The Work of Art: Balancing Personal and Commercial Practices

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Library dining room of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London
Lewis Bush/Sir John Soane’s Museum

The economic realities of a creative career are a regular topic on this blog. Despite the well documented benefits of the creative sector to the UK economy these professions are still often seen less as a worthwhile engagement than as a naïve, indulgent or downright irresponsible way to spend one’s time and energy. At the end of last year, I had a studio visit from a group of documentary photography students from the University of South Wales and amongst other things we talked about the challenge of balancing the personal necessities of making fulfilling, challenging work, with the economic requirements of providing for one’s material needs. A student in this group made the astute observation that many photographers actually seem rather ashamed of any money making activities which fall outside their documentary or artistic practice, speaking about these things in terms of resentment or sometimes disavowing them completely, and certainly I know a few successful photographers who maintain completely separate identities when it comes to commercial work.

Talk to some documentary photographers of the older generation and they may well regale you with tales of a golden age when it was often possible to get support via editorial and other commissions to produce the work they wanted to make anyway. In almost the same breath some will decry the situation today, where personal projects have often become just that, undertakings funded from photographer’s own pockets and out of their own time, and where other unrelated sources of income must often be obtained to support these activities. Going on these reminiscences there have certainly been big economic changes in the fields of photography since the days of yore, and practices like documentary which might have once themselves furnished enough money for a photographer to live off rarely do so today (although I sometimes wonder how far this golden age was really as lucrative was as some of it’s eulogisers recall). The natural result of the changing economics of these fields is that personal and commercial practices diverge ever further from each other, with many photographers doing a day job to make ends meet, and doing the work they think matters in whatever time is left.

It seems that for my generation this feels less like an economic aberration or degeneration than a natural state of affairs, we’ve simply known nothing different in our professional lives. That could be problematic in some respects, we perhaps more readily accept the low or non-existent rates for our work because we know no alternative than this. At the same time knowing that the economic compensation for our personal work is likely to be non-existent perhaps has certain advantages, not least that we might more readily pursue projects we really want to make without necessarily worrying about their economic viability (certainly for me that is one of the last considerations when embarking on a new body of work). Older photographers might speak wistfully of being commissioned to make work they wanted to make anyway, but how different might those projects and stories have been had they been forced to undertake them entirely independently?

An economic shift which more clearly separates personal and commercial work would seem to bring practices like documentary photography closer into line with the economic realities long experienced by fine artists. This unwanted shift is a little ironic considering it has occurred in a similar time frame as photography’s growing acceptance as a legitimate media for art. At the same time the growing necessity to undertake commercial work doesn’t seem to have led to a noticeable acceptance (let alone celebration) of commercial work in and of itself, and it seems it is more often described in terms which portray it as a distraction from the real work of art, or even as something rather vulgar. This tendency seems like a less welcome consequence of the acceptance of documentary photography as a legitimate subject for the art world. Could it be that people who once would have felt no shame presenting themselves as working photographers now feel the pressure to recast themselves artists solely focused on creative work, hiding the fact that they have to sully their hands with commercial activities? As I suggested in a piece on art in the age of individualism, to admit as an artist that you don’t make a living from your art is seen essentially as an admission of creative failure, in spite of the fact that this is the reality even for many relatively successful artists and photographers.

Beyond the pressure to market yourself primarily as an artist, I wonder if part of the reason for this disavowal of the commercial work which invariably underwrites personal work is that quite a few photographers actually undertake examples of the former which clash embarrassingly with the latter. A war photographer selling images to an arms manufacturers is perhaps uncommon, but I have often seen less extreme examples of photographers taking jobs from clients whose activities ran directly against their own politics and artistic practices (I, to my shame, once did a job for an investment bank, albeit via a proxy). Is this readiness to work for anyone the sign of a true professional, or is it the signature of a mercenary? It seems to me that an important process of establishing yourself commercially isn’t that you progressively work for bigger and bigger clients, but that work for ones you can establish a sustainable relationship with. I don’t just mean sustainable in an economic sense, but also in the sense that your commercial practice does not become a contradiction of your personal work, and that the two can quite happily live side by side. I’ve tried to cultivate a commercial practice which centers on galleries, museums and universities, because I felt that these were organisations I understood, who I had the right skills to work with, but most importantly because they wouldn’t ask me to do anything I would be uncomfortable with. Because of this I have no problem prominently linking to my commercial work from my personal site. It seems to me that if you’re embarrassed enough by the work you do to make ends meet then perhaps you should think carefully about what it is you’re doing.

2 thoughts on “The Work of Art: Balancing Personal and Commercial Practices

  1. This is a brilliant post. Again highlighting issues that need to be spoken about. Thanks Lewis.
    I think some of the shame also comes from unrealistic expectations set at university where a student is told in no uncertain terms if they aren’t working sole as a photographer or as a successful artist they aren’t doing well. Whereas the facts are courses are growing larger and larger as universities turn into businesses and set unrealistic expectations. I think this post addresses issues and should be on the reading syllabus for graduating students to maybe have a ponder on.

  2. As one of the older generation I would say every journo/documentary photographer I have associated with in 40 years has had to deal with self funding “personal projects”. I believe the changes aren’t with that part of the equation but with the work you have to do now to fund those projects: “journalism” never was a big payer, but now doesn’t pay even the low wages it once did. “Papers” have always known that this corner of the profession was occupied by people who were driven to do these stories/projects whether they were paid or not. And so they simply stopped paying with the sure knowledge that the stories would still be coming across their desks. To pay bills now and fund projects photographers for sometime have been taking work in PR, weddings, corporate, etc. In short we are general photographers wearing many hats, a journalist now longer. There used to be ethical/conflict of interest considerations to working journalism plus corporate or PR. No longer. Perhaps the “shame” is a ghost of unease at crossing a border once a taboo. And perhaps the generation divide is more a believe that it’s all the same anyway.

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