The idea that the middle — of anything — tends to die out is a fascinating concept. Made most famous, probably, by the idea of the death of the middle class which illustrates an economic trend toward the polarization of rich and poor. But as a phenomenon, the inverted bell curve is true of many more things than class structure. In marketing, advertisers focus the majority of their dollars on very big ad spends (television) or extremely low ad spends (digital), leaving out an entire middle category of advertising possibilities in print, experiential and otherwise. Airline growth is happening both at the no frills level and the semi-private end, the regular airlines are stagnant. Music is either played on incredibly expensive home audio systems or in low quality audio streams. And Coca-Cola’s product line largely divides between high sugar content sodas or water.
This is not a comment on companies, but on people and our psychologies. If we can’t be fancy, then we’d prefer to be minimal. Extremes have opinion, whereas the middle, as we’ve been told, is a spineless adventure down an unsafe part of the road where grapes meet their demise. But really, there’s just no story to be told in the middle. In a world where we’re told to get the most out of every second of life and prompted to justify it with every post, there’s just not enough likes thrown around for the safe middle option anymore.
And yet, despite this large cultural trend, one category has been quickly and confidently moving in the exact opposite direction. Photography.
It was not too long ago that photography also broke into this familiar refrain of haves and have-nots. Expensive cameras, lights and studios separated out professionals from amateurs who largely used cheap cameras, cheap film and made do, often cutting off heads and wrong-focusing in the process. But this changed with the advent of the digital camera. Suddenly, once-exclusive training was possible on websites like Strobist, which promised professional quality imagery with affordable equipment. Enter YouTube, online tutorials, full-frame mirrorless cameras. The bottom raised, quickly, and now even smartphone companies are offering professional-looking, shallow depth-of-field images.
But even more interesting than the raising of the bottom has been the lowering of the top. High end photography still looks like high end photography, it just hasn’t grown as a field. And, as a photographer who has worked with brands for many years, it’s easy to see why. Less need. I’ve watched as the requests for imagery have changed — from the unique perspectives of expensive high-end photographers for print deliverable to predictable imagery that fills the social media coffers. Some brands could be forgiven for not having the taste to understand the difference, but for the most part it seems as though brands know exactly what they’re doing — and it’s all a cost/benefit reality that drives quality toward the middle.
The Middle Acts Like the Top
Today, photographers with little professional training are making a living at photography. Why not? You can “learn” a year’s worth of in-studio training in a few weeks on YouTube. Or at least understand it, conceptually. And the tools for both image creation and marketing are all available in templated forms that nearly anyone can use.
Templates are a large contributor to photography’s move toward the middle. Site-builders like Squarespace and Wix, email marketing services, business card apps and even entire magazine or book layouts offer beautiful, relatively high-end materials for any photographer to adopt — again, far cheaper and faster than trying to design something unique, from scratch. The only thing left is to brag about your skills.
I don’t mean that glibly — in fact, bragging is an excellent growth tactic. I wrote a whole article just about the rise of the hip hop photographer that outlined this very real trend and effectiveness of it. But in a world where the only true difference between photographers is their followings, we now have a whole sea of normal (or just plain new) photographers, trying to stand out by acting big.
The Middle Grows Faster Than The Top
And what of the high-end photographers? They are still doing amazing work for very high-end clients. And still guarding their relationships and access carefully. This has always been a hard world to break into and nothing has changed in that regard. Expensive and incredible photography isn’t diminishing, but it’s not growing, either. When was the last time you picked up a different glamour or fashion magazine from the one you’ve been reading for twenty years? What is growing is the need for quicker and larger sets of deliverables for e-commerce driven companies. That is growing in spades. And in that world, the needs are for more, not better. More images, more formats, more often.
The rise of the new middle class of photographers is directly related and proportionate to the all-in-one requests for more visuals of various types over higher quality stills.
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time with social media influencers and celebrities and listened to them dole out advice for what works to brands and would-be influencers and celebrities. There is one piece of advice that nearly every single one of them gives: don’t waste time on super high-end content. What those at the top of the social game all know is that it’s far better to feed audiences middle-of-the-road content every day or week than high-end content every month. And brands are taking this advice and finding it a useful content strategy for them, too.
This content-munching system is being driven by the same cultural truths that are making YouTube a more attractive entertainment hub than TV. People are looking to customize how they fill their ever-shrinking personal moments far more than they are looking for things to elevate their consciousness. High-end imagery is great for those few moments we have to really sit down and enjoy a magazine, but the rest of our time is spent multi-tasking and grazing. In that world, all we need is an arresting visual. That’s not a super complicated brief.
The Middle is Dead. Long Live The Middle.
For you photographers out there, I wonder if this all sounds like death? I know it can be disheartening to think about being part of a large group of people doing “average” work. I certainly want to hold myself to a higher standard — and I like to believe people hire me for that. At the same time, I also get a lot of requests to show the product more, because, well, that works. I have a natural tendency to want to shoot at wider angles. When I’m by myself, I actually shoot with a 21mm. But when I shoot for a client, I’m almost exclusively 24–70mm, and most people I know are, too. Or much longer and closer.
But there’s a new trend in imagery that I actually very much love and enjoy shooting — and it’s not high-end at all. Take a look at these two Rolling Stone covers:
There’s a lot to discuss here, including a man standing over a woman to shoot the first one and a woman photographing another woman at eye level, or below, in the second one — offering the subject the power in the relationship. Attention on body on the left, versus person on the right. Forced beauty versus affecting emotional realism. In fact, in discussing the shoot with Billie Eilish, the photographer Petra Collins said “I want to do the literal opposite of what a Britney Spears cover was.”
This is all an incredible shift toward a better place for our profession, but it’s also a celebration of the middle. The set is a messed up, imperfect living room scene that, in this case, was built but very well could have been a real living room anywhere in the world. It’s shot with film, not a medium format digital camera and lacks detail. The shadows plug up, the horizon line is off, the floor is dirty and it’s hard to even determine a key light. It’s a celebration of weirdness.
In fact, being weird is the entire point. Weird is a far greater asset and cue toward originality these days than perfection. And a number of great photographers are capitalizing on it. And it’s all achievable in the middle realm of photography, un-reliant on high-end equipment or fancy sets. But it does take talent and vision.
I’m actually quite a fan of this kind of work and I’m seeing it celebrated and rewarded in great magazines and by big brands, too. But whether or not it’s your style, it shows that the middle is not a terrible place to be and is ripe with opportunity for originality and a voice.
It ladders up to larger cultural issues and questions, perhaps too far beyond photography, but it touches in on a reinvention of our values. In the middle lies an opportunity to celebrate real things without the use of imaginary, hyper-realistic depictions of unattainable beauty and advertising-driven messages of aspiration and idealism. The middle of life is, by definition, where most of us live it. Perhaps this new breed of photographer can be at the head of a movement based on the truer parts of our lives.
Can you picture it?