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.

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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.

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© 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?


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