The Unspoken Truth About Photography


Consider this list of the most famous photographers in history: Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, William Eggleston. I know I missed quite a few. Talent aside, do you know what they all had in common?

They all came from wealthy families.

Photography’s most famous, a snobby affair? | Analog Warrior by Eric Flexyourhead, Flickr
This is a theme you can see repeating throughout history, and something I have been pondering of late. I love photography, I dream at night of making exposures. But the type of work I do doesn’t put food on the table. Being a practical businessman and a student of photography history, I often find myself asking, “Well who the hell was paying for rent and travel and food while photographer XXX was spending months documenting XXX??” The obvious answer would be mommy and daddy.

While paying jobs do come in after getting recognition for their work, the period in which the artist has the freedom to focus on nothing but their craft in building a body of work is so crucial and a luxury only afforded to those with the means. In other words, from a traditional standpoint the photographic art community from the inception of Magnum has always been a celebration of the exclusive, the elite.

The word snobbery is not far from the tip of the tongue. I realize the counterpoints can be offered in other just as well known photographers who came from meager backgrounds, but just do the percentage. In what other medium (whether it’s sports, art, entertainment, etc.) do you find that of the most well known, HALF are born into wealth?

This is just an observation that I find quite amusing that nobody has ever brought up. It’s not a statement on class or politics. A recent interview of Eggleston really hit it home for me; he is perhaps the exact same spoiled rotten child today as he was in the 60s. Never have I seen such arrogance and disdain of others from a celebrated artist. It is certainly nice to be a artist by trade, it is just that much sweeter, and dare I say: easier when someone else is footing the tab.

Speaking of inequities (truths) in photography, while I was working at MTV in Times Square, I would be in frequent contact with Getty press shooters there for the celebrities. I one time made the comment that “you guys look like male models” to one of them, as they looked like they cared an awful lot about their image with the tattoos and well trimmed goatees and long rockstar hair.

A scrumpier photographer overheard and said to me, “You have no idea brother, it’s bullshit. Good looking photographers get all the jobs.”

That was the day that I learned even in a field like photography, where only the talent and work should really matter, the simple overabundance of people today who can do just as good of a job means you have to market the shit out of yourself just to get work.

On the other hand, if you are talented, rich and handsome, the journey really is just that much clearer.

Hank Fan is born in Taiwan and raised in New York City, with a degree in Film from Boston University. He worked on the business side of the lens for many years at networks such as MTV, VH1 and CBS, eventually relocating to Shanghai to head up Image Maker, the movie studio his family owns.

It is in Shanghai where he did rediscover his passion for photography. Heavily influenced by his work in film/television, Hank strives to tell as much of a complete story/emotion as possible through still imagery.

  • Don Springer

    Hank, this is a good observation and you have guts to post it. Money leads to education. Education leads to fame and fortune. This is not to say that raw talent must be at the core. It’s just easier to do something with that talent.

    I read your blog because I like how you think and you have the balls to get it out there.
    I’m just Streetshooter from Philly but I’ll be watching……

  • Makes a lot of sense. Pissed but makes sense. Like Don said you do have the balls to say it!

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  • Justin Barrington-Higgs

    Hmmm, your point is? Fine art has never paid the bills of most of its worthy practitioners, hence the need for patronage, whether nepotistic or otherwise. Sorry to carp, but the article comes across as a little disjointed and bitter. Personal presentation counts towards success in a lot of fields, why raise it here?

  • Weston Fan

    appreciate this. On Wikipedia there is a reference to The Master, Edward Weston, having $300 in his bank account at the time of his death.