Saturday, February 13, 2010

So You or Your Kid Want to Be a Photographer?

I recently received a missive from someone whose daughter, a high school senior was interested in becoming a photographer and looking to apprentice or intern. I've edited and expanded a bit.


Many commercial photographers are not artists. Many are just good technicians who know how to make competent work that pleases the customers, which is really not all that challenging. Many make a good living and enjoy it. There are exceptions to the rule, but they appear to be few and far between.

The commercial photographer I worked for inspired me, but in a very indirect way. It was clear that the guy was a repressed poet, but he never tried to express himself even with his photography. Instead, he read Jung, Ouspensky and the like, went to all kinds of esoteric groups and had discussions that to many, including my dad, an engineer, were incomprehensible. I loved listening to him as we worked together in the darkroom, endless hours of classical music (mostly Chopin) playing int he background on a Sony reel-to-reel recorder.

Since we were photographing paintings, prints and sculpture (his specialty) the pieces themselves intrigued me, opening up worlds I didn't know existed. In terms of photography, the methodology we used was pretty stock and didn't change much. He was very skillful and had a great eye, which is not to be discounted.* I learned too from him that simple tools can give great results when used properly. As an assistant, I could almost go on auto-pilot. I continued working for him, because I liked him and his wife and it got me out of my parents' house and into NYC occasionally to work. I could leave school early, which was an added bonus.

The best education for a photographer who really wants to create is art school. The technical part can be learned from books, the Internet, or other photographers. Finding a way "in" to your work, or as one of my drawing teachers used to say "finding you work" is the main thing. I never took a single photography class, You really don't need to pay for a college course to learn to develop film. Printing, I taught myself. Even digital is really not rocket science. The hard part is the conceptual piece; positioning yourself to actually work. Ay, there's the rub.

If I had not spent years drawing and drawing, I would not be able to do what I do now. I continue to draw and still find new things in it.

I never worked for free. When I started out as an apprentice, it was 1974 or 5 (no, I'm not ancient, I was barely more than a kid) and I got $1.50 an hour. Working for free implies one's labor is not valued and there is no commitment from either end. Avoid.

The fine art photography world is pretty much like the art world. Only a handful of people are making their living off of making prints. Most are teaching, shooting weddings and babies, giving seminars, have a fall-back job or a wealthy spouse. This is not to say "don't do it," but unless one is truly obsessed, there are way easier methods to survive and make a living. The advent of digital photography has totally diluted the market and now everyone and no one is a photographer. The competition for even routine work is fierce with people even offering to do it for free (bad move). Part of why I founded Tsirkus was to find a niche and it was a natural outgrowth of my own interests. But let me say too, Tsirkus has never really made a profit. It has gotten me other gigs (like the Pew Fellowship I'm now working under) and a few other paid jobs, but it is not a complete living. I still have to do other things to make a go of it, and I'm still living in near-poverty.

Lastly,Treat all photographic chemicals as if they were cyanide. Developers are the most dangerous; luckily they are safer now than when I was first working. I know of so many traditional photographers that are now ill in their older years with Parkinson's or nerve issues, including the photographer with which I apprenticed.

RA Friedman, Principal Photographer

Photo by Man Ray, one of the pieces we photographed "back in the day." I was shocked to find it recently sold for nearly $300K.

*Some 30,000 negatives by this man, shot from 1960 to the mid 1990's are soon to be on deposit at The Library of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.