Labeling and Defining Photographers and Photography

As a professional photographer, I am often labeled—even pigeon-holed—using simple titles like stock photographer, documentary photographer, photo-essayist or fine-art photographer. That makes sense to me, because people want a quick way of knowing who I am as a photographer, and what kind of work I can do. A student recently asked me to explain how one photographer (me), would approach one subject, and photograph that subject different ways while wearing those four different hats.

This blog originally appeared 11-14-2011 on the B&H Insights blog.

I usually get in trouble when I lay down hard and fast rules, so this blog entry will be just the outlines of my thoughts on this question. But remember, nothing I am saying is absolute. (In fact anyone making absolutes on the creative aspects of photography is dubious at best, and dishonest at worst. While there are aspects of technology that are absolute, little on the aesthetic side could ever be as absolute.)

Being Documentary Derived

Keep in mind that all of my work is what I call “documentary derived,” which just means I photograph things that exist in real life in front of my camera. I neither pose nor control events. There are many others who are more talented at doing that, so I stick with what I know works for me.

When I am out photographing, about half the time I am working on my own projects. Then, I can easily slide back and forth between the roles of stock photographer, documentary photographer, photo-essayist or fine-art photographer. When I am working on assignment for a client, I tend to work within a more narrow range of photo-essayist to documentary photographer.

Stock Photographer

If you think of these four strategies as spectrum, you will better appreciate this. At one end of the spectrum is what I do as a stock photographer, which is to make compelling images of things that I see in front of me, yielding an image that tells a somewhat open-ended story. A good stock image is visually stimulating, and is also open-ended enough that users of the stock images (and by extension the viewers), will put some of their own interpretation into the image. I have blogged on this topic in the past and you can see those posts here, here, and here.

Documentary Photographer

Next in this spectrum of strategies is documentary photographer, where the image, ideally, shows just what I saw, plain and simple. Even within this kind of work, with the supposed approach of the image being nothing more than a document, there is still a great deal of subjectivity. The first example of that subjectivity occurs when I simply choose what it is I wish to photograph. The subjectivity becomes even more pronounced when you consider all of the things I keep out of the image. Still, a documentary photograph aspires to be the fairest representation of whatever was in front of me (and my camera). I have blogged on this topic in the past here, here, and here.


Further into the spectrum is the photo-essay, where the image I make is more subjective than the documentary photograph, but not as open-ended as the stock image. This is true whether the image is part of a large body of work, or just a single image. In the best photo-essay work, I am trying hard to put information (content) and my point of view into the image. I am, ideally, creating an image that has equal portions of information about what I saw and my perspective on that same thing, in the form of my authorship. If that intrigues you, you might want to check out this post, and this one too.

Fine-Art Photography

At the other end of the spectrum is fine-art photography, where I would largely give up on the balance I just described, and throw off any deep concern I had for information. I certainly will use the informational aspects of the subject in my final image. But the best fine-art photograph is most heavily driven and shaped by the authorship that the photographer puts into the image. With that, you should consider whether you want to make prints for the money or the love. You may also find yourself wondering at one point or another if photography is art or not; here are my thoughts.

A few more things to keep in mind:

• Although I am occasionally described as a fine-art photographer, that is not my strong suit. Though I sell plenty of fine-art photographs, my best sellers are more likely from photo-essays of subjects where my authorship and the buyer’s passion for that subject intersect.

• Although an image may be made with a documentary aesthetic, for example, it can just as easily be a very-highly-produced fine-art photograph. Jeffrey Crewdson is one practitioner of this strategy. The point being, just because an image looks like stock or like a documentary image, it my not be that at all. Aesthetic strategies that photographers use are increasingly used as tools in their own right, in much the same way that lenses, filters and long exposures are used to simulate or distort photographic reality.

• Fine-art photography is not the dumping ground for photographs or photographers who cannot find appropriate categories to define/place themselves. Fine-art photography means something pretty specific. (And “None of the above” is not one of those meanings.)

This is my take on how I divide the categories of stock photographer, documentary photographer, photo-essayist and fine-art photographer. Another photographer would likely define them differently. That is a good thing, reminding us of the subjective nature of this whole question.

The ultimate irony surrounding all of this is that the lines between these specialty areas are rapidly blurring. A great deal of fine-art imagery is being used for stock uses these days. Documentary work is also frequently exhibited as fine art. I can go on but… What I would say is that the strategy I use as I approach a given subject is important, be that of a stock photographer, documentary photographer, photo-essayist or fine-art photographer. The resulting image has distinct technical and aesthetic qualities that help it stand out from the crowd.
Making a generic image and trying to plug it into a specific category is a sure waste of time. Making a great image with one aesthetic and sliding it into another usage—that is called professionalism.

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