3.01.2009

Go Fly a Kite.


This is a photograph of me flying a kite at the Zilker Park Kite Festival in Austin, Texas.  ©2009 Ben Tuck.

The last week seemed to be a train wreck as far as the economy goes.  I sat at my desk trying to knock out more copy for my book on lighting equipment while keeping a window open on my desktop for Google News.
I watched the Dow spaz down a couple hundred points.  I heard "experts" predict the collapse of civilization as we know it, precipitated by the the decline and fall of the American Empire.  And then it dawned on me.  I had fallen into the trap of reading about life instead of living it.  I was listening to experts who developed their expertise in the "bricks and mortar" days.  They understood manufacturing and traditional demand models but something became clear to me.  The experts really don't understand the post 1999 economy any better than the man in the street and probably not nearly as well as the under thirty year old in the streets.

What do I mean?  Well, in the last downturn back in 2001-02 we all waited for the computer manufacturers like Dell and HP to rescue the economy by building and innovating our way out. But it didn't happen that way.  It was the ascendency of Google and Amazon and Ebay that rode in like white knights to get things moving again.  Business models that weren't truly understood by traditional investors were instrumental in building the new economy's momentun.

Now all traditional eyes are on GM and Chrystler and Dell, Inc. but the analysts are missing it again.  It's the Twitters and Facebooks and  some new technologies that I haven't even heard of yet (but which are well known to a younger generation) that are already laying the foundation for two things:  An increasing global interconnection and future prosperity.  YouTube didn't exist in 2002 but it may be more important than cable TV right now.  The intersection of computing and entertainment programming is almost complete.  Everything will change and the people who understand the new paradigm will benefit in the short term.

What does this have to do with photography?  Well, here it is in a nutshell:  The emerging market for images is young and totally wired.  My son spends more time with his iPod Touch than he does watching TV or cruising the web on his laptop.  His information comes from a loosely gathered network of "Touch Available" media that includes news feeds, online games, constant e-mails and more.  He's never going to be a traditional newspaper customer.  He's never going to follow network prime time television.  He's skewing the market for advertising messages more and more to the web.

So, we traditional photographers have been chasing more and more megapixels in our cameras with the rationalization that astute customers can surely see and value the improvement.  No.  It's not true because it's not relevant.  We're busy asking the wrong questions.  There's a new trend and it's all about speed and audience relevance and we traditional photographers may be on the wrong side of the equation.  Like traditional economists in an untraditional economy.


   ©2009 Ben Tuck.  Kirk Tuck with Kite.

The trend is diffusion into the market with as few barriers as possible.  It's not nearly as important to deliver the highest degree of technical complexity as it is to have images totally informed by the media in which they will exist.  And tailored for the intended audience.

Newspapers are dying off like plague victims.  The photographers who are suddenly set adrift have many choices including trying to find another newspaper at which to work or shifting their focus to a new target market.  They might find it easier to find new markets for their images than finding new continuous employment.  In my field, corporate photography, clients have gone into deep freeze. I could look for new market sectors in which to try and duplicate my past successes or I can look for new markets for my skills.

As the photography markets fragment I know I'll have to do more diverse kinds of photography and I will have to monetize my other skills sets.  As my friends know, I am hard at work on a fourth book and two previously written books will hit the market this year.  But that's not enough to offset the loss of income from corporate imaging.  I will also figure out how to market my marketing skills to aid smaller companies by providing a full production service to them.  I will need to teach workshops and have already contracted to do so this summer.  Finally, I'll take a chance on the Fine Arts market this year.

The hard part is trying to service each of these individual business units while keeping my vision uniform and fun.  But as long as I proceed an organic way, one business idea supporting the others rather than in opposition to each other, I think I'll be fine.  What won't work is trying to go back to the way things were.  Clients don't want a return to the uncertainty of the film days nor do they want to go back to a pricing model that they just don't understand.  Going forward, that will be photographers' biggest challenge.  How to align our financial needs with the position of clients who seem to have all the advantages.

The answer is in service, delivery, image differentiation and being able to rationally explain the value proposition of original imagery.  I've been reading Beckwith's book, Selling the Invisible, and I think I get it.  We need to deliver what our clients need without regard to "state of the art", "best in class" or "cutting edge".  We need to make sure that the value proposition to the client is clear.  Here's an example.  Given enough time I can light a board room until it looks like a showpiece from Architectural Digest and, given enough time with a CEO I can move a shoot to the point where I get exactly the expression and body language I want.  With an unlimited budget and total access I can create the ultimate portrait (or at least I think I can) but, the reality of the marketplace is that my clients are generally not looking for the the kind of investment of time or money that was spent producing the shot of the Queen of England by Annie Leibovitz.

They'll have fixed budgets that might allow for a half day of lighting and prep followed by 20 to 30 minutes of their CEO's time.  Their question is not what I can do with unlimited resources but what I'll be able to reliably deliver with time and budget constraints.  That's the message we need to deliver to our clients:  We understand the difference between delivering a very good portrait and a perfect portrait.  Or product shot.  Or event coverage.

Okay, so what does all this have to do with kite flying on a Sunday afternoon?  Just that the world that currently surrounds me is not in disarray.  The sky is not currently falling in my zip code.  The sky is clear and blue.  Hundreds of families were out flying spectacular kites in a sixty degree, ten mile an hour breeze.  I do have work in front of me and money in the bank.  No matter how special "old school" economist think this particular recession is I know it will pass. In fact I think the economy will turn around by June and that all these scary unemployment numbers are trailing edge indicators of a recession that is almost over.

Flying a kite is all about hope and possibilities.  And faith.  Faith that your kite will find the right wind.  That your string won't become tangled.  That gravity will not defeat you today.  It's the same as running a business.  Keep your string untangled and your eyes on the kite and you'll have success.  Just being out with your kite is a success.

Final note:  Ben is taking a photography class at school.  We went out today to play with kites and cameras.  He took some great photos of dogs and kites.  He's taking photography in little bites.  He still thinks it is fun.


    ©2009 Ben Tuck.  Bulldog at Zilker Park, Austin.