I know that it is just a case of semantics but it seems to be one full of implied status and assumed superiority. So, let’s try and get some clarity here. This will not be a long article but I hope that it will go some way in bringing relief to those who feel that their work is decried as being of lesser quality due to its commercial context and some honesty from those who see the word as being a slur on their practice of the medium.
What is so often described as commercial photography is in effect more accurately described as commissioned photography. A photographer is asked to produce images for a fee to a brief that may be as restrictive or loose as the commissioner wishes it to be. The work will be commissioned on the work previously created by the photographer that has either been previously commissioned or created as personal work. I know this is 1 + 1 = 2 but stay with me on this.
Within commissioned photography is pretty obvious that a commercial transaction has taken place. The fly in the ointment for those who have a narrow perspective on ‘commercial’ work is, how today how many commissioners are looking for personal work as a starting point for their commissioning and how – admittedly due to reduced budgets – much freedom on a shoot many photographers are being given. This is particularly true within the editorial environment.
The idea of the restrictive brief and over-demanding client is of course still a reality and perhaps even more of an issue when working tethered. I know of many photographers whose shots are delayed as they wait for client approval whilst waiting for an emailed image to be accepted before they are able to move on but this is not the whole picture. Commissioned photography has many facets to it and many different outcomes. It would take too long to name all of the photographers who have and still do shoot commissioned work and yet their work has and continues to appear in galleries and prestigious photo books. From Walker Evans to Robert Frank, from Martin Parr to Larry Clark, from Saul Leiter to Bill Brandt to name just a few. The list goes on and on.
It is a fact today that the self-initiated project is the creative starting point for so many photographers. Work that is created unfunded, un-commissioned and often with no specific final destination in mind. This is not commercial work at its instigation but the moment that it is sold as a print, within a book, by a syndication agency or published for a fee within a publication in print or online it has been part of a commercial transaction. The work has provided a financial return on investment and if you are lucky a profit. It has become ‘commercial photography’ and that is a good thing not something to feel bad or dirty about. If you want photography to be your profession – part-time or full-time – you will need it to provide you with some form of financial return.
The word commercial should therefore be applied to all work that has been part of some form of commercial transaction. It is not, the final destination or context of the work that should define its description but the point of instigation that work should be defined if it needs to be at all. In this case there are two areas of work, the ‘commissioned’ and the ‘personal’. Both of which can at some point be described as commercial depending on how and where they are used and the photographer is recompensed for their time and input into the creation of the work.
It’s simple really. So, for the sake of accuracy and too remove implied dismissiveness please stop using the word commercial and question its usage when you see it used. Instead embrace the more accurate descriptions of commissioned and personal. Or better still don’t use any of these descriptive words at all and accept that it is all photography and if you are lucky enough to get paid for what you do it is your profession making you a professional photographer.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of the United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2018.
© Grant Scott 2017