My Answer to Professional Photographers, or People Who Want to Become One
May this information, which is open to the public, serve everyone who wants to try his hand at the high art of professional photography.
If someone is able to sell their photos to popular, well paying magazines, or to get renowned art galleries to exhibit their artwork, they will receive pictures and a request to review their work from all sorts of people involved in photography. After months of responding to this request free of charge, he discovers the tool of the text written for the general public, which he can publish on the Internet to inform all future letter writers that this is his answer intended for them.
At this stage of my photographic career, I am preparing and publishing this text. I will stop writing personally to those who seek my advice, and instead refer future professional photographers to the website where this text can be seen and read by anyone.
Because the numerous letters that reach me daily all have the same content, and differ only in their wording, I begin my text with the content of one of the last letters that I have received, and let it serve as an exemplary example:
"Dear Mr. Hermannsdorfer,
I always loved photography, and would like to build a career as a professional photographer. But I have read on the internet that it is very difficult to earn a living in this profession. I know that the competition is huge, and many dream of earning their money with photography. You just have to look on Facebook or Instagram to see how many try their luck there, and how many fail. Still, I'm irresistibly urged to go out with the camera and build my career as a professional photographer.
But how exactly should I start if success has to be guaranteed? I see everywhere that the market is overcrowded, and also that many photographers offer their works for just a few cents. I also looked at other professions ,and found the same problems there. Everything is overcrowded and stuffed with cheap suppliers. There is always more supply than demand, always too many hands, and too little work. Success seems impossible. How do I manage to stand out from the crowd?
I send you some photos I made by myself, and ask you for a straight and honest opinion. I know I can't charge high prices for my pictures yet, but how much do you think I could charge for this kind of picture? Don't be afraid to show the things as they are, and criticize the pictures harshly if necessary. I want to learn from my mistakes, and in the worst case, my plan will just fail. As you know, you are never protected from that.
I am aware that your time is limited, and I do not want to be a burden to you more than absolutely necessary. But weren't you, at some point, a beginner as well who had to find his way?
If you need more pictures to judge my work correctly, I will send them to you. I have a lot more photos in my portfolio that are just as good, maybe even better. I look forward to your reply.
With best regards…”
I want to answer you—and all others who would like to find themselves in the field of professional photography—openly and honestly. Whether what I have to say will be of great value to you, and whether it is worth following my advice, I am happy to leave it to your own judgment.
The fact that photography and all the other professions do not bring the desired benefits is not due to a lack of work, but to a lack of good workers. If someone assures you the opposite, they either don't tell you the truth, or are simply unaware. If you want to check whether my assertion is correct, try to win an established professional photographer for a project. Or get an appointment with a good doctor who does an excellent job. You will find that this man is more than busy. The demand for him never ends, and he doesn't have a day off.
The situation is different with untalented, unimaginative, and lazy photographers who only copy the style of the great masters, do not do any further training, and think that it is enough to set up an account with Instagram and take a few pictures. Millions of this kind are available. You can find such people on every street corner.
I will beware to express an opinion about the quality or prospects of success of your work. Your customers, or the general public, are the only critics whose judgement is valid. You don't need to believe me that. Just think about it for a moment and decide for yourself.
Brian Duffy, whose pictures from the Swinging Sixties decorate the walls of renowned galleries today, was so dissatisfied with his photos that he tried to burn them in the backyard of his house. Thanks only to a vigilant neighbor who noticed the smoke, most of his artworks were saved. If Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz had presented their first works to you, your judgment would have been devastating ,and you would have urged them to sell their cameras. Maybe you would have found a picture like "Oak Tree, Sunset City" meaningless and boring, because it shows only a tree. Nevertheless, this picture found its lovers, and is now traded at a price of over $12,000. A lot of people who were smarter and better than you said bad things about Henri Cartier-Bresson about a century ago and didn't predict him a great future as a photographer. The old fox survived them all.
That's why I can't and won't put your photos on trial. If I praise you to the best of my knowledge, I could impose terrible boredom on the audience. If, to the best of my knowledge and belief, I declare you completely incapable, I might rob the world an unrecognized Ansel Adams or Frans Lanting.
I have no intention of getting you paid work. Once your artworks have proven themselves to be truly valuable, you will no longer have to walk around looking for photographic employment. You will have your hands full, and will need more time than you have at your disposal to do even half of the offered work.
If the aspiring professional photographer wants to prove that he can really achieve great things, I know a very simple method, a completely safe procedure that can clarify the question clearly and without doubt:
He should create photographs without payment until someone offers him money for his pictures. If no money is offered to him in the course of three years, he may regard this with full confidence as a sign that creation has destined him to be a street sweeper or something else. If he possesses only a grain of wisdom, he will withdraw with dignity, and take up the profession assigned to him.
All outstanding professional photographers had to follow the procedure as I describe it here, even if you don't like it.
Young, aspiring photographers are weird creatures. They all know that they need a certificate of apprenticeship to work as bricklayers, plumbers or carpenters. They also know that in these professions they are required to have an apprenticeship of at least three years, in which they hardly receive any money, and in which they expect activities that are far below their level, such as sweeping the workplace.
Becoming a professor or a doctor is a thousand times more difficult, because not only does he not get a salary throughout his education, but he often has to pay expensive tuition fees, and enjoys the privilege of taking care of his own clothes, food, and home.
The budding professional photographer knows all this, and yet has the audacity to place himself on the same level as the great masters, and to demand his share of their high honours and incomes without being able to prove even a three-day apprenticeship. He would refuse to create even an ashtray without instruction. But he is not afraid to use a camera—which can be a very dangerous weapon in the right hands—without knowledge of visual language, composition, and lighting conditions, and to attack powerful forces head-on with it. This greenhorn would never venture alone into the carpenter's workshop without a journeyman's certificate, but he is not afraid to seize a tool that can overthrow governments and kings, decide on war and peace, and unhinge the world. One could laugh about it if it were not so sad.
If the author of the letter shown above wants to photograph for the newspapers in his home town without payment, there is a high chance that he will receive more orders than he can accept. If it turns out that his pictures are really valuable, the first people to offer him money for his work are soon to be found.
Finally, as a serious and well-intentioned encouragement, I would like to remind him that really good and noteworthy professional photographers are extremely rare. Art galleries, as well as newspapers and magazines are constantly looking for them with such zeal that they don't allow themselves a moment of rest.