Creative: A Question I Can’t Answer

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This is a ridiculous post, but the idea was floating around in my melon, so here it is.

Can someone shoot film and actually work full-time as a photographer? (Outside of weddings.)

I’m disgusted by the idea I’m even asking myself this question. “NO, OF COURSE NOT.” “IMPOSSIBLE.” But then I began to wonder why.

Let me clarify a few things. I’m talking about real photography, real assignments, jobs, etc. Not the online photography world, or social photography world where anything is possible, but the real-world, working for commercial, editorial or advertising clients. Agents, art buyers, reps, studios, digital services, post production, stylists, catering, insurance, production, producers, etc. My answer to this portion of the question is “no f%$%$$# way.”

The reason has little to do with film. The reasons are many, but there are two that jump out at me. Speed and perception. EVERYONE is in a hurry for no reason at all. Always. Frantic even. We’ve convinced ourselves this is good, a lifestyle even, and something to brag about. Lack of sleep, insane travel, amount of email, how many jobs in the air at one time; all things we now hold as badges of honor even though these things make us miserable. I find this one of the most puzzling aspects of our current culture. This reality doesn’t bode well for anything that takes time.

Perception. Film is expensive. The first person who corrected me on this scenario was an uber lab owner in LA who said “If you shoot 30 rolls of 220 a day or less then film is far cheaper than digital.”(I’ve never shot this much in one day in my life.) What? How? Who? Impossible right? Nope. But the perception is the exact opposite. Remember, cost for the digital gear is exponentially higher, and this cost includes the tech services that come along with it as well as the need to buy/rent the latest gear. (Some clients began demanding this years ago.) Factor in the archiving costs and now you are WAY beyond film, but again, perception is everything.

But here is maybe the only important point I’m going to make. Why do so many photographers put their work in the hands of someone else?(I’ve done this for years, so I’m as guilty as anyone.) Yes, you have to work with clients. Yes, they have needs, but aren’t we the ones who are supposed to have the style? For example. Let’s say that you are a person who likes to shoot 35mm Leicas and TRI-X. I don’t know anyone like this but play along.

Let’s say this person has been making work this way for decades, and when this person shows the work to people in the professional space he gets almost nothing but positive feedback. And yet this work has no home in the modern photography world. What if this person just says “Okay, this is what I do, so if you want me then this is what you are going to get.” “You just told me you loved it.” What would happen is this person would probably never get a single job for the rest of his/her career.

I find this hysterical. It’s not like the professional photography world is moving in a great direction. Right? How many photographers do you know that are thriving and saying “Wow, things are GREAT.” I know a lot who claim that on social but most photographers I know are navigating a very shaky playing field at the moment, and many are working in ways that make them miserable.

Gone are the days of making work in the way that made them the photographer they are.

I would compare this to me trying to hire someone like, oh I don’t know, Picasso. “Hey Pablo, good seeing you, I’ve been following your relentless stream of what you ate for lunch on your IG feed…it’s SOOOOOOOO good.” “Oh hey, the client wants you for the commission but you know the painting by hand thing isn’t going to work for them. They actually need you to use a Wagner Power Painter for this job because the shoot is on Monday morning and the work goes live on the website at 2PM that same day.” “We have to trim the budget and the client hired a cost consultant to keep the bid down, so hopefully it will still work.” “Oh, and they don’t want color or anything abstract.” “Oh, oh, and you need to do video too.”

Lunacy? Yes. Just what runs around in my head. The ONLY way around this would be with a very rare customer who is willing to work with you but those aren’t common enough to be a career. Or, the fine art world. “They” don’t care. Anything goes in that world, which is truly intriguing. Who knew that art might save journalism? (Insert Dr. Evil, finger to mouth, wink here.)

Now, you can flip this story to fit whatever method you work in. Can someone work in black and white acrylic ONLY and make a living? God I hope so.
And I’m sure there are exceptions out there.

Okay, gotta go. Unicorn hunting this afternoon.

Comments 20

  1. I recall seeing a video with Mary Ellen Mark saying that it was a struggle to get assignements, let alone with her still shooting film. She also said Leica wouldn’t even help her out with gear since she was not interested in digital. I have a friend that once made good money shooting stock and print work, that now struggles – with teaching as his primary source of income. What you lay out in your post is only too real in today’s world. The attention span of a gnat is about all most have these days for both deleivery and content consumption. Optimisticly, I do see more people tuning out the noise and slowing down – getting away from internet time….let’s hope it continues and we find balance.

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      I got to meet MEM a few times, went to her studio. One side of this coin says “Well, times change, so as a photographer you have to change with it.” But here is my problem with this side of the coin. Look at what she did. How many photographers had her talent and her longevity? Not many. And most of the photographers I saw change over the years didnt’ change for the better. Most went digital and dropped off the face of the Earth because their work suffered for it.

  2. Hi Dan, this post scares me a lot. A whole lot.

    I just decided 3 weeks ago:

    1. to get rid of my smartphone: I did and encountered the real life again: a dumbphone is nice, it’s “peace”, it’s “quiet”, it’s a “dream”. It has a camera but it’s so bad that just the thought of having to look at a picture taken with it forces me to stay away from the cam button.

    2. getting rid of my smartphone set me on the way of only snapping away on film and getting another real snapper, the Oly XA2 in addition to my Oly Mju/Stylus snapper.
    So no more digital snapshots anymore. No more social filling up.


    And then came your post. Scared the hell out of me.

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      Don’t be scared, unless you are working full time as photographer than it doesn’t matter. Shoot what you want. Have fun. If you ARE working as photographer then it might matter.

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  3. You know this discussion reminds me that Andre Kertesz was technically an amateur photographer all his life no? I have a day job that dosn’t involve photography at all. On my time I shoot freed from the burden of making money. It’s supposed to be fun yes?

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      Photography is fun but often times things change when it goes from fun to job. And I was only referring to full time working photogs.

  4. First of all I laugh my ass off with some of your “statements” … Unfortunately it is all very sad and very true too.
    The only people I see that they are able to work in the way they want (besides art or weddings) is people that do pure, traditional documentary work. I’m talking about people that grab a subject and stay with it for a while. Those photographers, at least some of them (mostly those that decide to work in medium format), still have the opportunity to work exclusively on film. But making a living … that is another story.

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      There are plenty of people doing projects who aren’t working as photographers. I was only referring to full time working folks. If you are just a hobbyist anything goes.

  5. Dan,

    I’m sure there is some qualifier for who I’m about to mention but I’ll go there anyway.
    Netflix. (forgive me…I realize this is an opiate for the unwashed masses but it’s worth it.)
    Abstract: The Art of Design.
    The “impression” here is that he shoots film. His whole pipeline is set up to handle film.
    I think he does commercial work in addition to his other projects. With film.
    Regardless, the episode is an absolute delight.
    I’ve watched it 3 times.

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      I met him once. Super cool guy. He’s a VERY rare bird. Even in the midst of rare birds he’s rare. I know a few others who work MOSTLY in film, but they are like unicorns.

  6. Recently digital photography has started to bug me. The part that has been bugging me is the idea that it feels like an imitation. It reminds me of some playing a saxophone sound on a keybaord. No matter how good it sounds, no matter how talented the player, no matter how expensive the device….it’s still not a saxophone, and never will be. It doesn’t mean it’s not art, but it’s definitely not saxophone art. I shoot mostly digital and have since 2006 and sometimes I get seriously depressed thinking that most of my work is sitting on a few hard drives in my desk. What am I going to do with all this sh*t? What if something happened to me and my girlfriend wanted to look at some of the images….would she even know how to open Photo Mechanic and/or Photoshop? Would she bother? I don’t know. It’s something that has been haunting me lately and making re-examine things. Have I actually been doing “photography” the last 11 years that I have been using digital or is it something else entirely? Sometimes I wonder if I should even bother taking pictures anymore. What if it’s all been a waste of time……? The hours spent walking around, sitting in front of a computer, uploading…..etc.

    Wow, I’m a downer. I hope you find the path you are seeking and please share it with us.

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      You have been doing real photography. Real digital photography. It isn’t better or worse than anything else only different. There are major holes in digital, as there are with analog, so you have learn to find whatever balance works for you. I have a solution for you in regard to someone having access to your work. PRINT. Small, 4×6, catalog each story. As for your digital files and someone archiving them if you are gone. Based on history, not likely.

  7. This is a really interesting question, which I unpacked on my blog! Click my name for the long form.

    Short form: I don’t think speed is really the issue. It’s that clients are afraid you’re not going to get the shot unless you shoot 4000 frames. If you want to shoot film as a job, then you need to be selling “final pictures” not “here’s a bunch of shit we can work together to select final pictures from” which means that you have to be the photo editor, and the client has to want you to be their photo editor.

    This is *precisely* how wedding photography works.

    Not sure what other gigs there are out there, though!

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      Over the past week I have heard nothing but horror stories from working photographers. I won’t go into detail but it’s grim out there. Weddings are their own world but the commercial, editorial worlds are seeing a mass exodus of folks who can no longer make it. This isn’t going to change or come back, ever. Clients don’t want to pay and don’ve have to in many instances. And what you said about films and clients I’ve also found to be true. That is why I gave up in 2010. Tired of trying to educate people who weren’t paying attention anyway.

  8. Interesting question, so I thought I would chime in. Short answer, no. Long answer, I am a commercial shooter who takes assignments for magazines and businesses, and all clients are set up with a digital workflow. Originally a film photographer, standard procedure was to send clients prints or chromes, but now the standard is to FTP digital files. Located in Phoenix, AZ, most of my work comes from the east coast, notably New York City. I am always on a tight deadline that would never allow time for film processing. It was even tight during what I refer to as the transition time, when I would still shoot chromes and scan them to provide digital files to clients. Clients know digital is available and the mind set is that you shoot and you are “done” so they want the file right away. I shoot RAW and often educate clients that one hour shooting is two hours or more on the computer. But sometimes the need is immediate so I shoot jpegs and just send them on. Another factor, at least in Phoenix, is that most labs have closed and there are only two that I would use and both are an hour away.

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      Hey James,
      I was once a Phoenix based shooter! First at The Republic, and then as a freelancer doing all sorts of stuff. Commercial, editorial, etc. I hear you. It was beginning to shift back when I was there. Less time, less concern. Makes sense in most ways. I remember the New York Post asking me to make an image off the TV screen…….sad but true. Thanks for chiming in.

  9. Hey Dan,

    One the money (or lack of) with this one. Time for one of my stream of consciousness comments;

    This one line kind of explain it “EVERYONE is in a hurry for no reason at all”. Speed = Efficiency = Cheaper (apparently). Gone are the days I’d be called in for pre-brief meetings to talk through how we’d work on a project. These days it seems to be editors scroll through instagram find something “sellable” and then offer “exposure”. Sure some guys and gals are making it work but longevity is very very rare. Most are chasing the latest style as that is what sells, but that’s at the cost of selling your actual style out for good.
    Can a rare talent survive shooting film? Platon also shoots digital when the “need” arrises (Hasselblad still though) but i’d venture his “best” is the kit he knows (film). Oh actually Dan how about your best pal Koudelka 😉 I’m thinking he shoots alot of film. Looking at others, Tim Walker (film I think, Vogue, W, etc.) he’s managed to work a niche. Anton Corbijn, a portrait master with the square and TriX, he managed to switch to moving image but his strong style has very much changed.
    Then however I come to think of when the young upstart David Bailey hit the fashion scene, throwing out the old by using the “new” 35mm small cameras. Adapting to the new the old guard tried to make it work but sadly couldn’t survive working in a way that didn’t fit (Norman Parkinson).
    Yes they are just tools and it’s a choice of “medium” as such. Most clients only understand one of those mediums and so will naturally go with what they know. This is one of the ways we photographers have lost “power” or a “say” in briefs and commissions. Shooting with film we were trusted to be able to create what we showed we had previously created. With digital provided the “raw” base images are “captured” then some dude with photoshop can make it look however they need.
    Did you read the piece about the cameraless future? –
    Interesting concept, horrifyingly “near-real” interesting.

    All we can do is try to stay true to ourselves while keeping the wolf from the door. Many times we let the pay cheque be the inspiration and that is a bitter pill to swallow, but for now it’s easier than the consideration of laying down the cameras.

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      That is a truly great blog comment. Really well said, so thank you for taking the time to chime in. Right on the money. IG has done a number on so many people. It’s odd when you are on the outside looking in, and looking at what IG has done to their ability to think. Even how it physically takes over their life. I still we are going to look back at this time in history and cringe.

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