It takes more than great photos to be a successful photographer - by Arthur Morris
Arthur Morris (Artie to friends) is well known as one of the top bird photographers in the country. But even though his photos are beautiful, he insists that’s not the main component that has lead him to more success than he ever dreamed of. Hard work, giving back to his students, and taking every opportunity to connect with new people and diversify his reach — those are what have truly made him a success. In this and upcoming posts, he shares some of the key components of a successful photo career.
Going back into the mid ’80s when I first started to sell photographs, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. No one was calling me up. One of the big misconceptions now is that people are calling us up all the time to buy photographs. That’s not how it works in general. And one thing I wrote in my first book, The Art of Bird Photography, is that if you made a list of important things for selling photographs, the quality of your images might be about seventh or eighth. And I can prove it. Go to the newsstand and pick up a magazine that has your subject matter in it and every person is going to say, “I have better pictures than that.” But I’m the only person who would say that, and then follow it up with, “Yeah, and that guy must be working a thousand times harder than me because his pictures are in the magazine and mine are not.”
I’ve seen dozens of great photographers who could not sell a picture. And some folks with mediocre work are famous. The hard-work aspect is super important, as is determination. One of the things that happened early on was when my wife and I were considering leaving teaching and selling bird photographs, people said, you’ll never make enough money, how can you think of that, you have such a great health plan with both of you teaching. Being told that I couldn’t do it, that was one of the best things that ever that happened to me. I am a very determined person; when you tell me that I cannot do something, I am gonna bust a gut to do just that.
I mentioned Bird Watcher’s Digest — I’ll be forever indebted to Mary Beacom Bauers, she was the editor there. I sent her an article and she wrote back saying that the article had been accepted for publication. The magazine came out six times a year and for two years I would get it and look at the table of contents and my article was not in there. So I wrote a second article and sent that to her. That was accepted for publication and came out in the next issue. And then the original article came out in the issue after that. The first time I met Mary at Cape May, New Jersey, a big birding hotspot, she said “Boy Artie, after I held your article for two years and you sent me a second article, I knew that you were really determined.”
One of the things that helped me establish myself was realizing that it’s a lot more efficient to write an article, get paid for the article, and get paid for five or six photographs than it is to beat your head against a wall trying to sell one photograph that might get in someone else’s article. Early on I did a lot of writing for Birder’s World and especially Bird Watcher’s Digest. There was probably a five year period where I only missed one or two issues of BWD. That helped me get my name known.
When I first started, I didn’t know what I was doing. But after a couple years my goal became simply to make pictures that pleased me. I never shot for the market, to give advertisers room to put type in the frame, I just wanted the picture to be pretty and people to go, “Ooh ,that’s pretty good.” When I first started, my only goal was to get the cover of one national magazine. And then I thought I’d go on to another hobby, as I’d done before. Somehow, within three years, while I was still a fledgling bird photographer, I had the cover of what used to be called The Living Bird Quarterly (now Living Bird). Instead of that quenching my desire, I said, “That’s pretty cool, let’s do it again.”