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Digital Copies - Giving Away the Negative

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When I set up my photo booth in nightclubs I frequently get asked if I can simply send an electronic copy rather than selling the print. This is a problem since I'm typically not making any kind of  wage, only earning from the sale of prints. It's difficult to afford new gear when I'm not making money, and hard to find time to do photography if I have to spend all my time working at other things to pay rent  and eat - and I have this irrational attraction to sleeping indoors and staying fed. Go figure.

I've read other photographers talking about giving access to the digital file in terms of a film paradigm, i.e. "Giving away the negative." In one sense that is true. Anyone with the digital source file has the means to make as many prints as they want. But unlike film, the digital negative is infinitely reproducible.

The record and DVD industries have a similar problem, but not an identical one, and they flail endlessly against it. In both cases the physical medium itself bears the digital file that can be copied with perfect fidelity. It's ironic that these digital media were obstensively introduced to "prevent" the easy copying that was possible with the antecedent analogue media, yet from the point of view of physical media sales analogue media had the advantage that copies were necessarily of a degraded quality. No audio cassette was ever going to sound quite as good as the record, and records eventually wore out and needed replacing. Likewise dubbed video tapes were never as good and all video tapes eventually wore out. For a time a similar argument could be made with MP3 sharing, where the compression of the MP3 required to make a file practically shareable over a modem connection caused a necessary loss in quality, but now with broadband and bittorrents entire CDs and DVDs can readily be copied bit-for-bit with no loss of quality. That's what happens when executives with no foresight and no technical knowledge get to make decisions. I can imagine a sales-monkey from a CD-duplication company with no real knowledge about the technology making the sales pitch to a record-company executive some time around 1984: "CDs cost less to produce than records, but you can sell them for twice as much based on the superior sound quality. Tapes will sound absolutely shitty compared to the CD so people won't want copies anymore. The audio files are so huge that no one will be able to copy them - you'd need thirty floppies to hold just one song. You can tell people that they are indestructible, you can even show how a scratch from the centre to the edge that would make a record go tick-tick-tick does nothing so they'll line up to replace their perfectly good records - but don't worry a horizontal scratch will screw them up worse than a skipping record so people will still be back again for replacements. You can't lose!"

Get this on a fridge magnet, t-shirt, or mug.

And they fell for it because it worked once before. One of the intrinsic features of wax-cylinder gramophones was the ability to both play and record. Connecting two machines with a rubber hose and dubbing cylinders was common practice. Records were introduced largely because they required specialized equipment to record and were sold on the basis of better sound, increased durability and long run times - sound familiar?

However, notice that I said the record and DVD industries, not "music" and "movies." Of course with the industry giants production and distribution are tied together and organizations like the RIAA and MPAA conflate and exaggerate the connections between these in order to protect the material product sales. But musicians. composers, actors, producers, script-writers and the like all managed to make livings before mechanical reproduction and broadcast media through performance. Live music, live theatre and cinemas got on just fine before records and video and artists outside of the giant industry grind-wheels still manage to get by because there is nothing that can compete one-on-one with performance or the cinema experience. And therein lies the big difference between digital copies of music and movies and digital copies of photographs: there is no performance in photography, only the image.

Visual art has faced this before, and it was actually photography that created the crisis. Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is the article on this issue and pretty much mandatory reading for any visual artist. Photography made visual artwork reproducible, and mimesis (i.e. making something look "real" in a drawing or a painting) became a rather lame measure of quality since anyone could do that with a camera. Over the course of the 20th century you see increasing efforts to focus not on the mimetic qualities of the artwork, but the visceral experience of the original object, elements of pure design, and the ultimate underlying idea of the work. Abstract painting develops. Performance art develops. There's enough nuance in this progression that you can spend the rest of your life studying art history, but suffice to say that it's clear that fine art has survived and reinvented itself for the age of mechanical reproduction and is also doing just, well... fine.

The following 15-minute presentation on reproduction and copying in the fashion industry makes points that apply equally well to fine arts. The most salient of which is that the customers buying the "original" are not the same people who are buying the knock-offs. Likewise in the art world the people buying the souvenir books and the postcards are not the collectors buying the original work.

But now what happens where there is no original? Or the copies are indistinguishable from the original? The "negative" in conventional photography is made obsolete once an appropriately detailed scan is made of it, and with digital photography it never exists. The new digital originals have no inherent aura. Reproduction carries no aura. While, like other visual arts, it's the design, idea and execution that makes a photograph good, great, art or a snapshot. But none of that is lost in reproduction. That makes revenue models for photographers difficult.

One model I work with relies on good faith and the legal power of a monster corporation. This is what happens when I upload to iStock. The digital file you can buy from iStock is as good as it gets for that image and there is no practical way to stop someone who has paid for that file from sharing it, using it in excess of their licencing agreement, or otherwise ripping it off other than relying on iStock to chase down someone reposting my content on Flickr or whatnot and having it removed or doing the chasing myself. I make a pittance of each sale and iStock gets the lion's share, but since it takes very little work on my part and income continues to trickle in whether I'm creating new work of not, so it's worth it. In this regard it is no better or worse than a musician allowing a record company to do their distribution. In fact it is marginally better since iStock doesn't preclude me from selling my own prints and licences.

Then there is the closest there is in photography to a "performance" - being paid for my time up front. This is good work when I can get it, but it requires a lot of gear, studio space, and competing with the new and desperate that will work for peanuts and reinforce this kind of thing:

Another model is to keep absolute control over the master file and only put lesser-quality reproductions out there for unauthorizedly reproduction and be the exclusive source of quality reproductions, which is the model I've been using all along for my photo booth and where I have a problem. Not everyone wants a physical print. I essentially give away low quality, watermarked versions of the images on Gothic BC. The dilemma that has brought me to thinking this all though is that the low-quality images that I have been sharing on the website for the past ten years don't cut it for screen sharing anymore but I don't want give away files of enough quality that there is no reason to buy a 4" × 6" print anymore. But at the same time I've become convinced, largely due to the TED video above, that there are customers who would pay for a decent-resolution digital copy who will never buy a print.

In the end this is a very long argument to convince myself that it is OK to try selling medium-resolution (i.e. bigger files that will print O.K. at 4" × 6", but not as good as what I print on the spot) on Gothic BC. I've decided on selling at 1050 pixels on the long side -  263% larger than the free pictures and unwatermarked, but only 58% as clear as what I print on the spot - for the same price as at the higher-quality prints, balancing lower quality with infinite reproducibility against higher-quality with limited reproducibility. 

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