"Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn't, bleed, like colours, on the whole of our existence." – Honoré de Balzac
When most Americans were busy preparing for the winter holidays, a fellow professional photographer and I, along with a couple of close friends, met at the edge of the pavement where a long dirt road branched toward the vast expanses of the Mojave desert. Recent storms had made a mess of the high passes and we didn’t know if we could make it into the remote valley we hoped to visit. With some effort, we managed to push through mud, snow, and errant boulders before arriving at our first camp at dusk. Without cellular signal and a long way from the nearest town, we spent the next few days in isolation as dramatic winter storms drifted over the desert, rewarding us with sublime views. In one canyon, likely visited by only a handful of humans in recent decades, we found shelter from falling snow under a rocky ledge and watched as the otherwise arid place transformed before our eyes in a manner likely witnessed by very few people in all of history. Fog floated through the narrow passages, a thin white layer accenting the colourful rocks and desert brush, and our world became perfectly silent each time we came to a stop. After a few hours of hiking, steeped in magic and beauty, my friend turned to me, smiling, and said quietly, “Just another day at the office.”
In the midst of World War II, Paris-based photographer Brassaï met with the great painter Pablo Picasso for what would later become the first of several intense and enlightening discussions recounted in Conversations with Picasso. In one particularly heated exchange, Brassaï stated his reluctance to sell his drawings in the face of Picasso’s urging. The reason, he said, was that he decided to submit himself wholly to photography. This admission did not please Picasso, who considered photography a secondary and unsatisfying interest. He responded to Brassaï, “When you have something to say, to express, any submission becomes unbearable in the long run. One must have the courage of one's vocation and the courage to make a living from one's vocation. The ‘second career’ is an illusion! I was often broke too, and I always resisted any temptation to live any other way than from my painting.”
To Brassaï, of course, photography was not a second career and he pursued it with great passion. His images ultimately earned him the moniker “the eye of Paris,” coined by no other than novelist Henry Miller.
I revisited this account recently after seeing several essays aimed at budding photographers aspiring to make a profession of their avocation. I never quite understood why such posts seem to appear in clusters and with some regularity, and most often culminate in the perennial advice, “Don’t quit your day job.” More puzzling, however, is the fact that such shoddy and irresponsible advice often is left unchallenged. After all, professional photographers do exist, and many of us do, in fact, find it an exceedingly rewarding—even life-affirming—vocation.
I concede that being a professional artist is, as they say, not for everyone. Indeed, if you think of being an artist as just another job then that’s what it will be, and certainly there are much better jobs to be had, but for people of a certain kind there are not many better lives.
It is fair that you may wonder what I mean by “a certain kind,” and in fairness I do not have a failsafe definition. Smarter people than I characterized such people as being awake—alert and attuned to life’s rewards in all forms, both material and intangible. Beyond the simplistic measure of income, an artist also must, as suggested by painter Francis Bacon, “learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs.” Writer Henry David Thoreau went as far as venturing numerical estimates when he wrote, “The millions are awake enough for physical labour; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life.” Whether Thoreau’s numbers are accurate approximations or not, I believe ultimately that those who are awake know who they are. They know because any pursuit devoid of emotional reward, a sense of accomplishment and discovery, significance and meaning is one in which they will not thrive, and that may even lead them to despair.
Whether you should keep your day job or pursue your dreams is a matter of balancing risk. Certainly some circumstances dictate greater material dependence on stable income and other perceived benefits of being employed in less satisfying lines of work. Still, financial risk should not be the only factor in such decisions. Though not easily quantifiable, to someone who is awake and aching for the rewards of freedom, inspiration and fulfillment, the risks of confinement, dissatisfaction and regret may be immense. Likewise, the rewards of attaining such things may well offset, by a wide margin, the small discomforts of making do with less income. It is important to approach such decisions rationally rather than succumbing to fear or the opinions of others who may not share your passions or who place different values on such things than you do.
Further complicating such assessment of risk also is the fact that many, I believe, do not have sufficient knowledge and experience to place proper value on the intangible rewards of being a professional artist. Particularly, I am speaking of the sense of transcendence and flow—of finding such intense joy and deep satisfaction in what you do as to ward off worry and anxiety completely for a stretch of time. Not everyone accomplishes such states in their work, but in my estimation anyone who experienced transcendence will go to almost any length and weather almost any hardship to find it again. Such a person also will never advise others to settle for the safety of an unfulfilling job if there is even the slightest chance that they may succeed in living their dream.
It is in the nature of creative work that it enriches life in ways far exceeding whatever income it produces. With sufficient dedication, the artist and the art form a symbiotic relationship: the more you do it, the better it gets and the better you get.
And what if you fail? I contend that there are significant rewards in that scenario, too. To again quote Francis Bacon, “There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.” Failure always is a possibility, sometimes even likely, but that is exactly why the mere act of trying alone holds such great value. Not only is it a measure of courage, but also a remedy for the dreaded condition of regret.
And so, my advice is this: if you believe with all your heart that you are the sort who is—or can be—awake, and your circumstances are such that the risk of doing is smaller than the risk of not doing, by all means do quit your day job, because the alternative may be far grimmer. Even if you fail, you will always know that you have in you the courage to try and you will have no regrets, and that already is a formidable accomplishment.
Moreover, don’t fool yourself into believing that “some day” you will be able to accomplish such things without risk. When you are young you may think that there is still time. As you get older and become set in your career and your commitments and your possessions you may be afraid to change course. You may even try to convince yourself that the practical, settled and “responsible” life is sufficiently satisfying. When you reach middle age—the time when you become ever more acutely aware of your mortality—and wonder whether you indeed made the best choices you could, your mind may be comforted by the thought that it may be too late to do something about it, anyway. While such feelings may well be true for many, they likely will not satisfy those who are awake and unhappy. They did not satisfy me. I did quit my day job.
And to those who feel it is their place to discourage others, I propose some soul searching. You may find it within yourself to be awake as well, and your life may become a far grander adventure than you ever thought it could be. And if you care about doing right by others, never tell them to not pursue their calling. If even one would-be satisfied artist heeds your advice at a point when they are suggestible enough to accept it at face value and as a result spends their days in disappointment, you have unwittingly caused grave and irreversible harm to a fellow human being. That is no small matter.
Guy Tal is a professional artist, author, photographer, educator and public speaker. He believes that the practice of creative pursuits manifests not only in the making of art, but also has the ability to transform and enrich life, facilitate meaningful and rewarding experiences, and foster contentment and satisfaction through lifelong discovery and learning. He can be found at GuyTal.com. This article originally published in Photograph Magazine.