To Be an Amateur Is To Be an Artist. To Be an Amateur Is To Be Unshackled.

Alfred Stieglitz, back 120 years ago, was instrumental in promoting photography as a real art form–equal to painting and sculpture. He was the editor of Camera Notes and later Camera Work and he was the creator of the Photo-Secession which included many photographers wishing to separate from the idea that photography had to be pictorial–painterly–and couldn’t be realistic and document actual scenes.

At the time, Kodak had introduced the inexpensive Brownie camera and “real” photographers were working with complex processes and techniques with the aim of separating as far as possible from those Kodak-touting snapshotters. These serious photographers made images that looked anything but realistic, trying to create work that was rich in artistic tones, which means they were trying to make their pictures look like paintings.

In those days, the words “amateur” and “artist” were synonymous.

Amateur wasn’t a word that was putting someone down as poor quality. As incompetent or inept in any way. It simply meant they weren’t working for money by doing their work.

Only an amateur, unshackled by the chains of commerce such as bound professional photographers, had the freedom to produce truthful and meaningful work.

Pam Roberts, in an Introduction to the book, Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work The Complete Illustrations, 1903-1917, published by Taschen.

Wow, that’s quite a privilege. To be able to make work without needing to for money. And to make truthful and meaningful work. To be an amateur is what we all would want to be.

In America, we live in a society that values a person’s ability to generate income. When people meet for the first time, they often ask, “What do you do?”–another way of saying, “How much do you make, how valuable of a person are you?” As if a banker or CEO is more valuable a person than a waitress or delivery person. As if the size of your paycheck is what gives you worth.

Productivity in our capitalist world is held in high esteem. Money is deemed much more valuable than time, which I’ve always questioned. Better to need just enough money to live the way you choose to live–for me the artist life–and have more free time. Every extra expense–cable bills, new car payments, mortgages and lifestyle choices–adds a bit more to the quantity of time a person needs to work to continue to pay for those things.

Stieglitz’s Grand Central Terminal 1929

We value productivity so much, I rarely meet another photographer who when I ask how their business is going, doesn’t automatically reply, “Very busy.” That’s the stock answer–god forbid someone had free time. I usually answer with, “Me, I’m not that busy.”

The artist often gets paid in money and time, and of the two, time more so. The artist may not have the income that the wealthiest have, but the wealthiest rarely get paid in time. They rarely have time to go out making photographs at midday. Or sunrise. Or sunset. Or all three.

Time off. Time to create. What a gift! Time as an amateur “unshackled by the chains of commerce such as bound professional photographers.”

To me, we’ve put a negative connotation on the word “amateur” and if we could equate it with “artist” once again, it really is the goal we would all be striving to be. New photographers who’ve just begun making pictures often fall into the trap of wanting to go pro, not realizing pro isn’t what will make their work good, or give them fulfillment or validation. Going pro isn’t what will allow them to create anything with no limits. The opposite is true–professional is constraining. Pros answer to clients.

Being pro doesn’t make the photographer worthwhile, just like the size of one person’s bankbook doesn’t make them better than someone making less money. We aren’t our earning potential only.

We are what we do when we have free time.

It’s the artists who have the free time to create more than most people.

Time is the gift.

Time is the valuable reward of the artist–the amateur.

Jim Jarmusch, the indie film director, has called himself an amateur filmmaker his whole career because he said he always pursued making his movies his way, and he always wanted to approach them as an amateur–someone who does it for love of the art and storytelling, not for money. I’m a fan of his films–see Broken Flowers with Bill Murray and Paterson with Adam Driver–but some people find them insufferable and inaccessible, others love them. He doesn’t make them with test audiences to get the biggest return, but the way he wants to make them.

I’ve met young photographers who are so eager to go pro, unaware of contracts and how the industry works and how you really need to be a smart businessperson who can gain clients, all the things that go into it besides using a camera. But the business part, that comes first, with contracts and schedules and making connections, and all the things that are part of running any business, not just the fun part in the studio clicking the shutter.

Movies have depicted photographers as having a lavish lifestyle and jet-setting around the world to exotic lands for shoots. Photographers it would appear have the life–all fun, no work. Look at Richard Avedon, he was always dining out and drinking with celebrities.

That’s not the real world of the professional photographer. The pro’s world, speaking as one who’s been a working photographer for over 30 years is truly “shackled by the chains of commerce.” Absolutely. Constantly chasing the next gig, the next company to add to our client list.

Better to be an amateur, an artist, making your own schedule and having full creative control. In movies, it’s the best directors who have “final cut.” Not everyone gets that. In photography, the amateur gets “final cut.” No one can tell them what to do, how to make their art. Nobody is pushing for them to make it more sell-able. To make it more commercial.

Photographers like William Eggleston and Cindy Sherman both make the work they want to make. Neither are working for the client. Both are artists. Both are amateurs.

I challenge young photographers to not turn to becoming “pro” because you think that somehow validates you as a photographer, but embrace being an amateur, working your own way and making photographs because you can’t not make them.

The beauty is you get to do them your way.

Completely and utterly your own way.

Unshackled.

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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!

4 thoughts on “To Be an Amateur Is To Be an Artist. To Be an Amateur Is To Be Unshackled.

Add yours

    1. Hi, Merlin. She sounds quite accomplished but professional first, having gone into planning sessions with art directors. She sounds inspired by other arts. But I don’t see the “amateur” reference. Did I miss it? Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought this quote spoke to the struggle between doing what one needed to do for commercial success and what one wanted to do for artistic expression. “When I first moved to NYC, I was often told that my work was neither commercial enough nor fine art enough. So, I struggled a lot trying to reconcile with myself about the work that I needed to do versus what I wanted to do.”

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