Professional vs. Regular

What makes something “professional”?

I refer to myself as an amateur photographer. I have a good, but more economically priced, digital SLR and I often use fully manual settings. I enjoy photography, but it’s probably not ever going to be my bread and butter. I’m okay with that, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to take the best pictures possible. One area that I’d like to delve into more deeply is portrait photography. Toward that end, I started looking for some reasonably priced studio lights, portable if it all possible. So, I started to search around and found a number of possible kits. But, being the obsessive researcher that I can be, I thought I’d ask my fellow photographers on a mailing list I sometimes participate in what suggestions they had for portable studio lights.
I got a lot of suggestions, but one sort of caught my eye. It happened to be one of the places that I’d been looking to possibly buy from, but that wasn’t what captured my attention. What made me look more closely at the e-mail, and started my little brain thinking, was the admonition that the place recommended was “okay for the hobbyist but far from professional level”. I think it’s important to note that we were talking about light kits starting at several hundred dollars. So, what made them “hobby” quality and not “professional” quality? Did they somehow project fewer lumens? Was the reflector less, well, less reflective? Were the soft boxes less, er, “soft”? Or was it simply that they weren’t priced high enough to be considered a “professional” investment?

I wonder, sometimes, at the largely artificial distinctions we make between grades of quality. How much more than getting the job done simply and cheaply does one have to do to be considered “professional”? If I have a professional credit for work that’s on the back of a book, but I didn’t get paid, does that still make me a professional? What if my work was in an art show in New York? What if that show was in a coffee house in Staten Island? Where is the line? When do I cross it?

I hear all the time, especially in photography, that a particular camera body or lens isn’t “pro quality”.  But, for instance, in my IT day job, no one really says that any particular computer is for hobbyists only or is amateur grade.  And, what about all those things in the hardware store that are marketed to us as “professional grade” solutions to problems like a backed-up sewer?  Because, honestly, I’ve never seen a professional plumber use those professional grade chemicals to clear a clog.

But, the other day, I was having lunch with a friend of mine who’s a professional artist.  And, by “professional artist”, I mean that he makes his entire living producing art.  He has no “day job”, except, of course, making his art.  We got into a discussion about my photography and what I was doing and where it was going and why.  Then he made the most Earth-shattering statement about art that highlighted the difference between an amateur or hobbyist like myself and someone who makes their living at a creative profession.  He said, in a nutshell, that he didn’t know what to tell me about things like my composition or the ideal I was apparently trying to achieve, because when he thinks about art, he thinks about who his audience is going to be.  In short, who will buy the art.

That’s it.
That’s the whole difference, right there, in that short sentence, that simple idea.
What separates the professionals from everybody else?  The professionals think about who’s going to buy what they make.  They think about how they’re going to sell the work, for how much and to whom.  Period.
Everything else is purely academic.

Or, to put it another way, it’s not the brush that makes the painting, but rather, the artist.

5 Responses

  1. A Livesley

    That is the difference? That your friend doesn’t paint for himself but for others? I knew a painter like that a few years ago. He lived off his work, the only problem was all his friends called him a sell-out behind his back. And his work was awful.

    Just look at history. Did Picasso think about his audience? Van Gogh? Their audience was an ideal of themselves (or an ideal audience of past masters)

    Thinking about your audience and whether or not they will like or dislike or buy your work is possibly the most dangerous idea an artist can have. It is a creativity killer.

  2. J. K. Hoffman

    No, the difference between a professional and an amateur is that a professional sells their work. Period. It’s not a comment on quality, only in commerce. Perhaps you have a different view of “history” than I, but I think both Picasso and Van Gogh considered their audience. And, what’s more, they considered them in regards to commerce. Both were quite frustrated at times, trying to sell their work. It was a problem that plagued Van Gogh for his entire career.
    Sadly, you’ve missed the point. “Good” is an arbitrary term, especially in art, used to describe what one likes. “Professional” is much clearer and not a value judgement at all.

    Say, you’re writing style seems familiar… Are you one of the commenters from “Forget Self Improvement” who disagreed there, too?

  3. A Livesley

    I got the point. Really we’re debating the definition of two words. I think it has to do with training, the amount of time spent working, one’s outlook, one’s self image. Van Gogh (one of my heros) sold one major painting in his lifetime. That makes him an amateur, according to your definition.

    For what it is worth, I thought your synopsis of the “Forget Self Improvement” was much clearer than the original. Unlike other commenters, I didn’t think the post was advocating laziness, but the author seemed to be suggesting that an artist/writer/athlete can somehow enter a state where all that tedium, frustration or hardship either vanishes or becomes somehow enjoyable. From my experience, doing something well is damned hard work and seldom a pleasure.

  4. J. K. Hoffman

    Well, thanks for coming back and clarifying. And, thank you for the compliment regarding my comment on “Forget Self Improvement”. I can clearly see we still disagree about the ultimate point there, however, because I really do think that doing something well can be both “damned hard work”, as you say, and a pleasure. The two things are not mutually exclusive, as you seem to imply.

    As to this post, I’m not sure if we simply disagree of if you really aren’t seeing my point. I see “professional” as a measure of commerce, not quality. Someone who makes their living at something is a professional. The argument could be made that Van Gogh was a poor professional, because he didn’t make an actual living at his work, but that has nothing to do with the quality of his actual work. The fact that he sold the one painting, in fact, makes him technically a professional. A brilliant artist, but not necessarily a very successful professional. However, I seem to recall that he did sell other work to earn his keep, pay for food and lodging. It may not have been a “major painting”, but any art for sale, regardless of how the art community feels about the work, is still work that he sold as part of his professional career.
    Again, I don’t think training or effort or skill or quality are really defined by the term “professional”. In one sense, the sense of a “professional grade drain cleaner”, it’s a marketing gimmick. In another, a “professional plumber”, it’s a description of one’s livelihood, of how one makes money to get by. A bad mechanic and a good mechanic can both be professional mechanics, if they pay their mortgages and feed their families from the proceeds. The rest is, as I have already written, a fairly academic argument, usually made by academics.

  5. A Livesley

    Makes perfect sense. Thanks for that.

    As to working hard, it kind of reminds me of that Woody Allen joke about those two old ladies in a restaurant “the food here is terrible!” “I know…and such small portions”. In other words, if it was easy it wouldn’t be interesting. Kurosawa once wrote that when he started a movie, he wanted to create a masterpiece. Half way through he just wanted to finish the damn thing. But giving up making movies wouldn’t have crossed his mind.

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge