Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2020
Photography by Tony Ward, Copyright 2020
Does Photography Have a Future?
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about that question. The industry I devoted my life to studying and writing about is a ghost of what it once was. Every year for as long as I can remember the Photo Marketing Association was very important to the world of photography. Their annual trade show was one of the biggest, filling up two floors of the giant Las Vegas Convention Center. Now the PMA no longer holds a trade show at all, and they sold their office building in Jackson, Michigan, and operate with a skeleton crew out of rented offices. Why did this happen? The PMA membership was made up of independent camera stores, and how long has it been since you’ve seen one of those? People used to come to camera shops, like the ones I ran in the 70s and 80s not just to buy cameras, lenses, film, etc., but to talk photography. Many of my regular customers would just stop in to chat, even when they didn’t need anything. And I didn’t mind. That was how camera shops operated. But, already in the 70s we small independent dealers were under pressure from discounters. In those days K-Mart, J.C. Penny, Sears, Woolco, and others all had camera departments in their stores. And there were the mail order dealers that advertised very low prices in photo magazines. Often they were retailing cameras for less than my wholesale prices. How could they do that? Volume. While I might buy three or four cameras at a time, they would buy 144 or more. Of course a company that buys in volume like that has negotiating power to haggle the price down.
There was actually a lawsuit against the Pentax distributor over this, and the small dealers won to force the distributor to sell to all at the same price. Did this help the small dealer? Not really. The camera distributors got around it by offering the discount houses special camera models minus a feature or two (like having a top shutter speed of 1/500 second instead of 1/1000) at a lower price, special models that were only sold in large quantities. We small dealers had to offer services that the discounters didn’t offer, like knowing our stuff and taking time to chat with the customers. In my case, I also took the National Camera course and learned to repair cameras. I could offer in-house repairs, often on a while-you-wait basis. The discounters, if they offered repairs at all, had to ship cameras to repair services in big cities, which took weeks. I could repair things in a few hours or days unless I had to order parts. But I still faced the problem of maybe spending hours with someone showing them the features and functions of a camera, only to have them leave my shop and go straight to K-Mart and buy it. My time was worth nothing to people like that. I even had people buy the camera at a discounter and bring it to me when they had questions about its operation! What did I do? I patiently helped them, hoping that they would come back for film or accessories that the discounter didn’t keep in stock. It was a tough business to make a living in, but I loved it.
Today the few independent dealers that are left face new challenges. Offering in-house repair of digital cameras is not practical for the small dealer. The specialized equipment (often brand specific) is just too expensive. When I repaired cameras, I was a mechanic. I worked on gears, levers, and springs. The tools were small, but essentially no different from those of a car mechanic (I also did all my own car work, but with larger tools!) Today cameras have become “camputers,” as Bert Keppler called them. You need to be an electronics/computer technician, not a mechanic, to fix them.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love digital cameras, and was an early and enthusiastic adopter of digital imaging. It has taken many burdens from the photographer’s shoulders, but it has hurt the small dealer, whose bread and butter was selling film and providing photo processing. That’s gone, leaving the dealer to survive on hardware sales, cameras, lenses, filters, flash units, tripods, etc. I would not try to make it today as an independent camera shop, and neither would most people, which is why the independent dealers have largely vanished.
Now, those few that remain face a whole new threat. My old friend Jack King, who used to own Camera World in Charlotte, N.C., got a patent years ago on the idea of putting a camera into a telephone. He tried in vain to get any company interested in the idea. “Nobody would want a camera in their telephone!” they all said. Well, they were all wrong! Nowadays everybody wants a camera in their telephone. Unfortunately for Jack, his patent expired years before the first camera was put into a cellphone. Otherwise he’d be fabulously wealthy today.
But now everyone’s a photographer, snapping away at anything and everything. And the quality of some of these tiny cameras is better with every generation. Last year Rolling Stone and Traveler ran covers taken with cellphone cameras.
But, do we need to photograph anything and everything? Much of what is photographed with cellphone would be better left undocumented, particularly when the person holding the phone is drunk or high. We face a glut of largely worthless images. Is this lowering the perceived value of serious photography? And will there even be a profession in the future known as “photographer?”. I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they deserve serious thought from anyone contemplating a career in photography.
What’s next for photography? I recently saw some images in a science magazine made by tapping into a person’s brain waves. They were somewhat blurry, but you could tell what they were. Will we have direct capture from a person’s visual cortex? I suspect, like many things, this technology will be here sooner rather than later. People can then dispense with cameras altogether. Prepare for future shock!
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/offense/
Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on Amazon.com . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Amazon.com.