that eventually, that new approach became the new normal. Photographers who stuck to their traditional guns found themselves with fewer and fewer targets to aim at.
The new style became so popular that couples took it a step further by distributing cheap disposable cameras to their guests in order to collect a fuller, more spontaneous record of their wedding to supplement what their paid professional shooter could provide. Some photographers responded to what they perceived as a threat to their role with exclusivity clauses in their contracts attempting to prohibit guests from photographing certain aspects of the celebrations, a bad move that usually resulted in a collective “Oh yeah? Fuck you!” response. But other photographers sensed an opportunity with this early version of crowdsourcing, and began providing (selling) those same sometimes branded disposable cameras to their clients and including a selection of their guests’ photos in new, expanded (thus more expensive and profitable) albums and multimedia presentations.
The business has evolved continuously since that time, with every hot new look, gimmick or turnkey solution that vendors, gurus and other industry trendsetters at Las Vegas trade shows can peddle. With photojournalistic coverage giving up some ground in recent years to “fashion” styles, noir portraiture, retro and vintage obsessions and the like, surely a return to 1950’s Monte Zucker PPA-approved pretzel poses can’t be far behind, something maybe even more easily enabled by a $9.99 puppet-warp-inspired iPhone app!
While in the background, waiting to pounce like thugs in the dark, there lurk the bottom feeders. They’re making their mark by somehow making it work, $1000 wedding at a time. They come and they go, but their numbers are trending upward, as are the couples willing to hire them. How you respond and adapt to that trend is up to you, but respond and adapt you must. Because just like the expensive shooters, a lot of them suck, most of them are carbon copies of each other, some of them are surprisingly good, and a few may even be great. Just like the expensive shooters, they are participating in a free market system that champions the hallowed codependency of a willing buyer and a willing seller. God bless them if they can do it, and god help any professional who believes there’s a reason why they shouldn’t be able to.
“Grow or die” was the mantra that I and many of my colleagues kept repeating to ourselves as we struggled to respond to the cascading revolutions that have happened during my 30-some years in this crazy, wonderful industry. I suggest with all sincerity and humility that it should be yours as well.