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Friday, 01 March 2013


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Do you have to work full-time to produce 10-20 photographs a year? Why can't you do that as a "casual and intermittent" photographer?

To become "successful" or famous in photography in our day and age has much less to do with photography than it does with the "business" of photography.

I feel like I constantly in conflict between these two modes. Personally, as a landscape photographer I'm looking for those images that truly stand out, along the lines of the 10-20 images per year.

My current job, as the Dartmouth College photographer forces me to produce, produce, produce and it has required a fundamental shift in my approach. It has been difficult for me to make the transition from only sharing the best of the best to publishing images that I'm often not entirely proud of.

Interestingly, I'm trying to bridge this gap through a blog, where I publish more than just the "best" but am way more critical than I can be in my day job.

In the end though, I agree with your previous post, that most photographers are remembered for just a few well-known photos.

[Eli, Do you happen to know Rebecca Bailey? --Mike]

Is simple. The difference is in the edition.

I'm probably in the first category, but I'm aspiring to probably still shoot casually and intermittently and produce 10 to 20 photographs in a year. And when I say produce, I mean ones that make it into final prints that I like.

If I was going for number 2, I'd need a theme, a story, something more than just a photo, but to really guide the production and selection of the 10-20 photos. I think I'd spend most of my "full-time" work on the self-preparation of what I really want before going out there.

One of my best friends who's a photographer, looked at a couple of my photos and just said to me: "But what are you trying to say?" ... that was over 2 years ago, and I still don't really have an answer. But I'm coming closer.


Well, possessional or professional that is the question.

[I don't know...very few (if any) of my favorite photographers are professionals. I could write a post about that, too. --Mike]

This is an interesting viewpoint, and worth no little pondering...

Of the people I know that are trying to actually live on their photographic "art" production, it's judicious of them to produce not only what is "sell-able", but also to have a "rarity" component to what they are doing; as well as meet the needs of their personal enrichment. The sell-ability of the work is something that impacts photographic artists, whether they'll admit to it or not, and if something they do has a greater acceptance in the galleries, they certainly lean towards that when producing more work, or at least think about it.

I see work priced at 2K or better all the time, but how much of it at that price level is sold on a regular basis. Amongst ourselves, we always talk about seeing shows on TV like Antiques Roadshow, and how prints by some of the greats come up, printed in their lifetimes (so "vintage"), that get estimated out at that 2K price point, or around it. I would think that if you like collecting photographic "art", and you are familiar with that, it's one thing to want to collect the high quality work of an unknown, or relative unknown (and support that person in their endeavors), but the future value also has to make some sort of sense. If I had 2k to spend on "art", I'd much rather buy the vintage print of a "known", than the new work of an unknown, if I like them equally...

But even if you can get 2K or upwards, it's a tough "row-to-hoe" to live on. The people I know that apply themselves to it as a living, often tell me they have a "sell-through" with new work, maybe five to ten sales, maybe a little more, and then the market goes "dead" for the stuff, and it dribs and drabs out...

It's certainly a tough way to make a living, and well worth thinking of all the permutations...

I'm definitely #1. And my goal is, and always has been #2. But I will always be #1, even if I do make it to #2.

I shoot tens of thousands of frames a year and usually wind up with between 300 and 500 pictures that are interesting enough to process, not counting actual paid work. Of those images, maybe half are "keepers", images that are "good enough", and that I don't mind sharing or using in a portfolio if they fit. From that pool of images, in my absolute best year (2012), I wound up with 48 photos that I thought were good enough to use in my best of the year gallery.

Of the 48 bests from 2012, there are 10 images that I think are excellent (11 if you count the portrait of one of my turtles), and maybe--maybe--four photos that are truly exceptional.

My goal for my year-end review has always been 52 really good images, 13 that are excellent, and least one personal "bucket photo" scratched off the list...well, captured well enough that I stop obsessing over it. I'm psychologically incapable of removing photos of my bucket list, they just get moved further down the list as my attempts get better.

Sounds to me like someone needs to dig out his whole plate camera.

I've followed for a while and generally enjoy the topics addressed here.

I'd argue the term "success" is both ambiguous and personal, therefore difficult to define. Is Terry Richardson any less successful than Ansel Adams? By some standards one could argue he's wildly more successful. Others may certainly claim he's a miserable failure pandering to the rich and famous. I'd argue both are true to some degree. This holds not only for photography, but other creative pursuits as well. Stephen King would probably be the first to admit he's no Hemmingway, but to call him unsuccessful would be a hasty and unfair generalization. Perhaps happiness is a better measure of success than anything else. Whether you hike 4 hours with a Deardorff and get 2 images or wander the suburbs with a point and shoot and get 381, personal satisfaction and happiness should always be the ultimate creative goal.

It depends on the personality of the Photographer, are you willing to set-up and wait and wait for the prefect foggy sunrise over the whatever, or are you blasting away at 24 fps hoping to get the thingy just as it before it hits the thing-a-ma-jig or something in between.

Some of us can walk down the street and go A-HA and snap one frame and have a keeper, and some of us will snap 100 frames and #2 is the keeper we find when we get home.

I'm not sure the way the argument is proposed is entirely valid. Perhaps comparing Gursky to Winogrand, a supposedly prolific shooter, instead of comparing Gursky to a casual shooter? I think also art photographers generally don't consider themselves photographers per se. Like Cindy Sherman, for whom photography is essentially a way to record a set piece. Jeff Wall, another art photographer, takes as long as a year working on a single photograph, preparing the tableau.

Don't you mean Andreas Gursky supervises the production of ten pieces a year? From what I understand, he is to photography what Dale Chihulhy is to glass blowing...

That aside, I don't think that I could ever do photography full-time and still enjoy it. Based upon my personal experience, 10 to 20 hours a week seems about right (and of late, thanks to the demands of my day job, even that has been impossible to achieve.)

I have debated this subject with myself and it remains an 'evolving' view. I enjoy making photographs and have no particular ambition to become famous - it's tempting, sure, but it seems to me that making good photographs is really the bare minimum required to become famous; getting recognized above the din is very difficult, even for very good photographers. Hey, even AA owed a lot of his success to a good business manager.

For the time being I've narrowed my focus down to making what I call 'small' pictures, photographs that are not particularly 'heroic'; they are not topical, I don't attack projects, as many others do, I just try to make decent pictures of my local world to see what that world looks like when captured in a photograph (paraphrasing Gary Winogrand)

But what interests me most, and this is something I've taken from the work of others (John Gossage, Rinko Kawauchi) is the power of sequencing, particularly in books, how the sum of the parts seems to add up to something greater than the parts. Given the ubiquity of photography it seems like we're left with two complementary approaches: publish really really big photographs, rarely, or combine many many small ones to arrive at something larger than any of them individually. For the time being, I've attached myself to the latter, recognizing that that may change. You learn as you go.

When I first starting shooting college volleyball--with film--I was sorely disappointed with my work. Few good images, a bunch of junk, and, every now and then, a real keeper. As I've matured, I've learned that one really good shot per match (whether it's a 3-set or 5-set match) is almost extraordinary (at least for me). I'm happy with 25% to 30% of my shots being good enough for my audience: the parents of the players, the players, and the coaches. I just don't them the junk. I'm now taking a studio lighting class and the pressure's on: I have a finite time to design a shoot, shoot it, and process it and I have to produce four killer shots per assignment. This is becoming real work and a sampling of what a pro has to do. I love it and I hate it!

"I assume most of us practice something closer to #!"

You mean leaving your finger on the "Caps" key as you type "1", yes that would be most of us … ;-)

A literal handful have the luxury of the latter. But with experience and dedication, you can still pull off a really good dozen a year with weekends, vacation and a camera always at your side.

Hi Mike. My first comment, as I've been following your blog for a short time. This response applies generally to both posts on the subject.

I've been around the art world for most of my life. I've created in several media and have performed art and antique appraisals for the last 23 years. Let's just say I'm reasonably savvy.

I understand exactly where you're coming from, but I've been told recently by two prominent magazine editors that the portfolio series related to a particular subject or theme is more important than the exceptional individual image, especially for digital-age publication. I understand that a series can tell a compelling story, especially if it relates to human experiences; but I also feel that many published and award-winning subject portfolios cover-up several less than stellar images in trite concepts that speak to popular social and creative trends.

I like to shoot what interests me in a particular moment -- no matter the subject or setting. Serendipity plays a great role, and I use my knowledge and talents to capture what I hope will be a rewarding image for a viewer. Sometimes it's profound; sometimes comedic. My images and titles often present meanings on multiple levels. They merit more than a glance. I have been told by the two editors that many of my images are exceptional and the overall opus is impressive, but that I lack cohesion for a large set or portfolio. I'm said to be a half step from the ultimate level of publication and commercial gallery success.

Naturally, having a theme or style makes it easier for others to promote and sell your work. That's always been the case. However, the pursuit of the one-off master image means you might not be seen through the digital din unless you're an established photographer with an old-school (film) following. I'm told that the old way of looking at photos has changed with the populism and access of digital imagery, since anyone can be lucky enough to create a few hits with the capability of cameras and software. I just wish the current arbiters of quality would look for something a little deeper.


"2.) you work full-time at your photography and produce 10 or 20 photographs in a year."
"I assume most of us practice something closer to #1. How would you work differently if your goal were #2?"

Well, for starters, I'd have married for money not love...

I'd start with a 4x5 or 8x10 view camera and a maximum of 5 double-sided holders. Right there I'm tilting the balance fully toward making every shot count from the get-go.

I'd spend a lot more time planning when, where and what to go shoot, rather than just wandering around with a camera in my free time looking for things that strike me as being worth a frame or two. I probably wouldn't spend any more time out shooting than I do now, but the time I did spend would be very much more focused.

I wouldn't even set the camera up on the tripod until I was satisfied that it was worth it.

I'd make work prints of any promising looking negatives, pin them up and ponder on them for an extended period of time before deciding which one or two from a set to really go to town on.

I'd spend a great deal of time working on each of those keepers to fine tune and hone it into a truly special print, rather than rushing through that stage as I tend to now.

And I'd forget entirely about posting to and interacting with the usual online photo sharing places (which feel to me as though they require a constant flow and high frequency of new work just to keep your audience engaged) and instead spend that time marketing my work in the real world to people who will actually pay money for a fine print.

On the other hand a truly great artist and photographer, Harry Callahan, worked constantly and produced a body of work that both inspires and endures.

Hi Mike,
I'm in the #1 camp, with only 1 day a week available to take pics, and an occasional evening.
If I was able to do #2 I'd have more sunrises and less sunsets! I could also spend more time waiting for the weather to be interesting, rather than taking what I can get.
I'd also learn more about post-processing.

I'm somewhere in that direction. A bad year has a pretty small number for me - in 2010 I produced seven photos, and in 2011 I produced five. On the other hand 2012 looks like it will end up somewhere in the neighborhood of 90, and I'm shooting for a hundred this year, though I won't be terribly disappointed if I do good work and don't get there.

I think the internet era requires somewhat more productivity, just to keep people's attention. But it's hard to manage a portfolio even once it gets to several hundred, if you have to print them. So there's a balancing act to be done.

To some extent this mentality (fewer but greater) is a holdover from when photography imitated/struggled with painting. Ten good paintings a year just happens to be equivalent. It also bows to the limits of human attention. Even in a gallery after you've seen 20-30 works it can be hard to pay real attention...even if a Mozart of photography took 1000 masterpieces in a year only devoted followers on Flickr or something would see more than a fraction.

Maybe a question that should be asked first is: "Is moving from type #1 to type #2 for you?" In my case, I know myself well enough to say the answer would be no. I enjoy photography a lot, but like most things (be it athletics, music, or whatever) if you want outstanding results you must pursue that activity with single-minded devotion. There's an "opportunity cost" to that devotion -- what are all the other things you can't be spending time & brainpower on in order to excel in that one specialty?

I enjoy seeing top-notch images, and I do try to incorporate what I learn (from this blog and other sources) to improve my photography at the level of time and effort I'm willing to put into it. But I'm not willing to do what it takes to "get to the next level" (going back repeatedly to the same subject to experience different lighting and keep trying different compositions, seriously study related art forms like painting to see what they can teach me about color/composition/light, etc.) As a result, while my photos will (hopefully) rise above the average snapshot, they're unlikely to ever really cross over to being art.

And I'm perfectly OK with that. Come to think of it, for folks like me, a photography blog based around the concept of "How to make get the best photos with limited time under non-ideal conditions" would be of great interest. It could be called "The Non Golden Hour Blog".

But someone else will have to write it...

I think the original question or point is a little muddled in itsself, so the more you think about it the less clear is the question at hand.

We start out with "two ways of working". It turns out, one is actual "work", so maybe it's only a matter of your profession, your attitude. You may think I'm splitting hairs--but who says Gursky doesn't shoot "intermittently on weekends and vacations" etc besides his "work"? I wouldn't know, but maybe he does. These will not be shown to the general public nor sell for millions, but then neither do yours or mine.

On the other hand, if by some stroke of luck one of the casual shooters gets "discovered" and is prompted to present a portfolio at MoMa or some such. Would they show 376 images? Hardly. Who would want to look at all those? So, regardsless of your "way of working" i.e. shooting you edit rigidly, so ...

... the idea of results gets thrown in. I have again no way of knowing how many times Gursky actually pressed a shutter or saved an image in Photoshop to produce his recent Bangkok series. I do know they started out as casual shots on a vacation trip--surprise, surprise.

What is the choice of Gursky and Adams trying to tell us, what is their defining common ground? Steve McCurry is a pro, but I'd guess he produces more than a dozen shots (or used to in his hayday). So, we're talking ART then not press or documentary, is that it? What about Eggleston? Just a dozen published photos in a year or no art(ist)?

You see, the question needs some refining, or maybe it's several questions. I think we have several variables which we can distill from Mike's "mulling" which could be combined at will (though some combos make more sense than others):

* pro vs amateur status
Do you have to do something other than shoot photos to make a living? If so, small wonder you're shooting intermittently on weekends. For a pro that would be rather a lackadaisical attitude.

* ways of shooting/ subject matter
Landscapes from a tripod with an 8x10, even a casual intermittent shooter wouldn't make hundreds a year.The book Joel Sternfeld made with Steidl from his iPhone Dubai pics has 70 plates--I somehow think it didn't take him 6 years to do.

* ways of editing/ intention
Of course somebody shooting his Venice trip doesn't pare them down to 10, not even Gursky. You want to show the trip you had. Same for kids. If I'm out to make a unique picture, then (sic!) one will do--even for the amateur. If I'm looking for a series, one is rather poor showing.

* sales (distribution) target
If you're out to make 6- or 7-digit sales you cannot do it 10 times every month. Not even if you're Gursky. If you're just starting as an artist you might be tempted to hang more than a dozen at your first gallery show, so your chance something will stick improves. The Dartmouth College photographer has other considerations completely.

For Mike: response to question on my comment above

Yes, I do know Rebecca Bailey! She works for the Hopkins Center, so she fills me in when there are interesting events coming up and gets me permission to shoot when I need to. Wonderful woman. In fact, here's a link to her singing at the Christmas Revels, one of my first shoots on the job.


You'll also notice that my last name is Burak on the credit line, as my wife and I combined our names when we got married, but I only officially changed to Burakian about a year ago.

Did you go to Dartmouth? I know you've mentioned Dartmouth a few times. (I'm a class of 2000.)

I try to have 125 prints at the end of the year that have made it through the work print process and into the Art folder. From these I choose around 25 prints to call my yearly collection. Those 25 are all that I consider to be my output for the year. (Of course I'm an amateur and can do this.)

I spend a lot of time on photography and take a lot of photographs throughout the week. Of those, "keepers"---ones that I will print---will generally be 10-15 a year. And of those, I may have 4 or 5 that I think are really good. At least to me. (I am not counting family photos or other "casual" photos.)

As a counterexample here is a short list of photographers who make work where the resonance between an individual photo and their greater body of work is necessary to understand the individual photo.

Bernd and Hilla Becher
August Sander
Nicholas Nixon
Edward Burtynsky
Hiroshi Sugimoto
Candida Höfer
Edward Ruscha

a little closer to (my) home
the Jamie Livingston photos only work as an un-edited every photo he took for 18 years mass of photographs.

If anyone is going to SPE in chicago next week, Kate Palmer Albers is presenting "Abundant Images" on

A few years ago, I scanned all of my parent's photo albums, negatives and slides. These are the photos that captured my parent's lives and our childhood. They are the photos we laugh about, cry about and talk about. The grand total? Around 600.

Now, I often shoot more than that in a day. With tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of photos stored across mutliple computers and hard drives, and with hopefully at least another 50 years to continue, who knows how many I'll end up with? I often wonder what my legacy will be. I suspect my children will put it in the "too hard" basket and trash the lot. I agree 100% with your comments. Quality trumps quantity every day of the week.

I'm a #1'er. #2 is a job I never aspired to and don't regret.

BUT there are 1'ers and 1'ers. I'll get up at zero dark thirty to find the right light, wander in strange places, study my craft, strive to do better every time.

Know what and why you are trying to accomplish, do it. Do it better next time.


I siphon through all my favorites of each year to get the 12 best pictures I've taken that year.

So, you could say that I'm in camp #1. I don't think that I'd enjoy photography if I only made 10 or 12 images a year. Part of my enjoyment of photography is actually taking pictures, not finding only x number of fantastic pictures.

Some of my very best pictures have been grab shots or part of a series of shots where I'm working different angles. Those shots wouldn't have happened, and my work would be much worse.

Granted, I don't show all my shots (unlike some people who seem to have visual diarrhea), and I don't show most pictures to anyone, excepting happy snaps and such that go onto facebook and don't count towards my 'photography'.

I don't see those as mutually exclusive. I have a rating system in Lightroom (I've rated far too few of my photos). Some are keepers for posterity; some good enough for photo books; some few good enough to share with strangers (which should go into my online gallery but I haven't done that) and then a select few good enough for wall prints. Thousands of keepers per year. Half a dozen or so really good photos per year. Of course, I don't spend much time pursuing those really good photos ... I'd love to have much more tie for that.

I was lucky enough to make some sort of money as a commercial photographer for the majority of my career, now running out of options for employment. I have always referred to myself as an "assignments photographer"; there is very little I have ever done that has any "gallery value" for sales of any kind. The major difference between a lot of my people work and a lot of the work by "famous" commercial photographers, is the quality of the sitter in the picture. You might want to buy a picture with a famous author or rock star in it, but you don't want one with the CEO of a tiny company in mid-level city.

I try consistently to work on personal assignments, people whose lives I'm interested in, people whose "look" I'm interested in, etc. I do this with no thought in my mind as to it's value as an "art" photo. It's something I'm just interested in doing. Most, if not all times, I process the film and do a contact sheet, and file it. Someday in the future I may print it, I may not; none of it may even be able to be curated into a concise show of any kind. I just like using photography to learn more about interesting people, and I love the analog film process. I appreciate mixing chemistry and nailing the exposure, and find the limiting aspects of film to be far more empowering than the digital process of shooting tons an tons. It is why I like to photograph, period. I never look at it's "value" in any other market than my personal satisfaction. Otherwise, on some level, it's commercial again.

I have to say the more I think about it, and I've said this to the horror of others in the industry, and students in photo classes, I'm not even sure if I came "of age" in the industry today, I would even contemplate being a photographer at all, because the digital work flow and process has no meaning for me at all. Some of the joy I got, and the artistic sense I felt, came from working with film and processing, not from sitting in front of a computer. This feeling is actually so pervasive, I often wish I'd have been born 10-15 years earlier, as I'd be out of it by now with plenty to do with the film that's left.

This discussion, the topic, brings to mind a recent short biography of Edward Curtis, a representative of "serious" photography, Timothy Egans' Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. What a prolific photographer! Recommended reading.

Didn't David Vestal keep making the point that only with quantity will you get occasional quality?

Some seem to think that method 1 excludes method 2.....that is nonsence. As someone said if Gursky hops of on vacation (lets say after a split up with his girlfreind, just an example) and lets say the place he visits is Bangkok.....well even then the results of this trip are hanging in the Gagosian...but not after some inflighing of equipment and personal.

Sure Gursky also owns a digital camera or 2 (at least a Hassy). So does Struth (a S2 Leica, nice camera I've seen him handle it) and also a nice little M9 wich does not seem to be as dropproof :-) as hoped). And sure even Candida carries a Nikon from time to time (she's a 35 mm shooter at heart check her picture of the musee carnevalet in Paris of 1987).

But that does not matter. At heart they also only produce several pictures a year these days. Culminating your real artistic effort on a few pictures that count is nessecary to be able to give them their full attention.....through all the stages of production as Paul Glover so nicely explained. Now it also helps to cut out the deadwood and keep their portfolios limited and their quality at a (general) verry high level.

But hey, if you need to shoot 4000 foto's in half a day (as I saw a National Geographic photographer do on TV once) well that is up to you.....as long as you limit your output and focus your attention. The internet is swamped with crap that is only put up their (as Paul also mentioned) to keep grabbing attention of the public...that way you may get attention, but do you get ahead with your carreer.

Greets, Ed.

Interesting point by Bill Wheeler, I just finished the book on Curtis myself...what did I learn?

He worked for decades accomplishing some of the most valuable imagery of North Americans Native Tribes, as well as collecting information that would have been lost about their rites and language.

And died almost penniless.

He agreed to work for nothing while J.P Morgan was financing the actual production of the whole thing, and at the end he signed away all intellectual property rights for 1500 bucks. All the time he was draining his Seattle studio business and putting his families existence in jeopardy, while others there shot the pictures and ran the business.

To work on the project, he virtually abandoned his family and estranged his wife, the woman who earlier supported him and in one case nursed him back from the brink of death.

He estranged his brother earlier in his career by pulling a "Mathew Brady" and claiming his brothers work for his own because his brother was working on salary for him. His brother never talked to him again, and went on to be a successful Seattle commercial photographer.

These are the stories everyone needs to know about our photographic and artistic heroes before they decide if this is the life they want.

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