PMA 25: Years and Counting at PMA ’09

PMA 25: Years and Counting at PMA ’09

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While there are many more folks than me who have attended more PMA shows over the years, I guess hitting the 25-year mark is cause for some celebration, if not reflection. My first PMA show was under the tutelage of Rudi Maschke and Ed Wagner working as a freelancer.

Those were the days of 2 p.m. daily deadlines and long nights, when we’d actually write most of the material on site, run it over to a typesetting shop and then cut and paste it for rapid turnaround at the printers on Industrial. We’d sit and munch pizza or whatever we could find, awaiting the signatures, and then after the press checks as the giant Web presses got into slow motion, complain about registration and then watch the big whirl of production kicking out the first copies until we could finally crawl home.

We’d then get up at dawn to oversee the deliveries, and then it was back to the typewriters for another day’s work. I certainly don’t want to romanticize the work, as it was grimy and filled with disgruntled exhibitors who always complained about no or not enough coverage in the morning edition, but it had a sort of gruff charm that seems absent today.

Reporting meant actually running around the show and talking with product managers and various press agents and getting images to go along with the features and blurbs. The right person was rarely at the booth and you needed the equivalent of roller skates to get the job done. Nowadays, these young whippersnappers just log onto the Web and cut and paste their way to creating copy the night or weeks before, and file to some managing editor in the home office who pours it into columns to be sent electronically to the printer, though those shops are still around the Industrial Rd. area here in Vegas today.

This is not to belittle the folks who work on today’s Dailies—it’s still hard work, but it certainly is a different and perhaps less hectic game. And I do see those Web-only reporters pounding away in their covens scattered around the pressroom, but, as Bob Schwalberg famously said in a voice loud enough for all to hear, you can’t cover PMA from the pressroom, or even off the Internet.

And that idea, that you have to be here to get a sense of what’s happening in our industry is probably more true than ever. We’ve ceded some of our instincts about the shape of things to come to passive reading of blurbs posted on Web sites and have gotten indifferent to the human interaction a trade show offers. You can see this in the thinning crowds and the abrupt slashing of hotel room prices that have taken place before the show. For a sense of where the photography industry stands, and how it will fare in the future, PMA has always been, and I hope will always be the one show dedicated to all things having to do with photography, or what we now call imaging.  

Mapping Out a Plan

Part of attending the show is going to as many seminars and association meetings as you can. I always make the InfoTrends breakfast a must-attend event at the show. I find them uncanny in the way they have always hit the nail on the head about the market and, as their name implies, the trends that will dominate the retail end of the business in the coming year. They correctly called the decline of smaller megapixel cameras, the growing importance of accessories and the way photo books would make up for any loss in D&P over the past year.

There are also the DIMA sessions and the ever-growing ancillary businesses of presentation and framing and scrapbooking. I humbly suggest that more be done on the Internet side of the business and recognition of what role our industry can play in blogging and social networking. The educators, event photographers and school photographer conferences will also play a larger role at this convention; if you want to get into a free focus group on how to serve those markets, try to attend some of those meetings as well.

Who Invited the Economy?

Of course there is the 800-pound gorilla of the economy in the room. If crowds seem thin this year you know who to blame—and it isn’t the industry or the association. We do not exist in a bubble and no industry or business is recession-proof. But with the onslaught of new products, and the innovative energy of the industry still very much alive, you almost have to look ahead of what’s happening now to the day when we don’t have to always look over our shoulder to worry about the next rash of bad news, or be concerned if the bank that’s tight on credit now will be around to open up the channels of business again in the coming months. Having been at this game for those 25 years I can say that while this one is pretty bad we’ve weathered the storms of recession before.

Our industry is one based on innovation, delivery of a wanted product and populated by a wonderful mix of people schooled in business, science and art that make it unique. Photography encompasses all the wonders of modern technology serving both practical and creative ends. It touches all our lives close to home and in the society at large. It can help sell a product or move us to tears, record the first steps of a child and express the wonder found in nature and show, in one frame, the marvel of the human spirit.

We have come so far in all those years and have weathered all the “disruptive” technologies that changed everything we know about how photos “work” and how they are shared. It is activity engaged in by billions of people around the world who still see the image as a primary way to communicate, as a way to pass down their view of the world and their record of their growing family. And here in the States, at least, this is the show where all that is on display. It is also the place where the people who make all this work come together to compare notes, acquaint themselves with what’s new and meet and greet like-minded individuals from near and far.

Back in the ‘80s digital photography was just a glimmer in a scientist’s eye. Film was king and photo finishing was a cash cow. Products kept coming forth, film speed kept climbing and the idea that all that would go away was considered absurd. But electronics hit photography like a ton of bricks, and it took many years for the industry to adjust.

But now the infrastructure is back on its feet, megapixels keep climbing and an entirely new format of sharing images has come to pass. In the next 25 years (or even sooner) I am sure that whatever we assume is the way things are done will have changed entirely…again.

But what will always remain is the very human trait of communicating through images, and there will always be a need for an industry that meets the need for devices and infrastructure, and the inspiration to keep moving forward, to make it all work. That’s the business of our business. That idea has kept me working in it for all these many years and is the spirit of the message I wanted to share with you at my 25th PMA. yy

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