A Bit of History – My struggle for success in the 90s

The purpose of this blog is to capture my efforts as a struggling photographer and writer, to illustrate the efforts I make in hopes of finding success, and to report the results both good and bad of those efforts. Included among these are my climbs and travels in Japan, a major part of my work as a photographer. On the train last night I mentally reviewed how the 90s were for me as an amateur seeking a professional career. I hope this chunk of my history might provide a realistic view of the professional photography world to anyone who thinks to try to become a full-time professional.

In the four years that passed since my first published image I learned a lot about the photography business world. I learned that I had to shoot slide film (back in the early 90s) because stock agencies and most publishers worked exclusively with slide film. I also learned to create a stock list of my work and submit it to magazines. Rejection letters for submissions to magazines were to be regarded as the norm. As they say, expect to wallpaper your office with rejection letters before you find your first acceptance notice. In 1994 that notice came not once but three times. Two of my photographs were published with payment to me and the third appeared in the Photo Digest magazine readers’ supplement, which featured photos submitted by readers but which were not used in the regular issues. This was a prestige usage.

The following year the good news doubled. Canadian Geographic used two of my photos for a feature about the Frenchman River Valley in Saskatchewan and a third photo for their new back page feature called “Final Frame.” I got an honourable mention in Earth magazine’s photo contest and won a book, plus saw my photo in print. Beautiful British Columbia used a photo of mine in a souvenir guide and another in their fall issue, and selected a photo of mine for a 1996 calendar. And Photo Digest again featured a photo of mine (no payment) in another readers’ supplement.

I saw my success was growing and it encouraged me to work harder. I sent letters to many magazines introducing myself, my stock list, and my accomplishments so far. Some magazines responded positively. A letter from Nature Canada was particularly pleasing. The photo editor was the elder sister of an old school friend of mine and her father had fought alongside my father in North Africa as a soldier in the French Foreign Legion. She remembered me and I thought it was a good chance for my work to get some extra attention. I had an “in” as my boss at my day job put it.

The year 1996 was looking promising as ever. I had submitted photos to a local book project and had ten accepted. Photos were out at several magazines and at least three were keeping my photos for possible publication. Both Canadian Geographic and Beautiful British Columbia were calling me from time to time to request images that I might have in stock. Unfortunately, I didn’t have what they were looking for most of the time. I got an assignment from Canadian Geographic because I told the photo editor I was going to Winnipeg and if there was anything they needed around there I would shoot it for them. It so happened they were doing a story about a church outside the city and gave the photo assignment to me. The November issue featured five of the photos I shot in and around the church.

But aside from that and my photo in the Beautiful BC 1996 calendar, there was no further publication news. In fact, it was during this year that the bad news started coming with rapidity. The local book project was abandoned and all my photos were returned. Beautiful BC also cancelled a book project for which I had sent material and a second book project I had submitted for was completed without my photographs. Harrowsmith magazine ceased publication, a pity since the photo editor had really liked the sample photos I had sent. Earth magazine had actually paid me in advance for a photo to appear in their next issue but then announced that they too would cease publication. Pacific Northwest magazine had selected two of my photos and had already planned to use one two months hence when they too decided to fold. And the National Association for Photographic Art in Canada was undergoing some major restructuring (eventually to merge with the Canadian Association for Photographic Art). The long-time running magazine of NAPA, Camera Canada, which had accepted a portfolio of images from me in 1994 and held on to them, ceased publication too and my photos followed the others back to my mailbox. In addition, Nature Canada was downsizing and my “in” was laid off. I was told they were only going to work with photographers whose work they had published in the past. I was out of the picture. Two cancelled book projects; four magazines down, one out as far as I was concerned; and 22 photographs that might have been published but were returned – such was the score by the beginning of 1997. The only real bright spot was that Catholic Digest magazine had seen the article in Canadian Geographic and asked for permission to reprint it, using three of my photographs.

It was disappointing for certain. I was submitting articles to various photo magazines and getting the rejection notices I had heard were required to reach the point of success. However, my accepted work was also coming back as the publishing world was being shaken by economic downturn. By 1997 I didn’t care so much anymore. By then I had decided to go to Japan. I no longer tried to submit new ideas or contact new magazines. I still submitted photos to two calendar companies and as a result saw 3 photos published in 1999 and two more a couple of years later. Though Beautiful BC no longer rang my phone, Canadian Geographic still called and I saw one more image published in 1997 and a last one published in 1998.

In the early summer of 1999 I left Canada for Japan. My mother said it was a mistake to cut all the connections I had made in Canada and head overseas to start anew, but most of what I had tried to build in the last few years had been lost anyway. Who can say what would have become of my career had I stayed and applied myself even more? In retrospect it seems I was caught trying to paddle upstream just when the dam was bursting behind me and the water was rushing out. I have never given up and the lessons I learned, the confidence I received, have kept me going. I know I am not the best but I believe there is a place for my work out there. It’s just a question of finding the right home for my ideas at the right time.

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