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.

We’re All Spies, Too

Paul Ottaviano Self-Portrait

My contradictions and I walk with a swagger. I am part of what I criticize. There is no escaping the whip of the tail, if I want to do things. Yet, I miss those moments where I can just look at myself and not recognize anything except myself. So the temptation to openly view and be viewed, and then project on to others, is always hovering. Yet it does nothing for me.

Thoughts on Volunteering and Holiday Giving

In the spirit of giving, this is one of the few times during the year that I will shed some light on my values regarding such things.

I do realize people have different viewpoints on charity, non-profits, and other miscellaneous projects that benefit culture. This post is not meant to be sanctimonious. Nobody is perfect and plenty of good people mean well, after all, and you don’t have to be a saint to be a giver. In the interest of sharing ideas, hopefully I can give you some on what you can do, too.

I unfortunately cannot say yes to every volunteer or donation request. I prefer to research those possibilities on my own. But in no particular order, here are areas I’m very passionate and where I’d like my work to be used for positive action, if I ever have the opportunity to do so.

1. Children’s International — I sponsor a child in Honduras. Poverty and not having basic things is more widespread than perhaps some people know.

2. Hunger — It’s quite frankly unacceptable, particularly here in the United States. It’s humbling and makes a lot of daily noise seem petty by comparison.

3. Investigative Journalism — The devaluing of long-form journalism and photojournalism in the digital world benefits nobody. It’s a problem that affects the common good and it’s a non-partisan issue. Everything is contextual, but we can do much better on this.

Quality investigative journalism keeps people from living in ignorance and retreating into insular bubbles. Intelligent people are not immune to this, if in-depth information continues to recede. It’s difficult for long-form news operations to survive in a click-bait and infotainment media economy, but while donations to the Pro Publica’s of the world cannot entirely solve the problem, it does help.

4. The Arts — The NEA has fewer funds than it used to, and does not award grants as much as it once did. I have some mixed feelings about art taxes, while not completely opposed to them, but I will say the funding of arts – as a client, patron, private grant or crowd funder – regardless of popularity or commercial value, is worthwhile.

The arts remind us of our humanity and (local) culture, and that we’re more than just consumers or political means to an end. Art is not just an aesthetic for a new phone design or sunset photo, it’s an expression and means of communication. For others, it’s life changing and perhaps life saving.

Photography and other arts are not a lie, and sometimes it’s the only way to truth. Despite all of the “content” out there it feels like we’re losing creative experimentation, unique artistic expression, and contextual thought. The incentives have become negative. It’s becoming a zero sum, winner-take-all game or a day labor commodity, sometimes meant for the cheap and fleeting sensation of viral aggregation… which has longer odds than winning the lottery. This is manifest and impactful on more things besides artistic endeavor. It does not have to be this way.

This is the time of year I like to slow down and think on the important things in life, what my values are, and how can I best express them with my work, if possible. I hope you can find the time to do the same.