A Response to the Poor/Rich Photographer Piece

Kodak Ektar 25 Warm

There are apparently different metrics for success in photography. Some would measure success in the size of an audience. Others would measure it in the number of awards and publications. Some would measure it based on the actual quality of the work. And some would tie it solely to financial success. Last week, a piece called “15 Statements Poor Photographers Say That Rich Photographers Do Not” with 32 unsourced quotes – 15 by poor shooters and 17 by rich ones – was widely shared. It is, at the very least, bad journalism, and if both sets of quotes are to be believed, utter nonsense.

The author, portrait photographer Bradford Rowley, holds money as the sole demarcation of success, and it gives no indication of how much you need to be considered a success. Already this poses a problem because we don’t know what the standard is. The bio appended to the bottom of the article states that the author is the most expensive portrait photographer, not just in what he charges, but in how much he’s sold: $20,000,000. That’s a lot of money, but to put in perspective, that’s about 4 to 5 percent of Peter Lik’s purported net worth of $440,000,000. So, do we need his amount or Lik’s to be in the rich category? I ask only because I’m curious. I don’t have a financial foot to stand on, so I’d like to know.

Curiosity aside, the author laments the fact that poor photographers and their fantastically negative attitudes are dragging down the industry. They’re represented by a hodgepodge collection of quotes that exist without context. We don’t know if they were left anonymously in forums, or if they were uttered in conversation. To illustrate, here are some of the comments from poor photographers:

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 Sports lens review photos (6 of 27)ISO 4001-500 sec at f - 6.3

“I am in it for the art not the money.”

“Clients don’t see my worth.”

“I am up until 2a.m. working on photoshop.”

Taken at face value, these can be revealing. The first one is a canned statement that doesn’t really mean anything until they actually show their work. The second one is an admittance that they’re bad at selling themselves, but they put the onus on the “client,” which is bad juju if you ask me. The third, well, I’m not even sure why the third matters. It’s a statement about process that I’m sympathetic to because I’m also a night owl. Early to bed, early to rise is for squares (triangles, trapezoids, and other shapes).

Here are some of the rich quotes:

“I carefully brand myself in a very calculated way, which helps me command top dollar.”

“If there is a recession, I won’t participate in it.”

“Spending at least a few thousand dollars on a piece of art which is a representation of that which is most precious to people is a very reasonable expectation.”

Chris Gampat the Phoblographer X3 ND filter six stop review sample photos (2 of 8)ISO 4001-5000 sec at f - 2.0

The first tells me it’s more about the idea of the photographer, than it actually is about the work. Make the idea appealing enough, and anyone will buy into it. A McDonald’s burger never really measures up to the picture in the advertisement. The second makes no sense. What does “If there is a recession, I won’t participate in it” even mean? The photographer’s going into hiding? The third suggests, at least to me, that this fellow is a self-aggrandizing portrait photographer. If that is the case, take your kid to a portrait painter. Several thousand dollars on a picture of your kid is absolutely bananas. I could be wrong, but “a piece of art which is a representation of that which is most precious to people” strongly suggests portraits.

The demarcation of success for photography should be the quality of the work, not what’s in the bank. You’re not really interested in the photographer if one of the first questions out of your mouth when you meet a photographer is, “How much do you make?” Ask them about what they shoot. Ask to see their work. If the work is good, keep talking. Ask to see more.

If money’s your sole driving force, you’re not really in it for the photography. If you’re in the financial world, money ought to be the thing that drives you. In photography, however, it’s better in my estimation, to surround yourself with photographers whose work is good and whose judgment you trust. If the work’s not good, what’s the point?

This is not to discount Rowley’s post entirely. It’s good for a photographer to have financial awareness, particularly if photography is the main source of income: whether it’s from selling prints, holding workshops, commissioned shoots, or anything else. It’s good for anyone to have financial awareness in order to, at the very least, make ends meet. For photographers, it begins with pricing. There are better ways to get that point across than unsourced quotes, but what really makes the difference is the quality of your work. Shoot because you have to, because you can’t imagine doing anything else, not because it fattens your wallet.