Why Photography Is a Never-ending Journey

Why Photography Is a Never-ending Journey

Today, I’d like to take a charitable break from discussing gear, to chat about something I’ve found to be far more important to understand about photography.

When I was graduating from college, my sister gave me a book. It was called “Who Moved My Cheese” and was written by Spencer Johnson. I’d love to give you a deep, in-depth review of the book. But the truth is that I never actually bothered to read it. For one, I wasn’t much of a reader at the time, unless the material in question was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. And two, the title of the book confused me and led me to believe it was some kind of cartoon about a mouse that I was clearly too mature to be reading about at 20. This is all nonsense, of course. My sister was somewhat prophetic in providing me with that book, as the lessons in it, which concern how we go about reacting to changes in our life, are exactly the types of things that most adults will find themselves struggling with at some point. But, instead of getting this early primer, I instead began my artistic pursuits without the perspective that one day things might change.

Generally speaking, there are two types of artists. This is a very very broad generalization. But, on one side you have people who do art just for the fun of it. There’s no real expectation of financial gain. If the art they produce is occasionally worthy of an exhibition or garners them periodic acclaim, that’s all dressing on top. But, really, art is a passion or a hobby as opposed to the focal point of their life.  

The second type of artist is also passionate about their art. But, in the case of the second artist, occasional acclaim is never quite enough. They want a certain amount of validation for their craft. Perhaps this comes in the form of a steady income or notoriety within the industry. They view their art as not only having artistic value, but monetary value. So often, success for them can be judged by the names of the clients on their ledger, the day rate they charge, or the awards they have one.

There is obviously a vast collection of other artists that live along the spectrum between these two. So you might not fall neatly into either category. I think of myself in the second camp, but with a slight lean in the direction of prioritizing artistic merit over money (often to my professional detriment). But I simply used these two categorizations as a starting point to explain why it can be so difficult for any of us to really ever make it “there.” Wherever “there” might be.

The reason why being an artist is a never-ending journey is because we exist in a state of constant change. My father was a doctor. He went to medical school in the 1960s. Had a great career where he was able to progress up the ladder based on things he learned in school as well as on the job. There were massive technological changes in science over the course of his sixty-year career, but the changes were gradual over time. Art, as opposed to a more formal sector like science, evolves at a far faster pace. The entire point of art is to create something new. Therefore, to be an artist means to be constantly searching on a minute-by-minute basis for a better way to tell your story.  

There are certain technical things that don’t change much. The definitions of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO/ASA haven’t really changed much since their inception. But the ways in which those concepts can be used and manipulated are constantly being advanced and altered. I began my still career with a fully manual film camera that was nearly 40 years old. Now, every photographic tool that I purchase seems obsolete inside six months as the pace for technological change quickens.

The market itself doesn’t move any slower. When I first entered the business, social media was only in its infancy. It was a potential add-on for clients, but not something that demanded to be the focus of my attention. A couple of decades later, social media has taken over the conversation, opening up new opportunities and erecting new obstacles along the way. There are now entirely different job categories for photographers that exist. Influencers. Content creators. Categories that, had they been so prominent when I was first starting, might have led me to choose a different profession. Or, perhaps, to have approached the same profession differently.

While all of these environmental changes are occuring, perhaps one of the biggest hurdles is the inevitable change we will undergo as artists throughout our career. I can think of many titanic shifts in my own life that have led to both success as well as severe trepidation. I began my career as a filmmaker. I had no ambition whatsoever other than to make the next Braveheart. Through a confluence of events too long and accidental to list here, I shifted my focus to still photography. That shift paid major dividends both financially and creatively. But the emotional tug of war between my love of filmmaking and my love of still photography was always just beneath the surface. Over time, my still clients started requesting more and more motion work, which allowed me to partner the two sides of my artistic brain in a positive way. But, it also reopened the door to the question of which form do I enjoy the most. And which is most deserving of my attention? An eternal question which I had long struggled to contend with. Now, as my career has shifted in a way that has re-prioritized directing and cinematography with stills falling back a bit in the pecking order, I again often find myself struggling to balance the attention I devote to each. Questions I thought I had put to bed long ago seem to constantly return. Only now, in a far more vehement form, as the market conditions for both have changed dramatically since I first had the dream to be an artist.

I don’t mention this to make it seem like I’m special. Rather, I simply relate this as an example of the artist's journey. The technology around us keeps pushing us further to try new things. The marketplace in which we operate often forces us into turns that we may or may not want to make. And the burning desire within each of us causes our goal posts to constantly shift. Our cheese continues to be moved.

This is one of the most maddening things about life as an artist. But it is also one of the most invigorating. As hard as we work to define our business plans and life approach, we know that everything can change in an instant. A new technology can be invented. A global pandemic can come about that can completely overturn the way we do business. Or, our own need to grow as artists can suddenly make our own objective success seem like merely a pit stop along the road.

Art is about learning. Learning is one thing in life we can never get enough of. Photography and art are a never-ending journey. And it shouldn’t be any other way.

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4 Comments
S M's picture

Great article, Christopher and absolutely true!

I came from a graphic design background and upon taking my last menial job in that industry I decided it was time to pursue photography. After chasing the travel photography bug for a couple of years I focused on real estate, but found the field to lack emotion and on a whim tried video. Since that time I've juggled back and forth still vs motion as the true bread winner/critical claim amongst my peers and the truth for me is both are equally as fun and fascinating as it pertains to each project.

I haven't been in this industry (architecture/interior design) quite as long as some of my peers, but even in the time I have been the needs of my clients have shifted dramatically seemingly every season. It can be maddening, but also very exciting!

Dan Williams's picture

Median income for a photographer is $43k, probably better doing it for the art, cuz very few are actually getting paid (remembering that half the photographers make less than that). Add to that, Target, Walmart, etc, have entry level wages near $15 hr ($30k per yr).

Tom Reichner's picture

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I am a mixture of the two main types that you describe.

I am completely obsessed with creating still photos of wildlife. It is the primary goal of my life and all of life's major decisions have been based on how they will impact my wildlife photography. I moved across the continent just to have access to more species of animals that I wanted to photograph. I do not have a family or a wife because that would take time and money that could be spent photographing wildlife. I don't have a regular full time job because that would keep me in one area most of the year, and to photograph a wide array of species across many different habitats and ecosystems I must travel between 12 and 25 weeks per year.

My entire life is based on photography. Yet I have very few aspirations to earn income from the very photography that I am obsessed with. I mean, I need to earn some money from my images, so that I can fund more photo trips, but the goal of doing all of this photography is not at all to make money.

Money and income aren't very important to me. Neither is recognition from other people. I create the images I create because of a need to satisfy myself, to satisfy my own sense of aesthetic sublimity. I take the photos that make me feel fulfilled in a deep down kind of way. I am not really interested in whether other people love my work or not. I am certainly not going to change my artistic style or methods in order to please more people, or to make more money, or to reach more markets.

What makes this such an obsession to me? Why have I given my whole life to the pursuit of making photos of wild animals? Because of my love for the animals themselves, and the habitats that they live in. It is not my love of photography that causes me to make wildlife the mainstay of my entire life. It is the wildlife - the animals themselves - that led me to become so obsessed with photographing them.

I believe that if one photographs the things that one is most passionate about, that will cause photography to become the never-ending journey that you speak of. But in a way that is driven and fueled by the subject matter, not by the medium itself.

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Christopher Malcolm's picture

Well said