Sunday, January 23, 2011

Whose art is it anyway?

I’ve never made a living at photography although; from time to time the thought had crossed my mind to try to do just that. Quite a while ago, while attending photography school part-time in San Francisco, I investigated the possibilities; showing my portfolio, talking to prospective photographic employers, editors and art directors. I learned much about photography and the business of photography that was extremely useful. I learned that, typically, photographers start as assistants in an established enterprise, carting equipment and schlepping coffee, taking almost any assignment to get hired. In some ways it is a very exciting, fast paced way to learn the business and make a living. I also learned that assistants didn’t get paid very much and didn’t have any more time than I did to pursue their own projects. Indeed, many professional photographers didn’t have much time for “personal work” as they called it. They were too busy shooting what clients wanted, paying the bills and directing assistants to create their own work. During a job interview I asked one pro about his personal work. He admitted he had to “shoot a lot of refrigerators” in his studio to carve out a little time every month for his real passion, shooting landscapes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

At the time of these career investigations I was attending school part time to pursue my interest in making pictures, not to change careers. I was already making more than twice what a photo assistant could make running paper cutting machines in a union printing company. If I were to quit my “real” job to be a photo assistant I’d have to take a big pay cut, I’d still, more or less, be punching a clock, and still not have any more time to make my own photographs.  I decided I didn’t want to compromise. I wanted to pursue my own work on my own terms. I didn’t see the need to be in the photography “business” to do that. 

Doing something for a living is quite different from doing the same thing for oneself. Unless you drive the whole enterprise and call all the shots, if you make photographs for money, any money, you have to ask “whose art is it anyway?” Even if you have “creative control” on an assignment you’re still working for someone else.  It’s a rare photographer who can make their living following their own vision without compromise.

It’s a conundrum, an intricate and difficult problem for many artists: Art for money, art for making a living, or art for oneself? Today, I’ll occasionally sell a print or get an assignment but on the whole it’s never been my intention to photograph for others or sell pictures. It may sound a little selfish, but I photograph for me.

No comments: