Michael Clark's "Defining Success"

Photographer Michael Clark

Michael Clark (www.michaelclarkphoto.com) is an internationally published outdoor photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. His editorial and corporate clients include National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Outside, Men's Journal, Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Climbing, Nike, Nikon, Adobe, Patagonia, Pfizer and DuPont to name just a few. He has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images of rock climbers, mountaineers, kayakers, and mountain bikers pushing their sports to the limit in remote locations around the world. He was kind to review and contemplate on an article he had written for his own newsletter in 2010, which remains very applicable to photographers in all fields.

Michael: "Success. What defines success in your mind? There is a story that Dave Chappelle tells on the TV series Inside the Actor’s Studio that really struck me right between the eyes. In the story he was talking with his father's  desire to become an actor. His father told him, "Name your price in the beginning. If it ever gets more expensive than that, get out of there." Basically, he said to his son, "Decide now what success looks like."

Kurt Smith's fingers crimping down on some tiny crystals in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, California. This image was my first to be published by National Geographic Magazine and while it isn't one of my best images necessarily, when it was published in the magazine I had finally fulfilled a goal I had set at the beginning of my career. Photograph by Michael Clark

As a young man he was chasing after a dream that was going to be very difficult to achieve, and his father’s advice was shockingly astute. In this golden age of photography and in our capitalist society here in America, success is usually defined by how much money you make.

Sometimes the amount of money a person makes really is a good indicator of success and other times not so much. In the art world especially, the amount of money an artist makes during their lifetime has little to do with how they and their work is regarded. Vincent Van Gogh, for example, never made much money from his paintings, but 150 years later, he is hailed as a genius. Alternatively, Pablo Picasso did fairly well financially and was no less an artist. Even a luminary in the photo world like Ansel Adams struggled for most of his career to make ends meet.

So what is the definition of success? I am not going to answer that question in this short editorial, nor am I capable of answering that question for anyone but myself. I bring up the question because as I look around in the world right now there are lots of folks who have lost a job or quit their job to pursue their passions. In the same vein, there are more and more photographers hanging out their shingle as a pro every day. If you are just starting out, I encourage you to download the episode of "Inside the Actor’s Studio" with Dave Chappelle. I know it isn’t specific to our industry, but it is a very open and honest look at how Dave "made it" and in that episode he pulls back the curtain, so to speak, on how he "made it" and what that looks like in reality.

I remember many years ago, just after I had gone full-time with photography, I met Ace Kvale in Ouray, CO and told him that I had made the leap. He encouraged me by saying that being able to make a living as a photographer "is a big deal. It is a success all in and of its own and very few people ever get to that stage in a photography career." That was over 12 years ago, and I still remember that conversation like it was yesterday. I don’t bring this up to defend my income or success. I have done very well for myself with my photography career, and I have achieved goals I never thought possible. Whether or not you make as much money as you want to with your career, how you define success will be a matter of much more than finances. Hopefully happiness, the ability to give back to a community and inspire others are big factors in any success – in addition to being able to pay the bills."

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This is an excerpt from the Fall 2010 issue of the Michael Clark Photography Newsletter, used with permission. If you would like to read the rest of the Newsletter please click here. If you would like to subscribe to the Newsletter, which is free, please send Michael an email at info@michaelclarkphoto.com. Copyright © 2012.

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