The myth of greedy photographers

In May, I wrote a blog entry that was about politics, had little to do with photography and argued against “the myth of over-burdensome regulation.” Today, I am going to follow up on that blog entry. I will be returning to politics to explore a bit of American history where the federal government did go too far, in my opinion and photography was at the core of the situation.

To read that older blog entry, go to:

When it comes to politics, I would describe myself as a social liberal mixed in with an economic conservative. I have a nasty libertarian streak thrown in because I have been self-employed for a quarter of a century. I have encountered (and struggled through) more than my fair share of bureaucratic stupidity (at home and in many other countries.)

As a commercial photographer I am, not surprisingly, very concerned about the economics of my chosen field. I belong to a couple of trade associations, one of which focuses a lot on the business aspects of publication photography. I have been a member of that group, the American Society of Media Photographers since 1992. As is says on their site:

ASMP, is a trade association of professional photographers, including many photojournalists but also experts in architectural, underwater, culinary and advertising photography and other specialties. Its members are primarily those who photograph for publication (as contrasted to those who directly serve the consumer, such as wedding and portrait photographers.)

ASMP advocates for photographers’ legal rights, supports information-sharing among members, and provides business and technical information. Much of the material is freely available to the public. For instance, it offers a web tutorial on registering your copyrights and another one on model releases and property releases. It also helps users of images find qualified photographers for project assignments and helps photographers find qualified assistants. The ASMP has more than 6000 members in over 30 countries.

The start of ASMP was:

In the fall of 1944, some two-dozen New York photographers formed the Society of Magazine Photographers or SMP. Within a few months, though, they had to change the name to American Society of Magazine Photographers because the acronym SMP was already being used by another organization. (In 1992, recognizing that it had grown far beyond the borders of the magazine industry, the Society adopted its current name.)

When I first joined the ASMP, they had suggested guidelines for pricing (not fixed prices,) that member photographers were encouraged to follow, in order to make a decent living. As time went on I noted how careful ASMP was to only suggest those pricing guidelines rather than enforcing/requiring them. It turns out, after asking around, that ASMP once had fought much harder on behalf of professional photographers. So much so that the Nixon administration came after the ASMP and gutted its capacity to tell its members how to set prices so they could make a good living. (What a wild idea, photographers making too much money and the government coming down on the side of businesses to protect them from greedy photographers.)

To quote further:

In the early years, a majority within the Society held the opinion that ASMP should be a labor union and bargain collectively for wages and working conditions. However, this was far from unanimous. A substantial minority wanted nothing to do with unions and saw ASMP as a professional guild along the lines of the American Bar Association or American Medical Association.

ASMP was licensed by the state of New York to act as a labor union in 1951. ASMP establishes the Code of Minimum Standards, an agreement that, while not legally enforceable, spelled out what the Society believed to be fair pay rates for freelance magazine photographers. One by one, magazines signed the agreement, and the publishing industry was forever changed.

In NY State, the ASMP briefly enjoyed union status and tried to spread their efforts on behalf of photographers to a national level, but:

The issue was laid to rest, however, by a 1976 ruling of the National Labor Relations Board, which determined that ASMP was a group of independent contractors and, thus, ineligible to be a union.

This struck me as odd, since other groups of have succeeded at circumventing similar restrictions (and maintaining their member’s economic power.) Doctors and Rabbis are just two groups who creatively work around government rules, while insuring their members are well compensated. Both groups control the number of professionals-to-be by limiting the enrollment in their respective schools. Then, upon completing the education program they also clearly control, both work VERY hard to dictate how the newly minted professionals are paid. No such thing is possible in terms of photographers. In the time I have been active in ASMP, they have been hamstrung because they can not suggest, let alone control, pricing for fear of being accused of “restraint of trade.”

(I am aware that to some degree I am beating a dead horse. Even if ASMP were once able to make sure pros made a good living, that would not have lasted. The onslaught of photographers brought to the market by digital imaging would still have inundated the market for commercial photography.)

So why did the Nixon administration come down so strongly against photographers? They were the ones who pursued the case against the ASMP. Is it because they thought too many photographers (a group not known as being especially pro-Nixon) were getting rich? Or was it because photographers were making too much many at the expense of the businessmen that ran publishing (read Nixon supporters.)

I am normally not one to see a conspiracy in a political event. I strongly believe that one should never attribute to malevolence what is best explained away by incompetence. Having said that, it does strike me as something of a conspiracy that the government back then, and even now allows some trades/professions to get together and constrain prices as well as control the number of professionals in their trade (think doctors and rabbis.) Photographers, on the other hand cannot.

The doctors, as a block, were probably more popular among the Nixon administration than photographers. To appreciate just how liberal the ASMP once was:

In a 1963 letter to President John F. Kennedy, ASMP’s Equal Rights Committee supports and urges passage of the proposed civil rights legislation, stating: “We are a well-informed and influential group of photographers whose pictures inform and thereby help to mold public opinion. We are behind you one hundred per cent in this fight and rest assured that we will do everything in our power to make sure that Civil Rights legislation becomes a reality and that the word Democracy will take on a deeper meaning for all Americans.”

If you remember, the blog that started my political rant explored the so-called “Myth of burdensome regulation.” In that case I was writing about the airline industry. The federal government thinks that their job is to protect the publishing industry from “greedy” photographers. On the other hand, as I wrote back in May, the same government has to be dragged kicking and screaming to protect the general public from the very real greed of the airline industry. As they say, what’s wrong with this picture?

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