Photography is an interesting pursuit. Many people I know appreciate the hobby of photography for the pure joy of expression. Today the results are instantaneous, as the digital world has given us the convenience of the speed of light at our fingertips. “Back in the day” as so many are fond of saying, photography required a certain measure of patience. The time from the shutter snap to holding one’s results in their hand involved days, not nano seconds. I recall times when an entire roll of 36 exposures yielded only one image that I could recognize.
The intent of this Musing is not to become nostalgic or melancholy over the days of film. Hardly. I have only a hobbyist interest in dabbling in film again and only for my personal work. In my experience and observations I have come to realize that in the professional world, what is most important is not what is most important as viewed through the lens.
A while back I happened upon an article written by Ken Rockwell entitled, “How to Go Pro.” After reading Mr. Rockwell’s article, I felt that although it contained a bit of pessimism, in concept and reality I agreed with his views. And after having experience as a ‘pro’ I have found that the elements which most affect my ability to make a living through photography has very little to do with an image, hence my thought, “When what is, is not.” Now don’t get me wrong, when one is getting paid to produce an image, or series of images, there is a baseline which must be met. A certain level of quality and knowledge is necessary otherwise, the client becomes “one in a row” since they will seldom return to your door to give you another assignment.
Like any business there is the business side of things which any professional must tend to. Accounts receivable, payable, payroll, capital expenditures, marketing, work flow, taxes, storage, business development, etc. That list does not vary from a firm that makes widgets or a service that hauls garbage. All of the things that make one a ‘pro’ has nothing at all to do with the art of the image. There are PR companies to satisfy and sometimes they can be obsessively controlling. There are great clients to work with as well and those who have vision and the balls to try something new, exciting and unknown.
On the other side of the coin is the personal satisfaction of seeing one’s own name associated on a printed page, marquee, or website displaying your work. Depending on how much one allows those small moments of notoriety to motivate your work will determine how much control your own ego has over your future.
Some colleagues are able to pursue their professional lives simply because they have the luxury of partners who support their day to day financial needs. Rent/mortgages, food, utilities, insurance, children’s tuition, car payments, are things most of us must consider before the purchase of new camera gear or trips to faraway places. I envy those who have that opportunity, for it has never been my fate to be the one provided for, I have always been the provider.
My partner recently sent me an article in the New York Times entitled, “For Photographers, the Image of a Shrinking Path.” The article talks about the shrinking possibilities for those who aspire to become professional photographer and has some very sobering and valid statistics on the how’s and why’s our industry is rapidly shrinking.
One other thought that I would like to share is that every photographer must acknowledge that what we produce as professionals is secondary to the subject matter. Our jobs, be it as a photojournalist, sports, wedding, or performance photographers is to make the subject matter center stage. We are NOT the stars of the image, but merely the vehicles to convey the subject to the viewer. Some may be better than others, but the goal is the same.
In order to keep my own sanity, I realize that there will always be shots that better my own and on some days mine may be the best of the day. But those moments are short lived, as there is always a new assignment to cover, another image which a client has described. By producing the very best I can on any given day is what motivates me, unless of course my ability or inability to pay the mortgage begins to consume my thoughts and it is at those junctures when what is, is not.
It is in those moments when shooting for myself is the most important and I am taken back to why I started this all as a hobby.