The world bombards our senses with an indigestible amount of information every second of our lives. The way we deal with this is by creating categories in our minds to simplify what is happening in front of us. That way, we at least have a fighting chance of making sense of life. Some things will inevitably fall through the broad sweeping lines of our mental stereotypes, but the alternative is frying your brain at an early age and rendering it useless. Choose life. I choose life.
Contradictions don't fit into established and tried categories but make life interesting. For instance, Gary Fong is physical proof that you can be a millionaire (accidental or not) and not have a dollar's worth of class. The Fong Dong is a shameless self-promoter, but I am strangely amused by his ability to make a good number of wedding photographers look foolish by voluntarily paying for his Tupperware and adorning their flashes. I don't think I will join their ranks, because I actually saw Gary unable to get rid of the shadows created by a flash during a live demonstration of his product in Vegas. That, and who wants to carry Tupperware around if it's not lobster night at a college dining hall?
But I digress.
Digital SLR cameras have changed photography forever. Cheap entry level cameras have done more damage than good, but the long-term effects are to be determined. For the time being, I think it has brought more attention to photography which cannot be a bad thing for the industry overall. The DSLR revolution also pushed me to jump back into photography, and the following categories are my assessment of the dots on the photographic landscape. One dot can wear multiple hats. Some groups are inherently more talented than others, which I hope to make as clear as possible.
1. The "I own a DSLR; therefore, I am" Hobbyist
No other industry is dotted by amateurs moonlighting as professionals like photography. I don't get it. You wouldn't cut hair without a license, right? Better yet, you wouldn't let someone who just bought some scissors and a pair of clippers the day before cut your locks, would you? Oddly enough, that's just what happens all the time when it comes to photography. These self-proclaimed photographers have no control over their equipment and often seek to salvage their work with post-processing. In addition to shooting auto (or aperture priority which is the new auto), heavy vignetting, funky color manipulation, and color isolation (my personal favorite and one that I too unfortunately used to indulge in) are the trademark tools of this bunch. I believe everyone goes through this stage in varying degrees, but sadly, some will never leave. Sloppy images on a sloppy website are not ideal ingredients for a good portfolio, and there are plenty of people out there hustlin' as photographers who shouldn't be. But if a potential client cannot tell the difference between good and bad photography, is that a match made in heaven? Just as well. If I was a sushi chef, I would not waste otoro on the guy who regularly orders rolls with cream cheese or mayo. There is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, but a hobbyist trying to pass themselves off as a professional is a completely different story.
2. The "I Wannabe Like Mike" Photographer
I love Gatorade and like most in my generation have been brainwashed to think that it actually does quench your thirst after strenuous physical activity. Unfortunately, through a catchy jingle and endorsement by the greatest athlete of the 90s, we were all subconsciously taught that we should strive to be like Michael Jordan. It was actually encouraged that we should seek to be like someone else in our wildest dreams. Photographers are no different, and some took that message to heart and really applied it. There can only be one Ansel Adams, one Henri Cartier-Bresson, one Annie Liebovitz. But there are hundreds of imitators. The results vary, but the lack of originality remains a constant. I despise Anne Geddes and her twisted images of babies, but I can only respect her groundbreaking work. Her photos may not be to my personal taste, but she created a whole new genre. Compare that to the alternative, scores of photographers whose images look alike. You could swap websites and logos and no one would be wiser to the difference. I especially dislike this when the model for imitation is a contemporary photographer. I like the work of Elizabeth Messina, but the scores of wannabes are a little unappetizing.
3. The Marketer
There are great photographers, and there are great marketers. Sometimes the stars align and one individual can be equally skilled in photography and marketing, but that rarely happens. It's like the old quandary, "Is the glass half-full or half-empty?" I believe that the glass is never actually half anything. It's either a little closer to full or a little closer to empty. Jasmine Star is a great example of someone who is an amazing marketer. She's a good photographer, but I believe an even better marketer. Observing Jasmine leverage social networking and her blog to brand and drive her business is a thing of beauty. The glass was definitely closer to full for her, because a name like Jasmine Star is a ticket to marketing heaven.
4. The Medium Fish in a Small Pond
It is no secret that NY and LA have the strongest concentration of talented photographers in America. Elsewhere in the US, there also exists a glut of photographers, but in those two domestic centers of art the competition is especially stiff. While there are definitely great photographers outside of NYC and LA, if you are interested in making a career out of it, it might not be a bad idea to move somewhere else to get your feet wet. Some photographers have done simply that and made a good living off it to boot. The free market and Wall Street dictates that any and all competitive advantages should be discovered and exploited, and for that to happen, this type of photographer set up on a Main Street as far as possible from Wall Street. If the Backstreet Boys had set up shop on Sesame Street, they might still be around.
5. The Artist
Flaky and unpredictable, the artist is an interesting breed of photographer. Unsuitable for corporate life or any type of organized structure, this individual has found a seemingly perfect playground in photography. When on, this photographer produces amazing work. When off, this photographer is just staying one step ahead of burning everything to the ground. Chaos is the operating mode by default and of choice. Levels of artistry vary, and that correlates with how much the people around them are willing to put up with. Peter Pan would be well-served by a good assistant and office administrator. The question is always whether or not the Lost Boys can be kept together long enough.
6. The "Man" Photographer
Nope, this is not a sexist category. This photographer has sold out to the man, even if they are running their own business. Selling out to yourself, ain't that a concept? At the expense of vision and personal preference, this photographer will shoot anything and everything that comes across their path that has any money in it. Artistic integrity and "fit" be damned if there is a buck to be made. And God help anyone in their path. Nothing is off-limits, and no one is safe. Even the "man" photographer is not safe. Because there is always a price for selling one's soul. And interest is a real bitch.
7. The Emotional Shooter
This photographer is hit or miss. Swing for the fences every time. You connect, you are golden and a hero. You miss, big wiff. Game over. Cry in the locker room. Close your eyes. Let your heart guide you. If you fall off the cliff, at least you followed your heart, right? Emotions can be your best friend, but they can also cripple someone who cannot properly channel them. At best, you get Joe Buissink. At worst, you get an overly emotional person who regularly plays the part of a teenager who thinks that a picture of a dead rose is art... and weeps uncontrollably at the very idea in their tight skinny jeans.
8. The Purist/Throwback
A master of the craft, but sometimes slow to embrace technology, the purist is someone who enjoys spending an enormous amount of time waiting for the right light and conditions for their images. An example would be the National Geographic photographers who head out to the wild for months on assignment to come back with a couple unadulterated images of nature. The purist is a heady shooter and enjoys diving into the history of photography and paying tribute to the old masters. While respecting the past and classic technique, the throwback photographer looks to the past for inspiration not striving for imitation.
9. The "Shoot to Live" Photographer
For a variety of reasons, this photographer has decided to jump into professional photography. A dead-end career path, a boring job, or the loss of employment - any number of similar reasons can motivate someone to decide to pick up a camera and shoot it for a living. The mounting costs of new camera gear and equipment can also not be ignored as a driver of making the transition to yelling "show me the money." Of course there is much more to photography than taking pictures, and the "shoot to live" photographers have quickly realized that and adapted. These professionals are survivors, and at best, people who have found a new lease on life. In the best of cases, one that is far more enjoyable than the previous. With mouths to feed and new camera gear to purchase, this photographer generally hustles a little more than the rest.
10. None of the Above
Everyone deserves a home. I realize this is a bit of a cop-out, but I didn't want anyone to feel left out. And who doesn't appreciate a picture of a green gummy bear on a chair sipping a drink? I realize many of these categories have been broad generalizations, and that I have left out some groups altogether (fashion, media, commercial). However, I am sure members of those groups would fit into some of the categories outlined above. After all, photographers are human too. You cut one, and they are likely to bleed.
So which ones am I? I'm not entirely sure, but I think one day I too will probably fall into one of those categories. For now, I think I am still a journeyman writer masquerading as a photographer, checking out the landscape and honing my craft.