Art vs. Craft: The Nature of Professional Assignment Photography

A brief exchange during a passing conversation a few days ago got me thinking. Someone said something about how lucky I was to make a living as an artist. I immediately corrected them; while immensely thankful for my career, a job where I get to wake up every day and make images, I felt obligated to point out that most of the time I am not, in fact, an artist at all.

At best, assignment photographers are craftsmen, not artists, solving other people’s problems and putting other people’s ideas into effect in the most timely and cost-effective way possible; to think otherwise is delusional.

Sure, part of the job is bringing a personal point of view to the party, in fact that’s often the reason you’re hired, but a point of view is not art, and there’s never the degree of autonomy and self-direction that I think of as a precondition for something to qualify as a true artistic endeavour.

Now this may rub some people the wrong way. Part of what attracts certain personality types to so-called “artistic” fields is the gratifying ego boost that comes from describing oneself as an artist, with all the connotative baggage that entails. The myth of the artist as a fiery creative force, unfettered by the strictures and mores of conventional society, is something many art and photography students internalize during their terms of study, an ethos of self-regard that I think does more harm than good.

The art-martyr mindset is something that has to be unlearned in order to function in a commercial context; while schools usually pay lip service to the idea of training for the “real world”, in reality many graduates are ill-prepared, practically and temperamentally, for life beyond the classroom. And the insidious thing about this is that it’s actually in a school’s best interest to pander to these attitudes, for it guarantees a steady influx of aspiring artists and their money.

That being said, there are of course many photographers who work completely outside of the assignment-photography mainstream, and I admire their tenacity. However the truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as a pure artistic practice. After all, the fine-art and gallery circuit is simply another type of market, with frustrations that I think equal or surpass those that come with shooting commercially.

I can only speak for myself here, but at the end of the day I would rather try to second-guess an ad agency’s expectations than attempt to parse the semantics of a grant application, or, God forbid, another pretentious and wilfully obscure artist’s statement.

The key I think, as a journeyman, craftsman photographer, is to maintain a balance. Use the resources at your disposal — equipment, facilities, etc. — to pursue ideas and projects unrelated to work. If you land a travel shoot, and time allows, stay an extra day at your own expense to explore. Be open to ideas from anywhere and everywhere and always be working on something unrelated to your assignments.

Indulge your whims and peculiar fascinations — the images accompanying this post are from a series of ongoing streetscapes I’ve been working on, featuring buildings covered in construction netting. It doesn’t even have to be something big or impressive; I’ve been putting a lot of time into my Tumblr pages. And if you’re a commercial shooter, or aspire to be one, stay clear-eyed and level headed about it.

You are not going to change the industry from within. Rather, accept and embrace the fact that it will inevitably change you, and try to make sure it happens on your own terms.

About the author: Derek Shapton is a Canadian photographer who works for a wide range of advertising, corporate and editorial clients. Visit his website here and his blog here. This article originally appeared here.

  • MD

    Uh…damn. Awesome article. This is everything that I’ve spent the last four year thinking about, perfectly expressed. I’m working my way into the commercial world and I already feel like an art-school heretic. Hearing that someone else is experiencing success coming from an extremely similar point of view is pretty vindicating.


  • Brad

    Thankfully, I never had the benefit of an “education” in photography – although I did have the dubious benefit of an education in Electronics Engineering and then Computer Science. So I’ve never considered myself an artist of any kind. I now find myself in a situation where I’m using the skills I’ve developed as an advanced amateur to produce professional-level still and video output as a part of a new career in online marketing, and the whole engineering/science background has been awesomely useful because I bring an understanding of how things work, tools, light, computers, software as well as (I hope) a reasonably good eye for a shot. Certainly my employer(s) are happy with the results, and I’ve scored a few unrelated covers and “arty” book/magazine inside shots. But I ain’t an artist, and have never really wanted to identify as such.

  • The_photographer_Tom

    Kudos Petapixel. One of the best (out of lots of great) articles I’ve read.

    I describe myself even after thirty something years as a jobbing photographer. I’m so glad like Brad (below) that I’m self taught.

    Not one client on my list has ever asked for my photographic educational qualifications. They’re just interested in my portfolio.

  • bob cooley

    I too have been an assignment photographer my entire career (over 2 decades), and I agree with a lot of what you are saying, particularly in the area of expectation, practically, and emphasis for new photographers…

    BUT, one of the things that I’ve been told by clients time and again is that they want to work with me because of the artistry I bring to my assignment photography.

    It’s not always possible to have a lot of latitude on story-boarded assignments from an agency, and in those cases, I’m merely executing the A.D.’s vision; but in many of the assignments I get today I’m given a free hand in how to execute the assignment, because I’ve proven to be both a good journeyman/craftsman, and artist.

    I’ve never aspired to be a starving/suffering art-school photographer, but while I’ve primarily created assignment based commercial and editorial work, a good amount of it has shown up on gallery walls.

    I’m not trying to discount what you are saying (writing) here, but ‘art’ is a broad subject.

    I’m very content that I’m able to work commercially, but I hope what I’m creating a lot of the time in my commercial and editorial assignments is creative, and considered art.

    Again, I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but I think art is a very grey area; and there’s a lot of room for being both an assignment shooter and artist at the same time.

  • Sum_it

    The way I understand it, art is an entity on its own. The medium used to portray/convey meaning (in this case, photography) is synonymous to tools used by a carpenter.

    To a commercial photographer, their cameras/lenses is their tool. To an artist, photography is a tool. The distinction is a fine one. But the differences in the two fields are enormous.