Do I Really Need Professional Photography?
(or, “Why should I pay you when I can do it myself?”)
This is a question I know artists ask themselves quite often. All artists understand that in this world of online exposure and advertising, where there are so many opportunities to show one’s work to the buying public through email, websites, shows, exhibitions, social media, and more, they simply must have photographs of their work. But professional photography is expensive. Do they need professionally-done photographs?
The answer, as I see it, is both “Yes” and “No.” It all comes down to what you want from the photography, and from your work, and what you, as the artist, consider success. If success for you as an artist simply means making things you consider beautiful, and you do not care if anyone ever sees your work or buys your work, then you probably don’t need photography at all, and certainly not professional photography. No one is ever going to see your work but you, and you certainly don’t need to waste any time or money promoting it.
I know of no artists who approach their work that way. Every artist I know, and I know and work with several hundred at this point, understands the need to promote their work. So then the question becomes, not whether they need photography, but what kind of photography they need. This inevitably leads to the further question, “Can I take my own pictures?” Again, as I see it, the answer is both “Yes” and No.”
Certainly you, as an artist, can take your own pictures. Everyone has or can purchase a relatively inexpensive camera these days, most of which are capable of taking a reasonably good picture, given reasonable skill on the part of the user and reasonably good conditions for presenting the art. A potter can point her camera at her pot, a painter can point a camera at his painting, a jeweler can point a camera at her necklace or brooch, and they will get a picture. But will it be a good enough picture?
That is what it comes down to. Is a photograph produced by the artist, who is invariably an amateur photographer, going to be good enough? How good does a picture need to be? Is it enough that the picture shows the basic form and shape of the piece of art? Or does it need to do more? Is an OK picture of your art good enough? Or do you need a great photo of your art?
Well, it depends. It depends on what you want; what you want from your art, what you want from your photography, and what kind of success you, as an artist, are looking for. As I see it, it all comes down to the aspirations of the individual artist. Photography is only a tool, a tool an artist can use to help her be as successful as she wishes to be.
So if photography is a tool an artist might use, then let’s look at it that way. What do artists expect from their tools? What does a painter expect from her paints and brushes? What does a jeweler expect from her torch, her burnisher, her engraver? What does a woodworker expect from his chisels, his saws, and his sanders?
What they all expect, as I see it, is that their tools should be powerful, flexible and subtle. They should work with the artist to achieve the artist’s creative goals, and should help the artist in her pursuit of excellence. At the very least, they should not hinder the process, or make it more difficult for the artist. A clumsy hammer in the hands of the metal-worker will not create great work. On out-of-kilter wheel will not turn a good pot. A dull saw will not make a clean cut.
If we look at photography as a tool in the hands of the artist, like all their other tools, it becomes readily apparent that it needs to be on a par with the rest of the tools in the artist’s quiver, and it needs to enhance the artist’s work, not hinder it, or make it more difficult for the artist be successful. This is because art is not made in a vacuum, and promotion of one’s art is every much a part of being an artist as making great art itself.
Let me ask you this. When was the last time you saw a mediocre photo of a great piece of art on the cover of American Craft, American Style, Ornament, Ceramics Monthly, or Fine Woodworking? The answer is “Never.” I don’t care how fabulous the workmanship is, how stylish the artistry, how incredible the execution, a poor photo of that piece of art is never going to get on the cover of one of those magazines. Never. Ever. Not gonna happen.
On the other hand, I’ll share this story. In 2004 Mark Hewitt, the well-know potter, was approached by American Craft who wanted to do a story on him. In the process they asked Mark if he could submit some photos of his work. Mark came to me and we shot a series of photos of some of his large pots and submitted them, with the understanding that the magazine might use one or two in conjunction with the article.
This is not to toot my own horn, but when they saw the photos of Mark’s gorgeous pots, suddenly things changed. Instead of a modest article with a couple of pictures accompanying it, they actually ran five full-page reproductions of my photos of Mark’s work in the magazine, plus they put one on the entire cover! And they specifically said they had no intention of giving the article that much space, much less the cover, until they saw the photography. Were those pictures worth the cost? I think the answer is self-evident.
Do you as an artist, need excellent photography of your work? It comes down to how you think of your work, and of yourself as an artist, and what kind of success you aspire to. For the most successful artists I work with, who work at the highest levels of their craft, it is not even a question they ask themselves. They have long ago decided that there is absolutely no substitute for top-notch photography. Anything less denigrates the time, care, effort and love they pour into their work. Anything less than the best photography is simply not good enough.