I do not aspire to be a professional photographer. I shoot maybe three rolls of film per week and another couple hundred images digitally in that same period, which likely would qualify as a significant quantity in each of those formats. But I have a day job. I doubt I would ever be good enough to make a living through this hobby, and I do not wish to do so.
I had that epiphany when I was chatting with a professional photographer at a charity dinner. He was hanging out, waiting for more than an hour for his client, a politician, to show up, so he could fulfill the assignment of showing the fellow posed with VIPs. I sure hope he was paid for the duration. He was astonished I had two cameras in my bag. Then shortly thereafter I was flattered by a friend who wanted to buy a print. Although I said I would make a gift of it, he insisted on paying, further gratifying my notions of grandeur by informing me he would be hanging the picture on the walls of his new apartment. He liked a black-and-white exposure of the underneath of a bridge (above) which should be high enough resolution to reproduce at 11 by 17. Selling a photo, by some definitions, makes you a “pro.”
Yet perhaps the most important aspect of fantasies along these lines is too harsh to mention. The business is not easy. If you imagine being a professional photographer, you dream about being Karsh, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, or Gordon Parks, and so on. You do not dream about being the manager of the studio at the local Sears department store, now in bankruptcy but once the retail giant where middle-class families shopped for everything from appliances to sensible clothing, had tires rotated on a car, got discount haircuts, and had significant moments such as high school graduations preserved for posterity. I say that with utmost respect. Everyone but the wealthy has to have an income. As scolds tell us, it’s call “work” for a reason.
Photography, in contrast, is how I relieve stress from my real occupation that pays the mortgage and puts food on the table. All of my projects are my own: dog portraits; street signs; patterns and shadows. I would not do any of this if it failed to offer pleasure. I am free to walk away. I have no clients to please. I have no deadlines to meet. My only anxieties are my own desire to improve. I will even pay others to show me how to become better.
Photography is an avocation for me. That is fine. To make a little bit of money from it is unexpected. That is a bonus.
Here is a comparison. I consider myself a professional writer. Even that, however, must be subsidized from other sources. I have published a book with a major New York house and co-edited a textbook that has seen two editions. I have at least 250 bylines in magazines and newspapers, including what may be regarded as the most prestigious achievement of any author of non-fiction, an op-ed in the New York Times, and multiple credits in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. That is no brag. It is the opposite. I have made in the very low six figures from this output. That crude measure is for more than thirty years of productivity, meaning that the remuneration is, after taxes, scarcely enough to cover expenses. My parents were right. I love writing, but I cannot make a go of it solely by writing.
I celebrate the amateur, because I do not expect to be promoted from that status. I do not need accolades. I might want fancy equipment, but I know that that isn’t necessary either. Back in the day, scientific discoveries were made by “natural philosophers” who conducted their investigations out of interest. Chamber music is famously described as a conversation among friends. My goal is to be rid of goals in this pursuit, rendering it positive and pure.
All of us need, for lives that are fulfilling, these forms of leisure that we take seriously. I care as much about photography as I do about my day job. The disciplines themselves depend on practitioners who are laypersons, because those enthusiasts make up the bulk of the marketplace. Our appreciation for the professionals should increase through our realization of the difference between us and them. I salute the professionals whose ranks I will not be joining.