The old saying, “You can’t see the forest through the trees,” really applies to organizations. I belonged to the Professional Photographers of America for the entire time I owned my studio. I was a cheerleader for the organization (by that, I mean I actively tried to get other photographers to join and touted the benefits for joining.)
The major benefit of belonging was the Indemnity Trust. It was basically like a malpractice insurance for photographers. As to the rest… well, let’s just say that PPA is a corporation that has a goal of making money. With that said, they cared very little about the success of its members. It was more about what can they do to get a member to pay money to PPA.
The biggest hype from PPA was about education. I earned my Photographic Craftsman Degree from PPA, which is earned by teaching at PPA workshops and classes and speaking at PPA affiliates. There was never any problem finding a workshop, class or presentation to attend.
Where PPA is failing is, many new photographers would rather learn online via YouTube or other online venues. It’s hard to compete with “Free”. I’d often ask other photographers about where they learn about photography and the #1 answer was, “YouTube.”
Another failing of PPA was qualifying who taught. I was shocked to learn that some of the PPA “Stars” (those who were popular PPA speakers) where great at giving presentations, but lousy at business. At one national PPA event, a vendor took me to dinner. At dinner, the vendor representative commented that they know which photographers are making money. I asked what that meant. I was told they know which ones fail to pay their bills, bounce checks, and have declined credit cards.
The real shocker came when the vendor rep told me several of those account duds were PPA speakers. (The rep intimated a couple of speakers I had mentioned were among those who had financial troubles.) Within a couple of years, I watched those photographers/PPA-speakers fade into the background while other “platform dancers” took their place.
The real education for me was when I decided to take a correspondence art class. The professor talked about composition. It was then I realized what a narrow view of composition was taught by these PPA instructors. I learned more in 18 hours of this art class than years of attending PPA classes about composition.
Most of the PPA instructors have VERY limited art educations. While there are a few that have their MFA degrees, most of them only know the oft repeated statements other photographers make about composition rules. For the most part, they were limited in scope to two rules – the rule of thirds and leading lines.
They also fail greatly in teaching sound business practices. They don’t require members to have business permits, sales tax certificates, business insurance, or any other qualifying documents. Pay your dues, and you become a member. As a result, you have photographers who ask, “What should I charge for an 8×10?” The usual answer didn’t include a cost-of-goods-sold computation and the need to charge enough to cover your expenses and costs.
Stepping back, I dropped my PPA membership after becoming disabled and getting frustrated with PPA’s so-called Master Photographer Degree program. I’m embarrassed to say I got sucked in to the fray. I drank the Koolaid, as they say.
I was just a couple of credits away from earning my Master Artist and Master Photographer Degrees when I stepped away. The straw the broke the camel’s back was how many PPA Print Competition Judges were so full-of-themselves they wouldn’t know a Rembrandt from a Jackson Pollack. And, the qualifications of being a judge were basically attending the workshop and paying the tuition to attend and having earned the PPA Master’s degree.
After Stepping Away
After stepping away I got involved with 3D art. What I discovered in the art world was an eyeopener. Here’s a summary:
- In the art world, artists check their ego at the door. At PPA, it’s a bunch of folks trying to blow their own horn.
- In the art world you can get a honest critique. In the PPA world, you get someone trying to impress you with words (some of which they don’t even understand. My favorite is… Rembrandt lighting.)
- Artist understand that different styles require different judging criteria. You look at a Jackson Pollack differently than you look at a Rembrandt. At PPA, it’s the style du jour. What’s “good” at PPA competitions varies with what the sentiment is at the time of the competition. Images quality at a PPA competition is a moving target, whereas in among artists, what was good in 1890 is still good today.
- Artist don’t care what initials you have behind your name, or the medals you wear around your neck. At PPA events you see people walking around with ribbons and medals around their neck as if they were campaign ribbons on a general’s chest.
When I called PPA and told them I wanted to leave the organization, there was zero effort to find out why. Nobody contacted me with a survey. That tells me that they simply don’t care about customer service. It’s all about the money.
That Was Then, This is Now
That was then, this is now. I’ve found I feel much more fulfilled since leaving PPA. I cannot believe how much money and vein effort I spent at PPA. While I spend a lot of money on art supplies, they are assets I own, and not simply an experience.
Pose, light and angles still apply to my art work. In fact, I’m receiving a lot of comments from fellow artists that are more validating than ANY PPA judge’s comments about my print competition entries. Yes, I learned a lot from various PPA workshop instructors, but it was more an experience with some education thrown in.
The funny thing is my disability meant closing my business. Yet, I constantly get questions from people asking if I would do a commissioned piece for them. (I politely turn them down because (1) stress aggravates my neuromuscualar disease, (2) dealing with clients and time lines is stressful, (3) brain fog (aka cognitive dysfunction) means I can’t keep track of things very well.
Would I Recommend PPA Now
Would I recommend PPA now?
I wouldn’t recommend PPA for the following reasons:
- It’s a big additional expense. I learned too late that you can add a rider to your business insurance that covers “malpractice” that is cheaper than PPA dues.
- PPA educators don’t always lead you down the correct path because PPA doesn’t vet them.
- You can find local photography groups that offer classes and events that are cheaper and in many cases, better.
- You don’t need letters after your name. Yeah, I got sucked in to the hype and tried to justify those letters to clients and potential clients. Bottom line is, your work sells itself. People either like your style, or they don’t.
In the end, 18 years of PPA wasn’t a total waste. The education wasn’t as important as the friends I made and some of the fun times we had playing around at PPA workshops. But, looking back, I wish I had gone a different route.