A History Of Meaninglessness

What we haven’t found yet is the core value of a photograph.

The value of an image is calculated based on its usage . Thus making its association with other elements the moment when a photograph changes from being a valueless entity to becoming valuable. Those element are well known.

  • Support : Whether print or digital, it has to be part of self sustaining package that is sold as such.
  • Context : it has to be within a very well define context that reinforces its message.
  • It has to be pre sold: It’s audience is already familiar with its content before it reaches them.

Thus one could say that what gives value to an image is what is around it.

Well, that cannot explain why a photograph on a photographer’s website has no value . That is because what surrounds the image needs to have a value, like information. Only surrounded by information does a photograph has any value. Thus the information becomes the value. Those come in three types:

  • The credit : Little or no value, excect if the photographer has been able to position himself as a brand.
  • The metadata : Increases the potential for usage of the image. The more the caption contains information, the most likely the image will get used.
  • The context : Whether a brand, an article or the support itself. The catalyst to value.

Thus, one could easily say that a magazine, a book, or an ad gives the photograph its value. This makes charging for usage of images a counter proposition. After all, if the surrounding elements give value to an image than the photographer should pay to have their images associated to them.

However, the image does the same for it’s surrounding. It enhances, multiplies and gives value to its surrounding. A news article with an image is more credible. A brand advertising with an image has much more convincing power. Why? because we instinctively believe as being true what we see. The same cannot be said for text alone.

One of the the great disadvantages of a photograph is that it has to give up its principal value in order to be sold: Being seen. One cannot license an image before it has been seen thus giving away its commercial attribute before it is sold. So one has to license something else that an image can provide. It’s ability to enhance a message, to render credible, to persuade.

Thus, what we license is not the image, but the image’s ability to add a convincing power to information.

How do we change where the value of the image resides back to the image itself ?

  • By making the creator of the image a strong brand. Companies spend millions of dollars and years to make this happen. It’s almost out of reach to any creator.
  • By destroying the current model and making it unbelievably hard for anyone other than creators to publish photographs. Not going to happen.
  • By shifting who adds value to the image. Some photo agencies have started doing this with encouraging results.
  • By creating images that cannot possibly communicate with any surrounding information. They exist. They are called scoops in editorial or works of arts. They contain all the information needed and thus could not gain any value with any associated information. The only possible value that can be added is distribution. The internet has almost render that obsolete.

Thus the core value exist. It has just be abandon. The culprit ? Mostly commercial stock photography that has strongly shifted the use of photography to an adjective rather than the noun. Those photographers do not try to create self sustaining images but rather images that will possibly enhance a external message.

That is why we have such a devaluation of photography. It has lost it’s ability to generate it’s own value.

About the author

This business has too many Surveyors and not enough Bohemians”  Roger Therond , legendary photo man, once said to a good friend of mine, Eliane Laffont. This blog is about restoring the balance and letting the Bohemians talk.

Paul Melcher has been named one of the “50 most influential individuals in American photography” by American Photo. He is currently senior vice president of the PictureGroup. He writes the Thoughts of a Bohemian blog

Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses

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