Is Photography Art or Commerce?

by | Apr 10, 2021

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

Drinking beer doesn’t make you fat, It makes you lean….against tables, chairs, and poles.”—Anonymous

Sometimes I think that photography is a lot like Miller’s Lite beer. Instead of tastes great or less filling, the argument would go — is it art or commerce?

One of the problems with the business side of photography is that we don’t always get to choose the kind of assignments that come our way. Bread-and-butter studio or location shoot may pay the rent but may not always be as exciting as we would like. One of my old studio’s biggest moneymakers was a shoot for a national department store that involved making photographs of every (and I mean every) display in one of their flagship stores. While technically challenging and financially profitable, the assignment was, nevertheless, aesthetically, unsatisfying. It was as the beer commercial goes “less filling.”

One of the best ways to get the kind of assignments that you really want is to give them to yourself. Here is a self-assignment that had very different outcomes but regardless of what happened after the assignment was completed, the project “tasted great.” And to answer my headline question: Why can’t it be both?

How I Made this Shot: When I lived in Baltimore, one of  my favorite personal projects involved volunteering as a photographer at a streetcar museum for photos that would be used the museum for publicity purposes and by me as portfolio material. The project was shot in black & white using a  Mamiya C-33 twin lens reflex camera with an 80mm f/2.8 Mamiya-Sekor lens using 120 Tri-X film that I processed (and later printed) in the kitchen of my home at that time. Exposure was unrecorded and I only made one frame of this particular shot, which I guess is part of the whole medium format experience.The result of this project was that I had some pictures entered into an juried art show, but little else. Nevertheless, I made some fun photographs and got to meet some great people.

Along with photographer Barry Staver, I’m co-author of Better Available Light Digital Photography that’s available from Amazon for $21.43 prices with used copies starting at giveaway prices—around five bucks, as I write this, which may be cheaper than your morning Starbucks coffee.