What Is A Photographer? / by Peter Levitan

Ansel Adams by J. Malcom Greany - 1950.

Ansel Adams by J. Malcom Greany - 1950.

What Is A Photographer? An Attempt At A Definition.

I have mixed feelings about the word “photographer.” The term has gotten way diluted over the years. Virtually everyone now carries a sophisticated camera full time (iPhone or Android) and many mobile phone shooters can loosely be considered a somewhat photographer since they take shots of visions other than just their family members and dogs. And, they publish. There are thousands, millions?, of smartphone users who are slavish to publishing thier images every day to Instagram. I think that that act adds to the dilution.

On a personal note, I live in San Miguel de Allende Mexico. It is a very artsy town and some days it seems I run into multiple people who consider themselves a photographer. The giveaway is a larger digital camera that is often loaded down with a large lens or two.

Worse, and please note, this is my particular issue – I am asked if I am a photographer and I get a bit squeamish about the answer. For some reason, I cannot say outright that I am a photographer. A key reason for this answer is that I don’t like finite definitions. Another might be that when I hear the word photographer, I think of my friends that make a living from photography or people that have been vetted by the art world and show their work in galleries or museums or have grants or teach the art.

The Real Photographer

What I do know is that I was once a ‘real’ photographer. I went to art school, got a BFA in photography and owned a professional advertising and editorial photography studio in San Francisco. I was a working photographer. “Working” was a key element of my definition.

If I go back to my early days, photographers had somewhat complex cameras that required users to use a light meter and then balance aperture and shutter speed. Real photographers developed their film and made prints in a darkroom that they probably built from scratch. They studied the history of photography and participated in critique sessions. This activity raised the image of being a photographer. One had to be dedicated – and skilled.

So, is the idea of working photographer the key differentiator between the casual and professional photographer? Do you need to be a pro that makes money via photography (I am talking from shooting weddings to Airbnb house shots to conflict photojournalists) or an active, thoughtful artist to be a real photographer?

The Definition

Let’s start with an official definition of photographer. In some ways this will provide a bit of clarity.

 From Merriam-Webster:

 One who practices photography. Especially: one who makes a business of taking photographs.

 Ok, this supports the idea of being a working professional.

 However, this “professional” distinction does not appear to be universal.

 The Cambridge Dictionary defines photographer as:

 A person who takes photographs, either as a job or hobby.

This is where the idea of dilution comes in. I am a fairly serious photographer. I am working on a focused international multi-year series. However, I am neither a working photographer nor a hobbyist. “Hobbyist”, what a lame term anyway.

 Yes, I am conflicted. I am working on the answer.

 Or, frankly, who gives a shit. Just do it.