Musings on Photography

In Praise of Obscurity

Posted in motivation by Paul Butzi on January 31, 2009


This past Tuesday, George Barr had an interesting post about the pursuit of fame and fortune on his blog:

How many hobby photographers have wanted to turn their hobby into a paying proposition?
Lots? Most?, Many certainly.

There’s valid reasons for doing so.

1) being paid for your work puts a value on it and says to you that your work is worth something.

2) People can say nice things but buying your work means they really did like it.

3) Many of us stretch the budget when it comes to buying equipment and making enough to pay for some if not all of our equipment (or the equipment we’d like to purchase but can’t justify for a hobby) would certainly smooth things over on the home front.

4) some just like the idea of a second career – as a backup or possibly even something to move into. There are people who retire early yet want something meaningful to do after retirement.

5) it would at least help pay for supplies – those damn ink cartridges sure add up and how come inkjet paper is more expensive than silver photographic paper – and Kodak tried to tell us it was the price of silver…

I would argue though that while the money would be nice, many of us given the choice between money and recognition would choose the latter if we couldn’t have both. I think that they are quite separate and that the efforts to help one don’t necessarily translate to helping the other.

If that is the case, then it would pay to decide now which of the two is more important to us and to then put our efforts into working towards that goal which is important to us.

I’d like to suggest a different but nevertheless rewarding goal: obscurity.

Oh, there’s definitely been a time when I viewed making money (or even just breaking even) on the finances of photography as a very positive goal. Fame and Fortune – they’re heady stuff. George does a pretty nice job of identifying the reasons why financial success through photography would be nice. And he makes a good point, that financial success isn’t necessarily the same goal as recognition.

There was a period of time over which I actually eked out a modest profit with photography, covering not just cost of materials I sold but also buying new equipment, and so on. Not a lot of profit, but not a loss either. But this past winter, I’ve realized that I’ve not been working to sell prints, and I’ve not been promoting my work, and that (to my surprise) I’m just fine with that. The big overhaul of my web site, complete with easier ways to buy my prints – that got nearly to completion but just before I got ready to flip the switch I lost interest. Somewhat to my surprise, the very fact that I’d managed to achieve the goal of actually making a modest profit killed much of my interest in pursuing that goal.

Instead what I’ve been doing is making photographs near my home – just puttering around. The surprising thing is that this has been a terrifically rewarding thing to do. It’s been photography without an agenda. There’s no need to worry about whether this next photo will fit with the show I have coming up. There’s no need to be concerned about putting shows together at all. A lot of the photos have ended up here on the blog, but a lot haven’t. And that, it turns out, is fine.

I’ve still got a business license, but for the past two quarters, my B&O tax filing essentially consisted of ‘No business activity’. I’m contemplating just letting go of the whole money-making thing. I won’t sell prints, I’ll just give them away, perhaps. I still make prints, but the drive to make prints that I might sell seems to have somehow just drained away for reasons I’m not sure I understand. The drive to get out with the camera is still there, but the drive to achieve fame and fortune through photography has just evaporated.

Maybe this is a sign that my interest in photography is coming to an end. I am pretty sure, though, that it isn’t. It feels more like a realignment than anything else. I’ve been making MORE photographs, not fewer. They’ve been different sorts of photos, for sure. But the volume is up, not down, and the time spent has been all fun time, and not drudge time.

The curious thing is that with this relaxation of drive has come a sort of, um, contentment. It’s the difference between being in a training program to run a marathon, and going for a daily walk so that you sleep better and enjoy life more. I’m not for a moment suggesting that folks who are training for a marathon, or trying to make money from their hobby, or are pursuing artistic fame are doing the wrong thing, because I don’t believe that for a second. But at the same time, I am suggesting that perhaps it’s OK to not pursue getting your work shown, not pursue profit opportunities, and not begrudge the costs of photography any more than you do the costs of that $4 latte you have every morning because it makes you feel good to give yourself a modest treat.

I guess what I’m saying is that I understand the goal of breaking even financially with photography, and I have actually been to that promised land. I understand the goal of achieving limited fame in the world of art. What I would point out is that we need to pick our goals carefully, not because they are unachievable but because they’re very much achievable. It’s just that perhaps for some of us it makes more sense to pursue contentment than fame or fortune. Modern human society programs us to pursue success, and I think that’s good. At the same time modern society also programs us all to think of success in terms of money or fame, and I think it’s very much worth taking a moment to step back and try to get a little perspective on that part of it.

That doesn’t mean photography without goals or projects or striving. But it can mean that we can have photography without a free market mentality and without a competitive mindset.

And who knows – perhaps in six months I’ll be back at trying to sell prints etc. hammer and tong. For now, anyway, I’m ok with not.

20 Responses

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  1. Gary Nylander said, on February 1, 2009 at 12:34 am

    Good original post by George, money and art don’t always make a good mix.

  2. JH said, on February 1, 2009 at 2:22 am

    Well written! I very much appreciate your original views of photography.

    A photographer can get fame or fortune and still be happy, but I suspect happiness is another thing altogether. And I’m sure the fame/fortune target is not the only one possible in photography.

    Getting positive feeback from the family members on the photographs has been one of the greatest rewards. Documenting the history of our family, that is one aspect of photography for me. Another is being able to see better when walking outside in the nature, use the camera as a “third eye” of seeing.

    I think there is enough reward for me in these two obscure things.

  3. Rick said, on February 1, 2009 at 7:05 am

    I fall into the group of people where photography is a hobby and little or no desire to do it professionally. Sure it would be nice to work at something that you really love but then it would be work. Photography is my escape from the pressures of work. It is something I love to do and provides relaxation. As you mentioned, a professional is under pressure to produce. I would then have to find something else to do as a hobby.

  4. Michael Van der Tol said, on February 1, 2009 at 7:30 am

    Great post – Not too long ago I read a piece by Seth Godin titled “Maybe you can’t make money doing what you love”. It is worth a read. For me Seth states it quite clearly and concisely when he says “Do your art. But don’t wreck your art if it doesn’t lend itself to paying the bills. That would be a tragedy…. That passion you have for art… perhaps making (your work) commercial enough to sell will squeeze the joy out of it”

    Enough said.

  5. Adam Maas said, on February 1, 2009 at 7:48 am

    This is very similar to my take on photography. I’ve no interest in doing it as a paying thing (To the point where I’ve turned down a few paying gigs), in fact I’ve a profound aversion to getting payed to do it (that pay thing has already ruined one hobby for me).

    I do photography because I love it, and because it’s good for my soul. And as I’ve told more than a few people, it’s cheaper than a shrink.

    I’ll sell prints if asked, but I don’t market them and you’d have to track me down and ask specifically. Beyond that I won’t take money for it. But I will continue to enjoy doing what I love.

  6. Dave Kosiur said, on February 1, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    “What I would point out is that we need to pick our goals carefully, not because they are unachievable but because they’re very much achievable. It’s just that perhaps for some of us it makes more sense to pursue contentment than fame or fortune. Modern human society programs us to pursue success, and I think that’s good. At the same time modern society also programs us all to think of success in terms of money or fame, and I think it’s very much worth taking a moment to step back and try to get a little perspective on that part of it.”

    Well said… I pursue photography as a hobby, and my satisfaction is largely self-generated, with some added appreciation of my work from family and friends (when I choose to share). And there’s always room for improvement, which is one of the things that keeps me going.

    Since I view photography as a hobby, I don’t look for revenue-producing opportunities. Sure, it’d be nice to have some way of paying for my equipment purchases (and printing supplies!), but that would be frosting on the cake.

    How many hobbies offer a financial payback? And is it necessary? I don’t think so…


  7. Mike said, on February 1, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Great post Paul.

    I’ve played at making money with photography, but I’m so busy in the other job that I just want to use the time I have to shoot what I like. If someone wants to buy a print I’ll sell them one, or just give them one perhaps – that was how I started out.

    What I am finding is that having got over the cost of the kit and no longer feeling any pressure to make it pay I am enjoying the time I get more than ever.


  8. Alex Brikoff said, on February 1, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    I, too, am pretty much on the same page with you, Paul and Rick above, as far making money with photography and hobbies in general. Once upon a time in my dim dark past, I really enjoyed computers and considered programming them a hobby. Then I got an idea that this would make a great profession as we were entering “The Information Age” at that time. What ended up happening was that after a while the excitement of the “hobby” became the daily grind of the day to day “work” week. The excitement, after 20 some years, was totally gone and I actually started to despise my job, my employer and so on. Time to go do something else, I thought. Meanwhile, with photography still as my main hobby, I definitely don’t want THAT to turn into a JOB. If I sell a few prints here and there; fine and so be it! But I’ve decided not to succumb to peer pressure in trying to make a career out of photography. I enjoy it way too much as a hobby to spoil it by turning it into a job.

  9. forkboy1965 said, on February 1, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    What Rick said. That expression “Do a job you love and you’ll never work again,” makes sense, but I’ve often thought that turning something you love into a job will likely kill your love of it.

    Maybe not, but I’m not willing to take that risk. But it’s a moot point anyway… amateur take on photography wouldn’t lead to a money-making enterprise anyway!

  10. Bryan Willman said, on February 1, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    One reason to pursue fame, or fortune, or both, is to creat a sort of deadline/goal/appointment to actually do something. To avoid having life slide away in a featureless haze of non-effort/non-exploration/non-fun/non-work.

    If one is “doing” enough to feel content or at peace (let alone happy) then one does not need such deadlines/goals/appointments.

    So clearly, if “making money” causes you to work at making photos, that might be a good thing. But if you are making lots of photos anyway, and don’t need the money, who needs the hassle/liability/tax-foo-fa-rah?

  11. Martin Doonan said, on February 2, 2009 at 1:53 am

    Reading the comments, I think there are 2 distinct conversations here.

    First is the satisfaction of having the work we do pay in some way. i.e. the recognition comes to what we are doing. That, I would expect, would be a nice feeling.

    The second is the pursuit of that recognition. That requires actively committing to doing work that will bring pay and recognition. This is when a hobby starts to feel like a job.

  12. Hugh Alison said, on February 2, 2009 at 2:16 am

    I split my photography.

    Black and white is what I do for myself – if anyone wants a print, that’s fine, but it doesn’t have to make any money, it’s more important than that.

    I also play a little at microstock – on iStockphoto – which is colour – and it gives me some satisfaction to have over 100 people pay to use a photo.

    If I have a quiet period at work I might concentrate on the stock, if I’m busy I’ll only shoot for myself.

    Black and white versus colour is a personal thing – I’ve hardly kept any of the colour photos I’ve taken over the last 30 years, but I have every black and white – so I don’t fight it any more.

    The evils of microstock is another ongoing debate – but it’s here to stay, it takes very little effort to make a little income once you have mastered the surprisingly high technical challenges, and would be possible to make serious income with serious amounts of work if you wanted to.

  13. Joe Reifer said, on February 2, 2009 at 11:26 am


  14. Lois Elling said, on February 2, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Very well written article. I’ve been enjoying reading your thoughtful posts for a while, now. You always seem to bring out something that I had just learned or was about to discover about myself. I’ve been realizing that it’s very important for me to make the pictures that I like, rather than try to make pictures that I think others will like. In pleasing myself, sometimes it pleases others, too, and that’s a bonus, but I don’t strive for that.

  15. Billie said, on February 3, 2009 at 8:12 am

    I’m so content to just do my work. Sometimes I’ll enter a competition and when I get some pieces in a show then I have to do all that other stuff…matting, framing, mailing, etc. I hate that. Just let me take my camera out and shoot, do some computer work on them and make a print. That is the good life.

  16. Anita Jesse said, on February 3, 2009 at 10:20 am

    The timing on this discussion couldn’t be more perfect for me. I need to bookmark this one and revisit it every day, for a week or so, to clear my head and arrange my priorities.

  17. Lisa Call said, on February 3, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    “It’s just that perhaps for some of us it makes more sense to pursue contentment than fame or fortune”

    I don’t think contentment is necessarily incompatible with fame and fortune. I don’t view it as an either/or proposition with my art.

  18. David Mantripp said, on February 9, 2009 at 7:03 am

    I’m surprised that nobody has pointed out that art does not necessarily lead to contentment. Seems to me that most succesful artists (successful in art terms) are too driven to reach contentment. Art doesn’t flourish very well when the objective is to live in some comfort zone.

    Choosing to promote your “art” as a business – or maybe, to put it better, harness your creativity to make money, is maybe a necessity for most artists rather than a luxury.

    I would argue that the vast majority of photographers who are recognised as artists – rather than just talented picture makers – don’t have any option other than to make money out of it, if they want to eat.

  19. Miserere said, on February 12, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    I suspect we’re dealing with the well-known saying: “Becoming a professional photographer is the best way to ruin a perfectly fine hobby.”

    Like many have said, turning your hobby into a job can be detrimental to your soul because you take something which you do on your own terms and force it to be done on somebody else’s. When that “something” is a creative process, which requires inspiration, it is so easy to be pushed over the edge.

    I wouldn’t mind making some money from my photography, but I don’t want to turn it into a job. I already did that with one of my passions and I’ve learnt my lesson.

  20. sukiho said, on March 2, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    This is all fine if you have the luxury of an income, if you are unemployed its only natural that you will want to make money however you can, especialy if its something you enjoy doing

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