The Death of Photography as a Hobby

The long-time magazine, Popular Photography announced its immediate end this week. Their web sites, too. They are done. Over. Finished. Kaput. Belly-up. Not changing to the web; gone completely. The current issue is the last issue. The last thing they put on their web site(s) is the last thing they will ever put on their web sites.

This magazine along with Modern Photography, a similar circulation size and content publication bought out by Popular Photography just a few years ago were by far the two most significant players in the world of hobby photography for nearly a century. At least eight/tenths of a century, anyway.

If an official line demarcating the end of the hobby of photography is possible, this is it. The special audience magazines I used to write for had circulations of 60-70,000 at most. These two had circulations approaching a million, each, perhaps more in their heyday.

I have mixed feelings about this. I always had significant disdain for both Pop and Modern Photography. Their very clear reason for existing was always, I felt, counterproductive. Their purpose was to lead hobbyists down the primrose path, turning them from potential photographers into collectors of idle and largely useless equipment. There was little or nothing of value to learn from these magazines. And what little information they did impart was quite often glaringly wrong. But, it was wrong information that sold more gadgets and more film, etc., etc. In hindsight, they weren’t creating the equipment collectors, just satisfying them. Most of these readers didn’t really want to put in the effort to become photographers, they wanted magic bullets that the magazines obligingly offered them. In other words, they not only wanted to be lied to, they demanded it!

But these magazines and their readers were also a great benefit to my corner of the photography world, the fine art photograph. Let’s face it. The fine art photography world is a tiny world, indeed. And, we have always done a lousy job of marketing ourselves and educating our audience. AN EXCEPTIONALLY LOUSY JOB!!!

The vast majority of the public does not have so much as a subatomic-sized clue what a fine art photograph is, or looks like. Especially in the United States! Oh, brother! Don’t think so? Your honor, I present as evidence, Peter Lik. Your honor, I rest my case.

The benefit provided to art world photography by Popular Photography and Modern, and their readers was the mass demand that drove and supported the manufacturers of photographic materials. Millions of budding hobbyist photographers wanted to emulate the likes of Ansel Adams, and of course, a slew of nature and vacation and wildlife photographers. They also wanted to emulate professional commercial, portrait and architectural photographers.

Fine art photographers and commercial photographers added together were still a very tiny market compared to the hobbyist and vacation snapshooter. Those were the people who provided the massive income that allowed manufacturers to invest in the research and development that produced the finer materials that my little corner of the world would never have had without them.

If not for us, those hobbyists would not have had anyone to try to emulate, but if not for them, we might never have had the materials we depended on, at all, or the audience we needed to gain world attention. It was an accidental, symbiotic relationship.

Now, there are no magazines promoting photography as a hobby. The professional photographer is gone. There are no commercial photographers, no architectural photographers, no catalog photographers (OK, a stretch, but still), no documentary photographers (What a tragic loss this is! No reason for this, at all!). Though there is no reason for the demand for these skill sets to have disappeared, it has nonetheless. Very poor photographs are being used in their stead, because they are seen as “good enough”. Of course, the wedding, school portrait and Bar Mitzah photographers have disappeared also, so not all is bad. One might claim there may be balance in the universe, after all, but the paparazzi are alive and well.

Except for the aforementioned scum of the Earth, the last man standing is me, the fine art photographer, and a snapshotting, iPhone wielding public that has no idea whatsoever, what that means!

The least affected by the digital photography revolution appears to be, me again, the fine art photographer. At least for the moment. It is harder though. Few hobbyists want to emulate us any more, simply because there are no hobbyists to speak of.

Though I will not miss having to explain to him over and over and over again, that NO, you cannot really do those things you read about in Popular Photography, I will miss the hobbyist and by extension, the magazines that fed him and his pursuits, that fed me.