Vision Part 7
In Praise of Amateurs
by Alain Briot
Every artist was first an amateur.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
1 - Introduction
An amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. The word amateur is French and comes from the Latin word Amatorem. Both words mean ‘lover’, someone who does something for the love of it in the context of this essay. By comparison a professional is someone who makes a living from what they do, from selling fine art photographs in this instance.
2 - All artists start as amateurs
I am an amateur and I intend to stay that way for the rest of my life.
As fine art photographers, which is the intended audience for this essay, we all start as amateurs. Some of us remain amateurs our whole life, doing what we do to further our passion. Others decide to become professionals doing what we do to generate an income. Whatever the case might be, the difference outlined in the introduction remains the same. The amateur creates art for the love of it while the professional creates art to make a living from the sale of his work.
Monument Valley in Orange and Mauves
3 - Then some become professionals
Once the amateur's naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away,
the creative spirit of good photography dies with it.
Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.
Can one be a professional artist? A professional needs to please a client while an amateur only needs to please himself. In that sense as amateur artists we are our own clients. We produce images to meet our own standards. Sometimes we are pleased with the outcome of our work and sometimes we are disappointed with the results. But one thing remains true: we do it because we are motivated by our passion for photography. We do it because we enjoy the process and the challenge.
Things are different for a professional. The necessity to generate an income can wreak havoc on passion and motivation. If the professional loses one or both, the process and the challenge become chores rather than enjoyable activities.
An amateur needs to create art and this need is justified whether someone buys their work or not. However, a professional needs to make an income from their work and this necessity changes the equation so to speak. Faced with having to make money or close his business, the pro can be tempted to do things to generate an income rather than to follow his vision. In other words the opportunity is there to create photographs just to make money, to lose your integrity and to ‘sell out’.
4 - Pros and Pros: different professionals, different contracts
I always say that inspiration is for amateurs;
the rest of us just show up and get to work.
A pro has to make money from his work; an amateur does not. This being said I see two different types of professionals: professionals who create images based on the customer’s taste and professionals who create images based on their personal taste.
In the first instance a contract is established between the artist and the client to define which images the artist needs to create and how much the artist will be paid. If the client is pleased with the results the photographer gets paid. In this type of professional relationship the client has control over the price and the type of artwork that is created. This is the context in which most commercial photographers operate, although exceptions do exist.
In the second instance the artist creates images based on his vision. The contract, if any, is between the artist and himself. This ‘contract’ stipulates that the artist is to create artwork that follows his vision. After the images are created the artist looks for a client who likes his work and is willing to pay the price the artist asks for it. If such a client is found the artist gets paid for his work. In this type of professional relationship the artist has control over the price and type of artwork that is created. This is the context in which most fine art photographers operate, although exceptions do exist.
White Sands in Blue
5 - What are we to do?
I've returned to being an amateur without any ties or strings attached,
which gives me a freedom I never had before.
A couple of remarks are warranted in regards to the above. First, these two categories are not black and white. A grey area exists between them. The artists who are in this grey area ‘straddle the fence’ between pleasing their clients and trying to remain true to their vision. Personally I don’t find it a pleasant place to be. I’d rather be in one of the other category.
Second, often one moves from one category to the other. My career followed such a path. I started as an amateur and practiced photography as such for 15 years. I then decided to become a professional because I wanted to make money doing what I loved rather than doing something I did not like. The fact that I was a graduate teaching assistant at the time made the financial transition easy. There was no financial sacrifice because I was making very little money as a GTA. However, there was a vision sacrifice, so to speak, because , not having any leverage or name recognition it quickly became clear that selling on the basis of location was far more profitable than selling on the basis of my name. My work changed at that time from being vision-based to being location-based. I opened a gallery at the Grand Canyon and, even though I was still unknown, I started making a very good income from the sale of Grand Canyon photographs.
After six years of doing this my gallery closed and I moved to central Arizona. By then I had a good following, had published several books and essays and had earned a respectable level of name recognition. Following my move I went through a transition period during which I continued selling on the basis of location while starting to develop a personal style. However, it soon became clear that clients were starting to buy my work because of my name and style rather than because of the locations featured in my images.
While this change was taking place I was asked if I considered the selling potential of a photograph in the field, at the time of capture. As I pondered my answer I realized that I no longer did because I no longer had to. While clients initially purchased my work because of the locations featured in my photographs, they were now purchasing it because of my vision and personal style. Rather than the places or subjects shown in the images, it was now the colors, the compositions and the other artistic aspects of my work that made them want to own a specific piece. It was then I realized that the transition was complete.
6 - Being a pro is not what it used to be
In pre-digital days, when photographs were needed for important purposes or events, most people sought the help of a professional, of someone who was ‘in the business.’ You had to be a professional if you wanted to be hired for commercial assignments. Similarly, to work with a "pro processing lab", you had to provide proof that you were a professional photographer, which meant having a business license and a resale tax licence. In those days being a professional was a decision that carried serious professional responsibilities and financial investments.
However a lot has changed in the industry since the advent of digital photography and of the internet. The web allows one to open a photography studio without the need for a brick and mortar store or studio. The physical store front, which in the past was the public’s first sight of a photography studio, has today been replaced with a webpage. The photography studio is often the photographer’s home, or home-studio. This makes it possible to open a business at a minimum cost, and to operate it with a minimum of sales or revenue. If things don’t work out, there is not much to be lost because not much was invested in the first place.
As a result the boundary between amateur and professional is blurry to say the least, and it no longer seem to matter much whether you are actually a professional photographer or not. Everybody with a camera is a photographer and anyone can potentially sell his or her photographs to whoever is interested. Not having much business-related financial obligations, if any, means that today’s up and coming photographers can offer their services at a very low cost, or even for free in exchange for a credit line, something which in some instances can be more meaningful than a financial compensation. Nowhere has this aspect been made made more visible than in the newspaper industry, where large-publication newspapers fired their entire photography staff, preferring to rely on reader submissions and freelance requests for their photography needs. However, similar examples abound in virtually every field where photography is present, be it weddings, portraits, products, architecture, fine art landscape and wildlife, or other.
7 - Being a pro isn't necessarily fun
To this you have to add the fact that being a pro is not necessarily fun. So much so that a number of amateurs vow never to become professionals. Having to take orders, do work that is tedious, uncreative, unreliable and for which you are paid little or nothing is the complete opposite of their motivation for practicing photography. For them, for the true amateurs in the most positive sense of the word, photography is an activity they embrace because it is fun, creative, open-ended, without anyone to tell them what to do, and without the stress assotiated with having to find clients and generate a financial return. Their main drive is creating images they truly like, often without much concern whether others will like their work or not. It is hard to argue with such a position. Right they are, and right you are if this describes your approach. It used to be mine and I enjoyed it as such, even though I don't regret having made the switch to professionalism. In the end, whichever decision you make, what matters is that the positive aspects outweighs the negative ones, something that in my situation has proven to be the case.
8 - Conclusion
Photography to the amateur is recreation, to the professional it is work, and hard work too,
no matter how pleasurable it my be.
There is a world of difference between being an amateur and a professional. While I do not regret making the decision to do this for a living, there are times when I regret the time I could shoot just for the heck of it, without any concerns for business matters. While my clients don’t dictate what I shoot, a significant amount of my time is spent taking care of the other duties that are part of operating a business.
My decision was certainly made easier by the fact I wasn’t making much money when I switched from amateur to professional. Your situation may be different and if you are considering making a similar switch you may want to take a good look at this side of things. It can take years to equal a good salary when working for yourself, if it ever happens. There are also many obstacles along the way and it is easy to make the same mistakes that most people make. What are those mistakes? I’ll tell you in one of my upcoming essays. Until then, and to use my French, this series is a suivre…
8 - About Alain Briot
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops and offer DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 3 books are available in eBook format on my website at this link: http://beautiful-landscape.com/Ebooks-Books-1-2-3.html
You can find more information about my work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to my Free Monthly Newsletter on my website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com . You will receive 40 free eBooks immediately after subscribing.
I welcome your comments on this essay as well as on my other essays. You can reach me directly by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.