This post is the development of some ideas/responses I had after reading a blogpost by talented photographer and writer, Jesse Estes, called “Bigtimers”: http://www.jesse-estes.com/bigtimers/.
I just re-read a blogpost by Photographer Jesse Estes about “bigtimers.” I should begin with the fact that I really enjoy Jesse’s work and I thoroughly enjoyed this particular blogpost. In fact, I’ve read it several times and continue to come back to it. My most recent trip to Jesse’s webpage was initiated by a wonderful photograph that Estes licensed through Tandem Stock to Backpacker Magazine this month (May 2015). While I understand and agree with the spirit of the article, as well as enjoy both his work and his words, I do not, however, agree point-for-point with the content of “bigtimers.” And because I think about this stuff frequently (perhaps even worry too much about it), I thought I would develop out some thoughts that I had after I finished reading it this most recent time.
Bigtimers is an article about hacks; those who have the right stuff and the right words and don’t hesitate to tell you about it, whether that be in the field or through their social feeds. We all know them, at least we think that we can spot them when we’re out and about (why do we care about them again?). Estes points out that these bigtime individuals often are competitive and secretive with their craft; spend considerable time selling workshops on their fancy websites; tout their amazing gear at every opportunity; and seek attention relentlessly on social media outlets and photo sharing sites. Estes states early that his definition of a “professional” photographer is one who earns 100% of their income from photography.
Now, I’m going to repeat here again upfront that I understand where this guy is coming from and I’ve probably thought and said the same things myself. I’m only going to play devil’s advocate below because this stuff does tumble over my empty head cavity from time to time and it bears some development.
Being a professional photographer is part art and part business, and those two characters don’t necessarily play well together without direct and intentional effort (see David duChemin’s work for more in depth commentary on craft & commerce). The artist side of me wants to rebel against the establishment (business): I can do it better, more creative; the photographs will speak for themselves; marketing is dishonest and so on. Estes’ rant comes from the artist side, not the business side (I’m making an assumption here). If, however, we want to earn 100% of our income from photography (his definition of being professional) we will all have to put down our egos (the artist), stuff them away somewhere into a very tightly locked box, and then we all have to become visible. Yes, we have to get our work out there, to as many people as possible—to the right people, at the right times, in the right places (and a few other people while we’re at it for good measure). We have to take every opportunity to grab attention. We have to seek attention very literally. Not for us necessarily, the fragile artists who are not sure of our own work (that’s me by the way, not Jesse). We absolutely HAVE to do these things for the business that we created. We have a responsibility as a professional to do them and to do them well. How we go about doing them, on the other hand, is our business quite literally, and will dictate our image and brand within the industry, but not doing them is not an option. It’s just lazy. I don’t enjoy spending my days on Facebook, Google+, 500PX, Flickr, and all the other outlets—I would much rather be out in the field shooting pictures, being the authentic guy that is on the cutting edge. But who’s going to fund that next adventure?
I carry around a $1500 tripod. You bet. It took me a number of years to get there, but I sure do. There’s a little duct tape around one of the legs because the factory resin wore down and I had to reapply some local hardware store first-aid on a recent trip. The legs are badly corroded from salt water as I had the bright idea to capture a photograph from standing in the ocean and looking back onto shore. The ball head is brand new as the previous one refused to pivot anymore (perhaps a casualty of that same coastal experiment). The twist locks won’t, well, lock anymore as they seem to have worn themselves away. But, it is still pretty (carbon fiber) and surely draws the looks from those who are trolling photography hotspots to see who is a hack and who actually knows what they’re doing (wait, how do we differentiate again?). I like having great equipment. I admit it. I’ve been on both ends of that spectrum and I can tell you which end is more comfortable when it’s time to actually capture a shot (have you ever watched as someone near you does something that you can’t do simply because they have a piece of gear that you don’t?). Does gear make a photograph—hell no! Never has and never will. And I’ll never be the one to say anything else (well, unless you’re into all that digital artwork stuff, but that’s a whole different argument!). But, is it nice to have the right stuff when you need it? Yep. I can’t apologize for that. In fact, if gear is nothing more than potential, I could even go as far as to say that being professional means giving yourself the most potential. You travel, hike, camp, wait for the light, and finally find the moment when everything lines up. You can capture it on a 12MP camera with limited dynamic range and a cobbled together tripod (this was me for a long time), or you can capture it on a 40MP camera with expanded dynamic range and a stable, well-cared for tripod. Each photographer might come away with a decent shot, but which has more potential to offer a client? Who is taking their craft more seriously? All things held equal, if you use a piece of gear that is not functioning at the peak of the game, when you try to sell that to a client how would you justify not buying a new set of sticks to ensure stability? Or a camera that could handle the extra stops of light without bracketing and hacking together some kind of digital art piece? The only thing that is “professional” is to use whatever money you can make from photography to give yourself (and indirectly your future clients) the most potential for the next shot. $1500 tripod? If it does the trick. We put in too much time scouting, working, laboring, paying for, preparing for the next shot for the attempt to be sabotaged at point of capture by poorly cared for gear or sub-par gear, especially if we don’t purchase said gear for ego or image reasons (I’m not saying this is Jesse’s argument by the way, just a side tangent I seem to be traveling mentally). I struggle mightily with this—remember my tripod with its myriad problems. This type of stuff bugs me at night. I walk around proud of the “character” my gear has. But there’s a dude out there who is more evolved than I am who is shaking his head because he knows that a real professional would make sure that every working piece in his kit was in tip-top shape and held maximum potential for the moment that matters. That’s professional. That’s caring. That’s the guy that I want to hire for my personal project.
Selling workshops is an interesting phenomenon. Yes, the trend towards this is a bit comical. How can some of these photographers get away with it? I get it, man. I really do. I wonder myself. But then again, to help someone else one only has to be marginally out in front of another. It could even be argued that the larger the knowledge gap between two individuals the less effective the communication (expert to novice less effective than part-time pro to aspiring hobbyist). Jesse sounds like the type of individual who is self-motivated and learns well on his own from his article. He’s the type to show up knowing more than the professor. This is certainly an admirable trait. Do I have some experience with this? Yes. I taught courses at the college level when I was in my twenties. I only had about eight years on the kids I was trying to teach and I had to look in the mirror every day and figure out if I was a hack. I worried a lot about that. Was I a subject-matter expert? What did that mean? Was it necessary? If one of my students said what Jesse did about his professor—that it was a rip off of his tuition dollars—I would have been crushed. Honestly. I sacrificed my own classwork as a graduate student to make sure that my students (sophomores and junior undergraduates) got value from the courses I taught. I did, however, learn quickly from fellow professors that I sought advice that classes (and workshops by extension) are not about some expert pouring their vast knowledge out onto students’ waiting brains. It doesn’t work that way—it never does. That is why lecture courses are fading–the model is broken. Students have to bring something to the table. And teachers are there to give structure and order, as well as to facilitate resources, whether books, speakers, personal experiences, field trips or some combination thereof. Students have to actively engage and participate with the course material and each other. I loved having people like Jesse in my courses; I would call on them, challenge them, give them hypothetical situations and see what they would do. I would compare these to my own experiences while out in industry (I was involved in Construction Management) and I would ask how others might handle similar situations. It was fun, and I hope that none of my students left feeling ripped off. I wouldn’t hesitate to take a workshop from someone who I perceived as not as far along with their photography as I am. Why? Because I think that you can learn something from anyone. Knowledge of locations, nature, places, history, specific techniques—these are all valuable for me. They all make me a better photographer, some direct and others indirect. Acknowledging that photography is more than just pushing buttons, opens the world to things that I can learn from other photographers and their workshops–from workshop format to relations with workshop participants, to shooting technique, camera placement, and/or unique gear/tools for special situations. Or historical water levels at a location. Or the location of unique wildflower blooms. It’s impossible to know everything. I’m open to what another might teach me. However, where I agree with Jesse is that if I do manage to cobble together enough to purchase a workshop from a photographer (no matter my perception of their work), I expect individual attention and I’m coming with questions and an agenda to improve myself and my photography. Be ready workshop instructors!
Self-taught is always a touchy subject for me. No one is self-taught. It doesn’t happen. Did you read the camera manual? Have you read a book? Have you talked with other photographers? Shot with them in the field? If yes to any of the above, you’ve been taught. Not many people take formal coursework and degree programs for outdoor photography. In fact, if there is such a program let me know because I’m interested! Self-taught is often associated with highly self-motivated individuals and thus is a popular sentiment in photographer bios. I think just the opposite is the reality though when you think more about it. Self-taught is a red flag to me that someone doesn’t care. You can’t possibly care if you don’t seek advice and coaching and aid from peers. Is Tom Brady self-taught? Was Michael Jordan self-taught? I struggle with this one big time. I’m super independent. I hate signing up for workshops, even saying all the stuff that I said above. That’s the artist diva side of me. The professional side knows that improvement comes from asking and taking imitative; seeking. Unfortunately, the diva, introverted side tends to win with me more than I care to acknowledge. I want to be able to say that I did it on my own. Yet, I know that’s a huge scam. There is no such thing. I’ve had mentors. I have mentors. I hope that my future has many more. I hope that I can be one to someone else. Jesse says that he is always learning, constantly. I would argue that he is therefore not self-taught: he is being a professional by constantly seeking and learning from others. I would just not call myself self-taught because it discounts all the generous people who donate their time and energy into making us better people and better photographers.
And finally, bigtimers tend to not be friendly and sharing. Yeah, I’ve also seen some of that for sure. And I, once again, totally agree with the spirit of this. On the other hand, I see the inverse as well. Ian Plant is a photographer that I really admire both for his images and his words–and he is a bigtimer. If you visit his website and read his contact info, he specifically says that he will not answer e-mails regarding various questions. He just doesn’t have time to tell everyone the best places to see on their trip, or what gear he uses etc. And Plant doesn’t say where his photographs are taken and doesn’t apologize for keeping it to himself; he believes that those that desire should use that energy to find it for themselves. I have to respect that too. He’s not discourteous in the field or anything (I don’t think—I’ve never met the guy), but as a professional he has set up some boundaries. His time is worth money and that is not being unfriendly or a dick. That is being a businessperson who wants to earn 100% of their income from photography and to produce the best work he/she can. So, I’m torn on this one as well. I follow an extremely transparent model and try to answer every inquiry I get, because as Jesse said, it often only takes ten minutes for me to forward something along. However, I’m not bigtime. I don’t have a huge following. I imagine there is a time when this practice is not only daunting in quantity, but downright unproductive and really detrimental to doing that which makes you an authentic photographer—taking photos!
So, I guess where I end this thing is that being “professional” is a lot more than just where your earnings come from. Comparing our work to others, whether that is our images, workshops, business models etc. is just a waste of time and energy (unless the comparison is mutual and desired and constructive). If someone is genuinely making an effort to further advance their dreams and passions of being a photographer, whether that is full time or part time, I’m not going to judge. We all have to be less than what we envision ourselves before we can be that bigtimer. And we all have to ask for attention and sales and comments and likes. Without followers we are just passionate photographers, which is awesome in itself, but it doesn’t pay for health insurance, car payments, cameras and cheeseburgers. At some point, we have to put up the ego, get on our knees and ask others to please take a few moments to look at our stuff, and perhaps even share it around with friends and family who might find an interest. Getting into photography full-time has been one of the most humbling things I’ve ever done. I constantly question whether I’m a hack. I worry about how my peers might view my images, my words, my business—would they smile, shake their heads, call me naïve. I’m still learning to “not care” about that sort of stuff. I’m harder on myself than anyone else could ever be—I know intimately what my weaknesses are. If someone is judging me by my tripod, my website, or my Flickr account, I can’t get riled by that. I do want to be a bigtimer though (no, not the monkey smoking a cigarette but, yes, the guy who makes 75k from his traveling outdoor photography). I’ve always been more comfortable in the shadows, operating far from the overlooks and hotspots where the gurus congregate. I’m not outgoing or gregarious or bubbly by nature; more of a quiet introvert who wants to hike and get away from it all. However, I do want to financially support myself. I do want to be able to fund my next trip without worry. I do want to adventure and explore this country. I do want the gear to capture moments with as much potential as possible so that when someone is willing to exchange money for my photographs that the product they get in exchange is the best possible quality I can provide at any given time. If those desires make me a hack, I willingly sign my name. If those desires require me to be active on social media, watch me post away. If those desires require me to hand out business cards, I’ll put aside my reservations and dig deep into my pocket to find one. I don’t want to look like a great photographer, or sound like one, or even to drink like one. I just want to be one. In order to get that opportunity I have to do what it takes right now to make sure that I even have a chance.
I would argue that despite Jesse’s gripes in his rant, that he is actually doing all of the same things: his website is fancy, his blogs grab attention, I’m sure his tripod and camera provide for digital files full of potential, and his work speaks for itself (remember, I just saw a big two-page spread that led me to his website!). In that vein, it’s not the gear or the website or anything external that Jesse is ranting about, but the attitude and way in which an aspiring photographer goes about approaching the climb. The spirit in which Jesse approaches his duties as a professional is really the difference between being an unfriendly, jaded photographer who is going through the motions (the hack) and an open, transparent, interesting guy who is producing some intriguing work.
Hopefully I didn’t step on any toes there. You’ve got some great work Jesse! The chances of this making it back to you are about as high as Art Wolfe checking out my portfolio, but on the chance that it does, just know that I’m a big fan of what you do. I just had a rant of my own that needed to see the light of day. Keep doing what you’re doing man! You’re the real deal brother. My bests to you and your business going forward. If I can do anything to help you know where I’m at.