Friday, April 10, 2015

Chris Buck's Five Tips for Becoming a Professional Photographer (and my thoughts, too)

Recently the excellent photographer, Chris Buck, posted the following advice on Facebook. Chris has been one of my favorite photographers for a long time. His portraits of the famous and not so famous are consistently surprising and provocative. He's never been a slave to trends- he just continually strives to produce the best work possible.

With all that said, I found his tips a fair bit contrarian. Which is why (with Chris' permission) I'm re-posting them here. Many of my students will tell you that I encourage them to disagree with me. I believe that healthy debate over positions is one of the best ways to learn more about yourself and your opinions. I've taken the liberty of adding some comments of my own in italics after each of his. (Chris, I hope that's OK.)

Here it is:

Much of the conventional wisdom on how to become an advertising and editorial photographer is wrong, so I’ve written up five tips that counter the common narrative. It’s exciting to meet young people who are creative and driven, nothing would make me happier than to see them thrive as professional shooters.

1. Don’t go to College
More and more I’m meeting emerging photographers who are saddled with over 100K of college debt. My advice to young people – skip photo college. You can learn everything you need through books, mentors and short-term courses. It will be a more challenging road, requiring openness, experimentation, and plenty of trail and error but the dividends are astronomical. Imagine spending your twenties with the freedom to live and work anywhere you wanted without a crippling debt hanging over you demanding a substantial and regular income. College is great but spending $150,000 to be a photographer is insane.

Anything I say here has to be taken with a grain of salt since I teach full time at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. That said, I can't agree more that taking on huge amounts of debt to get an undergraduate degree in commercial photography is a very questionable strategy. When you start your business, there isn't a client in the world who will care whether you have a degree or even a high school diploma. (If they do, they're clearly an amateur.) All clients care about is whether you can produce what they need, when they need it at the price you agreed to. In fact, most gallerists and curators care only slightly more whether you went to college.

On the other hand, I firmly believe that the more you know about art, politics, literature, cinema, psychology, the world, etc, the more you have to bring to your work. The more interested and interesting you are as a person, the more interesting and complex your work will be. College can be a great place to gain that kind of knowledge. The best photography schools are the ones that require significant coursework in addition to students' majors. The work of students and professionals whose aesthetic views come primarily or exclusively from photography  are little more than technocrats or borderline plagiarists. It's not what we choose to photograph that makes for great work. It's who we are that does that.

2. Don’t be a Photo Assistant
Photo assisting is a procrastination tool. One can make amazing money in their mid-twenties as a photo assistant – and have fun and strange experiences on a variety of photo sets - but what you won’t be doing is building a creative foundation that you’ll need when it’s time to get serious in your early thirties. The longer one waits to transition out of assisting the harder it will be – one goes from making great money to no money (at least initially). A better choice would be interning for a great photographer for a season or two, you’ll be immersed in the world that you want to be a part of, and have the license to ask lots of questions.

Here, I think he's kind of right. Assisting can be a trap and I've seen a few of my assistants fall into it. But, mostly, I've found that when the time comes for them to go out on their own, they start being really shitty assistants. I've had to encourage them, sometimes by firing them, to start their own businesses. When Chris says one should intern instead of assist, I think he sees that as a way of avoiding the trap. I would say that how you do that is what's important. Call it interning, call it assisting- just don't do it for too long.

3. Don’t Move to New York
I’ve met more than one young person who told me that they moved to New York to be inspired and be a part of a creative community only to find themselves feeling isolated and exploited. It seems that there are two kinds of people in New York, those with a vision, and those without who work for peanuts for those who do. New York (and other important cities like Los Angeles and London) is primarily a marketplace – cultivate your vision elsewhere then bring it to market and show us something new. New York welcomes you – but come when you have something to say.

Boy! Do I ever agree with this one, although not necessarily for the reasons Chris gives. I believe that success can be measured in a lot of different ways and being a big time New York or LA photographer is not the only way to do it. I think that success can come by means of a healthy life and a solid family. I believe that great work can be done almost anywhere and being in a major metropolitan area is not the only way to achieve it. I spent most of my career in the Rochester, NY area- not the center of the communications and publishing world by most measurements. But I lived in a big old house on an acre of land and my wife and I raised three incredible kids who are now incredible adults. And I did really good work, work that I'm still proud of. Some of it was for national clients, some for local clients. And while I was doing that, I lived a life that I was proud of, too. And, even more importantly, the life that was right for me.

Now, as Chris says, if/when you feel the time is right, then, of course, move to New York. Dazzle them and continue to do great work. But remember, if you decide not to go, that doesn't mean you're a failure. It means that New York wasn't for you. And that's all.

4. Don’t be Successful
If you’re any good you’ll find yourself at some point as out of line with the culture. Your clients will be uninterested or confused by your latest work. Go with it, as it means that you’re onto something special. Of course one needs to make a living, so hit the sweet spot for your clients too, but keep shooting the less obvious pictures along the way – this will be the work that really makes your name down the road.

I like this and have nothing to add. Well said, Chris.

5. Do be a Hater
I’ve found that I make my most interesting and original work when reacting against a prevalent trend rather than being inspired by some well-achieved work. When you’re inspired by a great photographer you tend to make some variation on that person’s work. But when you react against something you set the bar higher, “these folks are getting it wrong, and I’m going to show them the right way.” For me that means digging deep into myself and asking the hard questions about where photography should be going and how I might help bring it there.

I like this one, too, although the title sounds a little like, "Do be an asshole" but that's OK because the reasoning that follows is sound. I'd add that you need to figure out what's interesting to you and then figure out how to make pictures about that. I've found that if I pursue a topic that I'm kinda, sorta interested in, then the pictures are only kinda, sorta interesting. But when I follow up on something I think is REALLY interesting, then the pictures are almost always solid.

His last line is the best. By asking the hard questions we get the most fruitful answers, the ones that allow us to make the most progress and produce the work that has the most impact. And if you find any of those answers, let me know. I'm pretty good at the asking. The answers, not as much, but I'm still trying. 

Thanks again to Chris Buck for starting this conversation. Please let it continue in the comments section below.


  1. Well said, Forest. This time, I'll agree with you...

  2. I totally agree...thanks for sharing your wisdom. Love the dialogue and it is do encourage us to disagree with you and we all love the healthy debate in the classroom and in this post. Thanks

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