Do you want this image above? You can have it — free. I don’t care. Hi-res, all rights, whatever you want. Why? Because it’s just beautiful.
Beauty began losing value years ago, as soon as the effort required to achieve it starting dropping. And it dropped fast — sampled music let us have quality drum tracks, piano and guitar chords without needing the actual instruments. Target started carrying Michael Graves-designed household items. Everyone got a pretty nice camera. YouTube taught us all the tricks. Google offered up images that people used in their blog posts and articles with a simple search. Filters and editing apps have given us all an understanding of post work (a photographer recently showed me an exchange with a model where she showed him how she liked her face to be retouched). And now, images and video that once took tens of thousands of dollars to achieve are being grabbed on the cheap with camera technology that puts high-end production in the hands of the masses: gimbals, image stabilization, sliders, editing effects… anyone can do anything. It’s not hard, you just have to want to go get it.
So, in the end, a pretty shot of Los Angeles through palm trees is as easy as showing up to the right place at the right time. You’ve got all the tools you need in your hands to make it beautiful, right now. My advantage? I live in LA and I know where it is. It’s no wonder today’s Instagrammers don’t want to share their locations. Access is the last bastion of ownership. And that’s a thinning stronghold, too.
So, yes, the beautiful image is free. Is it right? Is it wrong? Everyone’s got an opinion, but regardless, that’s what’s happening.
How Free Are We Talking?
Unsplash, which carries a treasure trove of beautiful images from various photographers from around the world seems to be at the cutting edge of this phenomenon. Free images (like this one), that you can have with no worry about licensing. All the artists would like is credit, if you don’t mind. And it’s one of the fastest-growing stock photography sites in the world.
Sure, there are people who feel it’s the destroyer of artists’ integrity, but they are outnumbered by actual artists, a thousand-to-one. Because most artists already know — our true value is not in the images, but in the making of them. And holding the image hostage, or behind a pay wall, no longer creates any benefit to the photographer — not when it’s so easy to get the image elsewhere. Or by yourself.
On the other hand, giving the image away under your name let’s the world know what you have access to.
Say, for example, I want that exact same beach, but instead of one person, I need a group of people running? I call Leio. And I pay him. Because he has the access.
In similar ways, music companies (practically) give away their off-the-shelf tracks, knowing that the real work is in composing something specific for you.
So easy is it to snap a beautiful photo, apps like Twenty20, ViewBug and 500px have turned the masses into stock photographers, offering contests and competitions for the chance to sell your work on the cheap.
It’s Free Because It’s Easy
You know it’s easy, you just most likely don’t want to look at it. But let’s take a little trip to a remote lake, somewhere in Germany, called Obersee. The following is simply a screen grab of top posts from that location on Instagram right now:
Behold the beauty, the perfect compositions, tones and composition. Any one of these could be used as an album cover, online ad, header image for an article or background for an inspirational social media post. What makes these photographers any different than you? They showed up, that’s it.
Think that’s the only location? There’s literally thousands, just in Germany.
Can’t get to Germany, or even down the street? It’s okay, showing up is not essential. Take a look at this popular Instagram feed from an artist who gathers her imagery exclusively from Google Street View…
The beautiful image of just about any static thing is easy. And, as it is with value exchanges, the easier it is to make, the less people will pay for it. This, of course, most affects the world of stock photography. I was a stock photography shooter, too — but I think we’re finding that, with the ease of capturing it all and apps like the ones listed above… we are all capable of being stock photographers.
What’s the End Game For Photographers?
Many photographers, myself included, are treating their social media feeds as a form of PR. It is often only tangentially related to our actual paying work (or whatever our end goals are for the medium — mine is galleries and books, most others want to shoot sneakers, cars and models) which often looks quite a bit different than what makes it onto the feed. And that exchange is fueling the notion that Beauty Has No Value. In much the same way that the freemium model works in mobile gaming, today’s photographers are looking to hook audiences with exactly these kinds of daily images in exchange for something with only secondary value: a following.
It’s a hustle.
And like all hustles, you’re looking to give a little to get a lot. In this case, the “little” is beautiful images. The “lot” is somewhere down the road when some paying client looks you up and sees your nice-looking feed and your follower count. It legitimizes you and signals what kind of access you have. But in the process, beauty becomes a commodity. The images themselves… Monopoly money: easy to print, looks vaguely like something we interpret as worth money but really just keeps the game going
And that’s what’s happening on Unsplash, too. Photographers have realized that the image isn’t the value, it’s them and their access. Again, if I’m a paying client (and, in my professional life, I often am), that static image has little value to me, either — what I really need is to sell my product or service — so, the image on Google, Instagram or Unsplash is just a beginning; a starting place. An image on a business card. A beautiful portfolio. And the idea that the value of the image increases and decreases according to resolution is quickly becoming outdated.
What Does It All Mean?
I’m not trying to land too hard on one side of this, I’m just a photographer who understands the trends he’s finding himself swimming in. The devaluation of beauty is simply something I’m dealing with, as a person trained in getting it. Yes, there’s something just a tad bit sad about it. I can remember the first time I saw that image of Dodger Stadium, from a helicopter and I thought, “wow, I have to be one of only a few people who’ve had this pleasure. Perhaps this image could be of some value.” Only to find a few short years later that the image has been taken so many times over now as to render it both commonplace and worthless. But there’s another way to look at it, too.
Beauty has always been free. It came in the box with sunlight and eyeballs. It was granted to us upon birth as we first laid eyes upon our beautiful mothers and then mother earth. For those of us with extreme empathy and a wide-eyed approach to seeing the world, finding the beautiful all around us and capturing it is a deep and glorious honor. Yes, you can have that image at the top for free — perhaps not because it has no value, but because I simply want you to see what I can see. I want to share in the joy of this world’s beauty. The image, in that scenario, is only a document of our mutual appreciation for it. And maybe taking money off the table in that discussion is actually what helps it remain beautiful.
In that way, you could decide that beauty simply has no price. You pay to make it less beautiful.
Thanks for reading — you can check out my beautiful shots at: instagram.com/joshsrose ;)