Art Directors Can Make Great Photographers!

Let me put some meat on the bone of the title of this article by listing some of the photographers who spent their earliest days to the side of the camera making suggestions, rather than behind it pressing the button. Irving Penn (Saks Fifth Avenue), Tony Ray Jones (a car magazine), Hans Feurer (advertising), Peter Knapp (Elle magazine), Harry Peccinotti (Nova magazine), Richard Burbridge (Tatler magazine), Mark Mattock (Arena magazine), Michael Roberts (Tatler magazine), Eric Boman (Tatler magazine), and Lillian Bassman (Harper’s Bazaar magazine) all began as art directors. I am sure that there are many more, but that’s not a bad start.

But not all art directors leave directing behind them. Alexey Brodovitch (Harper’s Bazaar magazine) Alexander Leiberman (Vogue magazine), Marvin Israel (Seventeen, Harper’s Bazaar magazines), Henry Wolf (Esquire magazine), Fabian Baron (Interview, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue magazines), Robin Derick (Vogue, Arena magazines), Sam Chick (Arena magazine), and Geoff Waring (Vogue, Elle, Glamour magazines) have all built successful photographic careers whilst continuing to wear two hats. In fact it is now quite common for photographers to include art direction within their skillset, just as art directors include photography.

Bryn Campbell (British Journal of Photography) was a photo editor and Eamon McCabe (The Guardian) became a photo editor. Wolfgang Tillmans (ID magazine) was a picture editor.

Those who commission photography understand what the client wants and needs from the inside. They are creatives who understand visual communication. Although not all understand photography, or sadly have any interest in the medium, those that do are well equipped to make photographs. Many will have studied photography, both formally and informally and have benefited from real life experience of how photographs are chosen and used.

History proves my point on this, and yet it amazes me how some photographers seem to have a problem with this crossover from the darkness to the light or vice versa depending on your standpoint. Poacher becomes gamekeeper, prison warden becomes convict, hunted becomes hunter. The commissioner becomes the photographer.

I can understand why a sense of protectionism, or fear of nepotism could creep into the mindset of any person who feels that the time they have put into perfecting their craft is being undermined by someone stepping onto their turf without the same training. However, we are talking about informed professionals here developing their creativity by moving into an area where they have experience. It may not be the same experience as a trained photographer, but I would argue that it is just as valuable and relevant.

If a photographer can art direct a photograph why can’t an art director make a photograph?

William Klein painted, designed books, made films, commercials and stills, creative multi-tasking is nothing new. Brian Duffy made stills, films and restored furniture, I could go on but I am sure that you are getting the picture! Transferable creative skills have long been evidenced amongst photographers, and many of those photographers came to the medium from non-traditional places and education.

Many photographers study photography within formal education, but many do not as I have discovered through the contributions photographers make to my A Photographic Life podcast each week. No photographer only makes photographs; they design websites books, and marketing material, write and speak about their work, curate their work, make and edit moving image material, and engage in post-production of their photographs. Much of which is the day to day life of the art director. In a creative environment mutual respect is essential to create strong work and to remain open to learn from others. The more photographers respect art directors, picture editors and photo editors the more opportunity there will be for this to happen. Of course that respect has to go both ways.

And just before you mention it, and in the service of full exposure I worked as a magazine art director for twenty years (Elle, Tatler magazine), and I have worked as a photographer for the past twenty-two years. I am not a great photographer, but I am a photographer.

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

Image: © Geoff Waring, 2002.


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