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2021 in the rearview

To wrap up 2021, Inside Imaging went back looking for trends, themes, and the hot stories that defined the last 12 months in the Australian photo industry.

It’s an interesting process to sift through the 12-month archive to see what happened. And while the usual suspects are always in there, so are a few emerging new topics, as the photo industry is an ever changing animal. So here we go…

Photo industry losses

2021 kicked off with the closure of Michaels Camera Video and Digital, ‘the largest single camera store in the Southern Hemisphere’ and an Australian photo industry institution. Managing director, Peter Michael, was prompted to take his inevitable retirement early due to the pandemic, with customer numbers down 80 percent from pre-lockdown levels.

‘Our family has traded from this location since 1916, this is 105 years,’ Peter Michael explained. ‘Originally as a pawnbroker and a gunsmith located in the corner on the ground floor, whilst leasing the remainder of the building to others. My grandfather transformed the business to being  a pharmacy in 1925, my father joined him in 1950 also as a pharmacist.

‘In 1976 my father transformed our business into a dedicated camera business. I commenced in 1983. Within a few years it was my task to clear the first floor which had been leased to a restaurant. We finally occupied the whole building.’

The Michaels family owns the building and will continue to ‘trade’ from this iconic location as landlords.

Same day photo processing in the 1930s, and a place to buy your smokes!

Thornton Richards Camera House Ballarat, with roots stretching back 150 years, was another great Victorian photo store to close in 2021. The business was established as a photo studio back in the Victorian Goldrush year of 1872. Its has been in the family of the current owners, Sue and Gerrard Lewis, for 69 years. Gerrard said they tried to sell the store but were unable to find a buyer.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:
The news that the only specialty photographic outlet in Ballarat, a regional city of over 150,000 and home to the Ballarat Foto Biennale, attracted no interest will be met with consternation from other specialist photo retailers around Australia. Turnover of the retail outlet alone is over $1 million, with the lab and the studio making further significant contributions. Even through 2020, it was a profit-generating business.

‘Our business began 149 years ago on the goldfields and has constantly changed and morphed into what it is today,’ said Gerrard. ‘It is the oldest camera business in Australia and possibly the world. It is sad to be closing it down. What else can we say?’

Peter Foeden in 1984. Photo: Heide Smith.

Australian photography also lost one of its legends, Peter Foeden, who played a major role establishing a high standard of professionalism in Australian photography, particularly by creating the AIPP Awards System in 1977. He passed away on October 11 at 91 years old.

‘Peter was a charming and charismatic man, who had a great command of the English language,’ AIPP doyen Richard Bennett said. ‘His leadership qualities enabled Peter to gather around him a committee, which became the awards committee, for our first National Print Awards. Because of Peter’s vision and tenacity we collectively have crafted one of the best awards systems in the world.’

And around a month after Peter, a father of the AIPP, passed away, so did the very Institute he helped build and define.

In Inside Imaging‘s coverage on 2020 closures, we commended the AIPP for surviving the first year of the pandemic:
‘It’s worth highlighting the strength Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP), which faced immense challenges pre-Covid and was in a financially vulnerable state. To stay afloat is such uncertain times is a real achievement, especially when considering so many of its members – working photographers – have been out of work this year.’

Gee whiz. So much can change in a year. The demise of the AIPP has been partly attributed to macro factors impacting the professional photo industry, as well as internal issues from the last decade.

A last ditch effort to save the Institute by the final AIPP National Board ultimately failed. This partly consisted of replacing of State Councils with Chapters, with hopes to create geographic and genre-based interest groups that would bring non-AIPP members to the fold. Chapters were designed to create new communities resulting in a new revenue stream, but alas this wasn’t enough. Additionally, the Institute implemented a perplexing re-shuffle of board positions and roles, which left the AIPP without announcing the new leader for several months.

There was concern about how some actions in the last 12 months didn’t abide by the AIPP constitution. While the board and admin assured it ‘left no stone unturned to ensure they are legally and correctly operating within the bounds of the Constitution’, this was never properly explained and individuals with a close working knowledge of the constitution were doubtful.

The last direct correspondence Inside Imaging had with the AIPP was an interview with the operations manager whose responses ranged from passive aggressive to outright hostility. It came across as a befuddling, inexperienced approach to corporate communications, and something we’ve never experienced from a spokesperson of any organisation we have dealt with. And we were on their side!

Covid: Locked down and out

The knock-on affect of Covid-related restrictions was unexpected in 2021. Last year when we wrapped the year up, there was a sense the worst was behind us.

But another 12 months of staggered East Coast lockdowns and nation-wide travel restrictions really tested the resilience of the photo industry. When we checked in with a handful of professional photographers in August, the vibe wasn’t great with photographers exhausted from the yoyo-ing lockdowns.

In November we touched base again and the mood was much more positive.

‘I think everyone’s feeling a lot more energised, if maybe a little overwhelmed in a good way,’ Melbourne portrait photographer, Emily Black told Inside Imaging. ‘Spring weather, coupled with an earlier than expected ease of restrictions has meant photographers are very optimistic.’

We also queried where are the iconic Covid-19 images in an article titled ‘Where is Covid’s ‘Tank Man’?‘ Major contemporary events often have defining iconic images representing what happened, such as Robert Capa’s The Magnificent Eleven of D-Day, Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima for America’s win in the Pacific War, Mervyn Bishop’s 1975 Wave Hill picture for Aboriginal land rights, numerous Vietnam War photos by the likes of Nick Ut and Eddie Adams, and Charlie Cole’s Tank Man.

Mads Nissen’s award-winning image, Hugs To Survive, was a World Press Photo Contest finalist.

Just preceding the pandemic were the horrific Australian bushfires, where photojournalists amassed a award-winning portfolio of pictures. But then Covid happened, and by comparison there aren’t really any images which thus far define the pandemic. Of course it comes down to the fact that a bushfires are visually powerful whereas a novel virus is not so invisible to the human eye.

This year there were – and still are – major protest movements across the country aimed at the government’s response to the pandemic. And Melbourne-based photographers have found themselves in the firing line.

In late February Herald Sun photographer, Jake Nowakowski, was arrested alongside reporter Olivia Jenkins while they were covering an anti-vaccine protest at Fawkner Park. It’s uncommon for accredited media to be arrested when covering a newsworthy events, and sets a dangerous precedent regarding press freedom.

‘They are lawfully not allowed to use “move-on” powers on media, unless they see you as posing a threat, see you’re in danger, or believe you’re committing a crime,’ Jake told Inside Imaging. ‘It always depends on the individual police officer.’

Victoria Police apologised to the pair, stating they’re having trouble distinguishing media personnel and alternative media who support and participate in the protests. The police also flagged an internal police media accreditation system, which again sets a dangerous precedent regarding press freedom.

‘What happens to the photography or journalism students who don’t have the accreditation because they’re shooting for a folio, or a freelancer,’ he said. ‘VicPol’s greatest concern is making it easier for officers to tell the difference between media and people part of the protest movement calling themselves media.’

Prior to his arrest, Jake captured a number of quality images. Source: Instagram (@skubesnaps).

Then in September, after a chaotic run of Melbourne anti-lockdown protests, freelance photographer Luis Ascui copped pepper spray from police directly in the eyes.’Things are going to happen when you’re at a protest as a photographer; we may get hurt because we’re in the middle of it. This kind of thing has happened before, but never so bluntly directed at me as a working photographer.’

Another photographer who has attended all the Melbourne protests is Rukshan Fernando. While originally a wedding photographer, he became disgruntled with how lockdowns impacted his business, and began live streaming the protests. This has earned him a huge live audience, and a celebrity status at the protests.

A year of photo festivals

Three major photo festivals ran in Australia this year, Photo 2021, Head On Photo Festival and the Ballarat International Foto Biennale. That’s gotta be a record.

Photo 2021 was an ambitious inaugural event with organisers proclaiming it to be the biggest and best – no less than Melbourne’s Rencontres d’Arles! And this was before a single image had been hung. While the festival is great at spending money, it was, frankly, poorly organised. There is plenty of room for improvement and we hope organisers take our feedback onboard rather than surrounding themselves in an echo chamber of identity politics and affirmation. If you achieved a C and everyone tells you it was an A+, it’s hard to improve.

Head On 2021 at Bondi Beach.

Photo 2021 could take a few pointers from Head On, which follows the relatively simple formula of cramming a diverse range of photography into a single location.

Due to lockdowns and poor (non-existent) communication, Inside Imaging didn’t get around to checking out BIFB. Although BIFB founder and former creative director, Jeff Moorfoot, left us this comment about the headline exhibition by Linda McCartney:

Rock star portraits, we’ve seen them all before – I found the Number One Gudinski offerings much more engaging – and family snaps – exactly that! Linda McCartney’s work is unquestionably competent, but not in the same class as some of the masters I have heard her name mentioned in company with. But I have to say I was quite taken with her platinum prints.

As with all the shows the Art Gallery presents, staging was excellent except for the aboriginal portraits by Robert Fielding, which unfortunately were virtually unreadable behind glass….

ps Martin Kantor Prize finalists disappointed!


Intellectual property is always a big part of Inside Imaging‘s ‘beat’. There are fascinating copyright cases and conundrums being heard before the courts in Australia and overseas that can impact the business of photography.

A major Australian copyright case ruling went in favour of a real estate photographer, who sued third-party property analytics firm, RP Data, which acquired images from via overreaching rights-grabbing terms. However, leading copyright lawyer, Ian McDonald expressed concern the ruling could be a ‘double-edged sword’, as the News Corp-owned sales platform could seek a legal workaround that may ultimately become a headache for real estate photographers.

McDonald doesn’t think REA will suddenly dump this revenue generator after losing the lawsuit, and instead anticipates that REA’s powerful legal team will hit the ground running to find a solution.

‘The legal principal establishes that the ball is in the court of the real estate agent and REA,’ he said. And he anticipates they’ll potentially ‘introduce practices which appropriate more broadly, regularly, and consistently, the rights from photographers’.

Over in the US the Instagram post embed API is being rightly tested, after photographers sued media companies (and even Instagram!) for embedding their images to sidestep licensing. This has been ongoing for a few years now, but in 2020 and 2021 there has been much more focus on the topic and photographers look like they might come off victorious. Speaking of victories, photographer Lynn Goldsmith won an appeal against the Andy Warhol Foundation (AWF), after she found the late artist had made silkscreen prints of her photo of musician, Prince.

Supply Side Economics

AKM Chip fire
The AKM fire burned uncontrolled for three days. This was the start of supply constraints throughout 2021.

In late November 2020 we broke a world exclusive on a fire in Japanese high-end IC components factory, AKM Semiconductor. The factory made sophisticated analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog chips used in a digital camera’s video capture systems, and their lack of availability began to hit the camera manufacturers hard in 2021.

But that was just the start of supply issue in the second year of Covid disruption. There was another fire in another Japanese chip manfacturer, Renesas; pandemic‑related order cancellations and production shutdowns; international port restrictions;  shortages of shipping containers; and sanctions on Chinese companies like Huawei (who then began stockpiling chips). The result is that a range of products such as motor vehicles, cameras, home entertainment, in fact anything which includes integrated circuits, remain in short supply around the world. Covid has up-ended the smooth workings of complex ‘just in time’ supply networks around the world such that even simple wooden pallets are in short supply.

So just when it appeared the decade-long attrition to camera sales was finally levelling off, shipments are now plumetting not because people don’t want to buy the latest cameras, but because they can’t be produced or shipped in sufficient quantities to satisfy demand.

Numerous cameras and lenses were announced but delayed in 2021, including the new and already long-awaited Canon mirrorless flagship, the R3. Panasonic has just announced the Lumix GH6 camera, which was due in 2021, will now be released some time in 2022.

Covid also led to huge increases in marine shipping costs as airfreight was scaled back, with what there was also  subject to massive price hikes. This will inevitably result in price hikes in 2022.

As Malcolm Kennedy, managing director of Australia’s largest photo equipment distributor, CR Kennedy & Company, told us in October: ‘This year it is not a question of price, but rather a question of supply; of actually being able to source what you want and in time.’

‘Our current prices are the most competitive. In addition, we are facing stock shortages across the board. Accordingly, BUY NOW at best competitive prices.’

In other news…

And then there were a range of top stories which don’t quite fit into any categories, but deserve a mention:

Nam Contact: Symphonic coda to Tim Page’s Vietnam

Food photography technically a nightmare

Ryan Schembri faces fresh accusations

On Ryan Schembri and the AIPP

David Alan Harvey ‘will not be cancelled’, flags defamation suit

Facial Recognition to disrupt event photography?

Film in, prints out at new-gen labs

Photographers gather down on the street


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