What Is It To Be a Photographer?

Personally, I don’t think owning and taking pictures makes one a photographer.  I will preface my remarks by saying I am old enough now and have been in the commercial photography business long enough now to sound like an “old-timer.”  I can remember when you could actually get an appointment with creatives to show them your portfolio.  I can remember when Reps/Agents would actually take on new photographers to develop and nurture their careers.   I can remember when defining oneself as a photographer implied certain technical skills and commitments of time and effort.  What is a common culprit in these changes?  It is no secret:  the digital age.  Pick up a DSLR with automatic everything, start taking pictures, upload them onto a file sharing site, and viola!   I wince now when somebody tells me they are a photographer.  What does that mean if you are not making a living at it or engaged in it with such engrossing abandon that it is your life?  Is somebody a painter if it is just a hobby?  Are you a photographer in quotation marks, or in parentheses, or with an asterisk?  Or does an “and” come before it, such as “I am an office manager and a photographer.”  If I ask enough questions I typically  find out they don’t even have the most rudimentary understanding of the mechanics of the camera (f-stop, shutter speed, and what those things control), a concept of light, or composition, or most importantly how to put all of those elements together to create a visual language with which one communicates.  As Phillip-Lorca DiCorcia has said:  ”Photography is a foreign language that everyone thinks he speaks.”   That quote says volumes.

Go to just about any photography forum and there will be threads ad infinitum complaining about the current state of affairs.  And they will most certainly be “old-timers.”  Reading this without the virtue of seeing my smiling face, you probably think I am complaining.  Not really.  It is on my mind a lot now that I am back in the thick of trying to restart a photography career after 15 years away from it (away from the career part, not the photography part) – now that I have stopped using quotation marks, asterisks, or parentheses.  I came across a quote some time ago from Edward Weston or one of his contemporaries complaining about the ubiquity of imagery due to the invention of the 35mm camera, so the proliferation of “photographers” and “photography” is not new.  Change is inevitable, and I understand and accept it.  The main point I am making is that it is now easier to claim to be a photographer without actually being one.  One doesn’t need a darkroom.  One doesn’t need to set apertures and shutter speeds.   Cameras are cheaper (the amateur ones are cheaper – the professional ones are more expensive).  The boundaries have disintegrated.  And the elitist stance that I may appear to be taking by having to define what is a photographer is made because of the effect this is all having on the profession.  I can’t help but feel like the bar has been lowered regarding what it is to make a living as a photographer and the possibilities of doing so.  But I do see the bright side (pun intended).

What do I need to do in this changing market?  I need to elevate my work and have it seen by clients who appreciate a photographer with a deep understanding of the craft and the profession of photography:  an easy formula difficult to execute.   That means creating intriguing and appealing images.  That means concerted efforts to have my voice heard above the shouts of all those other photographers out there.  I have seen a lot of great work by a lot of great photographers generating imagery.  I need to make sure I am generating that same level of work.  In New York City I am told I need to present a singular voice in my work that identifies me.  That has been the most difficult job.  It is thrilling to be trying.   It is thrilling to be challenged.  The next year will tell if I am up to that challenge.

What got me thinking about all of this is an article I read in the End Frame Department of PDN this month.  Here it is online if you have a PDN subscription:  http://digitalmag.pdnonline.com/pdnonline/march_2015#pg98 .  The article by Holly Stuart Hughes is about Stuart Pilkington, which I won’t go into except what is written regarding his response to the work of such photographers as Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld.  Pilkington says their work has a quality of “mindfulness” (a popular word these days).  He says as he does more and more of his own photography he sees that “…you become more hyper aware of your surroundings,” and that “…the banal or familiar takes on new interest.”  Holly writes, ” When you’re shooting regularly, he says, the world around you ‘becomes a treasure trove.’”  Oh so true!!  THAT is what it is about.  He has defined what it is to be a photographer.

With that, I will leave you with an image:

A woman dressed in leopard print tights, a bike, and a fanny pack picks up a bag of vegetables at the Farmers Market. (Robert Englebright)

A woman dressed in leopard print tights, a bike, and a fanny pack picks up a bag of vegetables at the Farmers Market. (Robert Englebright)

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