From Busboys to Economists: How 12 Famous Photographers Reinvented Their Careers

famous photographer, David Lachapelle in his studio.
David Lachapelle in his studio.

If you read the biographies of many famous photographers, you’d think all of the big names were born with a Brownie Box in-hand. But not every iconic photographer knew immediately what they wanted to do, or could make their dream career happen immediately. Just like the rest of us, before they were famous, many of your favorite photographers had to do put in time in department stores, restaurants, and even at high-paying government jobs.

Roy Emerson Stryker‘s first credits include: Economist and Head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. However, during his time with the U.S. Government, Stryker used his artistic skills to document the ecological devastation of the Depression, joining forces with other famous photographers to work on projects for Standard Oil and, later, to establish the Pittsburgh Photographic Library.

famous photographersSurrealist visionary David LaChapelle ran away from home at 15 and worked as a busboy at Studio 54 before returning to his hometown in North Carolina to pursue the arts.

Like many others in the field, the photographer known as Brassaï (real name: Gyula Halász) started out studying painting. In fact, an interest in painting is a pretty common trend among photographers. Ansel Adams, Cindy Sherman, Annie Leibovitz, and many more began their careers making pictures with paint or clay, rather than cameras.

Joel Meyerowitz had a fairly successful career working in advertising when he quit his agency job in favor of photography.

Anne Geddes, who grew up on a farm, traveled with a hotel company in her native Australia, and eventually took a job as a receptionist at a television station. It was there she met husband Kel, who later encouraged her to make photographer her full-time job.

Struggling with dyslexia, David Bailey always had a hard time in school. At the age of 15, he took a job as a copyboy at a local newspaper, which lead to a string of unfulfilling jobs before he eventually earned enough money to pursue photography.

Steve McCurry‘s work for National Geographic includes one of the most recognizable covers in the world, but he originally studied theatre arts in college, where he worked at the school newspaper.

before they were famous photographers
Edward Weston – Cabbage Leaf (1931)

American photographer Edward Weston worked in a department store to make his living, while shooting photos in his free time. He eventually pursued his dream of owning a photography studio and later went on to be one of the most quintessentially American photographers of the early 20th century.

Photo: Steven Huszar

André Kertész disappointed his family when he chose a career in photography, rather than continuing to work as a stock trader, which he had gone to school to learn. He did, however, return to the stock exchange throughout his career to support himself and his family.

Balancing day jobs with creative work is always a struggle — but if you put in the time and the work, eventually, you might be able to make your passion project your full-time gig.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.