Sunday, November 9, 2014

Amateur versus Professional


I read a very depressing post on Eric Kim's blog. I think he's wrong on every count for so very many reasons, but I'm not picking on Eric. I think there's a long-standing culture of distortion around photography, and Eric is simply repeating a lot of the wrong conceptions and conclusions.

I'll briefly highlight the big two here.


The Market


Concerns over the "professional market" being undermined by cheaper, better equipment in more hands is not only misguided, but not unique to photography, nor new to photography. Indeed, members of the London-based Linked Ring Brotherhood, the Paris Photo-Club, the Vienna Camera Club, and members of the New York Photo-Secession were all in "a vocal rebellion against the advancing commercialization and popularization of photography and its implements in the 1880s." (See Nicole Hudgins, Neither Pictorialism nor Documentary Photography: The Camera's Uses and the Struggle for Self-Expression in Industrial Cities, ca. 1857–1907, Photography & Culture, Vol 6 Issue 1, Mar. 2013, at 10.) That's more than 130 years of worrying about the market for photography, if you're keeping track at home.

Monopoly does not make an art of a skill. Ability makes an art of a skill. Whether a thousand people have cameras or a billion have cameras, there will always be the same proportion of people who are dedicated to perfecting their skill to express their art. If anything, the deluge of crappy images makes it even easier to perceive the good ones. Moreover, removing the barriers of cost and accessibility improve any venture, and especially the arts.  

Eric defines a photographer as anyone with a camera. This has never been true, and isn't true now. The camera is merely a tool. A photographer is an artist who happens to use the tools of photography to communicate stories and ideas. Putting a camera in someone's hand doesn't make them any more a photographer than sticking a paintbrush in your hand makes you Van Gogh. Taking pictures isn't "photography," and the misuse of that term by Eric and others only muddies the waters instead of helping people understand the unique value of photographs.


What's a "Full-Time" Artist?


The biggest problem with the post, though, is its premise: that there is a difference between a "full-time" and an "amateur" artist. Setting aside that this distinction is based on antiquated industrial-revolution notions of factory work and a horrific approach to valuing a person's work of art by how much it can "earn," it's a philosophy that guts the motivation of artists and is destructive to the very goals of education which Eric professes to believe in. Eric's approach is wrong from the points of view of history, economics, and philosophy, and the distinction has absolutely no place in art. (I'll check the next time I'm at a museum, but I don't ever recall seeing art divided into "full-time" and "amateur" categories.)

In 1965, Film Culture published Amateur Versus Professional by Maya Deren. Her words are as true today as they were then, and as applicable to still photography as to video:
The major obstacle for amateur film-makers is their own sense of inferiority vis-a-vis professional productions. The very classification “amateur” has an apologetic ring. But that very word—from the Latin “amateur”—“lover” means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity. And this is the meaning from which the amateur film-maker should take his clue. Instead of envying the script and dialogue writers, the trained actors, the elaborate staffs and sets, the enormous production budgets of the professional film, the amateur should make use of the one great advantage which all professionals envy him, namely, freedom—both artistic and physical.

Artistic freedom means that the amateur film-maker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words, words, words, words, to the relentless activity and explanations of a plot, or to the display of a star or a sponsor’s product; nor is the amateur production expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes.

Like the amateur still-photographer, the amateur film-maker can devote himself to capturing the poetry and beauty of places and events. . . .  Instead of trying to invent a plot that moves, use the movement or wind, or water, children, people, elevators, balls, etc. as a poem might celebrate these. And use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired. 
Physical freedom includes time freedom—a freedom from budget imposed deadlines. But above all, the amateur film-maker, with his small, light-weight equipment, has an inconspicuousness (for candid shooting) and a physical mobility which is well the envy of most professionals, burdened as they are by their many-ton monsters, cables and crews. Don’t forget that no tripod has yet been built which is as miraculously versatile in movement as the complex system of supports, joints, muscles, and nerves which is the human body, which, with a bit of practice, makes possible the enormous variety of camera angles and visual action. You have all this, and a brain too, in one neat, compact, mobile package. Cameras do not make films; film-makers make films. 
Improve your films not by adding more equipment and personnel but by using what you have to its fullest capacity. The most important part of your equipment is yourself: your mobile body, your imaginative mind, and your freedom to use both. Make sure you do use them.
Film Culture 39 (1965); 45-46.

If you're struggling with the question of whether to go "full-time," you're asking the wrong question. A photographer makes images because it's a passionate expression of ideas. Passion doesn't use a time clock. 




Art is expression and the medium isn't relevant. Being an artist is always "full-time."