Something that occurred to me as I've read up on street photography over the past few days: it sure is a hard way to make a living.
If photography is like writing—a few people make it pay, others just love doing it—then street photography is more like poetry. You'd better enjoy doing it and get personal satisfaction from the results, because it's never going to make you rich or famous.
At least if you make Photoshopped portraits, gauzy idealized landscapes, or do weddings, there are people who will pay for that. Street photos? Not so much.
Photography in general is like the rocks on the lee shore: it takes the ambitious, munches them up, and sends them to the bottom. The only difference is that, even in the days of sail, the perilous shoals didn't claim so many victims. Most ambitious photographers I know work hard at it for a few years, then assess their success along with their conspicuous lack of recognition and wealth, and move on to making a living at something more sensible.
That's why I typically recommend that people keep their day jobs and remain amateurs at photography. Photography is a superb hobby, one of the best. It's when you try to make a living at it that it is so likely to resist you.
I don't think other hobbies have this problem. I mean, consider, say, fly-fishing, or building plastic model planes. Very few people who do those things—or most other hobbies—assume they're going to "go pro" someday. Very few people try. It doesn't generally come up.
"Wow, that's a really amazing Revell-Monogram Bf 110G-2 you've built." "Yes, thanks, actually I've been thinking about turning pro." "You've backpacked to the top of Mount Hood six times? You should try making a living at that."
There sure are some great street photographers out there—more than I'd realized. Street photography isn't easy. It takes a particular knack, as well as time and devotion. To say I'm impressed is a big understatement. There's lots of talent out there.
But if you want to be famous, or if you plan to make a living...well, try poetry. It should be easier.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Stan B.: "Although street photography has been enjoying somewhat of a revival of late (mostly online), not only will you not make money at it—you generally won't get much recognition from the art market. Galleries usually look down on the stuff—it's been done; too yesterday; the 'seventies revival' is over. It's kinda like what I imagine the world is like for jazz aficianados."
Featured Comment by Dave: "You think it's tough to be a street photographer alone, try doing that and poetry! I've learned to love ramen!"
Featured Comment by Miserere: "When people (friends, friends-of-friends, family...) see my photos they often say 'these are great! You should go professional!' To which I reply. 'you're right, I'm going professional this very moment; please pay me $500 for this print you liked so much.'
"I always get a blank stare.
"I then proceed to explain that to be a professional street photographer I would need to sell 8 prints for $500 each month in order to make a living in my area of the country. They don't realise that 'being a pro' means other people, just like them, need to cough up money to sustain me in my 'proness.' My little act really brings it home to them.
"I think I've played this out on most of my family and friends by now so they know not to tell me I should go pro anymore when they see some new photos they like. I really appreciate it too as it had long since stopped sounding like a compliment."
Featured Comment by Maggie Osterberg: "Once again, I'm reminded how much being a photographer is like being a musician or songwriter. (Two things that have a lot of overlap, I've noticed—many musicians are passionate photographers and vice versa.) So much that this quote from Robert Fripp could apply to your post:
The business of the amateur musician is music. The business of the professional musician is business.
"When I was in my 20s, I raced bicycles. When I needed more cash to keep up my gear, I took a job wrenching at a bike shop and after a year of working on other people's bikes, I never wanted to wrench on another bike again.
"The best way to ruin a perfectly good hobby? Have someone pay you to do it.
"Unless they're paying you to do your own thing and only your own thing, in that case, you're one of the lucky ones. You're HCB or Bono or Thom Yorke or Irving Penn. Or maybe you teach and make art photos, like Minor White or David Goldes. But most of us will just soldier on, without patron nor employer, making photos or art or music, just because we have to."