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17 Photographers Reveal the Hardest Life Lesson They Learned When Starting Out

Ami_Vitale

Photographer Ami Vitale with a rhinoceros friend

Ami Vitale: Failure is a tough lesson. It hurts but the best thing that comes out of it is the honesty it brings.

Carolyn

© Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: I was very lucky early on when a famous curator discovered my work and put me in a show in Chelsea. Some Artist and photographer friends were shocked and even dismissive after this lucky turn of events. I had a very good painter friend who just did not talk to me for a year. I confronted her and asked if she had even looked at my work and she said no. When she did, she apologized to me. My advice to new photographers is to just put your head down and do the work- If the work is good, perhaps something good will happen- but the love of the work has to be enough. But when something good does happen, do not be surprised when the human nature of others comes out. Jealousy and desperation are a bad cologne. People must remember that when something good happens to another artist, that does not take away from them! It should encourage them!

The hardest internal life lesson as a photographer was that the soul of a photograph trumps technical perfection. I was very insecure about my technical abilities in the beginning, but I had a point of view that was my own. Technical things can be learned over time, but a personal vision, the essence that touches the viewer’s heart in a photograph, comes from a place that is unique and personal in each person, and that cannot be taught.

Tealia

Pigeons, snakeskin and photo filters, 2014 © Tealia Ellis Ritter

Tealia Ellis Ritter: The hardest life lesson I learned when starting out as a photographer is that rejection is a healthy part of the process. It is important to believe in your vision and chart your own course. I used to take it personally if my work wasn’t selected for a show or publication, but now I realize that that isn’t necessarily an indication of the strength of the work but rather a reflection of the curator’s personal taste and the vision they are trying to realize. Rejection has also helped motivate me at times to push myself when the work really did need to evolve. You also have to find your audience. Like everything in life, taste varies, and that’s ok.

Leon

Self-portrait © Leon Borensztein

Leon Borensztein: That as a portrait photographer I cannot seem to please my subjects. The unsightly ones think I make them look unattractive and the gorgeous ones think I make them look unsightly. It seems that most people believe that what they see in the mirror is much better rendition of themselves than my portraits. Why did I choose this profession? I could be a prima-ballerina.

Sophie

Image © Sophie Gamand, from the book Wet Dog

Sophie Gamand: Things don’t happen to you if you don’t put yourself out there. And you just can’t control everything, which is a great thing! I used to overthink a lot and stop myself from doing the things I wanted to be doing. I would find excuses; I would scare myself out of them. The day I stopped fearing or anticipating, and started actually doing, I shot Wet Dog, the series that would change my life forever. You just never know where a project will take you, so when the desire is there, just act on it: make that trip, take that photo, organize that shoot. When I shot Wet Dog I was working on a different project, but I was at the groomer and the dogs’ expressions in the bath were captivating, so I snapped away. Could I have planned this shoot the way it happened, with that light, that background, those dogs? I worked with what I had that day, and let go of my inner critic. That series went viral, won me awards, including a Sony World Photography Award, got me a book deal, and kickstarted my career. I could have never planned all that. So stop over-planning and start doing!

Chris

Portrait of Christopher Rimmer © Jacquie van Staden

Christopher Rimmer: The hardest lesson I leaned when I started out was not to take rejection personally. I found the indifference of gallery curators extremely upsetting, but it eventually strengthened my resolve. I always advise photographers starting out to follow their own vision, do photography for themselves, forget the audience and to never give up. If you are true to yourself and constantly evolve artistically, eventually people will begin to notice you.

Syrian Refugees

Refugee children peer in through the window at the International Medical Corps (IMC) facility in the Domiz Camp for Syrian Refugees near Dohuk, Iraq on Nov. 22, 2013. © Ed Kashi

Ed Kashi: That your fate can easily be taken out of your hands if you allow it.

Bruce Gilden: The inability to make a living while doing something you love.

Ed Templeton: Just understanding the camera and how it sees. F-stops and shutter speeds are second nature now, but I remember first learning and how when that moment comes, and there’s something happening and it’s “go time,” and you need to shoot on the fly and adjust your camera, how you can panic and mess it up. The life lesson is that anxiety, waiting for your shots to develop and finding out you messed up exposure completely an ruined the shot. The bitterness of that makes you learn real quickly how to work your camera and stay calm.

Tony Mendoza: As an unknown photographer, galleries won’t let you make an appointment to see your work. The only way to get around this is for someone in the gallery stable to recommend you. Likewise, magazines won’t take a chance on you unless you have an extensive body of work done for other magazines. It’s a catch 22.

Richard

Image © Richard Tuschman

Richard Tuschman: I can think of two. First, you cannot please everyone, and your audience is not going to include everyone. Find your voice, make the work you need to make, and let the work find your audience. Second, you never “arrive;” you are always on the journey. You have to keep constantly searching, learning, and reinventing yourself. There is no auto-pilot.

Ken

Plane passes before a super blood moon partial eclipse © 2015 Ken Schles

Ken Schles: Photography has brought home to me the fact that we live in a world of images. We “know” the world through its image. There is the story of the blind men and the elephant. We can agree that we need distance to see something clearly, but as Robert Capa said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” The psychologist Erich Fromm said that photography is an alienating activity. The connection to seeing and knowing and the irreconcilable contradictory distances involved in photography, both physically, emotionally and intellectually makes photographic practice difficult. You have to be constantly moving and checking your distance.

Images are apparitions, ghosts. I think ghosts are best dealt with directly. Photography allows us to confront our ghosts directly while creating new ones. Photography allows us to negotiate through a dense field of abstractions, many not so easily described simply by surface manifestations. It’s a fine line we walk with the camera. Images we make with cameras give us stops and starts, misdirections to work through. Our images act like sentries to guard against reality while tantalizing us with an idea of what is possible and real, smoothing a way towards understanding. Images and imagination modified by reality are in an endless dance. Photography gives us snapshots of that dance. Ostensibly, photography is understood in relation to a social framework that we are constantly updating in our minds. And what difficult (ongoing) life lesson could be better provided than that?

Andi Schreiber: When I started my career in newspapers I quickly learned that a photographer is only as good as his or her last photograph. In other words, the fabulous photograph that made it to the front page today will be lining the bottom of a birdcage tomorrow. While this encourages a very strong work ethic it also feeds a certain type of neurosis among photographers. For better or worse, I still feel the same way although I’m no longer a newspaper photographer! If I haven’t made a photograph that I love in a while I’m a depressed mess. I try to remind myself that life often interrupts and take precedence over making art. I’m slowly starting to be more accepting of my own limitations and ride out these less productive periods knowing that the urge to produce new work will return.

Meryl

Mother and Daughter Framed, Massapequa, NY 1974, © Meryl Meisler from the book Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City

Meryl Meisler: In 1975 I wanted to study with Lisette Model, a wonderful photographer and Diane Arbus’s mentor. In order to be considered for Lisette’s call at The New School, you had to show her a portfolio. There was a big line of people wanting to be admitted to her course. I brought my portfolio of Long Island photographs. Lisette paused at an image of my friends’ mother and grandmother standing side by side in their living room. The women are wearing nearly identical radiant smiles, blond hair, long pant suits, with their arms open wide in front of their living room coach alongside symmetrical side tables and lamps. Lisette picked up the print to show to everyone in line and exclaimed aloud “You should show this to John Szarkowski!” (Director of Photography at MoMA) and allowed me into her class. I never brought the work to show Szarkowski. I was too shy. Life lesson learned and still learning- time doesn’t stand still (except in a photograph). Hear the encouragement from others and from your small voice within. Have the courage to show your work to curators, gallerists, and the world. I am still shy but finally mustering the courage four decades later. That photograph and series Lisette spoke so enthusiastically about is out in the world and published in Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City (Bizarre Publishing 2015).

Robin

Image © Robin Schwartz, from the book Amelia and the Animals

Robin Schwartz: A missed opportunity –situations must be photographed as they present themselves, there are no real make-ups, everything changes and everyone dies. Sorry, I can be quite morbid.

Andrea

© Andrea DiCenzo

Andrea DiCenzo: I think learning to trust in your own vision is a really important lesson. I think that’s a life thing as well. It’s not unique to photographers. There have been times when I’ve been really broke – like refreshing my account balance a few times a day to see if a payment’s hit, eating plain rice sort of broke – on top of being in the middle of some city where you don’t know anyone and think, ‘what am I doing here?’ Those are the times that you have to trust yourself the most. Or trust in the you that started down that path.

Michal Solarski: When I took up photography, I was convinced that once I gathered the courage to show my work to people in the industry, it will be instantly noticed and recognised. Now I know that the process is very slow and that it requires much more hard work, self-discipline, and determination than I’d first imagined. Also, I’ve learned over the years how important networking and submerging yourself in the world of photography is if you really want to succeed.

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