So, You Want To Be a Famous Photographer, Do You? Do You?

I have a lot of respect for all kinds of photographers. Anyone who is making a living creating photographs is beating the odds–it’s quite difficult to do these days.

I was recently thinking about what kinds of photographers are the best known? Who can you name that is a famous photographers?

I’d bet if asked, most people would be able to name Ansel Adams and maybe Annie Leibovitz, two giants in the photography world known for nature photographs and celebrity photographs.

The art photographers–William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky–probably no one would know who they are by name. Maybe they’ve come across their work, but they wouldn’t know who did it or be able to name them. Even Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, heavyweights in the documentary photography world–most people nowadays would have no idea.

The photojournalists–Steve McCurry, David Burnett, Peter Turnley–that’s all I can come up with off the top of my head, and no one in the general public would be able to come up with their names, I bet.

The sports photographers–no one. The war photographers–no one. The nature photographers–well, we already said Ansel Adams, and…no one else.

So, why does anyone nowadays strive to be famous? I hear young people saying they want to be a “known” photographer, but you really can’t become famous as a photographer.

Andy Warhol was probably one of the most famous artists who also made photographs, but he was famous first for his lifestyle, his famous friends, the world he created in his “Factory” and his ability to get pop culture buzz and press. And it was a different time in the 1950s and 60s.

So, what about the photographers who are photographing celebrities–they’re pretty cool, right? You could do that and get famous, no? Other than Annie Leibovitz, and even she isn’t a household name, there are none.

The faces that they photograph–they’re famous. The rock stars. The movie stars. Politicians. Best-selling authors. Yeah, that’s good work, but how good are the photographs? Celebrity photography is mainly about access. Really, how hard is it to photograph a celebrity? Their “celebrated status” is what makes the photo, no? Look at Terry Richardson’s photos–he used a point and shoot with harsh direct flash. Didn’t matter, his subject was famous. Every photo was a winner.
Terry Richardson’s Barack Obama. Great photography? Who cares? It’s Obama!

Now if I photographed you or your family like that, and charged Terry Richardson-type magazine-feature shooting fees (which I don’t think he makes anymore now that he’s been brought up on sexual abuse allegations), you’d balk. What? Who would pay for that?

What I’m suggesting is if you’re photographing famous people, the photo practically makes itself. Easy-peasy. Because of the face.

Here is a proficient enough photo, but not a great one of United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. But it counts for more because it’s Wilbur Ross! Look, he’s somebody.

My portrait of Wilbur Ross, U.S. Secretary of Commerce

So, back to the matter at hand. Great photography is the result of great access. Access to celebrities helps.

If you ask me how you can make great photos but don’t know what to shoot, I’ll always ask you, “What can you shoot?” Maybe you need to get access to something better than what you have now. Maybe a new lens won’t have as much effect on great photos as a trip to New York City or Paris.

So, if you are a celebrity photographer, great! You probably command decent fees and hopefully can keep the assignments rolling in, because you’re busy as long as you’re in demand. But it doesn’t take great photography to make celebrity photos. It takes celebrities with great clothing and who are easily recognized. Great ideas for photos help, sure, and light and locations are a bonus. But cool clothes. And those faces.

Is that Brad Pitt? I recognize him, I like that one.

I once saw a postcard with a full-length photo of Alfred Hitchcock standing by a wall and thought, “If he weren’t recognizable–and maybe he isn’t anymore to younger people–it would just be a photo of a fat man in a black suit. Who cares?” But the recognizability makes it more. It’s now a celebrity photograph.

But good luck getting famous as a celebrity photographer. You photograph the star, but you’re not one, it ain’t you. Ever hear of Gregory Heisler, Dan Winters, Platon? No one in the general public ever did, yet they’ve photographed many of the biggest stars.

They’re basically shooting marketing photos. They’re better paid than catalog photographers, but just shooting a different product. And they probably make better money because celebrities are revered in America–they’re our royalty, really. But the photographers aren’t famous.

If only I could be like them, their lives are probably perfect with that house in Malibu and the pool overlooking the ocean…

Dennis Hopper. Photographs 1961–1967 - TASCHEN Books
Pictures LIMITED EDITION | powerHouse Books

If you’re going to get famous as a photographer, better get famous yourself somehow first, and then show off your photo work. Do something else, like movie actors who turned to photography. Leonard Nimoy, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Bridges, they’re all photographers. They have monographs published of their photographs. Beautiful work. But they came to photography as movie stars first. Without that credential, would they ever have gotten a book deal? Or have had access to photograph inside the movie worlds?

War photographers, sure, they have a difficult job, and for all the hard work and risk, we still don’t know any of their names. One thing going for them, they have a chance of earning a Pulitzer as news photography awards are often given for depictions of strife and struggle, something you might not be able to easily photograph without leaving your small Kansas town. So, you might get known if you get a Pulitzer prize awarded to you. Still not quite fame though.

Landscape photographers, nowadays that’s one of the more popular types of photography. Probably because the photographer has complete control over the shoot other than weather and the nature part, they don’t have to interact with anyone, and they can go at their own pace and shoot however they want with full control over how and what. They’re only limited by the state of nature and the light. It’s kind of an easy subject–nature makes the magic, the biggest challenges are finding your way to it and getting up early enough to actually record it. But it’s sort of easy in that the light comes up predictably and falls and makes everything pretty and just needs the photographer to frame up its beauty. Don’t know many famous ones by name, maybe Nat Geo‘s Frans Lanting and David Doubilet, but they’re not household names.

Another kind that’s easy is wedding photography, I mean photographers who mostly shoot posed shots and still lifes and decorations. Those photos are easy because they’re created by a decorator who’s a pro who knows how to make things look good. If the couple has spent any decent money, the lighting is probably already nice, too. The wardrobe person dressed the bridal couple and family. You really couldn’t ask for a prettier subject. You won’t get famous, but it’s a living.

I met a theater photographer for a professional theater company who claimed to be the top theater photographer in the world, but he was shooting people posed on stage lit by a lighting director–it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Not that the photographs weren’t pretty, they were. Colorful sets made by carpenters, dressed by set decorators and the attractively made-up and costumed actors nicely posed by the director. All you really have to do is push the button. No one will know your name, but it’s good work and you can sleep in.

Anything that’s pretty is easy. Photos of pretty girls, easy. Pretty landscape scenery, easy. Pretty wedding decorations, easy. These aren’t difficult photographs to make.

The difficult photographs are the ones that aren’t celebrity. That aren’t fully formed and pretty. The ones that are unexpected, that take anticipation and reaction and technique. And access and judgment and luck. The unusual landscape conditions. The wedding moment glance between the bride and her father.

Sports photography is not easy. Well, baseball’s not too hard, you can pre-focus on a base or home plate and pretty much get the shot if it goes there. But football and any of the field sports, you have to anticipate where to stand, where the action will be and get the framing and focus on the quick, that’s difficult and takes a little luck. You can be a Sports Illustrator photographer and still not be famous. I can’t name a single sports photographer and I’ve worked alongside some.

Wildlife photography isn’t easy because you have to go out on the hunt. Unless you’re in an animal zoo where the tour guide takes you to them, then it’s easy. A lot of great wildlife photographs are made of “captive” wildlife. Can’t name any wildlife photographers.

Now, not to say you for all of these types of photography that I call easy, you don’t have to know composition and skill and photography techniques, of course you do, just that it’s “easy” if the elements are all set up for you. The captive wildlife photographer is no more skilled than the catalog photographer, just making photos of a different subject placed before her.

The Roaring Lion - Wikipedia
Yousuf Karsh’s photograph. Ever hear of him? Not most people.

What other photos are difficult? Photographs with emotions that have something more than just a celebrated face, something extra. Like this Yousuf Karsh photo of Winston Churchill. To make it, Karsh had to snatch the cigar out of Churchill’s mouth which resulted in this famous scowling photo.

Making a portrait of a fat man that isn’t Alfred Hitchcock or Winston Churchill, that’s hard. A real portrait is what I’m talking about, not a recording. One that draws his personality out, reveals something about him without counting on his recognizability to make the photograph.

Anyone can point a phone and record an image. That’s just documenting, but it’s not art. To be artful, you might use light and technique, but even those, without emotion, the photograph is just a record shot. The emotional portrait, now that’s difficult.

Ok, fine. Forget fame, I’ll be an influencer then, which will lead to fame.

C’mon, face it, none of us are ever going to get famous as photographers. You might get known among your peers, that would be a welcome place to be, you might amass YouTube or Instagram followers, but you’ll probably not become Ansel Adams household name famous. And that’s okay, that limitation can be a source of creativity.

Want to be fulfilled as a photographer, and not just make more marketing photos? Photograph your kid when they have that joyous look you love on their face. When they’ve just completed that difficult gymnastics move for the first time. (Make that photo, that’s sports photography). When they’re squealing with excitement. (Make that one, that’s emotional portraiture.)

Or your grandpa, when his eyes light up when you tell him you love and appreciate him while making his photograph. Make that photo. (That’s a celebrity portrait–celebrated in your family). If he’s a fat man, that’s even better than if he were Alfred Hitchcock. Because he’s grandpa!

Being a photographer is important, but it isn’t glamorous. It doesn’t pay well most of the time. Photography is something that we do because we can’t not make photographs. If you’re like that, consider yourself lucky. You are.

You can certainly succeed as an amateur photographer. The filmmaker Jim Jarmusch calls himself an “amateur filmmaker” because he said he always wanted to make the kinds of films he wants to make, and do it for the love of storytelling–making the stories he wants to make. And an amateur does it for love, not money.

You’ve been decreed with the responsibility to make photographs, print photographs. You know, actual photographs that will exist in the world.

If you like landscape photography, well, of course, get up before dawn and get out there. Maybe it’s easy, but it still takes effort getting up pre-dawn, skill getting to the location and being ready for the shot. You still have to choose the framing. Gift those photographs in frames to your family and friends.

Now you’re a known photographer–your loved ones live with your photos as part of their world.

If you’re good at shooting pretty things, be a wedding photographer, and also make some still life photographs at home like Joel Meyerowitz does. You can put these photographs in small frames and gift them to people you know as well.

Those people will see you as a photographer. Because you are.

Don’t worry about fame. A lot of young people when asked have said that’s what they most want to be when they grow up. It’s not necessarily all we think it is. It’s a lot of privacy invasion and hassle–did you know that celebrities often go to museums and theme parks before and after hours? (That’s why you don’t see Mick Jagger at the Met.) And they often dine in private rooms at restaurants because they can’t be “out in public”, they’ll create too much of a scene. That doesn’t sound like any fun.

Even Annie Leibovitz, for as famous as a celebrity photographer she is, has had money trouble. Just like us. I take some solace in that.

Best to work hard and make the kinds of photographs you like. Not to get famous, but because you get to make your art your way. Not to satisfy some audience you hope will like your work, but to make work that you like. Your vision as only you see the world.

The world needs your vision. As artists, all we can do is the work. We have no ability to “get famous”, that’s something that happens with a lot of luck and being at the right place at the right time with the work someone finds. All we can do is the work!

Photographs I call easy aren’t necessary less interesting. Easy landscapes or easy photos of wildflowers probably are more often chosen for hanging over someone’s mantle than the difficult sports photo or picture of war.

Make your art. Be great at what you do. Easy or hard. It’s about the photographer in you creating the work you love.

Know that if you shoot street photography, that’s one of the most difficult to make as it’s unpredictable and you’re tasked with bringing back something amazing from randomness, from people going about their daily boring lives. That’s what you have to work with. It’s not always pretty. Or even interesting. That’s why you don’t see a lot of great street photography.

But do it anyway. As Garry Winogrand said, if you make a good photograph, it only gets better with time. Because time makes all photographs more valuable, so make the best photographs you can.

Street photography, now that’s difficult.

So, what is it for you? What gets you jazzed? Is it those family portraits or the nature landscape shots? The sports shots of your favorite 8-year-old little-leaguer or the magazine-like documentary news-style photographs that tell your friends’ stories?

Whatever it is, that’s photography. We’ll be famous photographers among our friends and families.

That’s fame enough.

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Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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