Why Photographers Aren’t Artists

Why Photographers Aren’t Artists

William Deresiewicz penned a compelling piece at The Atlantic entitled “The Death of the Artist – and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur,” which chronicles the evolution of creatives from craftsmen to artists to artistic geniuses to professionals and finally to today’s creative entrepreneurs. His thesis suggests that the archetypal artist – that “solitary genius” – no longer exists, and hasn’t for a while.


Artistic geniuses – think Beethoven – were products of a system of patronage. When that economic model ceased, the artist became a professional. Deresiewicz writes:

Professionalism represents a compromise formation, midway between the sacred and the secular. A profession is not a vocation, in the older sense of a “calling,” but it also isn’t just a job; something of the priestly clings to it. Against the values of the market, the artist, like other professionals, maintained a countervailing set of standards and ideals—beauty, rigor, truth—inherited from the previous paradigm. Institutions served to mediate the difference, to cushion artists, ideologically, economically, and psychologically, from the full force of the marketplace.

The mediating institutions that arose were movie studios, publishers, newspapers, etc. But as we have seen in the last 20 years, the social contract between these institutions are the professionals they employ has changed for good.

But we have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation…The institutions that have undergirded the existing system are contracting or disintegrating. Professors are becoming adjuncts. Employees are becoming independent contractors (or unpaid interns). Everyone is in a budget squeeze: downsizing, outsourcing, merging, or collapsing. Now we’re all supposed to be our own boss, our own business: our own agent; our own label; our own marketing, production, and accounting departments. Entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity. It is, by and large, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job.

This evolution has technology to blame. The rise of the Internet disintermediated traditional forms of media. The newspaper classified – the revenue powerhouse – was rendered obsolete almost overnight by the Internet job board (of which my former company, hotjobs.com, was one). Once the revenue was threatened, these publicly traded publishers had no choice but to layoff full-time journalists and photographers. And as the dissemination of information moved almost entirely online, the value of any piece of content plummeted exacerbating the economic woes of the creative.

Professional photographers are no longer artists (were they ever?). The successful photographer is, as Deresiewicz’s friend explained, now an entrepreneur who values having 10,000 contacts more than having Malcolm Gladwell’s mythic 10,000 hours of professional development. They are creative jacks of all trades (a photographer, musician, UI developer). They sell their “brand” as an authentic look at not only their output, but their creative process (follow me on Instagram and see my behind-the-scenes photos!).

We’ve traded the security of the full-time job for direct access to our audience. We’ve traded insufferable management for an opportunity to lead our own future. We are creator, publisher, PR, and customer service – not necessarily by choice, but by circumstance.

But rather than lament the demise of what once was, we should be opportunistic and consider what could be. We are, for better or for worse, creative entrepreneurs, and we need to acquire skills that will help us succeed in the current and future world. Ironically, a person who only takes pictures nowadays is more likely to be a hobbyist than a professional. We must evolve to survive. This week on the blog we’ll be considering photographer education, and the ways to increase your odds of survival. We hope you join us in sharing your thoughts.



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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 11 comments for this article
  1. Kalliope at 2:31 pm

    The author has completely dismissed fine art photography and fine art photographers. Contrary to both of these articles perceptions, we actually still exist, and we do manage to make a living without engaging in Facebook “likes” harvesting and selling our souls to Instagram.

    Art is not dead yet, despite attempts to bury it alive.

    • Philo at 6:39 am

      No kidding! There are plenty of “fine arts” photographers. Just because anyone can take a photo does not mean there are not those who know how to do so artistically.

  2. David at 3:53 pm

    This article has a very misleading title that borders on click-bait. Like many other professional photographers my world has many different facets. I do quite a bit of commercial work that while creative (i hope) i would not classify as art per se. But to dismiss the possibility of the photographic medium as a way to artistic expression is simply absurd. Of course there are photographers who make art with their cameras. They may not all make the bulk (or even any) of their money that way, but most of us have our body or bodies of photo art projects that keep us excited and sane in our photographic worlds. To deny this is pure ignorance.

  3. Pingback: Why Photographers Aren’t Artists | PhotoShelter Blog – The Click
  4. Darrell Uruski at 5:43 pm

    I going to start this comment by apologizing for being so blunt to your blog, but, quite frankly your viewpoint makes me sick. It shows you have no appreciation for art, and no respect for photographers who are fighting hard to make their work respected as art.

    You did this a few months ago when you dissed Peter Lik for selling his art for millions of dollars, and now your blog exposes yourself as a person who does not believe photographs can be artists.

    I am traveling right now creating more art, but when I get home in a couple of months, I am going to work real hard to find a new website to host my art.

  5. Pingback: Tylko amator może być fotografem | Szturchaniec fotograficzny

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