Is Commissioned Photography Only For The Under 50s?

This is a serious question and one which many photographers find themselves addressing as their career develops, so let’s try and find some answers and address some of the issues an ageing photographer faces.

Photography has long been seen as the new kid on the block, the new art, the new form of visual communication based on technology that is continually developing and therefore perfectly suited to the young and accepting mind. Today that sense of newness has been replaced with a history of creative endeavour within the arts and the professional environment of the creative industries. The young photographers who blazed a trail through the 1950s, 60s and 70s are leaving us, and those who benefitted from photography’s commercial acceptance during the 1980s and 90s are now fast approaching their sixth and seventh decades on this planet.

The people who commissioned and promoted those young photographers are also finding age creeping up on them as they reach retirement.

That is the reality of the ageing photographer but what does that mean in detail? Well, as we know the young photographer is less burdened by the economic responsibilities of owning a home, supporting a family and the financial drain on an income all of this demands. They can therefore work for smaller fees and within more restrictive budgets. We all did it when we started out, either working as assistants or picking up small jobs as we began to learn our craft. The people commissioning us were of a similar age and that worked also as shared cultural knowledge built strong creative relationships.

As we get older the people we started out with move further up the career chain until they become management figures distanced from the everyday workings of commissioning photography. This is good for them, but not for the photographer who finds themselves having to make new contacts with commissioners who may be looking for photographers closer to their own age just as their predecessors had. This sense of continual renewal is where the protracted career meets its greatest challenge.

The commissioning of a professional photographer has little to do with the quality of work. Not an opinion, but fact based on experience. Commissioning is based on the photographer and the work, however today poor commissioning is too often based upon a perception not knowledge of appropriateness of that photographer, lack of imagination and sadly too often creative laziness.

The most difficult of these to overcome is the perception of appropriateness.

The perception of a photographer over fifty being expensive, opinionated, difficult to work with or their work being ‘old fashioned’ is not uncommon. It is of course nonsense, but it is a perception that today comes from inexperience, insecurity and a lack of confidence amongst those commissioning.

To be fair the older photographer may also be perceived as being more expensive, but to play the other side of that coin, there is no excuse for choosing a photographer because they are cheap or for not talking to the best photographer for the job to see if they will work for the budget on offer.

None of this helps the photographer over fifty struggling to deal with the issues I have outlined here. I’m sorry. However, I don’t think that the photographer is at fault here.

The problem is with the commissioner and I hope that at least some of them read this article. If you know some who would benefit from reading it then please pass it on, and if you do please tell them that this was written by somebody who spent fifteen years commissioning, twenty years working as a photographer, is still working today, and who is over fifty and heading towards sixty. I know of what I speak here.

The older photographer can bring much to any commission. They are not to be dismissed purely on the basis of their age. The younger photographer is also suitable for commissions, but should not be chosen purely on their age. Commissioning requires balance, and that is exactly what the informed, empathetic, professional commissioner knows.

Image: Irving Penn, Irving Penn: In a Cracked Mirror, New York, 1986. © The Irving Penn Foundation

Dr. 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, 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 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022

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