“I made a decision to never do commercial work.”
This simple declaration made me write this post. Well, it made me finally write this post. I had been thinking about this for a long while, and hearing this line got me off my ass.
What happens when your photography becomes commercial? In my mind, it changes everything.
A few days ago I had lunch with a photographer I had never met. We were introduced to each other via a third photographic party, and we both ended up in the same town at the same time, and so we made the leap to get together.
I’m really glad I did. Not only was this person an interesting fellow who makes great pictures, but he was also a refreshing perspective on most things photographic, starting with, “There is a lot more to life than photography.” I couldn’t agree more.
I can remember reading something Peter Beard said about being more than “just” a photographer. I think you have to be a lot more than just a photographer. In the grand scheme what we do doesn’t add up to all that much, so you gotta keep that in the back of your mind.
But back to the commercial aspect. I think the moment you begin to work commercially as a photographer the idea of what you are doing completely changes. You routinely find yourself in situations where you are making pictures you don’t want to make, to make money, or in situations where you are shooting pictures strictly for other people, pictures that, again, you just don’t want to make. You typically end up changing your style, changing your equipment and you end up compromising your work.
I started my “career” at a newspaper, barely, and ended up shooting there, on and off, for about a year and half. I was routinely in situations where I was making pictures I didn’t want to make. Man in front of lot where building will be. Man in front of computer. Business meeting in windowless room, etc, etc. These assignments were assigned for various reasons, none of which had anything to do with images. I also began to realize what type of image the paper would run, and what subject matter would get to print. This too began to effect my work as I cruised the city framing and unframing works I thought would or would not make the cut. And, you didn’t have to get names in any image that had, I think, seven or more people, so sure, when in situations with multiple people, you bet I was counting bodies to save time getting information.
My work was changing, compromised by the needs of the publication I was working for.
Then came magazines.
Not let me preface by saying I was never a great magazine photographer. I had images in Life, People, Discovery, SI Kids, etc, but I never really made it to the big time in magazines, partly, I think, do to my own faults, but also due to the magazines beginning their gradual spiral downward.
Most of the assignments I got were not great. Even the multi-day jobs, highly coveted in those days, were so over controlled by editors, assignment editors, reporters, that I normally end up shaking my head at the final outcome. Digital began to creep into the equation and suddenly the quality bar fell even further, and at much faster rate than I could imagine. I can remember one highly regarded national magazine asking me to shoot pictures off the TV screen. I had to ask if the assignment editor was kidding, and also asked why he didn’t just shoot it off the TV himself?
Yes, I was working with magazines, but no I was not making good imagery.
I don’t think this applies only to me. I think the bulk of what I see, images created by working pros, is a vast assortment of compromise brought on by the pressing needs of the commercial client, and by commercial I’m talking about anything from commercial work to portraits, weddings, etc. And let’s not even talk about advertising, which tends to be all about the art of the compromise. There is great work being done, but man it is hard to find at times. I think compromise is simply part of the process, and sometimes it is a large part.
Perhaps this is the trade off you make? I only know a handful of “working” photographers who are making only THEIR images. Most everyone else, compromise.
So when I heard my new friend’ quote, “I made a decision to not do commercial work,” I was taken aback, in a good way.
The interesting thing for me is that I think this person could do commercial work, and still doesn’t do it. He makes his living by other means, but still produces a lot of in depth photography, not to mention he was won several highly prestigious awards from his work.
The thing I am totally jealous of is that when he picks up a camera, he only shoots for him. Ever. Only. Only for him.
No “assignments to make money to go do other things.” He never has to do that. Never has to compromise. Never has to shoot digital on deadline. Never has the “I could care less” assignment. Never has to water down what he is doing.
I can’t imagine anything better.
I make my living with photography, and have for roughly twenty years, so I’m entrenched, and luckily for me, I’ve been able to weed out those jobs I don’t really want to do. And, over the recent past I have made a real effort to only shoot my jobs, to only work in the method and style in which I think I can make my pictures. Selfish? I hope so.
After all, I’m the photographer right? I’m the only the client is calling for images. If I stand around and say, “Okay, how do you want me to shoot?” doesn’t that defeat the purpose of being the photographer? And there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of photographers willing to stand around and be told what to do, or photographers who have just said, “Okay, I’ll do whatever I have to, in whatever style to make it.” On one hand, commendable, but on the other, probably why rates and fees are where they are.
When I run into photographers who build a website and buy a digital camera and race into “being a photographer,” I wonder what the rush is about. Is the goal to make great images, or is the goal to call yourself a photographer? Not a silly question. I mean it.
I can remember, years ago, being told by a very successful photographer that he was jealous of me and my work. I was stunned, but now I get it. He was jealous of the freedom I had because I had yet to “make it” as a photographer. I was only shooting personal work, which is ALWAYS the best work a photographer does, and he had made it and was now bound by the rules of engagement of the industry. Now I can turn and see photographers I’m jealous of.
I can also remember speaking with an older photographer, someone who had been around for several decades, and he saying to me, “We all got into this because we just loved shooting, and when we started, we didn’t have galleries, or really any outlets, we just made pictures because it was in us, and was something we had to do.”
I think the truly difficult thing is answering the question what you want to do as a photographer and then making only those images. The rest, well, the rest is just commercial.