Over the past few weeks I have had a number of conversations with photographers and those involved with photography in which they have not only displayed a condescending and ill-informed attitude towards commissioned photography but also one which demonstrates a highly tuned level of hypocrisy.
I have had such conversations many times over the years but as the role of photography within all of our lives rapidly evolves and mutates away from what it once was for many of those I have spoken with, their stance becomes increasingly defensive, outdated and depressingly elitist. What themes do these conversations revolve around? Primarily those concerning the higher moral, aesthetic and intellectual standing of self-initiated work (even that which has been funded by a third-party) created by those who do not work to a client brief over work created in response to a client commission.
Such a stance not only completely misunderstands the reality of the creative process of much commissioned work today but also ignores the reality of the circumstances that so much self-initiated work is created under. Interestingly, those that I have had this conversation with most recently are rarely if ever commissioned and yet they have felt themselves sufficiently informed to pass comment on a process and body of work that they have no experience or understanding of.
This is of course rarely the position held by a photographer regularly commissioned as they will have been creating self-initiated work throughout their career to varying degrees of output to both develop their commissioned practice and personal interests. This work is invariably funded thanks to their commissioned work. The resulting financial independence therefore allows work to be created without any third-party intervention, expectation or influence.
This may all seem very obvious but in an environment heavily influenced by dense smoke and multiple mirror configurations it seems appropriate to bring some clarity to this situation.
To progress with this smoke clearing operation let’s consider those photographers who are actively engaged with creating work but who are not being commissioned by clients within the broad editorial and advertising environment. How are they funding their self-initiated work? Well of course many will be applying for bursaries, government funding and non-government funding. Others will be supporting their practice through workshops, teaching, print sales, self-publishing and lecturing. Some through employment outside of photography.
All except for those supplementing their incomes from roles outside of photography all other photographers have photographic clients; enablers who are funding the creation of photography. Those that are supplying that funding will have some level of expectation of the photographers output in return for their financial investment in the photographer. Commissioned photography is no different to this.
Speaking to a photography student recently she informed me that her lecturer had told her only to pursue her photography as a ‘fine artist’ as professional photography was all about being told what to do by clients including where to put lights and which F Stop to use! It is this type of ignorant belief and teaching that is maintaining a ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture within professional photography and creating a new generation of professional photography ignorance.
Further proof of this belief in action can be clearly seen in this artist statement accompanying an upcoming talk, “XX will discuss her path into photography and her choice to focus on personal projects rather than assignment work. “It’s important for me to maintain my sense of independence as a photographer”. I fully respect her focus on personal projects but the inference that it’s not possible to maintain that independence through commissioned work is again ill-informed, inaccurate and disrespectful of fellow photographers working within that arena and maintaining the very independence XX so values.
I use the term ‘professional photography’ to bring some much-needed clarity and honesty to all forms of photographic practice. Martin Parr is currently promoting Birds Eye frozen products and Elliott Erwitt is helping to sell Artemide designer lighting, Robert Capa shot fashion, whilst Nan Goldin and Larry Clark amongst others continue to do so! Nadav Kander is regularly commissioned by the Telegraph on Saturday magazine as are Simon Roberts, Marcus Bleasdale and Simon Norfolk. William Eggleston has shot for Rolling Stone magazine and sold one of his images to appear on the cover of a Primal Scream album, whilst Bruce Davidson sold one of his to be on a Bob Dylan album cover. Many other photographers who have been and continue to be regularly exhibited, discussed and venerated in galleries and at photo festivals internationally also have no issue with taking corporate payments for their work.
You will all know of other photographers and publications, brands and agencies that similarly commission photographers who regularly cross the divide between ‘commercial’ and ‘art’ (although neither term sits comfortably with me). And this is how it should be. I have no problem with this. Photographers such as Ryan McGinley and Vivianne Sassen have built entire careers without differentiation between the gallery wall and magazine page.
Professional, commissioned photography is not a dirty, little secret. It is an essential driving force and global touch point for the medium.
Yet despite these photographers and many others having no issue with the concept of commissioning as part of their photographic practice their remains an outdated belief by many (particularly within academia, photography festivals, theory writers and exhibition curators) that commissioned work is a lesser form of photographic practice. If you have followed and agreed with my logic throughout this article you will see that it cannot be, as to look down upon work with a client would be to look down on all forms of photographic practice in which some form of financial transaction has taken place.
My belief is that those whom I have spoken to that hold and promote these views do so as part of a hope that by doing so they are retaining a sense of the untouchable in photography. Whilst photography becomes a global visual language open to all through non-specific photographic devices they cling to the weak notion that they can retain a sense of mystery to its creation and meaning through intellectual pomposity. An ‘art form’ above and beyond the fervent smart phone ‘snapper’ or Instagrammer, rather than embracing all forms of photography as being both culturally and socially important.
Unfortunately just as many of the early followers of Bob Dylan were unable to accept his move from the acoustic folk club to the electric mainstream those that are unwilling to see the popular in photography as being of creative, intellectual and aesthetic value are missing an understanding of the very essence of photography as a visual art of the masses.
© Grant Scott 2014
You can read more of Grant Scott’s insights into the world of professional photography in his new book Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained published by Focal Press and available form www.amazon.com and www.amazon.co.uk