Sunday, September 12, 2010

I Know, I'm Beating a Dead Horse, But...

I continue to encounter very young people who are discovering photography as they buy their first DSLR. This is a continuation of same type of experience I had the first time I used a 35mm SLR. There is a compounding factor to this, however, and that is a lack of willingness to work to learn a skill or craft. This certainly does not apply to every young person with a camera who I happen to meet. But I have seen this often.

I've been asked by many young aspiring photographers what it takes to get pictures published or get gallery representation. They want to know a few names or recommendations or some sort of secret. They have fun shooting pictures and their friends have told them their pictures are good. Maybe a friend even asked them to photograph their wedding. They begin to consider the idea they could make money at photography. They want to be a pro.

Professional and fine art photography are businesses that are not controlled by photographers. Yes, photography is fun, a rewarding creative process, an extraordinary means of communication and expression. Making money at photography is business. Business requires a unique skill set that has nothing to do with photography, art or having fun.

When I mention the fact that becoming a good photographer takes a high level of commitment, dedication, and a lot of time and hard work, many of the young people I talk to get a glazed over look in their eyes and start rephrasing their questions in what seems a sincere hope they will get a different answer.

I realized early on, much to my disappointment that, I don't have the temperament or burning ambition to run a business. But I put myself through quite a bit to come to that realization. I spent several years reading books about photography and photographers. I read all the trade and popular magazines on photography every month for years. Every bit of money that didn't go to food and rent went to photography. I shot as much film as I could afford to buy, usually one roll a week. I taught myself how to develop film and make prints. I quit my job and sold my house so I could move to a city where I would have access to labs and publishers and jobs in the photo industry. I couch surfed for eight months while I looked for a job and a place to live in the Bay Area. For three years I worked for photographers, running errands, matting and framing prints, retouching, making contact prints, assisting, managing stock image files as a photo researcher, negotiating fees for use rights. When I thought I had learned enough to set out on my own and become a freelancer, I again quit my job.

I had met a lot of people: editors, art directors, designers, writers, publishers, all people I thought I could call up make appointments with for "lunch." What I didn't realize was that I was no longer "Dave from so-and-so's studio" I was now yet another guy with little "professional" shooting experience trying to get his foot in the door to show some prints. It was time to pay the dues.

I spent a year on the phone. I got on some want lists for stock, I got a few appointments and some polite rejections. I was hung up on often and in one case a designer who I had worked with on a couple of book projects for another photographer yelled into the phone, "What do you want from me?" and then hung up. I was nobody and they let me know it.

Sue Smith at Outside Magazine was nice to me and often called to see if I had images for a piece or knew someone else who might. She knew I could probably refer her to a good photographer, but she always asked me for images first. Mike Shaw at Rodale Press really gave me a chance. Mike was, at the time, the photo editor of Bicycling Magazine. Mike told me to shoot an event and send him some transparencies. I went to a local bike shop and picked up a copy of City Sport magazine and looked through it. I read there was a biathlon coming up in Marin. I called the organizer and talked him into letting me photograph the bicycling stage of the event. I hung out the back window of my car shooting Velvia 50 with an F3 and a 180mm lens as my wife drove the route. I shipped 40 images to Mike. He sent them back with a note. The work was nice he'd keep me in mind.

Three months later Mike called with an assignment. An article had been written about an organization in Marin that took city kids on weekend mountain bike rides up Mt. Tam. The magazine needed pictures. I shot the story and had a great time doing it. The magazine used four of my images. It looked pretty damn good. A couple months later Mike called with another assignment. Again it took me north of the city out to Mt Burdell. This time the story was killed but I got paid for a half day shoot.

All that took about a year. My net income from that work: $600. I'm not the kind of person who is comfortable not knowing where next month's rent is coming from. I had to get a job.

That experience taught me a great deal. First, I realized that shooting for someone else is not that much fun. Second, running a photography business is hard and costly work that has nothing what so ever to do with making pictures.

So, after all that, here's what I tell people today when they ask me about becoming a photographer:

1. It doesn't matter what field you want to get into, you have to start at the bottom. You have to pay your dues, there is no way around it.

2. If you want to be a good photographer, read, read a lot, study the photographs of the photographers who have gone before you. Study them intently.

3. Understand that photography is not glamorous. Photographers make things look glamorous. That's often their job.

4. Realize that what ever you do there is very little if anything original you will ever bring to photography. Understanding this you should then strive to bring some originality to everything you do.

5. You will learn by doing. Do the work, put in the time. If you're not willing to do that, get out now. Find something else, find where your passion is. Because if you're not passionate about photography you will never become a "good" photographer.

6. Go out and shoot 100 rolls of film, then let's talk.


Mark Barry said...

And keep a rejection file! Remember mailing slides and rejections took months. It's all email now, we no longer get cool embossed stationary, but it's still a valuable record. And the duf that hung up on you may have just gotten one himself.

Justin Beck said...

Great post -- thoughtful, honest and realistic.

As much as I love photography, I feel lucky to have avoided putting myself through so much hell to pursue a possibly nonexistent career in it. I'm fine with making a living from other work while enjoying photography as a hobby.

I guess I don't need to be a paid photographer in order to be a happy one.

Anonymous said...

Dave, thank you for an incredibly cogent analysis of the issues (plus the personal details, some of which were new to me). I think the conclusions you draw apply to many areas of human endeavor, making this a most valuable bit of writing.

John W. Wall said...

Dave, you beat that horse so well it came back to life. :)

I still think it's a shame newspapers and picture mags have lost so much readership and gone out of business. Being a newspaper photographer was a good gig, shooting something new every day and getting a regular paycheck too.

Meu nome é Vermelho said...

I realy like your work, found the blog by destiny. sort of... my english is not so good to express my respects. Art is a noble force