Editorial, Advertising and Art! It’s All Photography!

A confrontational and controversial statement to make, but one I feel needs to be said, although all three have their own defined scarf wearing teams the title of this article is slightly more nuanced than it may suggest. My comment is not based on the death of the contexts of editorial, advertising or art photography but the death of the belief that they are three directly opposed approaches to image creation. Let me explain…

For many years the worlds of advertising and editorial photography were as separate in community as the Montague’s and Capulet’s. Two families who never mixed and retained an unhealthy misconception of each others relationship to photography. Editorial photography was the lesser paid option with creative freedom as a given, whilst advertising photography was the highly paid choice, with the creative shackles applied. You worked in one or the other, with very little cross over occurring. The idea was that you took editorial commissions with the hope of having your work seen in magazines by art directors and clients with money to spend on creative campaigns that would provide a very comfortable lifestyle. The truth was that this rarely happened. There were a few exceptions but most of those photographers were plying their trade in the 1970s, 80s and 90s when the marketplace was more local and the players in the game much fewer.

The reason for this was that editorial and advertising photography were very separate beasts creatively. Advertising work leaned towards concepts and technical excellence, whereas editorial work tended to be looser, less technical and more about the actual moment than the constructed moment.

Art photography sat outside both. Often supported by arts council funding, bursaries and teaching positions. Art photography travelled its own road completely divorced from the commercial world of its commissioned cousins. It had its own heroes and touchstones of excellence just as editorial and advertising had. I well remember being sent Nadav Kander’s portfolio in the early 90s, when I was an editorial art director and he was an established advertising photographer. He was looking to break into editorial but his work was as alien to my commissioning criteria as were the photographers I was working with to the advertising world. It took him many years to begin to be commissioned by editorial clients.

But things have changed.

As the editorial marketplace has constricted its commissioning policies have become increasingly restrictive and safe. Art directors, art editors and photo editors fearful of making a commissioning mistake are sticking with the photographers they know and are commissioning with highly detailed commissioning briefs. These ‘safety nets’ are not to the benefit of the photographer and are often used as defence policies by which the commissioner clings if the images created do not meet the unachievable expectation of those with no knowledge of photography.

The sense of creative freedom is too often discouraged as the fees and budgets rapidly decline and in many cases disappear. Magazine circulations are crashing and as budgets are cut across the board, design groups and ad agencies are ending their subscriptions to the very magazines they used to consider so important in maintaining a contemporary understanding of photography and photographers. That marketplace is closing down.

Meanwhile, those art buyers, photo directors and art directors working within advertising agencies are hearing a new brief from their clients. The buzz words they are using include ‘believable’, ‘real’, ‘relevant’, ‘interesting’, and ‘different’. Concepts have to be ‘out there’, and ‘challenging’. The photographers they are looking to, to solve these visual conundrums are not the ‘traditional’ advertising photographers.

This is good news for photographers. The segregation is over. There is no longer an ‘editorial look’ to photography or an ‘advertising look’ or for that matter an ‘art look’. As contemporary art based photographers increasingly work conceptually, as documentary photographers have their work collected as art prints, as editorial photographers explore personal projects for exhibitions and books, the professional photographic landscape becomes one built on photography rather than unnecessary labels.

However, change takes time to take hold and despite the reality of this situation and the evolving nature of the commercial contexts in which photography exists, I still hear people refer to work as being ‘editorial’ or ‘advertising’ or even worse ‘arty’. This despite multiple examples of the crossovers I am discussing here taking place. We know it is possible for a photographer to be exhibited in a national gallery and sell frozen foods with his photography, we know that magazine work regularly appears in contemporary art photography auctions. We know that Magnum photographers create campaigns for luxury fashion brands. I could go on and on but I am sure that you get my point.

Today, the clients are buying into the photographer as much as the photography created by the photographer. They are buying into the initiative, passion, intellectual curiosity and empathy it is possible to show within a body of photographic images. Artefacts such as self-published books, self-initiated exhibitions, artist talks and social media engagement all provide the photographer with touch points that can provide a context for the commissioner to connect with. These touch points are not based on the colour of a team’s scarf but on the personal attributes, character and experience that the photographer has, and that they bring to their work.

Photography has moved on, the fences have come down and the work proves these facts. Now it is time for those who like or need labels to move on also.

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 (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Taylor Francis 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Taylor Francis 2019). His next book What Does Photography Mean to You? will be published in November 2020.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay can now be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd47549knOU&t=3915s.

© Grant Scott 2020


  1. Thank you for an interesting article – its good news for us all. I dislike being pigeon holed and find it hard to choose a category in competitions for this reason.

    Just a small thing – I was identifying with the below statement until I got to ‘his’

    ‘We know it is possible for a photographer to be exhibited in a national gallery and sell frozen foods with his photography,’

    Would it be possible to say ‘his/her” or ‘their’ as you have elsewhere?


    1. Thanks for the positive response. The use of ‘his’ is because this is a specific reference to a male photographer and therefore appropriate.

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