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News & Insight

Now Everyone Is Taking Pictures, So Who Is A Photographer?

By Kishore Sawh on January 15th 2016

That’s a hell of a question, isn’t it? When everyone and their mother has a camera and platform to publish their captures, what is it exactly that defines a photographer? I often have heard it said that you aren’t a professional photographer if you’re not generating the lion’s share of your income via photography. I can poke holes in that argument from dusk till dawn, and I’m but one person. I mean, Vivian Maier made no money from her images and died before her work came to light, and most of the photo world, I’d wager, wouldn’t dare deny her referenced as a professional of metaphoric status now.

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And that’s just it, I’m not so sure there is a valid definition (or set of criteria from which to draw one) that can give an answer that’s irrefutable. Ken Van Sickle, in this short 2-minute episode from PBS’ ‘Brief But Spectacular’ series, gives his take on the matter,

There are a lot of things that make a good photograph. You have to think about texture and gesture and composition, and all the things that painting has in it…. If you were there when the Hindenburg caught on fire, and you took a picture of it, that’s a great photograph. But you’re not a great photographer, because you can’t repeat that in everyday things.

What a great photographer does is, they are consistently able to make something in a style that’s personal to themselves. My pictures don’t depend on extreme sharpness. They depend on the composition and on the subject and on the way I see it.

So here Van Sickle seems to suggest that consistency in style and ability to deliver are high ranking factors, and it’s hard to imagine anyone in our community disagreeing. Looking into his life, however, shows a broad background and experience where it may seem clear his position was born. He’s in his 80s now, served in the Korean War, and is actually a highly-practicing and recognized martial artist, which probably explains his impressive virility. But in the past, before his military experience, he benefited from his grandfather’s artistic teachings on the classical aspects of art, and Van Sickle put them into practice through drawing and painting far before he began photography.

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With such an education from such a formative age, it sort of stands to reason that he would put value on those classical art foundational pillars. It also would explain some of his feelings on the democratization of photography. In the short clip, he continues to say,

Technology doesn’t change the way photography is. It just — it makes it available to more people, which means there’s going to be much, much more really terrible pictures taken or pictures that are totally dependent on subject, which is all, all right.

This is a highly polarizing argument he presents because it can certainly be construed as a photography elitist speaking down to the proletariat. And then some could possibly argue that even after achieving his success, he may carry a chip on his shoulder because of the blue on his collar, but do we really think that’s what he’s doing? Because whatever his real feelings are behind it, what he says can hardly be denied.

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Photography is available to everyone now, and it has created veritable fountains of utter artistically-devoid images. I’ve mentioned before, but it’s warranted again that there are supposedly more images taken every two minutes today than were taken in the entirety of the 20th century. Surely they aren’t all great photographs, and not taken by those we could define as photographers.

Thoughts

But, who are we to say? Do we keep judging what makes a great piece of art by the standards set some centuries ago? If we do that, and I’m inclined to, for now, it suggests photographers as artistic creators are actually re-creating under influence of old ideals. It makes me think of a conversation between Lord Henry and Dorian Gray in ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ on the very topic of influence. Dorian sits as his portrait is being painted, and listens to Lord Henry as he says,

There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view. Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him…. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays…Courage has gone out of our race.

This truly sums up so much of what I feel is a problem with photography today; there is a lack of courage to fully self-express, probably in no short part due to the pressure of having our work accepted, so there’s just so much carbon copying occurring with little development of one’s true self and self-expression. How on Earth can that be conducive to art and good photography? And can we who follow this be called photographers?

[REWIND?Terry Richardson Spawns Internet Hate with #Nomoreterry – Is It Deserved?]

Sources: PBS, Ken Van Sickle

About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Matthew Saville

    I’m definitely a traditionalist when it comes to my passions and interests, but I enjoy modern technology and its ability to open new doors for even the oldest of artistic and scientific uses.

    The unfortunate (and at the same time fortunate) fact is, there will always be a latest trend, a style that is popularized during this or that era. And inevitably, we all will laugh at least a little bit at the style of that era, whether it’s something specific like fashion trends, or something general like visual taste altogether.

    If I had to classify the trends of the last ~10 years in photography, I’d call it “eye candy”. Tools like Twitter and Instagram have shortened folks’ attention spans drastically, such that very few people give any image more than half a glance unless it literally jumps off the screen (I was about to say page!) at them. This is why a lot of what we see is high-saturation, high-dynamic range, ultra-wide or ultra-shallow, with generally over-the-top or excessive processing applied.

    On the one hand, pushing the envelope is fun, it’s neat, it’s new and fresh and at least a little bit creative. But on the other hand it can be dangerous to lean too much on any gimmick, ever, let alone three or four at once.

    So, simply ask yourself: What do you want to get out of photography? Because if it’s just a means to get your ego stroked and receive temporary praise in the form of “likes” or maybe even some financial gain, then have at it! Do whatever the latest trends and fads encourage, and be the best at it; you’ll probably achieve wild success.

    However, if you wish to create a body of work that is considered more timeless, and admired for generations to come, then you may want to think deeper about what your passions truly are, and what direction to take this craft.

    Honestly both paths can be equally fulfilling or equally boring, it just depends on who you are and what you want to get out of photography. There’s nothing wrong with either.

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  2. Cristina St. Germain

    Really excellent article to hear someone else with some words on the topic – as a wedding photographer, sometimes the plugged-in-ness at the wedding is just the way of the business, but then sometimes when a good handful of guests have DSLR cameras of their own in tow and everyone is talking about their pictures and they’re a photographer too…

    It’s just hard to react exactly (internally) because you wouldn’t start telling a plumber all the other gigs you’ve done and shop talk, …would you? But then, photography is an action like breathing, but some of us are keen Olympians and some breathe hard when we’re catching the bus. :P

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  3. Dave Haynie

    “The old ways are best” is always a thing in the arts, and probably always will be. But the definition of “old” isn’t necessarily fixed, either.. some day, our brand new ways will be considered the superior “old way”.

    One reason for this is simple: when you start in any kind of art, you’re inspired by the existing artists. This has a large part in forming your “mental vocabulary” in that subject. When new things come along that depart from that, they seem out of place, strange, radical, innovative, maybe all at once.. but instantly recognized as not-how-I-see-my-art. Given time, though, the best innovations get incorporated, the bad ideas hopefully lost. You even see this happening — the occasional photographer pining for the good old days of CCDs, music people missing tape or CDs in the day of the download, etc.

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  4. Stephen Glass

    I love this post.
    Thanks for turning us on to Ken Van Sickle. I love his take.

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  5. robert garfinkle

    it’s subjective I suppose, right?

    could it be, that one who shot with film, and had to develop in a darkroom, would poo poo a person who had a Sony mirrorless and a serious subscription to the Adobe cloud – stating those digital people “think” they are photographers, but are not, as they have it too easy… Or, would it be today’s wedding photographer, who’d discard a guest who had a point n shoot or a cell phone, and not call what they were doing photography…

    let me as the quick question, can we not think the same way about a person who arrived at the scene of an accident or some major news event, armed with a cell phone and was the first on a blog with the details. They may not be a reporter by trade but I’d still call their sharing reporting…

    I do not care if you make your living pulling down 100k to 200k or more a year, as a photographer, because YOU call yourself that and people look on the web or in some directory under photographer and because it states you are one – because at the end of they day, YOU, would opt to critique any one of us, on this forum, look at our photos, and judge us by our abilities, not by our equipment that shot it…

    all I am saying is: I first started out, picking up a cell phone, took a few pictures, and had some thought behind them, capturing a memorable moment framed a certain way.

    I know of a person who posts on Nat Geo’s site, who, when all she has is a cell phone with her rifles off content that’d kick the living you know what out of all of us with respect great photo’s –

    1. don’t think you are all that with your equipment – think of the content you produce, telling a story…

    2. granted, the ONLY differences between a cell phone and a semi-pro / pro camera are (IMO), two things…
    a. Your experience
    b. a semi pro / pro camera gives you more options / tools to work with vs. equipment that is “less” than or not a “camera-first” device such as a cell phone.

    And anyone of you, would cheer on a novice, in encouragement, no matter whether they had a cell phone, etc… any day…

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  6. L.J. Rhodes

    Anyone who takes pictures is a photographer. The only differences are levels of skill, purpose and income. I’m leery of trying to limit the use of the word photographer only to certain people. That invokes elitism and exclusion, and that never does any field any favors.

    There’re good photographers and bad photographers. Even amazing photographers and horrible photographers. Amateur photographers. Professional photographers. Part-time and full-time photographers. From flip phones to iPhones, point-and-shoots to SLRs, anything that records an image is a real camera, and anyone who uses such a device is a real photographer.

    Some if not most of them will never be or even want to be published. Many of them will. But as long as they’re having fun with it and getting what they want from it, I’m happy to call them a fellow photographer. Because they really are.

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  7. Peter Nord

    Lots of criteria for determining who’s an artist and what’s art. My aunt and uncle were artists. Sold work in galleries, boxes of blue ribbons came to me when they passed. I said to my sister when we cleaned out my aunt’s stuff, what it this piece of junk? She said they had an old friend, a famous person in the art world, who would pick up driftwood on the beach on visits. Then take it to our uncle, directing him to assemble it. My sister said make a photo, send it to a particular museum who liked this famous person. I did, the museum was happy to have this ‘piece of junk.’ So who is to say what is art or who is an artist.

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  8. Gabriel Rodriguez

    This is a great article! This is one of those topics you discuss amongst your friends with the addition of some cold ones! ?

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  9. John Cavan

    I used to concern myself more about such things, but after a while I realized that it didn’t mean all that much to me. I enjoy photography a great deal and I take a lot of pleasure from it and if others also take some pleasure from my efforts, that is great. Beyond that, whether or not someone thinks I am a “photographer” is really moot.

    However, it is fair to say that I’m not making my living from it, so there is certainly a bias to my view. If I were to draw a line on the subject, I think I would distinguish between those who are consciously working to improve their craft and those who are simply taking pictures.

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    • Holger Broschek

      “I think I would distinguish between those who are consciously working to improve their craft and those who are simply taking pictures.”
      This would be the defining criteria for me!

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  10. Lauchlan Toal

    Always a fun debate, great article Kishore.

    I find that there are a few different ways that people classify a photographer, or pro photographer.

    1. Income: As you mentioned, this is a very standard way that people think about photographers. If you make most of your money, or at least some, from your photos you’re a professional photographer. Whether or not your a photographer is a bit more nebulous in this frame, but the boundaries of professionalism are well defined.

    2. Gear: Are you using a smartphone? Well, you’re not a photographer to this crowd. Mirrorless? Eh, maybe you’ll pass. DSLR? Okay, you can be a photographer. Medium format digital or large format? Now you’re really talking.

    3. Intent: Here it all comes down to what an artist is trying to accomplish. Are they setting out to pay their bills, create great images, or just capture a moment with friends? Personally I find a lot of merit in this viewpoint, but it’s not perfect.

    4. Demeanour and personal opinion: If you act the part, you’re good to go. If you call yourself a pro photographer, act responsibly, and can take photos well enough then you’re a professional. If you take photos for fun, but don’t let photography define you, you’re not a photographer. If you shoot once a year but love reading photography blogs and consider yourself a photographer, then that you are.

    There are many more viewpoints on this debate, but these are the four most prevalent which I’ve seen. I’m not entirely sure that any of them can be called right or wrong, given the loose guidelines and cultural significance around photography. Unlike, say, engineering where you must have a degree and a certain amount of progressive work experience to be called an engineer, there is no accreditation for photographers. It is at once a career, hobby, and tool, and as such has different connotations for all of us. Attempting to reach consensus is perhaps the least important reason to discuss this – instead thinking about this is a way to clarify your own goals and understand what you want to get from photography. Once you know what you want to accomplish, your identity becomes tied in with the body of work you create – and this self-identity is much stronger than any title.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Thanks for the kind words L. “Attempting to reach consensus is perhaps the least important reason to discuss this” There’s a lot of validity to this, as it’s not something that should impede anyone – not something so subjective.

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  11. Justin Lin

    Awesome article Kish

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  12. john mariani

    I don’t worry about what people think of me as a photographer , i love doing it and will continue to do it . if i get paid along the way , it just makes it that much more rewarding because not everyone gets paid to do what they love .

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  13. Ben Perrin

    I don’t know. People seem to always argue that the old ways are the best and that no-one will ever match the ‘old masters’ but I’m seeing amazing artwork every day that in my opinion surpasses the best of the past. Sure technology has made things more accessible and with that more crap is produced, however far more artists are actually sharing their processes and the standard for good artwork is also going way up. Art should not be defined by some narrow minded definition that the ‘masters’ (and most people talk about painters when they refer to masters) came up with. That worked for them, however if art and artists are to grow then new definitions need to be forged and we can no longer be bound by the old.

    Sometimes it can be hard if you’ve been taught to apply a certain logic your entire life. However, we have to realise that what works for us as artists should not work for others as then individuality may as well be dead. As to the topic of being defined by pay, I can’t say that I’ve ever cared how much an artist gets paid when being inspired by their best. It’s just not part of the equation. Note that this reply does not mean that we can’t learn from the past, as we certainly must. It’s just that we also have to pave the way for new standards and concepts.

    Anyway, that’s just the thoughts of someone who’s clearly in the amateur category so perhaps I’m not the best to talk. However, a topic like this is a bit like asking ‘what music is best’ as you know the opinions and answers will never be 100% in alignment.

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  14. Joseph Prusa

    Good article.

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