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January 23, 2004

Working For Pay and Doing What you Love...Or Not

Mike Johnston is one of the best online columnists out there, and you can read his column "The Sunday Morning Photographer" on photo.net, and I also encounter his stuff online on the Luminous Landscape site. Offline, he has his own subscription only newsletter, the 37th Frame, and also writes regularly for Black and White Photography, a UK print only publication.

I like Mike because of his ability to wear many hats, transitioning seamlessly between ruminations about the aesthetics of photography, the hard headed business realities of trying to make money with photography, and discussions about photo gear. His writing is incredibly straightforward and unaffected, as if he were speaking to you directly face to face as a peer or camera enthusiast, but he carries considerable weight with his experience and knowledge in the photography world.

Two of my favorite recent columns of his are "Working for Pay" and "Wedding Photography and the $39K Schmuck", because they speak to a dilemma that confronts many aspiring photographers...how viable is it to pursue making money at photography? Consider this excerpt from the wedding photography essay:

"In 1988 I took an interesting seminar from a photographer named Karl Francetic. He said at the time that the average pro photographer in America spent 75% or more of his or her time marketing, charged a day rate of $500, worked an average of two and a half days a week, billed $75K, and kept $39K before taxes.

He called that pro "The $39K Schmuck.""

Likewise, in his "Working for Pay" essay, Johnston talks about how he got to the point of charging $675 for portraits, but the work got increasingly less personal and more subject to the whims of clients (who are paying the bill, after all). Which brings me to a reality I've learned from doing paid work and assisting others: there is *not* a common understanding among people out there of what photography is worth...to one person, a $50 portrait is dirt cheap, to another it's wickedly expensive and overpriced. (compare this to the worth people put on more mundane skills like programming, web design, or consulting) This is a very hard reality for many people aspiring to professional status to grasp.

Here's an excerpt from Mike's essay:

"One student gave me an outraged lecture about how I had a "captive market" and that I was "harvesting money" (I wished!) and that nearly $100 was an outrageous amount of money to charge for a measly custom portrait. At the other extreme, one girl — the daughter of a nationally-known television personality who made millions of dollars a year — refused to pay so little for a portrait. Instead, she hired the fanciest portrait photographer in town, for many times what I charged...and then came and asked me for bunch of my prints, so she could take them down to the fancy pro studio and ask them to do a portrait just like one of mine!"


One of my more "marketable" portraits, and I sure do like it...

Of course, stories like this can be found in a variety of corners of the web, but it seems they're outnumbered by people with a lot of gear who are dying to make their hobby pay some of the bills...and I can understand some of this thinking. Photography is not a cheap hobby, and if you've got all that equipment and sunk cost, why not find a way to pay for it? And it doesn't have to be the drudgery of weddings or dullness of family or high school senior portraits, does it? One can surely do well paid, interesting commercial work, and get paid for fine art prints. Didn't the big artistic names out there like Philip Lorca di Corcia, Mary Ellen Mark, William Eggleston, etc start out small, do great commercial work and eventually command big bucks for the uniqueness of their vision?

Not quite, at least not in most cases. I was stunned in my Alternative Portraiture class when my teacher showed us all sorts of inspiring alternative portraiture and fashion work, and then pointed out how many of these individuals benefited from wealthy families, trust funds, spouses, etc. -- photography was *not* paying the rent. And when lucrative commercial work does come around, it's stuff the artists barely tolerate, and rarely produces work that makes the art books...I believe di Corcia's first book had exactly one image he shot commercially that he was happy enough with to include. It's a grim reality, and everyone has to make their peace with how much clicking the shutter is worth to them, and what they're willing to put up with in order to pursue the photography muse.

There's a lot more to be said about this than my meager musings, but I'm grateful to someone like Mike to illuminate the issues with some force. Note that I'm *not* saying one can't make money doing photography (and I certainly don't think Mike is), and I know many people who are happy carving out a niche in more modest realms (family photography among a small network of friends, bar mitzvahs and weddings in one's locality, etc). But the hard work involved in making a name for oneself and being reasonably successful at making a living -- while still enjoying the process of photography and being true to one's vision -- well, it's a much more difficult and complex question than one might think.



...but I like being able to do this stuff as well, and not worry whether I'm wasting time doing non-portfolio quality work. From an ongoing "Dreams of Dance" personal project.

08:22 PM | Permalink


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Mmmm, a nice series! I like it.

Posted by: Rolle at Jan 24, 2004 3:32:59 PM

i moved from an area where i had a ton of contacts and was really starting to get my name out, to a place where i am a nobody...and this didn't help any. atleast it wasn't a surprise.

you've got a great site..i'll be back!

Posted by: Tyler at Jan 27, 2004 11:40:19 PM

A quote from On Being a Photographer, by David Hurn & Bill Jay:

"Almost without exception, the great photographers of the past, whose images are revered by contemporary artists, were professional photographers whose main goal was to earn a living from the sale of their prints."

Awesome book. Get a copy at www.lenswork.com.

Posted by: Kevin at Dec 18, 2004 4:18:48 PM

I too was one of those photographers who took a seminar from Karl Francetic. What ever became of him and is he in Australia? Going from the top of his field in Architectural photography to under-water photography is interesting! Hope to hear from those of you out there!

Posted by: Susan at Apr 17, 2005 12:11:56 PM

Almost without exception those photographers that still stand out were non-professional and not paid for what they were doing at the time they took their most influencial pictures (Kertezs, Klein, Giacomelli,...).

Posted by: Christian at Jul 18, 2005 4:30:20 AM