Is There Such a Thing as Folk Photography?

We have folk music and folklore. I’m of the opinion folk photography does exist.

The family member, professional or not, who happens to be pretty good with a camera and enjoys shooting photos at the family get-together.

A small town photographer, with truly good skills, who is content to one day be somebody who helps build a church and another day shoots photos of the local basketball team.

The moonlighting part-timer, who works full-time elsewhere, working an occasional job on weekends because someone on Facebook liked a posted photo.

A photographer who just enjoys shooting, whenever and wherever possible, and sometimes includes community events in the body-of-work.

To me, what these all have in common is a sense of locality and individualistic styles. It’s folk photography.

You sure about that, smart guy?

It may not seem so now, with the emergence of standardized digital networks blending what is local with national and global distribution.

It could also be dismissed as sentimental, perhaps, because anyone can now point-and-shoot with an expensive camera and record a clean image. This includes people with the much heralded “photo pass”, quickly becoming a redundancy and cynical method-of-exclusion used by the less talented, in my opinion.

Nonetheless, when viewed contextually photography is still very much folksy. Same as ever. Photography has always been good in this way, and has traditionally been a private or public expression of middle-class culture.

The challenge now for folk photographers of different stripes and market locales is how it leads to a reasonably good middle-class living?

For decades, the offshoots of folk photography into the marketplace was photojournalism – now dying or morphing into full-time stock photography (which for many is too inconsistent) – portraiture, and maybe wedding photography.

So what now? A few questions.

With one traditional path to middle-class business closing off in photojournalism, what is left?

Are we all supposed to just open retail portrait studios with large overhead, and pin our hopes on a low price/high volume model where quality and creativity is often lacking? Not all want to live in a photo booth and have a relationship-less customer base.

Wedding photography? This is very much a full-time business and occupation in order to do exceptionally well. It’s akin to being a wedding planner. In my opinion, you also have to really love weddings and see the couple in a truly positive way. This does not fit all folk photographers, even those who do the occasional shotgun wedding.

Are photographers who got their start on the folksy side of things – I believe this is the case with most – all supposed to get into corporate and high-end commercial photography? The money can be large, certainly, but investment risk much higher.

Or are they to chase around local jobs with small business? The danger here is pricing too low and being stuck in a day labor cycle sometimes placating customers with gimmicks, which is an unfortunate by-product of folk photography as well. The other challenge is pricing competitively to actually cover CODB, usage rights, and to profit. But the risk then is not getting as much work, because of pricing.

Should folk photographers settle for amateur status – albeit still costly in dollars and time spent – and just be satisfied with Instagram likes or photo credit? In this situation, everyone is making money except the photographer.

The Answers

I don’t have them. I do think photographers will have to get creative with their business and treat plans as a living document.

Most of the questions I wrote above are generally nothing new. They go back decades in photography. It has never been an easy business.

But despite what might seem old hat by now, we’re still entering into new and uncharted territory in regards to economic and contextual dynamics. Paths to middle-class stability and dignity are not so linear anymore. However, in many ways, it’s easier to be seen.

I think it’s great that many people are into photography. Folk photography is a cultural tradition and legacy, a very good part of who we are. It’s where my background in photography starts, and part of why I still do it. I see it as a bedrock.

Folk Business

I’m of the idea, however, that folk photographers with good skills should view their work as a business – “pro” or amateur. Whether there is profit motive initially matters little because there is always cost in terms of time and money spent. And gear is not getting any cheaper.

There is also the cost of cause and effect and what individual action has on the photography marketplace and the wider photography community, professional or amateur.

Photography, in my opinion, is partly about exploring the broader arcs in our own worlds and locale. The arc needs to start including the business of photography, particularly as it relates to community along with an honest accounting of personhood. The future of folk photography depends on it.

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