I've been writing about photography since 1988, when Fred Picker goaded me into writing an article on spec by telling me I was a punk and couldn't possibly get an article published in a magazine. (That first article was accepted, as were several hundred after that.) That, and subsequent editing and online jobs and activities, have put me in an unusual position. I became a sort of host, discussion leader, clearinghouse, observer of the scene, and pundit rolled into one.
As such, I've been aware of various leitmotifs over the years, low-level but persistent themes that run like threads through my work and my days. One of the more noticeable of these is what I call the photographer's lament: photographers ask, why am I not getting more attention? Why am I not earning more money? Why that person and not me? Why is the world not beating a path to my door?*
Upon reaching a certain level of competence or accomplishment we seem to feel that we should start getting attention.
I see this as more a characteristic of the activity of photography itself than it is a commentary on any individual's skills or talents. There's something about the way we commonly conceive of this activity that encourages the thought that we should be rewarded, somehow, for being able to do it.
Maybe it's the fact that some people are rewarded for it. Everyone knows the examples of the professional photographer and the artist-photographer, who, they imagine, are showered and fêted with money or recognition or both.
Not so often, really. The average "name" photographer is more like a recording star who no longer has a record contract. They, too, are usually feeling some version of the photographer's lament...just at a higher level than most of the rest of us. Fees are down, nobody's paying for original photography any more, I'm not selling many prints, my last book didn't sell well.
My question is, why does the idea persist that fame and earnings—more broadly, attention and admiration—should naturally be contingent on practicing this activity? What is it about photography that makes us feel we should get attention for doing it?
Look at other recreational activities. Water skiing, hunting, woodworking, bird-watching, cooking, video-gaming—or any of a thousand others. I suppose in each of those fields there are a tiny minority who get paid for what they do or are famous for it, although I can't name a single water-skiier nor imagine how someone who's good at knitting might become well known for it. Mostly, such things are their own reward. We hike in the woods, or travel for miles to eat at a nice restaurant, or teach our dogs tricks, or arrange wildflowers in vases, or work out, visit famous battlefield parks, or build model railroads, or sew, because those things are fun for us, that's all.
We don't think, hey, I'm really good at scrapbooking. When am I going to get an award for this? Or...you know, I'm a hell of a great foodie. I go to the farmer's market every week and I read a ton of recipes. Why is someone not giving me money?
For a small number of people, photography is a career. But those people work really hard at identifying markets, building up client relationships, and giving customers what they want. And it's true, a small number of photographers get their work published in books or shown in museums, or they sell prints for what seems like a lot of money. And they work just as hard at that...it's just a different kind of work, is all. You could probably do one of those things occasionally too, if you really worked at it. And if you didn't need your day job.
But for the most part, photography is just a fun activity. A recreation. An enjoyable pastime. We do it because we enjoy it.
I often encourage people to work in a more focused way, to be more organized and deliberate and conscious about their work, to undertake projects, or to finish or "redact" their work more fully. I encourage photographers to concentrate on what they're best at, and be sterner editors of their own work—generally, to do what needs to be done to enable their work to communicate to others, to be seen by others, more readily. But that's just because I think those things make photography more satisfying and enjoyable, that's all. Not because I'm trying to encourage people to believe there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
So if you ever find yourself thinking, why am I not famous, or when am I going to make a little money at this, or any of the other gnawing dissatisfying insecurities that seem to crop up for all of us from time to time, I'd encourage you to ask yourself a question: why do you really do this, anyway? Concentrate on finding the things about photographing that are within your control that make it fun and gratifying as a recreation, a relaxation, and a rewarding activity in and of itself. It might or might not change the way you work. But it might make you happier.
*The famous "build a better mousetrap" saying is a folk distillation of a quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"Open Mike" is the editorial page of TOP, in which the Editor allows his opinionations free range. It appears on Sundays.
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Rich Reusser: "My daughter is having some success as a model in L.A. so she gets to see the minority of photographers that are 'elite' as well as the working class variety. She called to tell me one particularly famous fashion photographer has a spiritual guru by his side at all times. This is how I would know I found the pot of gold."
Mike replies: Is the spiritual guru a leprechaun?
Ruby: "I always wanted a camera (I got a Vivitar 110—with flash, no flash cubes for me!—for my 10th birthday, and a K1000 for graduation). Life got in the way for quite some time, but eight years ago I began to study more seriously. Of course I had those relatives saying 'You should open a business,' and I dutifully looked into it. I spend a lot of time looking at photography. I am competent, sometimes good. I really enjoy taking pictures, and even editing them. I don't want to have to think about promotion and making other people happy. Sometimes the act of taking the picture is the best part of the experience. This post articulated something I've been trying to explain to relatives who think profit is the only reason to pursue photography."
Bruce Mc: "I have worked with a famous photographer or two. As you mention, there was a lot of attention given to the techniques and just plain hard work involved in advancing their career. There was also a drive, a dissatisfaction. Just taking good photos was not satisfying to these people. Having their work celebrated was very important to them emotionally."
Steve: "I highly recommend a book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It's mainly about writing, but you can apply it to any creative field, especially photography.
"I tried, and failed, to start a winery here on the west coast. After 10 years I had to pull the plug. There was a certain je ne sais quoi that seemed to land on some people and not others. I wouldn't even call it luck. We all worked like dogs but there was something I was lacking that others had. Now I make waaaay more money in IT and have way more free time to pursue photography. As in the wine business, I'm sure it's the same in photography. Ninety percent of your time is selling your product and 10% actually doing. I am not a good salesman...."