Do Photographers Need a Brief? Was Alexey Brodovitch Right?

If you are working as a commissioned photographer you will be only too aware of the importance of fulfilling the client brief. There is no format by which the brief conforms, or rules by which it is constructed, but it increasingly seems to be the case that clients feel the need to micro-manage and control a process of which they often have very little if any understanding. Mood boards, Pintrest pages and sheets of brand guidelines and regulations are often passed over to a photographer hopefully commissioned on the basis of the images they have created without such creative control.

Alexey Brodovitch was the Russian-born photographer, designer and teacher best known for his ground breaking art direction of the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958. Brodovitch set the template for all editorial art direction and his influence remains strong in the best designed magazines today. He understood photography they way that photographers did because he was himself creative.

In 1933, he established the Design Laboratory in New York, a project that continued into the 1960’s across summer schools and evening classes. It was intended to be a workshop for his advanced students who wanted to experiment with all aspects of design and was divided into two sections per week, one for design and one for photography. The workshops were immensely popular and influential, with more than sixty people regularly showing up to his classes, dropping some coins into a hat as payment. Among the photographers who attended his classes were Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Hiro, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand and Tony Ray-Jones. All of whom cited him as an essential influence in their work and understanding of photography.

When Brodovitch commissioned photographers he used just two words “Surprise Me!” That was it. No written brief, no visual reference or complicated requirement was placed on the photographer. He trusted the photographer to respond to a situation and gave them space to be themselves.

The work that was created was ground breaking and timeless. 

The art of commissioning requires mutual respect between the client and photographer. The client or commissioner needs to be confident enough in their ability to choose the right person for the job and let them respond to the commission as they see fit based on their ability and experience.

The commissioner needs to allow space for the unexpected.

The over-controlling brief sets expectations that cannot be fulfilled, based on a multitude of possibilities created within the stultifying environment of the corporate office with multiple voices staking a claim as to their departments requirements from the images to be created. An increasingly familiar situation when budgets are tight and job position security is fragile at best.

The belief is that by having some ‘input’ into the creative decision the person has ‘covered their ass!’ so that if the resultant images do not fulfil their expectation it was not their fault but the photographer’s. After all, they had asked for something and not got what they wanted so that cannot be their fault, even if what they had asked for was unachievable or impractical. This blame culture is endemic amongst bad clients.

A brief should give space for interpretation, it should explain clearly what is required but not restrict the photographer’s ability to work with the guidelines that have been set. The outcome should be defined, the process left to the photographer.

Within commissioned photography the photographer is a visual problem solver finding answers for the client that they have not considered as well as those that have been agreed upon through mutually respectful conversation.

It is often believed that commissioned work is dictated by the client and therefore prevents the photographer from displaying personal creative integrity. This is certainly true in some cases but not all.

It is up to the commissioner and client what relationship they want to establish with the photographer they choose to work with, but more often than not the micro-managed constrictive brief says more about the client than it does the photographer who has been chosen to fulfil its requirements. Maybe it is time for the photographer to adopt the Brodovitch mantra and suggest to the client that they may like to forget about the brief and allow themselves to be surprised.

Main Image: Alexey Brodovitch with Richard Avedon (right)


Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, 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 2019.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay can now be seen at

© Grant Scott 2019





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