Amateur or Professional?

‘I am a professional photographer by trade and an amateur photographer by vocation.’   –  Elliot Erwitt

Two moments over the past week or so brought this Elliot Erwitt quote into sharp focus for me.

My current major working task is to unbundle my life’s output of negatives into the local library.  In doing so I was struck by the sheer banality of some of the jobs that I have completed over the years.  Ian-Poole-Brisbane-Photographer Then I reviewed, with some delight, the portfolio of photographs that this worthy journal published in the last edition showcasing some of my far more recent images.

The concept of professional work versus amateur output was starting to take shape in my head.

Whilst there are many descriptors to illustrate the concept of professional photography, they mostly revolve around the concept of creating images in return for money.  There are great professional photographers who are not necessarily great photographers; and there are great photographers who are not necessarily great professionals.

Good professional photographers are often expert at orchestrating a large number of different skilled operations towards the required goal of photographically illustrating a product or concept to the satisfaction of a fee-paying client.  This was the description behind some of the negative files that I was putting into the library’s database last week.  Photographs that had, in their day, totally satisfied the demands and requirements of a client who had then happily paid for that service.  Looking at the images with the 20/20 wisdom of hindsight, they will never be used again in any creative sense, despite totally satisfying the client’s brief when they were created.

On the other hand, surveying my portfolio of photographs in last month’s issue of this magazine, I was just as happy with their publication as I was when I created many of the images.  So using Erwitt’s formula, had I become an amateur photographer?  An amateur photographer is typically seen as someone who takes photos for fun and passion.  The subject, constraint or motivation of money is not a factor.


Tate Modern; © Ian Poole, London 2016.

We are straying into a discussion which parallels an age old question, that being, what is the main distinction between a chef and a cook?  The chef, being the trained and practising professional (there’s that word again), is someone who prepares food in return for monetary recompense.  On the other hand, the cook, often an amateur, usually prepares food simply for the love of working with good ingredients and enjoying the compliments of satisfied diners, usually family and friends – rather than paying patrons of their kitchen.

Since my earliest days as a working photographer (dare I say professional) I have always had a grudging admiration for the self-proclaimed amateur.  Someone who chooses to embark on a journey to create photographs without the constraints of client demands and direction, cost, budget or time commitment.  One or more of these parameters has always been attached to my professional assignments.  The wedding that is being held on a pre-determined date; the portrait that is to be given as a birthday present; the ship that will enter harbour with the next high tide; the visit by the Governor to open the next sitting of parliament – these definite and precise directions can not be ignored by a professional photographer.  Whereas an amateur may choose to attend and document, or not attend at all, at their whim.


© Elliott Erwitt

Elliot Erwitt commented that he did not set out to photograph a book of dog photographs – it just so happened that one day he had finally created such a volume of images that Phaidon offered to publish his book DogDogs.  Calling Erwitt an amateur would be misinterpreting, maybe even misrepresenting, a lengthy career as an image maker.  In an interview with Erwitt when he was last in Australia he recalled that his ‘hobby’ of photographing dogs had become a job – suggesting that his keen canine interest was interfering with his ‘real’ job.

That line, the one separating amateur from professional is tenuous at best, and poorly defined most of the time. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to even see where the line is.

Personally, I am more than happy to continue to blur the already soft line between my trade and my vocation. It’s a movable barrier, so why not?


This essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOS, p146, issue 58 :: September, 2016.


Not in My Back Yard

Images by Owen Flynn

Images © Owen Flynn

Having just assisted in curating and hanging two exhibitions that relied on local and not-at-all-local environments as their subject matter, the question of whether traveling to seek photographic images was somehow better than documenting what happens in one’s immediate surroundings, arose.

Callanish 1 Monolith; © Hardy Lamprecht

Callanish 1 Monolith; © Hardy Lamprecht

The first was a collection of photographs based on the theme of Sand+Stone.  These images were taken both overseas and on the other side of the country from the author’s home.  The second showing was a set of images taken within fifty kilometers of the author’s home – some taken literally in the next suburb.

Which collection told a better story?

Both were realised in monochromatic black and white, and each had their own charm, message and impact. The first series relied on shape and texture rather than location to project a strong message very successfully. The second series had visual stories to tell that demanded the viewer’s attention.  The location was, in most cases, almost invisible; and where it was recognisable the story was of far greater importance than the context of it’s geography.

Can we justify travel as an effective visual stimulant for our own photography?

Of course we can, but there is a sharp danger in just returning home with weary copies of well-visually-worn images of the Taj Mahal, the Opera House (Sydney or elsewhere), the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben.  Aaargh – same lens, same perspective, same tripod holes in Kodak Moment Lookouts. This is the difficult but interesting challenge for the creative photographer. Finding the unique, mastering a different interpretation or seeking a fresh take and viewpoint – this is what sets apart the talented photographer with his or her own vision from someone simply seeking to replicate that which has already been seen countless times before.

On the other hand, working within one’s own backyard requires an inquisitive eye that cuts through the perceived banalities to find a story to tell in either a unique way or with an appealing perspective. What one saves in airfares can be invested in time to contemplate the removal of dross and effort in seeking out real stories that are right in front of us.

I am reminded of two photographers who have a love affair with dogs.  American photographer Elliott Erwitt was a constant traveller and created wonderful images of dogs wherever he went. Erwitt spoke of ‘creating a book not of dog pictures but of dogs in pictures’.  Alternatively, another American photographer William Wegman has spent a lifetime photographing his own Weimaraner dogs as his only subjects, and in the environment in which they live.  The equivalent of in his own backyard.  Both photographers have managed to create successful images which are not defined by their plainly domestic or enticingly exotic locations.

The challenge I put to you is this:

Great creative images have as little to do with the location they’re captured in as they have to do with the use of the very latest cameras, or wider/longer/faster lenses.  Your background may well be a location you have accidentally or deliberately avoided noticing all this time.

Now, is my trip to the Galapagos Islands and New York in June really necessary?

Or should I stay home, rediscovering my own environment with fresh eyes and new purpose?


Ayers Rock Shadows – After Doug Spowart; © Ian Poole, c1981


Disclaimer – I am Gallery Director at Foto Frenzy in Brisbane and acknowledge the exhibitions of Hardy Lamprecht (Sand+Stone) and Owen Flynn (Enviro) as part of the subject matter for this thought piece.

32This article appeared in Issue 32, f11 Magazine – for photographers and aficionados, an online magazine read by over 5000 professional photographers.