Can Photographers Restore Their Devastated Business?

On one of the photo blogs they were discussing a photog that was down on their luck. The photog was living hand to mouth, could not afford dental work, proper storage of their work and were borrowing $ to live. The post outlined a problem many photogs face nowadays – a decline in biz due to the digital photo revolution. They asked the question …Can Photographers Restore Their Devastated Business?

For many a starving artist is a good choice along with a case of Top Ramen and a bottle of Vit C.  Unless I had someone to split monthly expenses with I would not be able to work on the projects that I do now. I’d have to spend more money for basic living expenses and have less money for the photo projects.

It is very expensive to live nowadays. In the early 1970’s a studio apartment in L.A. was $65 a month, a landline phone was $14 a month, gasoline was .21 a gallon, a doctors office visit was $10 or $15.

What do we get for $65 now? Hardly a tent…

In the Shadow of City Hall V25 2015 Daniel D. Teoli Jr. mr

A house that now costs $2.5 million near the Miracle Mile then cost $25,000. What you paid for a house back then hardly covers college cost today. Hell, what we pay for new cars now could have bought you a nice house back then. The banks paid about 4-1/2% on passbook saving. The new trend in 2016 may be to charge negative % rates…the banks will charge you to hold your $ and pay you no %.

If I was living back in L.A….I’d prob be homeless as well. I can’t afford those rents. Sure we earned less back then. The minimum wage was $2.10 or so. But you could generally get jobs for $3.25 an hour with a little skill which would = $520 a month. The $65 studio apartment cost you 12.5% of your gross income. Even with the proposed $15 minimum wage things nowadays do not compare to the 1970’s. A $15 minimum wage = $2400 a month. Studios in L.A. cost about $1100 a month now. Your apartment now takes up 45.8% of your gross income.

Even if you had no skill and were getting $2.10 an hour, a cheap apartment would take only 19.35% of your gross of $336 a month. People also paired off more back then with the boy / girl thing. They could split costs for their place, utilities a car, etc. When your committed or at least living together you can save some $ on living expenses.


The trend with the millennials is to not get married.  Although if you got the wrong partner your sunk and can have your life destroyed, so just depends. With  less marriage comes less close knit families.  An old gal in her nineties told me during the depression there were 3  families living under one roof. They had more safety backups in the old days if you needed help.

When I was going to school, Los Angeles City College was $6.50 a semester and a 4 year degree at Cal State Los Angeles could be pieced together at $63 a trimester. If you didn’t have much $ like I did you would go to City College for 2 years for $26 then transfer to finish up your 4 year degree for $378. For the one fee you could take all the classes you wanted to. All you had to do was buy some used books for $5 to $15 a pop. I could not afford to go to college at todays prices.

Because photography is so competitive nowadays it usually requires travel so you can get that shot of an exotic sunset or person. In the early 1980’s I could go to Mexico for $199. That was for air and hotel for a week. A trip to Europe in the 1980’s cost $199 to $300 for airfare. Back then we could get 2 – #70 pound bags checked for free.

Gear was a lot cheaper as well. When I traveled to Bangkok in the early 80’s. All I had with me was a $99 Pentax K with normal lens. My beat-up Leica M4 was stolen right before the trip. The Pentax was all I could afford, so I made due.

Monsoon Thailand Copyright 1982 Daniel D. Teoli Jr. mr Bangkok Taxi Copyright 1982 Daniel D. Teoli Jr. mr

In any case, all things being equal, it is the photog and not the camera that brings in that iconic photo.

Even if you don’t suffer from camera fondling and have to continually spend $ for your fetishism addiction, photography is one of the most expensive arts you can get into. Unless you doing lost wax bronze casting or working in precious metals, a painter or draftsman can be in biz with some paper, canvas, paints and ink. The traditional artist also has the benefit of having the world at their fingertips and they don’t need to travel to locations.


Artists have a long history of starving to give themselves to their art. They live fugally, cut expenses to the bone so they can do their art. I will do a future post on frugal living for the artist when I get some free time.

Even is somewhat successful, some photogs can still be unhappy. Artists have a higher than average suicide rate than other professions. There is a lot of stress being an artist. I don’t know whether this higher suicide rate has something to do with the creative brain, a life of rejection and criticism or financial insecurity. But artists have to be aware of this tendency.

Recently another photog killed himself.

One of you add Charles Gatewood’s name to the Wiki list which was missing at the time of this post…

Many photogs have an unrealistic notion of how much their photography is worth. Social doc photogs generally don’t make any $ unless they are highly collectable, they work for a client or have a benefactor. For me, I have to make $ in non art areas to fund my photo work.

For you to depend on a steady income from print sales, the collectors must have a real hard-on for your work. Just selling a print here or there or getting a little gig a few times a year wont cut it…if your looking to live a normal life. You will need a very steady income to be able to plan for the future or you may only be able to afford your cell phone bill and a blanket.

Homeless man with cell phone - infrared flash Hollywood, CA 2015 Daniel D. Teoli jr.

Infrared flash photo from Piercing Darkness artists’ book.  Hollywood, CA

There is no law that says we have to do our art as a profession. If I was shooting $50 a DVD maternity gigs, weddings, high school seniors and the rest, I’d have nothing left inside me for my work. The other part of that equation is those subjects have zero interest for me with my photography. I would only be shooting them for $, I’d be an artist whore doing crap I don’t want to do just for the $.

I prefer to not shit where I eat, so my art is separate from my income. When I take on a project the only question I ask is – do I have enough money to fund it. Profit or loss never enters the picture and I am free to pursue anything I please that is affordable within my budget.

There came a point in buggy whip manufacturing where you just had to decide to move on to some other profession or starve. That is how it is with the photography in 2016. Either you can make it or not, that is the bottom line. Plenty of photogs getting filthy rich with photography…but most do not get rich. You will have to figure out where you fit in the picture. If you have a dream pursue it to your fullest. I’ve been at this for nearly 50 years, so I know the score.

With my own photography I’ve worked on a project for almost a year full time. I had to pay $15,000 out of pocket to fund the project. The project had outstanding photography, if you are familiar with my work you know I don’t sign my name to crap. The project was as landmark as landmark could be.  Yet, when the project was done I could not even give it away for free. That is just how it is in a world of 2 billion cell phone cams and $29 Walmart inkjet printers. Don’t like it – don’t do photography.

Art Spiegelman

When I did my project De Wallen: Amsterdam’s Red Light District I asked an institution that had lots of my work in their collection if they could help out with a $200 donation so I could stay an extra day on location. (I shot the project in 5 days, but lost 1/2 day to rain, so only got 4-1/2 days of actual shooting time in.)

I told them they could have all the photos from the project whether they helped out or not. But a donation would allow me to possibly get more photos from an extra days shooting. They declined to help. They were not even willing to donate $50 to the project. The curator for the institution told me over the last 15 years they had bought only 2 items. The rest of the acquisitions were all donated. Why should they pay when it all comes in for free?

I shot a few thousand photos in 5 days in Amsterdam. Maybe they would have got 500 decent photos out of the lot. If you divide $50 by 500 that will give you an idea how worthless photography is…they are not even worth .10 cents a piece. And that was another landmark project with outstanding photos. Photography is very cheap nowadays or very expensive…just depends on how your luck / skill is.

I’ve got nothing to sell you, so I wont lie to you. The life of an artist is chock full of rejection, so get used to it. Even Jack Kerouac of ‘On the Road’ fame got rejected when he applied for a Guggenheim. I wish I could be more positive and offer you blissninny assurance that things will be just great for you, but my own personal experience precludes living in fantasy land.

The best advice I can give you is what I do with my own photography…I work blind. I try to have no preconceived expectations and do the  best I can with the budget I have. Expectations are pre-planned resentments, so remember that.

Even if photography can be near worthless in 2016, if freezing time is in our blood…we keep pushing the button irrespective of money or anything else. But one thing is for sure…if we do our art for love we will never be disappointed.


Girls of the Beat Generation - Daniel D. Teoli Jr Archival Collection

Girls of the Beat Generation

A forthcoming 6 volume artists’ book series by Daniel D. Teoli Jr.

A complete list of artists’ books by Daniel D. Teoli Jr.