Information Wants To Be Free

“I’m just going to take these home and scan them anyway.” The smiling woman says as she holds her small package of portraits. “So I don’t need anything else.”

The Passer can only stare at her as she walks off.

One of the products offered by The Company is a CD with all the digital images and a copyright release so they can take them wherever they want to have prints made, or just use them on facebook or in digital scrapbooks or whatever.  The CD is free after you spend a certain amount, or you can buy it by itself.

Over the years it has been a losing battle to try and keep people honest.  In the digital age honest has lost a good deal of it’s meaning.  We are used to free information from Google, free videos from YouTube and Hulu, free pretty much anything that can be digitized from peer to peer networks.  So why should anyone have to pay for the right to reproduce a portrait they have already paid for?  And why not just scan them and send jpegs to everyone they know instead of real world photos that might get damaged in the mail?

In the Dark Ages, ten years ago, you had to take film and get it processed somewhere.  The people processing the film were supposed to make sure there were no copyrighted images, no professional images, no nudity, and likely a long list of other forbidden subject matter I am unaware of.  I remember taking a closeup of one of my own High School Senior pictures and the lab not printing that image-though they did process the film and give me the negative.

Now it’s pretty much anything goes.  Printers come with scanners, photo printing, and fax machines build right in.  A digital camera or a cell phone can make adequate copies of a digital image.  There are plenty of companies online that will make a 16×20 stretched canvas print for about $30.  The Company wants closer to $120 for a 16×20-but, of course, if you buy a Package we can give you a better deal.

It used to be expensive to run an Assembly Line Portrait company, or at least it appeared to be expensive.  Film, film processing, printing-now we don’t have to worry about film and all the hassle that went with it.  Of course, film never really cost all that much either-we did buy it in bulk for the most part-and one Company got it for free using Government incentive programs.  I used to shoot 70mm long roll film that cost about a hundred dollars a roll, but you got 300-750 shots out of it, depending on the camera you were using.  This is pretty cheap per shot, but not quite as cheap as nothing per shot, which is what it costs now.

The Company still has costs, of course.  It has all those Photographers, Passers, PreSellers, Managers, everyone at The Lab, everyone at The Home Office, and all the normal costs of running any business.  The Company still has to buy light stands, cameras, computers, and so on and so forth.  The problem is that The Company has to pay all of it’s bills while the Product it creates has less and less value-leaning ever closer to free.

The ability to make portraits for free is a double edged sword.  On the one hand, The Photographer can now take as many shots as he/she wants without having to worry about the cost or running out of film.  On the other hand, so can anyone who has bought a camera or a cellphone in the past ten years.  The Button Pusher has a much harder time convincing people that the processes he uses to capture images creates portraits while their images are just snapshots.  The rise of such non-talents as photojournalist wedding photographers has helped to blur the line between amateur and pro even further.

It seems unlikely that Assembly Line Portraits will remain a viable business model forever.  At the moment most of our buying customers are older people who still think a formal portrait is worth owning, while most of the younger people want something with a green screen that allows them to look like they are riding a bull or hang gliding over a rain forest.  Even if they do want family portraits, they don’t want the kind that we are taking.  And it is proving very difficult to move beyond the easy to map out formal portraits The Company has always taken into more modern areas.

People can use Google Images to find every kind of portrait imaginable-the good, the bad, and the awkward.  And they don’t bring in these portraits as they used to and say-Can we do this? in a timid voice.  They just set up their digital camera and do it themselves.

I was at an Arts and Crafts show not too long ago and saw a lot of digital prints that looked much like my own landscape work.  One Photographer wanted $400 for a 16×20 of the Alamo.  It was a nice enough picture, but it didn’t appear to me to be anything special.  There were a lot of photographers there, selling standard issue travel shots-doorways, landscapes, famous buildings.  There were a lot of people milling about, but I didn’t see anyone buying anything.

A fellow Assembly Line Portrait Photographer was once a news photographer, but now his job has been replaced by people with cellphones who upload their images to the newspaper or TV station for free.  So why should they pay for news images?  Of course, newspapers and TV stations themselves are in danger of going out of business because of Google and that desire for information to be free.

Our one selling point might be that we still sell prints of the portraits we take.  Like everyone else, all of my way cool shots are sitting on the hard drive of my computer, not hanging on my walls.  I have a couple of gallery wraps, but two out of the hundreds of images I have created is not a whole hell of a lot.  So here are Prints-something tangible in the Real World that you can hang on a wall and look at from time to time.  Or maybe you can just put them in a drawer, which is what many of the Nonbuyers tell us happened to the last Portrait Package they bought.

There is still money to be made, at least until all the Old Folks are dead.

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