Non-Photographers and Professionals

mickyates Falmouth, MA, Photography 5 Comments

Just posted to an online discussion in my MA Photography program – and thought I’d repost it here. The question was:

‘Describe what you think non-photographers make of professional photographers: what are the conceptions and misconceptions?

Whilst I would agree that in principle all photographers as just that – photographers, there are clearly subsets of photographers. Some earn a living by photography (and then of course via many different kinds of practice); some are learning to earn a living – and some just enjoy taking photographs to varying degrees of seriousness.

This week’s reading suggests that we are now in fact ALL photographers, pointing our mobile phones at everything and everyone – including ourselves, in the ubiquitous selfie. Sometimes those images become national and international news, as photographers and journalists cannot be in as many places places as all of the rest of us can be. The 7/7 London Tube bombings are a case in point. It’s of course not just still but videos.

So, let’s unpack the question – what do non-photographers (if we could find one) think of professionals?

When I was a teenager, a photographer wannabe, I used to look at images taken by those cavaliers of the 60s (David Bailey et al) and think, wow, he’s good!

© David Bailey Mick Jagger, 1964

If I look back a bit more critically, I note that he had training in a studio as an assistant, better equipment, a nose for what was going on in Swinging London, and an indefatigable will to be where the famous people were. He wanted to do (and be) something different – and consequently he knew how to make it make money. No surprise they used him as the model for 1966’s ‘Blow Up’.

He is a great photographer, a real character (aka a good looking rogue), and a shrewd businessman. He is indeed always with the ‘beautiful people’. So it was (and still is) very easy to call David a ‘Professional’. When I first came across his work, both he and the profession were well respected by ‘non-photographers’. The 60s was also part of a blossoming inter- and multi-disciplinary explosion in the arts, which added to his fame and fortune.

Jump forward 50 years. Everyone can take a picture, my iPhone can sometimes challenge my Leica when it comes to quality. And we are so surrounded by imagery that it is hard not to become at least partly informed as to what makes a good photograph.

So I suspect many of those non-Professionals think ‘Yup, I can do that’. The conception is that it’s easy. And some of them do great work. I am constantly in awe about the high quality of so many Instagram feeds.

However the misconception is about the dedication it takes to be a Professional. Not just true in Photography by the way, but in all professions. Recall Malcolm Gladwell‘s 10,000 hours theory. His principle holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field – and he quotes people like the Beatles to demonstrate that. His theories are always being challenged (see Business Insider article) though I think his ideas hold a lot of truth.

So, in my view, Professional success is not just about one’s practice specialisation, technique, equipment or training – but it’s about the business model, the connections and the sheer doggedness to be relevant and timely EVERY DAY in your chosen field. Of course one can debate artistic excellence .. but I think that is a different question. Being Professional doesn’t necessarily mean you are excellent at what you do, although we all strive to do that.

Oh, I could get into the ‘there’s no money in it’ debate, but that’s for another time 🙂

  • Jonathan Slack

    But it seems that you have conflated Non-photographer (who you haven’t really mentioned) with Non-professional (who you certainly have).
    As a Wannabee in your youth you understood the quality of David Bailey’s work (didn’t we all). But we were all photographers to some extent.
    I would contend that the ‘non photographer’ really has no concept of any artistic value of a photograph, and is only interested in the event/incident portrayed, so that content is the only point of interest.
    As such it’s interesting to consider how they might percieve a professional (and that’s your problem!).

  • Not sure I agree that the ‘non photographer’ really has no concept of any artistic value of a photograph. A bit like saying a non-painter can’t appreciate the merits of one painting over another. We all bring our own aesthetic judgements to bear when we view images, even if we don’t know how to make them, don’t we?

  • Jonathan Slack

    Well, perhaps I overplayed it, but whereas there are many non-painters who enjoy painting and non-musicians who enjoy music . . I’d say that there were far fewer non-photographers who enjoy photography.

    The energy and expense of entry to photography is so low and cheap compared to other art forms. Surely anyone who had any interest would give it a go (even if it’s only with their phone) . . In doing that they would exclude themselves from the ‘non photographer’ category.

    Which leads us to consider what are the conceptions and misconceptions non-photographers have about professional photographers . . . I’d contend that they never give them a thought – and therefore probably don’t have conceptions or misconceptions! (but that hardly makes an answer). 🙂

  • All of that I do agree with!!

  • Andrew Lawson

    I get the feeling that the real difference between a successful professional and those that can’t hack it is generally the ability to navigate the basics of the business world, accounting, marketing etc, and perhaps excel there. We’ve all seem wedding photography that costs a fortune but doesn’t really impress the educated eye. We’ve probably also seen the general public question the price of professional photography as much of the above is invisible. I certainly don’t think that professional is a reliable indicator of outstanding quality, but it should be clear indicator of competence and reliability. Most of your paragraph about Bailey concerns his ability to move through the society of his time and to pick and choose his targets. His fame certainly is due largely to effective self promotion.

    Which is all to say (or not say) that artistic ability has very little to do with achievement in this field and the layman’s lack of “eye” probably has little to say about success. Artistic ability is almost entirely orthogonal and mainly the concern of a different constituency. Of course some famous photographers manage to combine the best of all worlds and Bailey is probably one of them.