Local pictures, global changes

Photos of closed factories, unemployment lines and other recession-refugees remain a fixture of magazines and newspapers across the country. For the men and women behind the camera, times are becoming equally tough.

Photos of closed factories, unemployment lines and other recession-refugees remain a fixture of magazines and newspapers across the country.

For the men and women behind the camera, times are becoming equally tough.

Yukon photographer Cathy Archbould has been waiting for the “bottom to drop out” for Yukon photographers.

“I haven’t witnessed anything yet,” she said.

But warning signs have cropped up.

Fewer RVs and fewer cruise ship passengers in the Yukon mean fewer gift shop visitors.

The post cards and art cards that pack the shelves of these shops have already taken a hit.

Photographer Richard Hartmier’s best-selling Yukon photo books have long been fixtures in gift shops and highway stops throughout the territory.

This year, he decided not to print a new run, and so far, the leftovers from the 2008 season have been more than enough.

As with most things Yukon, the photography market is dominated by government dollars.

Photographers are often shooting for government, or for a design firm hired by government.

Government control over Yukon photographers is, naturally, quite large.

“If you’re not on good terms with a particular bureaucrat, you’re not getting business,” said Hartmier.

In recent years, the Yukon government has required photographers to surrender their “moral rights”—a copyright term that references a photographer’s right to preserve an image in it’s original form along with name credits.

Giving up moral rights essentially gives up a photographer’s association or right to an image.

The moral rights issue is a “lever” that the government uses to prevent Yukon photographers from forming a coalition, said Hartmier.

One camp of photographers openly waives their moral rights.

Another camp refuses, subsequently earning an automatic sentencing into the photographic wilderness.

The result is a split between the two camps of photographers, said Hartmier.

“If you’re willing to give up your moral rights, you have no respect for your trade or the people in your trade,” he said.

The policy was implemented to allow government to alter or crop photos at will, said Denny Kobayashi, manager of marketing operations for Tourism Yukon.

“Nobody cares about cropping,” said Hartmier.

Photos without moral rights don’t come cheap. In exchange for more control, government agencies pay a premium to the photographer.

In some cases, photographers have jumped at the opportunity not to have their name associated with a particular government contract, said Kobayashi,

Moral rights don’t even have to be surrendered—as long as you give permission to crop or alter the image, he said.

Familiarization tours, or fam tours, are often used by the department of tourism to shine international spotlights on the Yukon.

Representatives of international media are given an exclusive, government-paid tour of the territory. In exchange, they beam Yukon images all over the world.

While valuable, fam tours may be stepping local photographers’ toes, said Hartmier.

Flying around a photographer from a publication like Outside Magazine brings valuable global attention to Yukon tourism spots—but free helicopter rides also give the out-of-towners an advantage over locals, he said.

If Outside Magazine didn’t have its own photographer flown around the territory, the magazine might buy images from local Yukon photographers.

Nevertheless, a Yukon address has its perks.

Relatively green Yukon photographers can rake in the cash, said Kobayashi.

“We have professional photographers from southern Canada that have been doing this for 20 years, charging the same price as a Yukon photographer that started a year ago,” he said.

But the exposure is limited.

Serving such a tiny market, Yukon photographers are hard-pressed to garner the same attention as their southern counterparts.

Trevor Sellars, co-owner of Whitehorse’s Aasman Design Inc., has had to reject the big-city prices of Yukon-based photographers.

“Wake up; you can get $15,000 for an image in Toronto, where there’s $5.7 million people seeing that image daily, but in (the Yukon) it would take you 87 years to get the same number of people to see that image,” said Sellars.

“If you want to wait that long, sure, we’ll pay you,” he said.

There’s probably a market for “100 pictures a year” in the Yukon, said Hartmier.

Around the world, lens-toters face massive shifts in the marketplace, and Yukoners are not immune.

Stock photography—once a prime photographic side-income—has been swamped by cheap internet image sources.

Archbould’s summers used to be spent driving throughout the Yukon building up her stock portfolio.

Now, it isn’t worth the effort.

What once cost a minimum of $100 can now be pulled off an online image clearinghouse like iPhoto.com for as low as a few dollars.

And with no strings attached.

Users don’t need to credit the original photographer, and they can print it as often as they want without paying out royalties.

Yukon design firms “try to support local (photographers), but it’s pretty hard to compete with a $5 image,” said Yukon photographer Fritz Mueller.

“They don’t have to haggle or negotiate with a photographer and 20 minutes later they’re sitting there with the photo in their document,” he said.

Across the board, digitization of photography has inalterably changed how—and for how much—images are bought and sold.

In the days of film, a so-so photographer could generate a paycheque on technical ability alone.

“You could produce a moderately crappy product, but if you understood the chemistry, the film—and had the facility to actually process all of this stuff, you had an edge on pretty much everyone else,” said Yukon photographer Morgan Whibley.

Digital photography killed the darkroom—and made photography accessible to the masses.

Using only a $200 digital camera, the task of capturing an in-focus, relatively well-developed image is suddenly in reach of anyone who can press a shutter.

Beginners, armed with cheap digital cameras, “can take very good photos now; the separation between the hobbyist, the semi-pro and the pro is decreasing,” said Mueller.

Point-and-shoots can fill the empty spaces in websites and promotional booklets, but image quality suffers, said Hartmier.

Photo-users now carry a mindset of “it doesn’t have to be good, it just needs to be free,” he said.

“People would rather have it faster and cheaper than more expensive and higher quality,” said Whibley.

“You’ve got more people shooting more images, which drives down the price—but there’s a shift in the quality of the work as well,” he said.

Wedding photographers, for instance, used to run between $2,000 and $4,000.

Whibley says he gets weird looks if he quotes a wedding for anything more than $200.

Knee-deep in commodified images—professionals have needed to shift into a higher echelon to keep afloat.

“My work has shifted to doing less work, but going after people that want higher-quality work,” said Whibley.

Technical skill alone doesn’t pay the bills, “you have to have something different about your service, your business, your angle,” said Mueller.

Expectations have gone up, said Archbould.

A photographer’s workday used to end at the developer.

Now, camera-toters are expected to process and refine their images—tasks that used to be reserved for graphic designers.

While digital technology forces down the costs for amateur photographers, professionals have seen their costs rocket upwards.

Computerizing cameras has made them slaves to upgrades.

Darkrooms didn’t need yearly replacement.

Professionals generally need to spend between “10 to 20 per cent” of their income upgrading equipment, said Archbould.

“The days of buying a camera and a few lenses and using them for years are gone,” she said.

Contact Tristin Hopper at