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Thread: How is a photographer's work too "commercial" ?

  1. #1
    Founder QT Luong's Avatar
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    Aug 1997
    San Jose, CA

    How is a photographer's work too "commercial" ?

    From time to time, a photographer's work is dismissed (in art circles) as being too "commercial". For instance, that's something I have read about Bruce Davidson's work after East 100th Street (including Subway, Central Park, and Portraits), or Mary Ellen Mark's work after Ward 81 and Falkland Road (which therefore includes most of her titles).

    What I am wondering is what does that exactly mean ? What are the characteristics of one's work that make it "commercial" ? Is it just the fact that it has a wide appeal ?

  2. #2
    Jim Graves Jim Graves's Avatar
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    Jul 2007
    Sacramento, Calif., USA

    Re: How is a photographer's work too "commercial" ?

    Very subjective obviously ... and loaded with class/taste/cultural landmines ... but to me art/photography becomes "too commercial" when the artist goes over-the-top adopting (or abusing) a style to pander to viewers ... with pander being defined as catering to the lowest tastes of others.

    In art, the classic, for me at least, is Thomas Kinkade ... extremely popular but so visually jingoistic as to remove his work from legitimate art:

    In photography, again just for me, the only thing I routinely dislike and feel often steps over the line of image adjustment is the supersaturated unnatural colors frequently seen in nature photography. We all adjust our images, from darkroom dodging/burning/filtering to adding some color pop in Photoshop ... and where the line is ... who knows.

    There was earlier buzz on this site about Annie Leibovitz ... and without a doubt, she is unashamedly a commercial photographer who stages, postures, and pushes her subjects to get impact ... one good example:

    But that is the nature of her work and I find her photos fun and interesting without pandering to the lowest common denominator of taste.
    Last edited by Jim Graves; 24-Mar-2009 at 18:56. Reason: image added

  3. #3
    Kirk Gittings's Avatar
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    Mar 2004
    Albuquerque, Nuevo Mexico

    Re: How is a photographer's work too "commercial" ?

    "Too commercial" IME is a derogatory reference to work that was solely created for the purpose of selling rather than for some "higher" purpose.

    at age 67
    "The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep"

  4. #4

    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    Austin TX

    Re: How is a photographer's work too "commercial" ?

    Good question, without an easy answer. Certainly the answer is easier in painting as Jim Graves cites above; Thomas Kincade whose efforts I would describe as a shade above motel art. But IMHO the line between "commercial" and fine art is highly blurred. Were I to try to define that line I think I'd resort to those images that are associated with and may be used for selling something implying a connection to advertising. On the other hand there is a plethora of brilliant and imaginative images to be found in the advertising field both historically and in the present. However at the extreme ends of the spectrum I have to say that I know crass commercialism and real fine art when I see it - I think.

    Nate Potter, Austin TX.

  5. #5

    Re: How is a photographer's work too "commercial" ?

    What Kirk wrote.

  6. #6

    Join Date
    May 2006
    Westminster, MD

    Re: How is a photographer's work too "commercial" ?

    Isn't current successful fine art photography created for a 'Higher Purpose", meaning selling for big bucks to museums and rich collectors. Where as Mary Ellen Mark's is getting paid a whopping $500 per day by magazines. She's such a sell out. Where as Jeff Wall never accepts a dayrate, but surely doesn't give his work away without a big check.

    It is all posturing.
    When I grow up, I want to be a photographer.

  7. #7

    Join Date
    Jan 2006
    Memphis, TN

    Re: How is a photographer's work too "commercial" ?

    I feel somewhat like Kirk, however sometimes things made to sell can have a lasting importance ie Lautrec posters immediately come to mind.
    I think when art ceases to have something to say beyond the surface of the visual, then it begins to approach a the world of too commerical. For instance Wegmans weims are delightful for me (I like biggrey dogs a lot) and I know they are in various museums, but I think they have become too commerical.
    Ron McElroy

  8. #8

    Join Date
    Dec 1997
    Baraboo, Wisconsin

    Re: How is a photographer's work too "commercial" ?

    Timing has something to do with it. Work that started out as "commercial" can become fine art if enough time passes and enough cultural changes take place. Weegee's work is one example, Lewis Hines' is another (though "commercial" isn't quite the right word for him).
    Brian Ellis
    Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you do criticize them you'll be
    a mile away and you'll have their shoes.

  9. #9
    Robert A. Zeichner's Avatar
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    Feb 1999
    Southfield, Michigan

    Re: How is a photographer's work too "commercial" ?

    IMO it's when the artist is more concerned about whether the subject will move potential buyers than whether it moves the artist. Essentially what Kirk has said, but also when artists rely on certain proven "formulas" that have been successful in the past (as in sells very well). They might say to themselves "Hey, that I shot took last year of an old bicycle leaning against a building sold really well and look, here's another one so I'll shoot that too." As another poster pointed out, Kincaid is the champion of this in the world of painting. In music, Kenny G. is the first example that comes to mind. I guess you could say money is their muse. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the artist who is not afraid to take chances, one who experiments and is not concerned with failing commercially, only what moves them.

  10. #10
    runs a monkey grinder Steve M Hostetter's Avatar
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    Jul 2008
    Beech Grove Indiana

    Re: How is a photographer's work too "commercial" ?

    Yes.yes, remember way back when,, the only way you ever seen a rock group was to go to a concert or buy an album with their photos on the cover..?
    Remember how anti-commercial Pink Floyd used to be way back in the day,, they wouldn't even play concerts... And anyone that ever made a commercial for any product was concidered an outcast in the music business... Then along comes MTV
    and everyone sees dollar signs,,, Now all the old timers will just tell you that they got into music to be filthy rich,,they make no bones about it... Oh how fickle can an artist be? what happened to "it's all about the music"

    remember the rock group Klatu? they based they're whole existance on whether or not they were in fact a re-united Beatles. I guess it worked for a while
    I still can't remember when it was the rumor was ever exposed as a fraud
    Last edited by Steve M Hostetter; 25-Mar-2009 at 06:19.

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