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; as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been putting a lot of time into my Tumblr pages (check them out here, if you’re on Tumblr already you can click here to follow). 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.










16 Responses to Art vs. Craft

  1. kathi z says:

    I agree whole heartedly.
    The other day I came across this quote that I think explains the “Art” idea well….
    “Art is like masturbation. It is selfish and introverted and done for you and you alone. Design is like sex. There is someone else involved, their needs are just as important as your own, and if everything goes right, both parties are happy in the end.”


    • this is just as crazy as any other definition. Making money is masturbatory. All human actions are selfish on some level. And many people self identifying as artists claim they are performing something on the level of public service. Plus, “art” and “design” are endlessly fractal, smashing into each other and spiraling off at every opportunity. Plus, throw in the commercial gallery system and the “market” and most of the “working artists” out there have some understanding of their clientele.

  2. [...] via Art vs. Craft | planet shapton. [...]

  3. Thanks Derek – very well put!

  4. I agree that there is plenty of art school pandering and that many commercial photographers may be right to not primarily think of themselves as artists, but maybe no more or less so than carpenters or sign painters. Without a firm definition of art (and this is an endless spiral of a debate) I suppose it’s fair of someone to think you make your living as an artist.

    The whole art world culture exists as a separatist and elitist (in the non-rightwing thrown around sense) culture and the word “art” is commonly used to describe some creative pursuit that is otherwise trivial or devalued by the status quo. “foolin” maybe.

    But the outrage about putting african masks in art shows is an old one, and toilets about as old. Art as a term has been nullified and omegafied. It’s practically meaningless.

    Personally I just fall back on defining things as interesting or not, these days, something which people are more apt to understand is subjective and then we can argue about the good stuff… not if something is art but why it is interesting.

  5. Tania says:

    Very true Derek. Although when someone looks at you and says that you are “lucky to be making your living as an artist”, I think it’s best to smile and nod and try to look as cool as you can, but don’t say a single word.

  6. I have been trying to find an eloquent way to say a lot of what you have here for years and I think you summed it up pretty well. I personally do not only work on assignment based jobs as I have an art career separate from my commercial one, but to be able to explain this to people is often challenging as most people have a very different idea of what a photographer is than I do. I constantly find that I have trouble explaining myself when the time comes to define myself. Anyways, glad someone else is on the same page as I am!

  7. Matt Antonello says:

    Great article. Couldn’t agree more. But by agreeing I’m including my supposed “artistic” endeavours as an ad writer – a job, that in my mind, has never been anything more than a corporate approximation of art. The best I can and have always done is to try to create things that don’t feel corporate, even though, at the end of the day, they are.

  8. Scotty B says:

    “I’m a little taken aback by anyone calling himself an artist because of my feeling that that’s the kind of designation that other people should give. You can be an artist in any field, but getting a degree to call yourself an artist would be like getting a diploma to call yourself a genius.”
    Charles Eames

  9. [...] Hamm, a former student and current staff photojournalist at the Athens Banner-Herald, sent along a link to a post by photographer Derek Shapton where he talks about whether he is an artist or not. It’s a good read, particularly this segment: At best, assignment photographers are [...]

  10. Ranger 9 says:

    “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.”

    So did you attend one of these horrible art schools, or are you just throwing feces at them from the sidelines?

    The latter seems to be a popular preoccupation on commercial-photography forums, where a disdain for art schools, art education, art theory, and students and teachers of same is almost universal. Everyone loves to diss those supposed ivory-tower elitists. (It’s almost as if the commercial shooters are unhappy about their life choices and are taking it out on people who chose differently. But that couldn’t possibly be the case, could it?)It kind of reminds me of the anecdotal archetype-bashing popularized by a certain political movement named after a popular British beverage.

    It annoys me because I know at least a couple of dozen current or recent fine-arts students, and none of them seem to fit the archetype. They learned solid skills in school and are using those skills in ways that make them happy. In fact, most of them are SO happy that they don’t spend their spare time writing blog entries and forum posts lambasting people who chose to pursue photography differently.

  11. [...] 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. [...]

  12. Drew says:

    truth and honesty. More of that needed in the world today

  13. this is a perspective that many hold, but never fess up to publicly. I am glad to see you do it, and I second the opinion that as an assignment photographer, I am no more than a craftsman bringing his skill into play to fit a requirement.

  14. [...] article published on Planet Shapton about assignment photographers as [...]

  15. Anna says:


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