In Photography, Your Credentials Are Worthless

The pursuit of paid photography is one of the few vocations left that are ideal for career changers and newcomers alike. Who needs a degree when great photos can do the talking! But the world is flooded with images and it becomes more and more difficult to stand out from the crowd. There are just too many of us. To easier stand out, you better earn your strips in a conflict zone or have connections… Wrong! In photography, everyone can have a go.

Photography, paid photography, remains one of the last domains of self-made women and men and the adventurous, of the incorrigible who believes in one’s self and the fanatic who just doesn’t give up. These characteristics distinguish photographers so refreshingly from the corporate world that’s obsessed with Harvard grads and Princeton MBAs.

A great photographer cannot be mass-produced in colleges. Photography is a cumulation of so many factors, of experience of life, psychology, technique, art and design — where else than in real life can you learn all that. Many good photographers are accidental, it just dropped into their lap, they were after something else when they discovered they got what it takes.

You don’t give a shit where photographer went to college of if a photographer went to college. All that counts is talent. Images speak. And that’s the beauty of photography. Everyone can have a shot at it.

Ansel Adams at his lush home in Carmel, California. | Alan Ross /
Ansel Adams at his lush home in Carmel, California. | Alan Ross /
That’s so different from the early days of photography. Many well-known names came from well-to-do families. They don’t needed the money. All they needed — forgive my French — was a pastime to kill time and keep them busy.

Ansel Adams? Grandson of a wealthy timber baron. His grandfather had set up a prosperous lumber business which his father continued upon.

When it was Adams’ time to take up the family business, he condemned the idea of cutting down redwood forests and declined to take up the job. But he took the money.

Henri Cartier-Bresson? His father made a fortune as a textile manufacturer. Cartier-Bresson later joked that due to his parent’s frugal ways, it often seemed as though his family was poor. I guess that explains why he became a one-lens guy…

As in Adams’ case, Cartier-Bresson’s father assumed that his son would take up the family business. The youth was strong-willed and upset by this prospect. But the family kept on paying the bills.

In the early 30s Cartier-Bresson was hunting wild animals in Africa. Uninterested in actually eating what he’d tracked down, he grew tired of the sport and gave it up. But Africa did fuel another interest in him: photography. Well he had the means. And talent!

Society-wise, Adams and Cartier-Bresson represented today’s Wharton grads and Stanford MBAs. That doesn’t lessen their immense accomplishments in any way, they were concerned and engaged witnesses of time. I’m just stating facts. Money was no issue, and money gave them access to what was back then very precious hardware.

Today, anyone can buy a good camera. Even cheap cameras perform well. That broadened the field of potential contenders dramatically. So money is no factor no longer. That’s why in today’s photography the Darwinian survival of the fittest prevails.

Unlike the corporate world. Entry-level top school bachelor degree grad salaries reach into the six figures while today many people from other backgrounds are relatively undervalued — but not less talented. Because they stay up at night coding and building what they dream of. Because they’re hungry and creative. Because they love what they do.

Only hire from top schools? You’re doomed.

Steve Jobs was a dropout. Bill Gates is called “Harvard’s most successful dropout.”

Mark Zuckerberg packed up his Harvard bags.

These three not only have no diploma in common. They also had a vision.

We’ve come full circle. In photography, you don’t need no top school teaching you credentialing and ladder climbing. Passion and experience are what makes great.

You’ll say that to make it in photography is even more challenging than to make it in the corporate world. That’s right, the competition is brutal and fierce. But each and everyone has a chance. And that’s the beauty of photography: pure democracy, in a way.

Still, most likely a no-future career. Where’s the money?

  • One important factor that the new wannabees forget though – you had better be able to deliver, and in spades.

  • Positively convinced that many “wannabes,” as you call them Libby, deliver, and that some of the grand old masters wouldn’t have a chance today.

  • PWL

    I’ll take this with a grain of salt. It’s a bit like the old “follow your dreams”: makes for great Hollywood movies, but it doesn’t often work out that well in real life.

    Of course, everyone would want to be a photographer–just like everyone would want to be a guitar god or a pro athlete. And in all those cases, the field is flooded with wannabees and hopefuls–which means competition is tough, many, maybe most, fail, and only a very few really make it big.

    Anecdotal case in point: One of my friends is a professional photographer. Been doing it for probably thirty years. She’s ended up being in the hole for $72,000, among other things, and filed for bankruptcy. She’s nearing 60 and has nothing saved for retirement. And let’s not forget how Matthew Brady, Edward Curtis, and W. Eugene Smith ended up.

    So, no, I won,t be throwing up my secure job and steady paycheck anytime soon, no matter how much I love photography. Photography is an avocation, which my job supports, and I like it that way. I’m able to buy newer and better equipment, while my pro photog friend is stuck with what she’s got. I see no glamor in starving for my art (and I know life is tough out there for photogs these days, as I’ve heard many of them say), Now when I retire, that may be a different matter…..

  • Didn’t want to sound too depressive yet again, so I thought why not a more positive post. But you’re right, show me the money, there’s hardly any more.

    Still, I know a few people who make a living by selling their unique style of photography, be it fashion shots with a point-and-shoot, portraits, interiors. Some make a good living, but it certainly wasn’t easy to get there.

    A good friend of mine knows all about the perfect lighting. Be it car makers, hotels, restaurants or fashion brands, they call him when they need good reliable work. He never runs out of jobs because he delivers.

    As we all know, he’s an exception.