The Successful Photographer

How do we measure success? It seems an obvious question at first. We can all name successful people off the tip of our tongues; Richard Branson, Kate Moss, James Dyson, Mick Jagger, Angelina Jolie are all arguably considered the most successful of their respective fields. But what gives them that success? Is it the money they’ve made? The reputation they’ve built? Or the front pages they’ve graced. As photographers how do we measure our own success? At what point do we wake up in the morning a successful photographer?

That’s a lot of questions for an opening paragraph. Going back to the initial enquiry on success let’s have a look at how that can be measured in the field of photography. I think it can be broken down and viewed from three differing perspectives – money, reputation and adoration.

Money is the first, and perhaps easiest, to analyse. A rich photographer, one that has made a good living from the industry, is a success. It’s pretty hard to argue against this statement after all we are professional photographers and as the job title suggests we derive our income from photography. We all have a bottom line that needs to be met on a month by month to allow ourselves to carry on taking photographs. But what if the photographer has saved wisely and made more from those investments? Does that make them a successful photographer or just a success? Perhaps the two aren’t separable.

Reputations aren’t quite as measurable as bank accounts (although they can ebb and flow much like them). A photographer’s reputation is marketable, a healthy bank balance isn’t. Good standing within the industry leads to better clients, better jobs and trust and this in turn leads to better day rates and high profile exposure – it’s a feedback loop that drives us forward. Photographers who shoot for international publishers and FTSE 100 companies are certainly successful. A sports photographer covering a World Cup final is more successful than one covering Sunday league fixtures.

Client reputations count as much as our own. I’ve noticed how when you mention names to people their interest and level of respect will change from client to client. They don’t care what type of work you’ve carried out, or how much of it, the name alone has a gravitas. We all have a list of dream jobs with superstar commissioners that aren’t based on the inflated day rate; we want to be proud to say we represented this institution.

Where does that leave adoration? I’ve picked a slightly obscure term as what I mean by adoration is respect from our peers. There are photographers around the country whose names are very well known amongst ourselves but perhaps haven’t seen the financial or commissioned reward you’d expect. For some though knowing that they have this peer group approval, along with enough money to live their lives, is enough. We could include other peer groups here – their family, friends or community.

As an example I’ll pick two photographers who are both successful.
Annie Leibowitz is one of the few photographers known worldwide by those outside of the industry. My parents have heard of her (and David Bailey. And me. I’m in esteemed company). Her wealth, at times lack of it, is very well known as she jets around the world shooting for six-figure sums. Her client list is nothing short of breathtaking.
Joe McNally is a highly versatile photojournalist who, like Leibowitz, has shot for some of the most respected and well known publications of all time. His commercial clients are global enterprises recognised over the planet.
On the face of it there isn’t a big difference between the two in terms of success. For Leibowitz’s Vogue covers McNally has National Geographic ones. But there’s a key difference I’ve noted when their work is discussed – dollars. Inevitably a big campaign for Leibowitz will, at some point, mention her pay-check. Part of her success is how much money she has made over her career and at times this has overshadowed her excellent work but, even so, it has become a measure of her success. I’ve yet to read an interview with Joe McNally where his day rate is spoken about. I’m sure he gets paid well, but, for me and many others, his client list and reputation is the measure of his success. You don’t work for National Geographic for over two decades without being successful at what you do.
Two photographers at the top of their fields, both of who can measure their success in different ways.

Where do I stand on this? It’s something that’s been on my mind for a while now, sparked by conversations where people say they’d like to shoot for the clients I work for (and I’m thinking the same about them). From their perspective I’ve achieved a level of success they’d like to reach. I personally feel I’ve been successful enough so far, but I’m not sure if I’d see myself as a success quite yet. For me I’m heading more down the client route – I feel my own success and reputation is mirrored by who I’m commissioned by and shooting for. Having money is always good but if it is your sole consideration there are easier career paths to follow that will make you more money.

So where does that leave us? Where does success lie? For our own sanity it can only come from ourselves after all one person’s success can be another’s failure. Our own ambition will ultimately define our measure of success – I think we’ve all been there, sat in front of the computer wondering where are career is headed unable to take in compliments or praise.

Recent work by Bristol photographer Adam Gasson.

(1) Comment Write a comment

Leave a Comment

Required fields are marked *.