Four Corners

Monday, 14 September 2009

Do I have to go to college to be a Photographer?

No. Obviously not - I think it's a deliberately stupid question and one that I hate being asked with a passion.

Second only to "What camera should I buy for my vacation?"

I'm not saying that one shouldn't pay for a degree. On a good course (the right course for you) there can be some clear and perceivable benefits to making the substantial financial investment. But a person can certainly put themselves into all of the situations in which they'd benefit from the positive aspects of a bricks and mortar education, without actually packing a bag.

I went to college because I thought it was my only way into the industry. I knew no one that made photographs for a living. Neither of my parents had gone to college, my Mother worked as a receptionist and my Father was a salesman. It was 1991 and my network of friends, family and colleagues didn't reach geographically or otherwise very far from our garden gate.

This was not the right reason to go to college.

Anyone reading this article and considering going to college today can't claim to have the same story.


Because you just met me for one. So unless you're my Mum (hello Mum) then you've probably already broken some ground in extending your network of contacts and reference points.

So where next?

Well, start by continuing to think in this fashion. For instance, there are actually very few people that work in the Photo industry that make photographs for a living. The job is just one aspect of an industry that runs the whole gamut, from framing prints, curating exhibitions, styling clothes/food/rooms, to location scouting, researching, production, representation, photo direction and art buying, right up to commissioning Picture Editor of the New York Times.
How do you find out about these opportunities? Well the job centre/employment office is rubbish for all of this stuff and frankly most Photography courses don't deal with it either. The ones that do deal with it tend to focus so much on the "How" that it tends to be to the detriment of the more important "Why?". You end up knowing how to do work a bunch of different cameras but no idea what to point them at.

(But)...a lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they'll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won't do a thing for you if you don't have anything in your head or in your heart. - Arnold Newman - "American Photo" - March/April 2000, page: 17

One way is to carry a notebook (old skool I believe) or a phone that's up to the task and every time you see a picture that you like (no matter how bizarre the situation or outlet) to jot it down (I guess we could call this Augmenting our reality ^_^). Then in the splendid comfort of your own virtually snug, home-computing environment, work out who the hell made it? How? And for whom?

Here are some nuggets that might help you begin this process of reverse engineering:

Lets say it's a picture in a magazine. The name of the photographer should be with the picture somewhere, certainly in the case of an editorial story (as opposed to an advertisement), perhaps underneath, at the foot of the page or in the gutter (where the staples are).

This being the case then the picture was either;
  • a) commissioned by the publication
  • b) given by the subject
  • c) sold by a photographer/their agency, or
  • d) placed by an advertiser.

a) The Art Director or Creative Director are usually top of the pile at a magazine and top of the masthead (a column of contributors usually early on in the magazine) they're great to meet if you get chance but they will seldom micro manage the photo-commissioning, it's usually the Photo Editor that does this.
Photo Editors come in a variety of flavours, some publications have rafts of them, others get by with just one. Either way, this is the person that would commission you and it's the person you have to show your work to.

b) Publications will often not have enough of a budget to commission new photography. They will choose instead to buy/use stock photography, re-use -pictures from previously commissioned shoots that they've retained the rights to use or use press and publicity images.
Press and Publicity images are owned by the subject or their representatives and used to promote themselves or what they do.
Either the subject themselves,their publicity person or agent will commission you to make these pictures. And as they have a natural shelf life, this can become a source of regular income, as any Photographer doing mode l head-shots will tell you (or not).

c) Generating your own work is an essential part of what we do as creatives. If you want to be known as anything more than, a technician called in to facilitate somebody else's vision, then you have to demonstrate this with your own work. Entire business models are evolving that rely less and less on commissioned editorial work and instead seek to realise the benefits from self generated projects. Look at Magnum for instance and how their industry can no longer compete with the citizen eye-witness on their mobile phone. Instead their direction is more in large Art projects that are made after the initial news event and monetized through exhibitions and book deals. When you generate your own work then you can sell or license it.

d) Advertisers remain a large and profitable market for a lot of photographers. There are a number of ways that a client may wish to use or commission photography to sell and promote their product or services. These are usually fed through a creative/advertising agency and more specifically through the Art Buyer.
It is this person's job to h ave a comprehensive knowledge of the industry, so that when a designer (who normally hails from planet Zorg) comes to her desk and says that they need a, young/old/foreign/quaint/sexy/religious/colourful/retro/black and white (that thinks in colour) photographer to sell their new Haemorrhoid treatment - he or she will be able to pull together a bunch of absolu tely relevant photographers.

If you're stuck with a spare Christmas card approaching the festive period, then send it to an Art Buyer.

Five questions to ask before you go to University ;

  1. Who wrote the course and when?
  2. What is the course Ethos and how is that embedded? (sum up the course in a sentence)
  3. Who is delivering the course?
  4. What work do they do? (you must at least respect aspects of their practice to be fair to them and you)
  5. Who are the alumni and what do they think? (also and essentially how long ago did they graduate, was it the same course and was it delivered by the same people?)

ps. When you found the name of the Photographer, did you Google them, go to their website, go through their client/publications list and make notes of them all ? If they were represented by an agent did you go through their site and see who else they represent ? If it was an advert did you find out who art directed it and then worked out what other clients they have/campaigns they work on ?..... I do.


  1. I went to Uni of Derby and one of the best photographers on the course was hardly there.
    He was always off somewhere making great photos.

  2. I actually agree with you. I think before making any decision, you need to consider all of those things. And like you said, make the decision based on your goals and your ambition. I did go to graduate school for photography and certainly did research all instructors, as well as the inner working of the programs before I made a decision. I can say now that it was the right move for myself, but it definitely isn't for everyone. There is no set path for people to follow to do what they want. Graduate school was a big help to me and I use the tools I learned there in my everyday life as they pertain to my career as a photographer and teacher. I attended Columbia College Chicago. Graduated in 07 and continue to make photographs and work within the art world every day.

    check out my site at

    or my blog, which isn't updated often, at

  3. Found you via Jim Johnson. Agree with this. Especially like your 5 Questions. And I also like your 'Why?'Am in the process of writing similar advice, including how to survive a photography degree course as a mature student.

    Will put you in my Reader, or maybe Twitter will be the thing.

    Thanks. :)

    btw, why did you choose Blogger?

  4. Brenda - great, please let me know when I can read it. Why Blogger ? My old host didn't have WordPress and I'm already fully Googled-up so to speak.


  5. There does't seem to be much help from universities towards
    mature/learning difficulties such as myself brenda like myself
    in terms of how to apply & advice. They always query why
    "so long away from education/photography/"
    Personal/financial circumstances should be considered before
    universities dismiss anyone.