Secrets of Success

January 13, 2009 ·

Mike Johnston

Secrets of Success

What does it take to succeed as a photographer? Here’s an empirical top ten, in order of importance.

1. Energy.

Successful photographers, for the most part, have an excess of personal energy. They can work from down to dusk and want more. They’re restless when they’re not working. They don’t like vacations. Sitting around is not for them. This has been true of Dean Collins, Cartier-Bresson, Norman Parkinson, Robert Capa, Edward Weston, Andy Warhol, Galen Rowell, Eliott Erwitt, Jacques Lartigue, and on and on and on. Lazy, slow, tired, procrastinating photographers without the energy to follow through are not likely to build up the needed momentum.

2. Commitment.

For many years, Josef Koudelka refused to keep a residence, so intense was his commitment to keeping after the world. Cartier-Bresson allegedly shot two rolls of film before breakfast every morning. William Henry Jackson packed 20×24-inch glass plates into the mountains by mule train. Gene Smith got beaten so badly at Minamata that he never completely recovered. Faith in change and in the power of bearing witness is why James Nachtwey keeps going into harm’s way; as you may have heard, Nachtwey was nearly killed by a grenade in Iraq recently. Charles Phillips, a landscape photographer who sells to corporate clients, saved up for a $25,000 process enlarger to make his extraordinary giant enlargements by working on an offshore oil rig. He figured it was perfect: you work 24 hours a day, and have absolutely nowhere to spend what you earn. Commitment.

3. Persistence.

I spend a fair amount of time in used bookshops rummaging through old photography books. After 25 years of this, it’s striking how many photographers are a flash of powder in the pan. I keep coming across photographers who ten or twenty years ago seemed like the next big thing. One or two books with all the trappings of the cool, the now, the committed, but then poof, they’re never heard from again. I’m not saying persistence is always wise — I think everybody of my generation must know at least a few people who have been persistent in their quest to become rock stars, spinning their wheels for decades. Persistence can be foolish. Despite that, many successful photographers simply keep at it, keep going, never give up.

4. Love of subject.

It’s tough to tell with many photographers whether they most love photographs or what their photographs are of. If Ansel Adams had had to choose between photographing mountains and beinginthe mountains, I’d have to conclude he’d choose the latter. It’s tough to picture Helen Levitt being happy doing executive headshots instead of capturing domestic street life on the fly. Patrick Demarchelier is crazy about women. Eisie loved people — he was a "connector" as defined by Malcolm Gladwell in his bookThe Tipping Point. David Hurn loves Wales. Bernd and Hiller Becher photograph industrial architecture and David Hamilton makes gauzy pictures of adolescent girls. Can you see the Bechers making gauzy pictures of young girls and Hamilton photographing industrial architecture? You get the point.

5. Talent or creativity.

This isn’t as important as you might think. It’s not number one, not even number three. But if you have everything else on this list and your pictures suck, you’re probably not going to get very far. I’m not sure talent is the same thing as creativity, and I’m not sure whether one is better than the other or if you even need both. But that’s a topic for another column. Talent or creativity — suffice it to say, you probably need some.

6. Tools.

You can’t do the work you want to do without the tools you need to do it. I occasionally get contacted these days to do professional work. But because I don’t do it regularly, I just no longer own the tools to do certain specific types of work. No studio flash equipment, no long lenses, no large-format inkjet printer. Whatever it is you want to do, you’ve got to be equipped to do it. Of course, this doesn’t justify a complete preoccupation with amassing the newest and latest equipment as a hobby in its own right, but you can’t drive without gas and you can’t take a picture with a camera you don’t own.

7. Chutzpah.

Time and time again I’m amazed at how timid many amateurs are, and how brazen many successful photographers are. This doesn’t just refer to sales calls, or the fact that most pros simply think they’re better than their competition, sometimes against the evidence. It’s also a willingness to take risks, to get in peoples’ faces, to weather angry responses, to ask and risk rejection, to make bold claims, to take chances. Belief in yourself, egotism, brashness, whatever you want to call it — successful photographers are often bold.

8. Salesmanship and marketing ability.

For professionals, this encompasses all the traditional aspects of good sales skills: a professional image, great self-confidence, the ability to home in on who the buyer is and what it will take to convince him or her, a knack for strategic schmoozing, an un-ambivalent desire to nail the score, and a certain willingness to prostrate oneself to achieve one’s desired ends. But don’t think there is no salesmanship in art photography. Quite the contrary — there may be just as much, and it may be more difficult because it’s not as straightforward. Image and schmoozing ability are just as important for the artist as for the advertising pro, maybe even more so. Absolutelyde rigeuris the "rap," the ability to talk a good game. Marketing may be 70% of professional photography, as I was taught. But consider that I know more than a handful of art photographers who spend literally 50% of their time and effort on marketing, like Michael A. Smith and Paula Chamlee, who spend half the year doing their work, and half the year selling their work, seldom mixing the two.

9. Time.

There’s one main difference between amateurs and professionals, I was once told: pros shoot more film. Okay, so these days it’s not always film they shoot, but the principle is the same. This is the way to get to #5, above — to make it so your work sucks as little as possible. Shoot as often as you can. Think a lot. Try a lot. Be smart. Spend a lot of time. I’ve always said photography is like jogging: the benefit you get from it is proportional to the time you put into it. Not the speed you go, the miles you run, or whether you never pause or rest. It’s just a simple equation: more hours = more benefit. I believe photography is similar in this respect, whatever your level.

10. Connections and independent wealth.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, goes the old saying. In times past, when the world was smaller, a photographer could go to New York or London or Rome and meet some of the top people, fall in with the right crowd. And many’s the story about a somewhat less accomplished photographer getting the breaks over more accomplished ones because of who they happened to know. That’s the wrong word, of course, that word "happened." Because if you know that you need to know the right people, then how much of an accident does it have to be if you actually meet them? As far as wealth is concerned, it’s just a lot easier to work if you don’t also have to make a living. A great many famous photographers were men and women of independent means. The corollary of this is a willingness to be poor. A great many famous photographers who had no means were sometimes, or often, desperately indigent. They may have complained, but it was a necessary condition of keeping hard at work. Having the one, or tolerating the other, is a big key to success.

I’ve left luck off the list, an omission that might not be warranted! You decide on that one….

— Mike Johnston

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Mike Johnstonwrites and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine calledThe 37th Framefor people who are really "into" photography. His book,The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and findadditional articlesthat he has written for this site, as well as aSunday Morning Index.

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