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Commercial Aspect

September 5, 2009

“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.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2009 9:52 pm

    This is a hard call as at the end of the day we’ve all got to put food on the table. Ideally, everybody would be able to make ends might while only pursuing projects that they love. That is not, however, the reality for most people. So one ends up making a few compromises, and perhaps those few lead to a few more – until it’s hard to see back to the original starting point.

    Rather than refusing to do commercial work, if that’s what one needs to do to put food on the table, I’d argue that it’s absolutely vital for everybody, and not just photographers, to also find the time and resources to follow personal projects, endeavors, whatever. Put those projects first, then do whatever is necessary to make those projects possible. If that means doing commercial work to fund personal projects, then so be it. But follow those personal projects. They’re what make us who we are.

    • September 5, 2009 11:11 pm

      Well said.

      I just hope, hope, hope that people are doing these projects. I lost count of my friends and fellow photographers who gave up their dreams long ago. It only gets tougher the more time that transpires between bouts of personal work. I met many a photographer who is basically “solving problems” with their work, only doing what pays, and if that makes you happy, then awesome. Go for it.
      I always figured if your not happy making pictures for a living, do something else, then do photos on the side. No shame in that, but I think sometimes the “idea” of being a photographer is too powerful.

  2. September 5, 2009 10:34 pm

    Philosophically, I believe we have all been at this crossroad ….

  3. September 6, 2009 6:17 pm

    You have to be in what you do, whatever it is.

  4. September 6, 2009 6:22 pm

    Never think of retiring, love what you do, and you will never want to. Be ready to run when time pitches you a home run.

  5. September 7, 2009 5:20 am

    Life is a series of tradeoffs. Given the fact that I am fast approaching 50 I see this as a natural thing, especially for the way my generation, in general, was raised. I’m not sure if many people listen to me, but when I get asked, or get a chance, to mentor a young person I always ask what they love, what their passion is. I tell them to get as good as they can at a young age, don’t chase the money but instead, chase the knowledge. With knowledge. it’s my belief that the money will come.

    While I’ve not lived this advice I have enough friends that have, and I talk to enough people to know, that it’s still doable today. My choices early in life have led me where I am today. I’m one of those guys that make images simply because I want to – need too in reality – not because I’m ever going to be a famous or well known artist. And like the friend you write about here, I just want to photograph, make images that resonate for me and see where it goes.

    I’ve got boxes of prints that no one will see, and most likely, no one will show an interest in. I exposed 5 rolls of film today and I have no idea what’s on them. But I needed to get out… expose images and see what I could produce whether anyone sees them or not.

    I’ve made the choice to support my life with something other than photography. Earlier decisions make that a life that isn’t going to change any time soon. At some point, and I believe it will be possible, I will be able to make images late into my life and there are possibilities I don’t see today. It’s the reason to keep on making images. Making images is for me and if anyone likes them then that’s just icing on the cake.

    • September 7, 2009 5:12 pm

      I also shoot pictures for me. The chances of anything major happening with work these days is not good. I think, for me, the most important part is the experience of the work. I would trade doing the hard sell to go back in the field and make more pictures. At some point in my life, maybe I look back, and then make the sell.

  6. David Wissinger permalink
    September 7, 2009 6:28 pm

    I just found Dan’s website yesterday as I was searching for images produced by Leica M’s. I’m thinking of chucking a lot of my Canon digital gear for a camera that reminds me of the kind I used when I fell in love with photography. As i was reviewing Dan’s images, I said to my wife, “If I could just get a couple of images as good as these I’d be happy!”

    So I appreciate you talented shooters who are still shooting to get good images, not to get something slick that sells. It’s images like these that people will want to look at 50 years from now.

    • September 7, 2009 9:09 pm

      Wow, this has to be one of, if not the best, comment I’ve ever had. I appreciate that. Don’t chuck that Canon digital, it is the best out there. But, get yourself the camera you fell in love with, and keep it for the work you fell in love with. Two different worlds.

      • David Wissinger permalink
        September 7, 2009 9:22 pm

        I plan to keep a 5DM2 which even I can get good images from. Also a 24-70 f2.8 and a 135 f2. Other than that, I’m going back to Leica. I’ve looked the the M8.2, but I have a little D-lux 4 that I drag around and I’ll still have the 5D, so I think I’ll trade for an M6 body and all the lenses I can get, which will be maybe two. Your thoughts?

      • September 7, 2009 9:41 pm

        I have an M6, which I love. It is my third. I think that is great, and a 35 or 50 and you’ll be set. You don’t need much. I like working with one body and one lens, although for jobs I like to have a second body and lens in case something goes wrong. 5D II is very nice, and the 135mm f/2 is the sharpest lens I’ve used.

      • David Wissinger permalink
        September 8, 2009 3:37 am

        Thanks for the advice…I was thinking along the same lines: a 35mm and a 50mm with an M6 body. Noctilux (if possible!)?

      • September 8, 2009 7:04 pm

        Those lenses are great but HUGE.

  7. David Wissinger permalink
    September 9, 2009 5:50 am

    Huge…I just don’t think of lenses for the M as huge, at least not compared to that oil drum of a 24-70 f2.8 that Canon makes. Great lens, though. I use it constantly.

    So, if I’m not wearing out my welcome, what lens is on your M6? Do you use more than one?

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