One Piece of Great Advice to New Photographers Is a Quote Darwin Never Said

One Piece of Great Advice to New Photographers Is a Quote Darwin Never Said

One of Darwin's most seminal remarks on evolution, quoted en masse throughout the internet and various text books, is a profound piece of advice to any photographer looking to build a lasting career in the industry. The only catch is, he didn't actually say it.

The Troublesome Quote

In 1963, a business professor of Louisiana State University gave a speech to a convention, and one of his brief summations of Charles Darwin's important work "On the Origin of Species" ended up sparking a bizarre misquotation that has been wildly circulating for over 50 years. An extract of the speech — which was written down and published in a journal around that time — can be seen below:

"Yes, change is the basic law of nature. But the changes wrought by the passage of time affects individuals and institutions in different ways. According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. Applying this theoretical concept to us as individuals, we can state that the civilization that is able to survive is the one that is able to adapt to the changing physical, social, political, moral, and spiritual environment in which it finds itself." — Leon C. Megginson, Southwestern Social Science Association Journal. (Via Quote Investigator)

The part of the extract in bold will be familiar to most. It has been wrongly attributed to Charles Darwin as a direct quote for near 6 decades now. It is a reasonably accurate summary of some of the core themes in "On the Origin of Species," just not directly lifted from the man himself. However, the words are not only powerful for any photographer looking for a long and prosperous career, Megginson's words surrounding it are applicable too.

Adapt or get gobbled.

Its Value to Photographers

I have bored people silly on the importance of having at least one niche. I maintain it is fundamental to getting going as a professional photographer, and without it, you are trying to cover too much ground to maintain a foothold anywhere. One unintended consequence of this advice, however, is that it can be read to promote tunnel vision in your career, which is almost always a terminal mistake.

Although I, like many professional photographers, have specialized in areas in which I frequent and do a lot of my work, I am fully open to exploring new avenues as and when they present themselves. Last month I wrote an article on 10 of my favorite business books useful to photographers and several of these raise the topic of adapting and adjusting your career path. It was only when I heard the above misattributed quote that I had a moment of clarity. It's not the most talented photographers who thrive in their career; it's not the hardest working that have the most success; but the photographers who survive are the ones that adapt and adjust to the changing landscape of photography. This is patently obvious in recent history with the jump from film to digital. Many of the veterans of the industry were uninterested in such a drastic change and even less so in computers and technology; they invariably suffered as a result.

The cases for you and I needn't be as wholesale and dramatic. Simply because you're having success in one niche of photography doesn't entail that you've cracked the code and will forever reap the rewards in even the same quantities as you are now, let alone more so. As I mentioned in a recent article, many photographers have had their income affected by computer generated imagery and renders (product photographer for instance). These shifts in peripheral but important industries to professional photographers can have a severe knock-on effect. In many ways, it's an extension of "don't put all your eggs in one basket," just adding that you ought to be on the lookout for new and better baskets. That metaphor has lost a lot of its appeal by drawing it out, but the point stands!

To give yourself the best possible chance of a long and successful career in photography, be ready and willing to change and adapt.

Lead image by Singkham from Pexels

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14 Comments

Tim Gallo's picture

"It's not the most talented photographers who thrive in their career; it's not the hardest working that have the most success; but the photographers who survive are the ones that adapt and adjust to the changing landscape of photography. "

Hmmm... i think there is something wrong with this sentence or chain of thought. Surviving does not always mean adapting, sometimes it means evolving right, or changing the landscape, right? And then there are always those who lead the way... your picture shows a predator also. So who are predators in this metaphor?

IMHO,
There are those who change the landscape of photography, and there are those who adapt to the changes of photography landscape. And there are those who dont care and are not affected by changes - what actually demonstrates that there are not so much big changes. The situation is quite similar to what happens in economics. The gap widens, but people a top - usually stay a top. Some care, some dont.

"These shifts in peripheral but important industries to professional photographers can have a severe knock-on effect. In many ways, it's an extension of "don't put all your eggs in one basket," just adding that you ought to be on the lookout for new and better baskets. That metaphor has lost a lot of its appeal by drawing it out, but the point stands!"
For whom? How severe? What are you talking about?

Usually people who were at the top or were leading the pack - still stay on top and continue to lead.

"just adding that you ought to be on the lookout for new and better baskets."
what baskets are you talking about? i am interested - do you have anything specific in mind?

Michael Holst's picture

"Sometimes it means evolving right, or changing the landscape, right?"

These could be forms of adaptation.

Further, while those with high levels of control in their industry can change how their industry works, they are only strong in the "Now" and just because things are good at the moment doesn't indicate that things will stay the same forever. Those same "currently in control" giants are at risk of falling from great heights if external factors that they cannot control, come and disrupt their industry. Participants who are able to adapt to change are better equipped for longevity but it's not a measurement of how successful they will be. Just that they will still be breaking even or better.

Think about Blockbuster. They were the movie rental giant who could control their industry. An external element (first small scale kiosks from Redbox, later streaming services from Netflix) disrupted their industry quickly and they were not built or willing to adapt. They were on top... not so much now. Another great example is Kodak. They were literally at the center of photography and look what happened when digital came and disrupted the industry. It wasn't so much as they didn't try to adapt but that they were to deep into the film world and couldn't hold onto market share as new companies were able to take advantage of the new opportunity (basket) and profit, becoming the new giants within the industry.

Baskets, I assume is used to reference types of markets, niches, categories of photography. If you're able to adapt and shift to a new market you can more easily shift to stay in business while someone who's built their entire career in one area might have a hard time transitioning when things get tough.

Tim Gallo's picture

These could be forms of adaptation.

But I believe this analogy with nature goes as far as that, cause with photographer and art - there are usually people who are in control of landscape in one way or another. Of course being able to adapt is an important skill. I dont deny it. Its just I dont believe it is all about adaptation. Its about staying true to one self and sometimes connecting old and new.

"Those same "currently in control" giants are at risk of falling from great heights if external factors that they cannot control, come and disrupt their industry. "
What factors are you talking about? I assume social media?

"Now" and just because things are good at the moment doesn't indicate that things will stay the same forever.
Well, is there anyone in the industry that stays afload forever? So maybe there is some satisfactory point in it - that is enough. One should not always adapt... there are some things, I believe one should never be adapted to. Like ignorance of masses for e.x. Should one sell its soul to satisfy others? I am not sure...

"They were literally at the center of photography and look what happened when digital came and disrupted the industry."
Yeah, but you are talking about a tool for creation, not the creators abilities itself. If you have sense to create something important that moves others - I dont think you are bound very much to the tools you use. Also, it seems to me - film work is on the rise in art markets, maybe not so much in commercial industry.

"Baskets, I assume is used to reference types of markets, niches, categories of photography. If you're able to adapt and shift to a new market you can more easily shift to stay in business while someone who's built their entire career in one area might have a hard time transitioning when things get tough."
Thanks for making that clear for me.

When it comes to skill sets, there is the hard and soft skills as well. I like to think that say if a talented and hardworking photographer who is obviously strong in the hard skills but still relies on traditional marketing and doesn't have any form of social media presences. He/she is very likely going to be left behind by others that may not be even equally skilled but has a huge social media presences, kept up with the latest trends and with enough followers to be relevant in the industry.

Tim Gallo's picture

True. But in my experience and from what I observe usually successful people, including photographers, get surrounded by people who help them with adapting to the markets... managers, art directors, and e.t.c. if you have a strong company - you stay strong on top.
some people stick to what they know or are involved in such an important work that - so they let others help to spread a word...

Studio 403's picture

In Darwin’s theory of evolution, he wrote, “let us assume 700 times”. Darwin is in the grave. Life could not be a theory from my experience.

Michael Holst's picture

Please elaborate. I'm listening.

Rod Kestel's picture

Niches are very much an attribute of character. I am by nature a generalist who becomes bored with niches.

It is both a strength and a weakness. There are many examples of truly great people who've explored a niche as others have not.

Darwin BTW was true generalist. The breadth and depth of his intellect were remarkable (not like me, who's just okay at a few things).

Darwin is like one of those annoying friends who are so damn great at anything they put their hands on.

Eddie DaRoza's picture

good article... I enjoyed this small bit of insight nestled amongst the product and how-to articles.

Good reminder of an inner dialogue that I think many successful people have in one shape or another.

I would add in my limited experience, most successful people I’ve met share a common trait of self doubt. They feel they are not good enough, about to get caught faking it, etc. I’ve talked to many of them about this and in the end it seems to be the driving force that makes the continually evolve, learn and grow and is one important factor to their success. This inner monologue of self doubt forces them to seek out opportunities to adapt to change/evolve and seems to be somehow in direct line with the articles point.

I find that interesting. Thanks for the short and well articulated article.

Rod Kestel's picture

Self doubt always, but the trick is the sweet spot somewhere between hubris and self flagellation. I guess that means honesty...as if that's ever possible when looking at ourselves.

One of the consolations of growing old is to accept what we're not good at.

Andre Goulet's picture

I love that last line. So true.

And we get better at knowing how to do what we are good at with less energy! ;)

Andre Goulet's picture

I think we should not change the look of our work per se, as that's our signature style and gets work coming in, except to refine and improve it. Helmut Newton's work always looked like his work throughout his whole career, no matter what he was shooting.

But we need to be very adaptable to change in our business, social and cultural environments, as well as with the tools we use. The danger is the "squirrel!" effect. In my areas of photography expertise, good old hard work and word of mouth has made my income rise dramatically, not social media or digital marketing, so that method STILL exists at times.