How do you define success in photography, whether you shoot landscapes, macro, portraits or whatever? According to Geoff Harris we need to reconsider this question rather urgently.
One of the good things about my job is I get to travel around a bit, and I found myself in the popular and pleasingly old-fashioned Welsh seaside resort of Llandudno a few weeks ago.
Being nosey by inclination and occupation, I spotted a photographer selling her work on the street by my hotel. We got chatting and it turned out that Carol Thorne, as she is called, has raised around £35,000 and counting for the local St David’s Hospice by selling cards of her images (indeed, she’s known locally as the ‘card lady’).
I could see why; Carol’s images were right on the money, but she kept apologising for her lack of photographic skill. I politely demurred and reassured her, then she dropped the bombshell du jour. ‘Oh yes, some guy once came up to me and said that he’d teach me how to take photographs properly.’
Not normally lost for words, I was shellshocked. Here is a hard-working, selfless photographer who’s raised a ton of money for a great cause, and this guy had the temerity to offer to teach her how to photograph properly?
I suggested an appropriately pithy response if it happens again, and told her to keep on reading AP, or join a women-only photographic community such as SheClicks, to get support and encouragement. The encounter got me thinking, however.
Why success in photography is a complex issue
What did this man-splaining pipsqueak mean by ‘photograph properly?’ The images were sharp enough and well exposed from what I could see. Did he mean they didn’t adhere to some hackneyed, artificial set of rules set by the judges at his local camera club, or in some half-baked article? Didn’t he like the subjects?
Had he ever made that much money for a good cause with his more ‘correct’ images? Or indeed made any money from his work at all? His arrogance was astounding, but hey, the world is full of all types of people and that’s his lookout.
For me it’s another reminder that there is no easy definition of success in photography these days. I remember a documentary pro once compared big names like Bailey, Don McCullin and Martin Parr to The Beatles – monumental talents, for sure, but also people who were around at the right time to make their name in the culture. Today we live in an image-saturated age, where everyone can take pictures, and as a result, the perceived value of the photographic image has been devalued.
Ask any passer-by in the UK or US to name the most famous photographer in the country, and many would umm and ahh, possibly resurrecting the deceased in the form of Ansel Adams or Lord Lichfield. It’s got very hard to make either money or a big name from photography, apart from a very overcrowded niches such as weddings, fashion and advertising. Or you can risk your life in a war zone, but a lot of even top documentary photographers struggle to get staff positions, with the associated benefits.
Bores of distinction
You can also get a lot of distinctions from photographic clubs and societies, and this is well worth doing as I have discovered, but let’s keep it in perspective. I still chuckle about an interview I once read with some guy who’d got his Fellowship distinction, saying ‘he was enjoying the view as he looked down from the top.’
Top of what? Needless to say I can’t remember his name, and I wager nobody else outside of that society is making offerings at the shrine of this photographic deity, either. Let’s hope he was being ironic and if not, well, he’s the figure of fun in this article. Most people who achieve such Fellowships become more modest, not less.
So, for my money, Carole Thorn is a hugely successful photographer. She enjoys taking pictures, enjoys talking to people about them, and enjoys helping others by selling them.
Sure, studying good technique could help to achieve these goals with even greater success, as nobody should ever stop learning in this game, but my point remains: ‘proper’ photography is about much more than adherence to a lot of worn-out conventions and box ticking.
Not everyone will want to stand on a street in Llandudno selling their work, but if your work gets you out, fosters healthy habits and is creatively satisfying to you personally, then, really, everyone else can poke it.
The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Amateur Photographer magazine or Kelsey Media Limited. If you have an opinion you’d like to share on this topic, or any other photography related subject, email: email@example.com