Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Double Vision: Balancing Personal and Commercial Work

As a full time professional artist one is confronted with the challenge of producing an income stream.  This means reconciling what appears to be polar opposites; maintaining a balance between one's art (personal work) and commercial work that you do for hire to "pay the bills".  Commercial photography has typically been viewed by many as "selling out".  As I see it however, being a professional artist is more of a delicate balance between art and commerce; a way to continually hone one's craft.

This is a continuous struggle for all artists that became more evident as I recently finished reading Ansel Adams: An Autobiography.  The interesting fact is that I first read this book 12 years ago, but decided to re-read it after a recent trip to Yosemite National Park where the ghost of Ansel Adams was evident everywhere.  My first read basically ended with "that's a nice book" and put it in my collection for possible future reference.  Fast forward to the present whereupon my second reading elicited a reaction that was more of an "a ha" experience where I got much more out of it.  Basically I was struck by a repetitive anthem of not only Ansel's dilemma of making a living strictly with his photography, but also that of other well known photographers.

© Ansel Adams

  •  Ansel Adams:  Personal - landscape; Commercial - portraiture
  • Edward Weston:  Personal - landscape/still life; Commercial - portraiture
  • Imogene Cunningham:  Personal - botanical/still life; Commercial - portraiture
  • Dorthea Lange:  Personal - documentary; Commercial - portraiture

© Imogene Cunningham

Do you see the trend here?  For artists that were ultimately regarded and made famous for their personal work, they all had an income stream provided by their commercial work.  In this case I also found it an interesting fact that they all did portraiture as their chosen source for paying the bills.  So rather than viewing your commercial work as "selling out" it's important to see the value it provides.  It is a balancing act to exist in both worlds, but at the same time imperative for the success of your photography profession; one cannot sustain themselves in either the commercial aspect or personal work alone.  A combination is required for a steady income stream (commercial) that ultimately feeds the soul (personal). 

So looking at both sides of the coin, both commercial and personal venues has specific benefits that should not be overlooked.  I figure it it's good enough for the legendary Ansel, Edward, Imogene and Dorthea, it's worth taking a look at what each provides. 


  • more opportunities for collaboration with other creatives (e.g., art directors) and business associates
  • professional and business development faster than limited scope of isolated practice of personal work 
  • can influence one's personal work
  • provides income stream to continue personal work


  • allows constant movement in fresh direction
  • feeds the soul
  • pushes the boundaries of one's creative muscle
  • can influence one's commercial work
  • opportunity to experiment and develop style and technique
  • no requirements or constraints; no client to please
  • freedom to fail

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