You’re an Amateur. Is That Enough?
In September 2019, I wrote the words below for my podcast, A Beautiful Anarchy, and I feel like perhaps enough time has passed since I’ve reminded you of these important truths, and I want to offer them to you again.
I spoke with an artist recently who expressed the feeling that because his art-making didn’t make money for him or his family, it felt frivolous and self-indulgent, and worse, that his family seemed to feel the same way. I’ve talked frequently to others who feel that because they aren’t professionals, they aren’t “real artists.” And when asked about their art, they start shuffling their feet and looking for the exit because the word we use for those who aren’t professionals is “amateur,” which makes it sound like we don’t take this as seriously and aren’t as skilled as those who whose art is also their trade.
To be an amateur seems to imply an incompleteness.
If I were to guess, I’d say that most people reading this do not rely on their art-making to put food on the table. In the most literal use of the word, most of you are not “professionals” and are, therefore, amateurs. I think that’s a good thing.
For a word that means “to do something for the love of it”, I have no idea why the word amateur gets such a bad rap. For that matter, I’m not sure why the word professional has come to be so valued, especially in the world of creativity and art-making—the one context in which you would think doing something for the money might be eyed with more suspicion, even cynicism.
To set at ease those of you who do make a living or part of your living from your creativity, I have no intention of putting a negative spin on being a so-called professional. I make my living from my creativity and have done so for over 25 years.
I love what I do, but there are good reasons not to go down this road—perils that come with the territory. But I should point out there’s no reason why you can’t do this as a professional and never for a moment stop doing it for the love of it.
But it’s also important that we collectively remember that the word professional doesn’t remotely imply that what we make is better than those who fit their art-making into the margins created by other jobs and the concerns of day-to-day life.
The fact that money changes hands because others pay for our art can certainly be one way of feeling like what we make, and therefore we ourselves, are validated. But it’s no more a sign that the work is necessarily especially good than the fact that someone green-lighted the Sharknado movies and—not only that—there are now six of them, and they’ve made more money than Pixar! If you’re doing the math, in 2017, that was over 4.5 billion dollars. So what am I saying here? Making money only means someone paid for what we made, and it should keep us humble to know that there’s also a steady market for plastic novelty dog poo.
On the flip side, there are countless stories of astonishing art from wonderful artists who were never recognized in their lifetime, and much of it from people who never made their art professionally. In fact, some of the most wonderful art came from people who either never left their day jobs or kept them long into their other careers as writers, composers, or other kinds of creative work.
Anthony Trollope became one of the most popular and prolific authors in Victorian England while working for the post office.
Franz Kafka was an insurance clerk.
Harper Lee was an airline ticketing agent.
Agatha Christie wrote on the side while working as a pharmacist’s assistant.
Kurt Vonnegut did several things, including running a car dealership, while he wrote.
Herman Melville was a deputy customs inspector.
Modern artist Jeff Koons, having twice broken the record for creating the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction, was a commodities broker while he made much of his art.
Composer and artist Philip Glass continued to work as a taxi driver and plumber throughout his career. On one occasion, he was installing a dishwasher in the New York home of Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, who said, “But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?” Glass replied that he was an artist but that he was sometimes a plumber as well—and that he needed to finish his work.
It would be easy to look at this list of people and point to their eventual commercial success as validation, but that’s only something we see in hindsight. My point is that while they were making their art, they were so-called amateurs. No one would read Moby Dick and say, “Well, it’s a great novel, but it’s too bad Herman never became a ‘real’ writer,” or “Imagine how much better the poetry of T.S. Eliot might have been if he hadn’t been a bank clerk?”
There is an incredible freedom available to those who pursue their craft and make their art free from the need to make it saleable, not the least of which is the ability to make it exactly the thing you want it to be. It is that effort, borne from love and whatever other compulsions drive us to create, that fuel us and keep us making things that are authentic, that give us joy, help us find meaning.
J.K. Rowling didn’t write Harry Potter because a publisher was breathing down her neck; she wrote it for reasons all her own. It was only her work as an amateur that allowed her to later do it for a living—a choice, one assumes, she was absolutely free to make or not make once the money started coming in. Rowling’s net worth is now over $1 billion, much of that made from her amateur efforts.
I want to go back to the artist I mentioned at the top of this piece because the idea that his creative efforts were deemed less important because they didn’t make him money, or that they were self-indulgent, drives me crazy.
Couldn’t we all use a little more self-indulgence if it leads us to do the things that fill our souls and give us meaning or joy? Wouldn’t we all be happier people with richer, deeper lives? Wouldn’t that add to the intangible bottom lines for the people with whom we share our lives?
To look at our creative efforts as unimportant is to overlook the inescapable truth that as much as we make our art, our art also makes us. To see the work of becoming the most we can be as frivolous is to devalue our emotional and mental well-being.
Being an amateur is no reason for anyone, most especially ourselves, to take our creative work less seriously. There is no shame in being an amateur and doing something because you love it. You can’t merely be an amateur because there is nothing mere about love. But there’s something else, too—more of a kick in the pants than a hug—and that’s this:
While you can’t control whether others see your work as important, you can control how important your work is to you.
If there’s a downside to being a creative professional (and I think there are several), there is also a downside to doing it in the margins as a so-called amateur. The danger is in leaving it in the margins and letting it have only what crumbs of time you can give it with whatever leftover energy you have for it. Doing something for the love of it and being an amateur in no way means that what you do should not be a priority. We prioritize what we love.
Doing it for the love of it doesn’t mean it won’t take the same discipline and struggle as those whose art-making also happens to be their job—though I fear many of you have been made to feel that this is so. If anything, the harder task is to make your art while other activities make your income. In other words, none of us are off the hook.
Doing it for the love of it does not mean you can’t intentionally carve out the time to write your play. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take seriously the need to sign your work and put it into the world in whatever ways you long to do so.
It does not in any way mean you must approach your work like a dilettante or a dabbler. Your art should not be getting the scraps of your time, energy, focus, or love. It’s too important to you.
And it’s too important to us. We need you to be fully present in your art-making. We need to see the world the way you see it, to be inspired by your work. We need you to remind us what it looks like to go all in and not hold back.
But most of all, you need it. For all the reasons you make art in the first place, you need it. There was a reason you picked up that paintbrush, pen, or camera—a scratch that your creativity itches, a hollow place that it fills, or questions that it helps you find answers to. And not a bit of it has to do with anyone else or the label you put on those efforts.
Just an amateur? I don’t think so.
You can do your art part-time, but that doesn’t mean you do it half-heartedly.
Whatever you’re making this week, wherever the muse is leading you, go all in. It might not be your job, but it’s still your work.
Having said all this, there are still some for whom a different fire burns. There are those who want to be both an amateur as well as a professional in the “I do this for a living” kind of way. If that’s you, I want to remind you that I write The Audience Academy for people exactly like you who want to make both a life and a living from their craft, and you can subscribe for free right here at TheAudienceAcademy.com.
I also want to let you know that I’ve just opened enrollment for Standing Room Only, a course I made for creators, artists, and makers to learn to build engaged and growing audiences of real people who love what you make and want more of it—so you can make more art and make a beautiful living at the same time. If this is you and you’re tired of struggling with your marketing, I want to show you a way to make it less soul-sucking and more like soul-craft. There’s a short video here that might help. Standing Room Only is open for enrollment this week only.
Pingback: To Make Better Photographs, Study More Photographs, Part Two - ScpOnline
Sorry, no symphony for amateurs who create “art” for monetary gain and are disappointed. The world will not be a path to the artist’s door. You, yourself have to kick the damn thing open and drag them in by the collar. Then you sure as heck had better have art and not rehashed camera club rule bangers.
This post really struck home to me. It is so easy for me to forget why I create art in the first place. The other day I had unexpected dtime for some creativity and I could not help fell the guilt of doing something that I should do versus going someplace I love and photographing it even though I have been there many times.
I will try to keep these lines in my memory when I struggle to remember why I love my art.
“To look at our creative efforts as unimportant is to overlook the inescapable truth that as much as we make our art, our art also makes us. To see the work of becoming the most we can be as frivolous is to devalue our emotional and mental well-being.”
Thank you for taking time to write to us.
For the Love of the Photograph!
Hi David, another very interesting article!
I don’t know if there is a real difference between a hobby photographer and an amateur, but I’ve always thought the word “hobby” was despised less than “amateur”. The word amateur is always used in a negative way, and as you do I don’t why.
When I started photographing ice hockey in Bolzano 5 years ago, there was always a guy next to me – a professional photographer. He used to comment out loud with another photographer how he didn’t understand why amateur photographers were allowed into the rinks.
Three years after that day, I became the official photographer of the team. It was definitely a money thing, but in the end I’m still there – I love the sport and I love photographing hockey. Of course I don’t get paid as much as he did, but I don’t care: I can proudly say that I have become even better than him, but because I do it for the love of sport and photography and not because I have to earn money.
Oh I forgot to tell you: now it seems I’ve become his best friend ….. (ironic laugh)
My Friend, I totally marvel at the points you make with these essays, marvel, I tell you!
Thanks for doing what you do and for doing it so well, Rubber Chicken Guy, my foot!
Love you Man!
And ps: Philip Glass? Who would have thunk it? Not I.
Hi, David. I hope all is well with you. I can’t thank you enough for this. I needed this message more than you will ever know. Certain dreams and fantasies may be quashed, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be doing what I love. This piece may be what gets my sorry ass back out there with my camera. Again, just thank you. 😌
This is the best essay you’ve ever written (IMHO). To lend my support (for what it’s worth) to your “testimony”; my entire working life was spent as a professional photographer/graphic artist and now I’m retired so I’ve become an amateur photographer. I’m having more fun with it now than I ever had before! A Toast to the “Love of Photography” 🙂
My retirement is comfortable, and there is no desire to have a business: however, there is a lifetime of skills that have come together to allow me over the last decade to put together the wherewithal to have a custom in-home studio doing high resolution digital imagery and web documentation. All work is pro bono for select non-profit artisans, collectors, museums and historical societies in the Village of Brockport N.Y. area.
In recent years, about 1000 to 1500 hours of my time each year has been devoted to my clients. What is my compensation? A very broad variety of work comes into my studio that would never happened if I were in business. My time and effort would be afforded by very few. The experiences, the maintenance and improvement of my skills, the impetus to improve the capabilities of my studio, and the benefits that my community has received from my efforts, that is my compensation.
Most of my work is with multi-month or multi-year projects along with the occasional one-off. Much of my photographic work is digital restoration of old photography, documents, artworks and historical objects so that reproduction images of the objects appear new. Other work is intended for archival uses to accurately document current appearance and condition.
My camera, Photoshop, other app skills are always being tested and improved. There are always challenges that are solved with hard work to find solutions. My point is – there is more to being a photographer than putting the viewfinder to the eye, debating over amateur or professional status, and making photographic art. You may actually be a photographer if you can meet and satisfy your and/or your client expectations, and that each project makes your capabilities a reality and in someway has made you improve.
Above all, you need other life skills that are allies, beneficial to aiding your photograph skills: people skills, business skills, electronic/mechanical technical skills, problem solving skills, writing skills, computer skills, – any skill or knowledge that supplements your core photography capabilities, combined with ambition and drive, should put you on the path to success. I tell all my clients that any work I do is “best effort” and then exceed their expectations whenever possible.
As for a website, I have none, for my select group of clients have kept me more than busy this past decade; but, I have included a website link to a project that have founded, created, programmed, managed and edited now into my 4th year on behalf of the Cobblestone Museum of Childs, NY, and the Landmark Society of Western NY. The Cobblestone Info Base is a virtual library and repository of all known and found information on authentic cobblestone structures in North America, circa 1820 to 1865.
Included are nearly 1000 structures, existing and no longer existing, and over 7000 photographs, illustrations and documentation imported from many prominent and many smaller contributors. Only a couple of dozen photographs of mine are in the website, nearly all the rest are amateur with the exception of those by Gerda Peterich, a collection of over 400 large format architectural photographs that I am digitizing and Photoshopping for the website. The majority of cobblestone structures are in Western New York where I live. The website is not compatible with smart phones.
I believe it was Elliot Erwitt who described himself as a “professional amateur”. Calling oneself an “amateur” puts one in pretty good company!
David: As your article alludes, many people equate amateur and neophyte. Not necessarily true. An amateur is someone who loves what they are doing. An expert is someone who knows whst they are doing. A professional is someone who gets paid for what they are doing. Ergo, all of the best professionals are amateurs, and (hopefully) experts.
Your articles impart so much wisdom and leave me feeling like I’m not alone. I’m a 68 year old beginning writer and struggle with these thoughts. My focus is to study my craft and become the best writer I can be for as long as God allows me to live.
I prefer to think of myself as an artist learning how write without tacking on the adjectives of amateur or professional. At this point, it doesn’t matter. Unless I persevere and create the best art I can, there will be nothing to sell if and when that time comes.
You have a very special gift, David. Thank you for your voice.
Thank you David. I am reminded that even big name “professional” photographers rely on side gigs—not taking pictures—to support themselves. The back pages of every photo magazine are filled with ads for workshops and tours led by name photographers. These folks and the assistants they supervise spend their time negotiating rental vans and local guides and solving travel problems for picky clients. Blogs, podcasts, being an “influencer,” a (brand name here) “Explorer of (pixels)” etc. Each of these rely foremost on skill sets other than camera work—ask yourself how much time are you making art and how much time are you making words that inspire—and you do that very well (Thank you). The implosion of markets, explosion of photographic devices in peoples’ hands means that precious few can devote 100 percent of their time and energy to making pictures. Back to your point: the term “professional” has nothing to do with making photographic art and living a photographic life. As you remind us so often, photography is the practice of an intention, rewarded sometimes by the picture we intended. A paycheck? Forget it—now make a picture!
Hi, David – I took one of your courses by accident, and stayed connected to your communiques because of the wisdom you impart.
I hung up my camera about 18 months ago; we had ceased our traveling adventures and my energy and interest in creating photos diminished. Recently, though, as we start decorating our new humble abode, I’ve been digging into old files searching for images worth hanging on our limited wall space. I’m rather surprised at some of the images in those old files – they proved to be something of a bucket of cold water in the face. “I could do this!”
At any rate, your above epistle really struck home. There was always a small voice in the back of my mind whispering “you should learn how to sell your work.”
In fact, the joy was in the creating the end product. Those images put a smile on my face and in my heart, as they did for many with whom I shared them. For me, that was the reward, while I went about making the money I needed to live doing real work.
There is a family member who struggles with “amateur status,” pining to turn into a money-making enterprise. Which, of course, is more likely to happen if the focus is on internal satisfaction. Pride of creation. Achieving higher standards of quality. And so on.
Thanks for yet another blast of wisdom. Keep on writing!!
David, i read all your email dissertations, some with more interest than others. As an amateur photographer who is more often frustrated with the results of my efforts than pleased. And yet I continue to love the craft pursuing it is a constant and growing compassion. This article resonated with me more than anything I have read in a long time. Thank you for the effort and thought you put into writing it. I have the article printed and will continue to go back to it and read it often.
All The Best,
No “Amateur” is horrible term along with enthusiast, hobbyist, semi-pro and many others. And the term professional is misused and misplaced as well.
I know of a photographer in silicon valley and all he does is executive heads shots from his studio. He is well paid for it. He is considered a professional due to his income selling photographs but outside of doing headshots, he is a novice.
I have been teaching photography and digital arts at a local college for 20 years. I do Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, post images online and have my own website. I to workshops, lead week-long excursions, guest lecture and more. I have invested tens of thousands of dollars in equipment, cameras, backdrops, stobes, modifiers, and more. I have taken my students to other colleges like UC Berkeley to photograph dance students both for learning and to help dancers with images for their portfolio. I shoot landscapes, architecture, sports, street, headshots, macro, stars, etc., but I don’t do weddings. I shoot everything, and my work is excellent. I can say that, I know good work, and I can explain why it is good work or not. Yet, I don’t sell my photographs. I make no income from photographs, but I am a professional in every sense. Yet, I am shadowed by the label amateur.
There is no solution, there is no satisfaction in the term amateur. It does imply less. But professional does not mean what we all think it might. It is a bit of a mess. Simply stated, it is what it is, and I don’t think you would have brought this topic forward if you did not realize it yourself. It is important to discuss. Thanks for allowing me to vent a bit.
Thank you David for reminding me why I do what I do – your words are so good, I’ve saved them for future reference (that is, when the muse just won’t get out of bed and help me out…).
I have a day job that I’m (mostly) happy and proud to do, and that pays me well enough on a part-time basis to do all the other stuff I also enjoy but don’t get paid for. Are any of these activities intrinsically ‘better’ than the others? I don’t think so – they’re just different and part of life’s rich pageant. It’s important though for me to remember how lucky I am to be able to do any of them; my more creative activities at least give me the opportunity to share the products of my good fortune with others 🙂
I can’t hear this enough. I don’t want to make a living from my photography. I started down that path, and I found it soul-sucking. Maybe I was doing it wrong? I make a good living at my regular job. It scratches an itch for problem solving and analytical thought. Ultra-running scratches the competitive itch. Photography scratches the creative itch. Maybe I’m too itchy and just need a Benadryl, but I’m quite happy to keep my activities in mostly separate spheres. That does not in any way invalidate any of them.
I love this, Celeste! I know a photographer who quit her day job to try making her living with photography. It didn’t work, it sucked the creative right out of her bones. She went back to her job and continues to make beautiful images. There is room for us all. ❤️
Thank you David! This is great information, and I enjoyed reading it. However…. the word “amateur” still has a negative connotation for many people, and even in the dictionary! And that’s why amateur has a “bad rap”. Although you are telling us that it’s not a bad thing, and I get that, the connotation is not going to change in the world. I don’t “make a living” from my art, but I don’t want to be considered as an “amateur”. Its a fine line in my mind, and even though I understand what you are saying, and I love that you shared about all of the people who went from “amateur” to professional, I disagree with your statement that being an “amateur” is okay or enough. Thanks for writing this!
Well I have been an A since HS…..until a camera around my neck proved worthwhile.. …I wasn’t an immediate success, but I got hired as a photographer, got published, had one man show…..but it was alit of hard work……and I’m thinking do I want spend my days and weekends doing weddings and mitzvahs…….or should I follow through with the curriculum in architecture ………designing warehouses?