Working For Free

Saturday, February 13th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

Photo via

I regularly check the craigslist job postings here in Paris to try and pick up the occasional web project and was recently struck by the following ad, which I would say characterizes most of the job postings I find on craigslist:

We are looking for assistants to help an artist with a variety of different tasks in [artist’s] atelier. This weekend we will need 3 to 4 enthusiastic and energetic people to help paint a large sky and walls of an imaginary village.
No experience necessary, simply the will to be creative over a weekend and perhaps longer if you happen to be looking for experience within an artistic environment.
Please apply immediately if you are able to help us.

And under the heading “Compensation”, it simply says “Experience”.

Now, forgive me for getting my knickers in a twist, but this strikes me as suspiciously close to Tom Sawyer painting a fence, and annoyingly typical for art and photo jobs in general.  If you don’t believe me, witness the flap over James Nachtwey‘s unpaid internships – here, here, and here.

I won’t get to into this particular instance as this was aeons ago in internet time, but, in Nachtwey’s defense, this behavior is industry standard.  Which is completely fucked up.  Yes, I realize you don’t have a budget to pay someone to paint your fence/spot tone your photoshop file/photocopy War and Peace/get coffee for everyone in the office, but assuming that your potential intern has nothing but time and can pay for him/herself for the duration of the work period is essentially asking them to subsidize your business.  And yes, I know it’s an educational experience, but how widespread unpaid internships are goes way beyond any pay-off in educational terms.

An internship is an opportunity to learn something significant about an industry, not an unlimited and free source of work to do all the things you don’t want to pay someone to do.  This is ethically indefensible, and to top it off is ruining the industry.  By ensuring that the only people who can build up experience are those who can afford to pay for it, you’re essentially closing the door to anyone who can’t afford to pay for it. So the only people who can become photographers/artists/creative types of any stripe are those whose parents can set them up with a budget to live off of while they work their way through an expensive college and then unpaid position after unpaid position.

I realize that this is not the typical case here in France: here, instead of doing an internship at university, all internships are paid (for a third of minimum wage which, you can imagine, is not enough to live on), though you do them after you graduate, repeatedly, until someone offers you a position, typical when you’re 27-30 years old.  Oh, and because of the payment, employers tend to altogether ignore the educational aspect of the process and you spend the time doing database entry or filing. So, yeah, Socialist France is the paragon of an enlightened economy in this case.

And though working an unpaid position is not something the typical freelance photographer will do, being asked to work for free, provide photos for free, shoot an entire project on your own money and time and then show it around until someone picks it up for a pittance, or being required to pay to be featured on the pages of an-unnamed-here-but-very-real-blog are all examples of the typical economics of this industry when people will not accept that yes, it’s a lot of work, and no, it’s not acceptable to foist the costs of that work on people farther down the employment ladder.


Thursday, February 4th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

I just had a conversation with an aunt who used to own a consumer photography store – her business died with the rise of digital cameras, but she mentioned that some of her employees had entirely changed their focus from photography to film…

Perhaps the rise of the 5d and 7d cameras that also do hi-res film marks a turning point in the industry…  The lines have been blurred between photography and film, allowing people like me to work in a medium that previously required tons of additional equipment and experience…  And the drain of advertising from print to the internet has meant that still photography just doesn’t pay as much as it previously did.  Film and video, though, continues to be a moneymaker, even on the internet.  Photographers now have the tools to emigrate entirely to the moving image.  Perhaps what we’re witnessing is the end of a golden age of photography; perhaps it marks the beginning of a renaissance for film and video.  Buying a lens, recently, for my Canon, the clerk asked if I was a videographer.  When I replied, “no,” he went on to explain that most of his high-end lenses were being sold to video guys because of the technical abilities of the 5d and because they have (what seems to photographers to be) unlimited budgets…

Or perhaps the tablet PCs which now look inevitably to be coming (whether or not the iPad succeeds) mean a light at the end of the tunnel…. when pictures on the internet will finally become worth something…

Follow Up

Saturday, November 28th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Nicholas Calcott
Nicholas Calcott

A quick follow up on this, my working Saturday.

Mrs. Deane celebrates their(? her? its?) 1000th post with more follow up from Paris photo and a reflection on what we do, and whether we can get paid for it.  Hippolyte Bayard, in turn, posted his own reflections on the blogging medium

The trouble with posts on this subject is that they are essentially one sided: From blogger to reader and not vice versa.  I know this may seem like one of my innumerable calls for comments, but it’s not:  The fact of the matter remains that the vast majority of people who pass by this page and this site do so silently, and I understand that to be the case for most blogs.  I may occasionally get a comment or feedback from another blogger or hyperactive internet user, but blogging (at least in the photo context) has become a rather one sided affair – a heated conversation is one with 5 or more comments, and even that is rare.

The long and short of it being that, in no small part, the importance of this blog to me (and, I suspect, the importance of most blogs to whomever writes each) lies more in the suspicion of its impact on readers than any concrete evidence of that impact.  Of course, there are the statistics, but how reliable those are is anyone’s guess. I noticed at some point that most of the search terms that were bringing visitors to this site were largely unrelated to most of the photography featured and skewed towards posts with naked girls (Olga and Bettina, Richard Kern, and Helmut Newton are all popular [and I probably just increased the skew]).  I wonder how many of these visitors are interested in a serious conversation about photography and the nature of the medium (which is really what I hope this blog is about)?

So this self-reflection on blogging and our own place in the minds of others, and how to put a hard quantitative number on that (i.e. monetizing the content) strikes me as a little bit forlorn.  You readers may be out there, and this blog may matter to you in a small way, but I’ll never know.  For me, blogging is, and will probably remain to be, a solipsistic affair with the expectation of an audience.

State of the Photoblogosphere

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Stereo image of Hikono Park by T. Enami. Via Mrs. Deane.

As I and some of my peers have mentioned, there was a European photoblogger meeting on the sidelines of Paris Photo, organized by Laurence Vecten of LOZ.  You can find a full list of participants on Hippolyte Bayard’s Paris Photo roundup.

As you might expect, it was a bit odd to meet a series of people that you know only through their blog voices – the first few minutes were taken up by introducing ourselves until we realized that our real names meant nothing to anyone else and that we should be introducing ourselves by our blog names.

Once that was aside, though, we actually launched into a pretty vibrant discussion of the state of the photoblogosphere – What we do right, what we do wrong, where we fit in in the wider photo ecosystem.  I’ll relate a few of the main points from the discussion and from other conversations I had during the past few days as I feel it’s actually pretty instructive. I do feel, despite my clear conflict of interest, that blogs have come to occupy an important spot in how we approach and speak about photography.

That, I suppose, is the first point: As the initial blogging fervor that caused so many of us to start our own blogs has died down (now you’re more likely to see a new web magazine than a linear, largely text based blog), the blogging form has matured and the blogs that remain active and popular have diversified to fill a few roles.

There are feeders, which provide us all with a steady dose of new work;  news-y sites, which function to highlight and note important issues and events; review sites, somewhat scientifically going over books and shows to note what’s good and what’s not; essay sites (like, for the most part, I hope this site is), casting a longer and more critical eye at contemporary photography), and sites which are pure artistic flights of imagination, featuring text and quotes and photos with no obvious link to one another save the topic of photography. Most sites are not any one of these things, of course, but rather a mix of some or all of them – But, for better or worse, that’s what we do.

What we could do better is another issue altogether.  Diederick Meijer of the Black Snapper made the point that blogs, in general, are maddeningly free of facts – I’m not sure that we can really be held accountable to the standards of journalism given that we aren’t paid or trained for that, but blogs do function as the closest things to newspapers the photo world has. Should we function more as hard news sources, or at least have some solid grounding in facts when we state our opinions? I’m sure we all agree to the latter point, but I’m not sure it’s really fair to expect me to call up a source to get the full story on an article I’m writing – I have, simply put, a limited amount of time.

But, as several people pointed out, blogging should be a value added activity, not simply ‘so-and-so saw this, go check it out.’  We aren’t required to be servicey, of course, but none of us got into photography to be selfish bastards who couldn’t care less about the wider community – digging up new work that hasn’t been widely seen is an essential function of what we do – I believe that we should be really making an effort to make accessible to others photography that would not normally be seen.  Just to take one example: It’s pretty much a given that 90% of work you come across on blogs is work made in North America and Western Europe, for a variety of reasons, not least because we have websites that you can link to. But take this for example. That is awesome.  I approve.  We should dig up more things like that.

But as long as we’re on the topic of my personal approval we come to my main gripe: There simply isn’t enough (constructive) negative criticism on the blogs.  There are reasons for this: Why would I waste time writing about something I don’t like?  Old media critics, on the other hand, have a beat – they go to a certain number of shows and they review the shows, both the exceptional and unexceptional ones.  We, for the most part, don’t have an impetus to write even when it’s not a resounding endorsement of something we’ve found, but I do think we’d benefit if we did – negative criticism is clearly a healthy part of discourse: I think we’re missing out on it.

A final note: Alot of the problems I highlighted above have to do with time and money, a subject touched on but not deeply discussed at the meeting. Would it be possible for photobloggers to come up with some kind of funding mechanism, or are we fated to always remain a group of amateurs (in the non-professional sense of the word), albeit deeply committed and knowledgeable amateurs?  And, I wonder, how many of us would want to pick up the extra time commitment and responsibility that would come with any serious monetization of a blog?

P.S. If you were there and I forgot about anything important we spoke about at the meeting, let me know in the comments.

Paris Projects

Monday, September 7th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Georg Parthen
Georg Parthen
, from his project ‘Beaugrenelle‘ and submitted to the mus-mus ‘@Paris’ project.

The mus-mus@Paris project has debuted on their site – go have a look if you haven’t already.  The project has been fairly well reported around the photo-blogosphere, and the list of photographers contains some familiar names; Alec Soth, Stephen Shore, Sylvia Plachy, Bertien van Manen, Simon Roberts, Linus Bill, Richard Renaldi, Vincent Debanne, etc.  Closer to home (the internet), Hester Keijser and Norman Beierle (Mrs. Deane), Shane Lavalette, and yours truly all participated.

The @Paris project was, if you recall, a call for pictures of Paris from photographers from all parts of the world.  From the call for submissions:

It is fitting that Paris, lovingly called “The City of Light” should have been one of the first and most thoroughly photographic and photographed places on earth. The list of Paris’ photographers runs from Daguerre and Nadar to Brassai, Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and from Atget to Man Ray, Kertez and Klein and many more, a remarkable number of photography’s greatest artists made their mark ‘a travers’ Paris. Their photographs and publications have fixed in our mind’s eye a vision of Paris that is beautiful, often as edgy as elegant, and always complex.

The results, as you can see for yourself, are impressive.  But as Marc Feustel, another expat based in Paris, writes on eyecurious:

I did find a lot of interesting material (Céline Clanet’s image above is a favourite), but overall I felt slightly frustrated. Paris has become a difficult city to photograph because of its past, but for me, as a group, these photographs did not sufficiently get under the skin of the city.

I certainly struggled with this when I first moved here (it took me about 6 months after arriving before I could even pick up a camera again in this city), but having resumed photographing again, I frequently ask myself how would one best depict this city?  Paris is a city of mythology, more so than New York.  New York is a lived-in myth whereas much of Paris’ mythology derives from the past or from a fantastical view of the city that never really existed (see Amelie Poulain).  Indeed, every year there are groups of tourists who so idealize the city that when confronted with the actual city they go into shock, a phenomenon known as Paris Syndrome.

I think one must be sly about shooting in this city: You have to acknowledge the history, but at the same time completely ignore it when actually working.  If you don’t, you run the risk of sliding right past what’s directly in front of you and instead capturing only the surface of metropolis as least as complex as any other.  Paris work should always be more than just an archaeology of objects, architecture, and types, more than the reflection of the allure of the city…

Saltz on art

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Richard Prince
Richard Prince

Nyfa has a post by Hrag Vartanian on a lecture delivered by Jerry Saltz on where the art world is now.  It’s well worth checking out.  I especially liked the following point:

[Richard] Prince, he suggested, “invented a dangerous idea and packaged himself for the corporate boardroom.” He posited that the major premise of Prince’s art was appropriation, and that it was “the idea that ate the art world.”


Wednesday, May 6th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Paul Outerbridge
Paul Outerbridge, ‘Girl with Fan,’ 1936, and ‘The Shower,’ 1937

Because Mr. Martineau is a reserved young man, his essay doesn’t place Mr. Outerbridge in the context of the culture of the time. That is a good thing, because such placement would have revealed that Mr. Outerbridge was a filthy, lusty, perverted young man. In the mid-1930s, when Mr. Outerbridge was taking nude, color, breasts-baring, pubis-exposing, stockings-with-seems-up-the-back-gazing, women-in-exotic-costumes-with-cleavage-baring, long-legs-in-high-heels-and-nothing-else-wearing pictures, Mr. Hartwig, photographers were considerably tamer. The pictures of young women known now known as “cheesecake” featured appropriately clothed, wholesome young ladies. They were also generally black-and-white pictures, which prevented young men from thinking thoughts that were too impure. In Mr. Outerbridge’s pictures the flesh of the young ladies he photographs has a lovely, alabaster, life-like, malleable quality — quite an accomplishment for the mid-1930s and a demonstration of Mr. Outerbridge’s mastery of the time-consuming carbro process.

-Tyler Green at MAN publishes an… uh… inventive review of a recent Paul Outerbridge catalog.


Tuesday, November 25th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

Alec Soth, from his new project ‘The Last Days of W’

Alec Soth (whose latest project, ‘The Last Days of W,’ is, I think, his strongest by far; coverage here and here) is continuing with his mission to revive the Magnum blog and make it a more regularly updated space, and one of his latest posts deals with advice for young photographers:

Instead of giving just my two cents, I thought it would be cool if I could also offer some advice from my fellow photographers at Magnum. I emailed my colleagues and received 35 different responses.

The advice ranges from “Wear good shoes,” to “Read more,” to “Look at art more,” to “Look at art and read less.” It is, typical of this genre of advice, completely contradictory, ultimately leading the reader to conclude that there really isn’t any good, solid advice for young photographers.

Others agreed about the lack of good advice, and additionally objected to the lack of any specific advice. From We Can’t Paint, a post which provoked a heated discussion (as far as these things go):

I hope by now most of us realize that; A) the global financial situation is going to get much worse before it gets any better and; B) this basically means worse times for emerging artists who already had it pretty bad to begin with. Galleries are closing, shows are being cancelled, and collectors are holding back (not really a change for emerging photographers). All in all, the times suck! But that is my point: Where is the acknowledgment that, as [Malcolm] Gladwell points out in his article, “talent [or career success] is actually a complicated combination of ability, opportunity and utterly arbitrary advantage.” How do these factors come into play when giving advice to photographers? Why are they not weighted against our current situation? I would be more interested in hearing what these photographers think an emerging artist should do in our current global climate (without advising us to enter competitions; sorry, an $80 entry fee is not appealing).

Clearly, though, the advice of the Magnum photographers is meant for those starting out or just dabbling in photography, not those who I would define as ’emerging’ photographers: Myself, Noel of We Can’t Paint, Liz, Ian, Dalton (whose latest work I’m really liking), Harlan, everyone else who responded in the comments, and those who read and write photography blogs on a regular basis are all way too invested (and probably too jaded) to simply believe that ‘just go out and take pictures’ amounts to any kind of real advice. But the crux of the matter is that what elevates someone from ’emerging’ photographer to successful artist is essentially mysterious, as Malcolm Gladwel points out in the article.

Still though, hearing that “It’s essentially out of your hands” is not the most encouraging thing. I guess the best advice would be some form of “Keep going,” with a nod to the difficulty involved and the sheer chance that that won’t be enough.

Steven Meisel

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

Another great find by EL. From the 1983 film ‘Portfolio.’ Fashion is so gay.

Baghdad Bureau

Friday, October 24th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

Max Becherer for the NY Times

The NY Times, a while ago, started a blog for its Baghdad bureau (aptly titled ‘Baghdad Bureau‘) to, among other things, augment its coverage of the Iraq war. One of the things in the ‘Among other things’ category is to provide an insight into the situation in Iraq for its reporters. In this line comes the ‘Photographer’s Journal‘ feature, with a really interesting and informative first post by Max Becherer. In it, he describes the transformation of the last four years, as well as what it’s like to work as a photographer in these conditions:

A few more steps, however, and there was a hand on my arm and the driver was telling me people wanted me to come into the building beside the blast with them. The gap was closing very quickly. The crowd had noticed the foreigner among them and they were starting to take keen interest.

“We have to go. Run,” the driver said. After a few brisk steps away from the burning wreckage to show we were not fleeing like prey, we skipped to a run. We jumped in the car just as the men pursuing us reached our car and they kicked the car trying to make it stop as we sped away.