There is a lot of talk these days that photography has become 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.”

Doesn’t seem the same, does it? Photography, most of the time, is not  “supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market”. Each and every photographer tries hard to have quality in  his images in order to create a qualitative differentiation.

Nor is it “a product that is the same no matter who produces it”. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t not reproduce anyone’s work, if only because the moment has past forever.

However, these are not the only characteristic of a commodity. Wikipedia goes on by saying :

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. Because of subscription models, like the one offered by Getty Images, the perception is certainly that it is. With all images priced not according to its individual value but rather as a part of a whole as well as the fact that it doesn’t not fluctuate neither by content nor volume, it is certainly treated as a commodity. Bundling images from different photographers and pricing them as a service certainly does make photography appear as a interchangeable commodity.

Not that it has have an active trading spot, for now, like crude oil or corn currently has, it certainly going in that direction. From Newscom, to Pixpalace, followed by Gumgum or Picapp, there are more and more places trying to become the De Facto central trading points, like a giant photography trade market.

another blurring point worth of attention is, as described by the same wikipedia:

Commoditization occurs as a goods or services market loses differentiation across its supply base, often by the diffusion of the intellectual capital necessary to acquire or produce it efficiently. As such, goods that formerly carried premium margins for market participants have become commodities, such as generic pharmaceuticals and silicon chips.

This is what we have already seen in the RF market where the incessant proliferation and inter-redistribution of brands have made them indistinguishable from one another and completely lose any differentiation. RF has become generic, opening the door to microstock, the epiphany of generic photography.

As we can see, it is not the photography that has become a commodity, but the way it is marketed. The real culprits here are the photo agencies that do not differentiate between their photographers and price there offerings as if it was a commodity. The real culprit of photography’s prices taking a hit is not the buyers market but the sellers who have come to beleive that they are selling commodities, when, in reality, they are not. They have successfully dissociated value from pricing and are even convincing buyers that the real value of their offering is in the service of supplying photography, rather than selling amazing photographs.

Thus, for a photographer, the choice is clear. If an agency offers subscriptions, or talks about photography as a commodity, than it is not your friend . It is just trying to add you to a flow of image and bundle your work in a prepackaged deal.

The same is true for image buyers who have nothing but benefits to accept a subscription or bundle deal. There will be diamonds in the constant flow of rocks and there will priced as rocks.

A image seller that dissociates the value and the price of a photograph is actually serving this selffulfilling prophecy:

Photography will become a commodity if you want it to be.

Author: pmelcher

1 Comment

  1. Only time will reveal the wisdom or folly of these words. Technology and opportunity, along with good guys and bad guys abound. Transparency, tracking and honesty are possible so is deceit, as content creators we have the find the good guys and the honest brokers and the only way to do this is experiment and take risks. We must also recognize what our content is, todays Michael Jackson memorial will be an interesting example of how to monetize a massive event covered by upwards of a thousand photographers and videographers. The dross needs to be distributed fast and widely but experienced editors and photographers need to be on the lookout for the ” Moment”, that will be the image that needs the control. Thanks to todays technology there are many choices of control from limited release on chosen web sites that share revenue, to removing the image briefly from any online use. This is where the small agency with experienced staff can shine and excel, no better example being the rumored $ 500,000 sale of a Michael Jackson set inside the ambulance recently, it was taken out of the online system and marketed direct,to print the old fashioned way.

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