12.08.2016

Michael Johnston's blog made me stop and re-consider why I have spent most of my life as a working, commercial photographer. It's got to be more than just permission to play with cameras....


I may be doing the whole career thing incorrectly. At least according to the smart people on the web. The two opposite descriptions I hear (or distill from what I read) are that one is either rushing all the time, working 12 grueling hours a day, and still struggling to make as much money as a fast food worker or, that the very few people at the top are so talented and so sought after that their lives are a non-stop swirl of photographing super-models for the tiny handful of posh, fashion magazines, interspersed with jaunts to Nepal where they hang with the Dalai Lama and sport climb Everest with celebrities (with whom they are very, very close friends...). Please don't write and pedantically correct me; I know the Dalai Lama actually lives in exile in India. Richard Gere told me while we were on a "hang-gliding with the condors" getaway, up in the Andes.

To further break down the mythology as it seems to be understood by the non-working hobbyists, the top photographers rarely have to do much beyond point their cameras and click as they are served by an ever growing entourage of helpers, assistants, agents and personal chefs who deflect the rigors of the working life details so that our "hero savants" can channel up enough energy to "visualize" the reality we all want to see so badly.

On the flip side, the rest of us are holding up heavy cameras and long lenses (which we really can't afford; will never be able to afford...) for hours and hours a day, day after day, for weeks at a time and we're still so poor that we sleep in our cars. Or
our friend's cars. Or any car we can break into after nightfall. We're so hungry we'll willingly photograph screaming babies, screaming brides, screaming school kids, screaming brides' moms and ugly products. Lots and lots of ugly products. And all pretty much for slave wages. While divesting ourselves of all rights to our work from now until Satan cracks open the earth's crust and comes for all of those who had the audacity to chose artsy careers...😔

We at the bottom 99% of the photographers' pyramid duped ourselves. At one point in our lives we were living large. Held prestigious help desk jobs as computer "experts" and could build our own hack-in-tosh with one hand while eating pizza and swilling Mountain Dew with the other. We were otherwise known as "enterprise level software engineers." Or we were in engaging and scintillating careers such as the actuarial sciences, accounting, production management, and, of course, outside sales. But we let our passion for our hobby of photography lure us down a rat hole where we became the Starbucks Barristas/McDonalds French Fry technicians of the liberal arts field also known as "professional photography." Or "pro-togs."

We exist in a barren landscape of sallow, scowling clients who are so venal they even charge us for parking in their parking lots when we come to do our petty and demeaning work for them. Our clients own the last locations on earth that still have pay toilets. And they pay bounty for every rat their employees can kill and skin. And those are just the brides!

After the first few years in this career we have, of course, lost any passion for the work and can hardly look at a camera or a tawdry, low ball purchase order again without the bile rising in our throats. And now, because all the good computer industry jobs have been snatched up permanently, and because wearing the khaki fishing vests and baggy cargo shorts (to ply our awkward craft) has forever socially branded us, we will never again be able to find enough, or the right kind, of work to ever re-enter (from the bottom) into the luxurious lifestyle of the middle class. Why did we ever collectively leave our parent's proverbial basements??? 💣

Um. No. Sorry. Not buying it. 

A lot of us got into the business of photography because we wanted to control our own time, choose our own projects, select who we were going to work with (not "for") and because we love creating things that most mortals can only dream of after we've clicked our shutters and produced our art; which springs forth fully realized like Athena bursting from the forehead of Zeus. 

But seriously, many of us have made (financially&emotionally) healthy careers working freelance for many of the best companies in the world and, in doing so are living solid, prosperous existences. We set rates that allow us to offer good value to customers with reasonable profits for ourselves. We create products like books, and online courses, that provide royalty streams beyond our initial engagement. We have clients who come back again and again, across decades to work with us because we provide services, advice and intellectual/creative content that helps them drive their marketing which, in turn,  helps to make their big enterprises successful. It ain't the slavish pursuit of photography at the cost of everything else, it's just a fun job attached to a fascinating and addictive hobby. 

In return for our good work and business sense we've been able to travel the world, buy our homes, send our kids to college and buy decent cars. Most of us have retirement savings; investments outside our primary businesses. Many of us control our schedules to the point that we can prioritize the things we like (swimming) instead of being slaves to a client's scheduling.

Have I burned out and become a bitter husk of a photographer who will only pick up his camera if there's a "paycheck" attached? If you think so you must be a new reader of the blog...

My favorite activity on the days I'm not working with clients, is to grab a cherished camera and lens and head out the door to see how I might be able to interpret the visual world on that day. Interlaced with good coffee and bouts of fast swimming. 

This is not so much a response to M.J.'s writing but the general tenor of some of the comments appended to his blog entitled, "Would you really want to be a pro photographer?" Far beyond just doing one's 10,000 hours of practice you also have to be enthralled by some subject that you love to photograph. For me? People. Always people. I have a front row seat to the best production of "Real Life" I can imagine.

And I am not sleeping in my car....

A short gallery of images to remind myself of the "drudgery" of my chosen career.

Creative juice.
















If you are not having fun with professional photography then you must be doing it wrong.


17 comments:

Dog Photographer said...

Good one

Peter Wright said...

I read the TOP post, and then happened over hear – as I often do.

I don't think Mike Johnston was saying that professional photographers (other than the top 1%) have a miserable life. What he was saying (by my reading at least) was that the work involved would not suit most of us by inclination, (although we might like the idea of being a professional) and thus we would not succeed. I think he is right about that. You clearly enjoy all aspects of the work, and that is why it in turn works for you. If I remember, you said once that you started out studying Electrical Engineering, but gave that up, probably not because a career was impossible, but because you had little inclination for the details of that type of work. The detailed graft like scale practice in musiciianship, is what generally separates those who make a career out of something, and those who are content to reamain amateurs.

I think you are both correct, but saying different things.

Peter Wright

Mike Rosiak said...

Well, crapola! Blogger just ate my lengthy and very well thought out comment. 'Twould be nice if it saved a draft or something when you go back to edit.

Main point of it was: Mike Johnston's post said something similar to a thing I heard over 40 years ago, that many people want to BE a millionaire, but few are willing to do the work that it takes. Re professional photography, I think you are one of those latter few, and a model for doing freelancing right.

Richard Parkin said...

Hi Kirk
I read your posts most days and generally greatly appreciate your descriptions of your working life and your insights into life, the universe and everything. However from time to time I get the impression that you think everything on the internet is aimed at you (I exaggerate somewhat) and you set off on a rant such as this one. I read all Mike's post and comments and never once did I think any could be a criticism of you -- rather the reverse. So calm down ;-)
Richard

James Weekes said...

I was one of those posters. I loved my 22 years as a professional. I had three studios in Vermont over those years. I learned to print better by having to have good prints ready fast. I loved portrait work. I shot over 200 weddings and ran into only one bridezilla and one micro-managing mother. Like your portrait work, I would meet the folks, sit down with them, go over what I did (strong on candid, not so much on formal group shots) but, most of all get to know them. What made them laugh, what they wanted and what they didn't want. I am proud that I shot the weddings of three sisters from one family and four from another, because they liked my pictures and because they claimed they never saw me (translation: I never got in the way and didn't ruin intimate moments) I loved studio work and it taught me to work with big strobes, soft boxes, reflectors, etc. And I got to see a lot of beautiful work done by craftspeople, often getting partial payment in a perfect bowl, small painting or glass art. It was a lot of work but I love photography. I retired just as digital came in so I can't address the differences between making the prints on a Noritsu 901 (I managed a small mini-lab for the last 7 years), and digital but it was probably more time consuming with analog, and still I loved it.

Since retiring and moving to Florida (Am I a walking cliche or what?) I have probably taken more pictures than when I worked, and I still love it. I even go on Kirk Tuck walks with new cameras and lenses. So my conclusion is that, like you, one has to love photography first and find one's place. But I am sure that Kirk Tuck is not the only photographer who is making a good living at it. Probably not the only one in Austin. It's still a good profession, just be willing to work.

seany said...

Kirk,either intentionally or unintentionally you seem to have constructed a classic example of the "Straw Man Argument", it's obvious to anyone who regularly reads your blogs that you are a very successful photographer who works hard and enjoys what you do,it's also very clear from MJ's article and the many excellent comments he received that you have exaggerated things a tad.
Michael.

Kirk Tuck said...

Richard and Michael, either you misunderstood or I mis-explained but I don't feel as though anyone has personally attacked me and I don't think I've set up a classic example of a straw man argument. I'm just tired of reading click bait disguised as earnest questions based on a shallow representation of how working photographers are portrayed in popular culture. The article in question would have been just as relevant if M.J. had just offered the question, "Do you really want to own a small business?" The answers might have been the same. All the excellent replies were riffs on two ideas. "Being a successful photographer means working around the clock until whatever it was you loved about photography had been beaten out of you." Or, "Professional photography is akin to a religious calling that rewards the obsessively committed." Where was the daylight in between on people who know how to set work limits, still love their art and craft, etc.? Sure didn't see much of that in the comments. Mostly I saw, "I thought about doing photography for a living but I love the security of a "real" job and the promise of a steady paycheck --- even if it means spending a lifetime behind a desk doing someone else's bidding." With the smug rejoinder of, "After 40 to 50 hours a week of doing my real job I get to "enjoy" some limited time doing my hobby and that makes me so happy." I may just be looking at it all wrong. That's what was wrung out of the post into my bucket.

Del Bomberger said...

Upon reading the post and comments at TOP, I immediately thought of you-and had hoped for a comment either there or here. I always knew you were enjoying your career when I saw the photo with the donut-that always makes me chuckle. I know you are helping "Keep Austin Weird" by living life on your terms. Well done!

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks Del, Very much appreciate the comment. And yes, I love what I do.

Richard Parkin said...

Kirk, I think it's unfair to describe Mike's posts as click bait, and more to the point, inaccurate. If you said his writing is comment bait that would be somewhat accurate -- he has more than once written that he selects "featured comments" that he hopes will inspire (provoke, if you wish) further comments, rather than for their intrinsic worth. I'll bet that most of the readers of Mike's blog go there as much for the comments as for his writing. He's an rewarding writer (as you are) but he is possibly an even better editor -- no great surprise there since he's done that in the traditional way too.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Richard, First of all, I hold Michael in very high regards, consider him a friend and have written a number of blog posts for him at The Online Photographer. You are correct, I should not have said "click bait" rather I should have written, "comment bait." I think 90% of the things he writes about are wonderful, thoughtful, well crafted, interesting, valuable and right on the money. It's impossible though to write some 7,000+ posts and not have a few that aren't perfect.

I'm railing about the idea more than whether or not he wrote a good column. Look, many, many professionals in other fields are the primary market for what both of us write. I'll go out on a limb and say that most of the readers were too practical to try their hand at what can be a tough business. Columns like the one in question are too easy because they are mostly a safe space for people to rationalize about why they didn't take the risk. In middle age and beyond it's common place to try and come to a comfortable truce with selections we made in our past. But with photography the discussion always ALWAYS seems to come down to whether or not you can make a living at it, how much more you'll have to work in order to make the same money people make in other occupations and how the business wears out the love people feel for the hobby. It may be therapeutic for people who chose to work in other fields but I rarely have people in most of those fields tell me about their job satisfaction in any other terms that in how much money they make or how much security they have. The implicit message is that choosing the arts is a guarantee of self-imposed poverty. So, the comment bait is: "Come here and tell me how much smarter you were than those chumps who chose to be photographers, painters, poets, novelists." "Tell us why you think that career would sour you on something as fun as photography." In essence, "tell my why you chose work that is work instead of work that is potentially fun and rationalize it so we can all agree that our choices were healthy and logical." And, to my mind, that is a series of premises that is not necessarily true.

Sometimes blogs need traffic. Right now you can "vote" for your favorite zoom lenses on DP Review. That too is comment bait.
Of course you could say that my column posted after this one is just click bait for replacement caster wheels for Multi-Carts. But really, it's just the daily stream of consciousness.

The take away? Some of the responses to his column tweaked my sensibilities as a working (and solvent) professional photographer. MJ is in the business of leveraging content for income. No harm, no foul. I don't always agree with some of the stuff he writes that pertains to the actual professional practices of photography. Still think he is a stand up guy, a great writer and a national photographic treasure.

In the end I do agree with you, Richard. "Click bait" was inappropriate. "Comment bait" was right on the money. Maybe I'll try it.

Richard Parkin said...

Hi Kirk, thanks for that thoughtful reply. Of course I know you have written posts for Mike and that you comment there from time to time.
Richard

Alex said...

"like Athena bursting from the forehead of Zeus"
A better analogy for publication as the one with Aphrodite and Uranos.
very nice, thank you.

seany said...

Kirk thanks for the well written and thoughtful reply, I will admit MJ does at times indulge in comment baiting but hey no ones perfect.
Michael.

Anonymous said...

Once again you named it. It was shameless comment bait, pure and simple.

Alex said...

The Online Photographer is an excellent blog. One of two I read. And yes, even MJ has to pay his bills, doesnt live from air and sun or has inherited a fortune, like aparently other people do. So what?

Kirk Tuck said...

So Alex, I agree with everything you say. So what? I still don't agree with the way the article and the some of the comments portrayed professional photographers and their caricatured lifestyle choices.