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Personal work

It would be fantastic if we could make a living taking only the photographs we wanted, expressing our vision through our own personal work, just like the artists that we look upon for inspiration. Unfortunately, the majority of us still have bills to pay.
Most photographers are open, showing us their personal work alongside their commissioned work, but I often wonder when I look at some photographers work ‘how do they live?’ Amazing, beautiful images, but surely a small exhibition or a book cannot sustain someone? Do they have another, more anonymous website showing their commercial work?
Our paid work may not always be the same genre as our personal work, but is the ultimate goal to be paid for our personal work? If so, where and when do the two – personal and commissioned – meet? If we are advertising our commercial work should we show our personal work alongside? If an artist was to display their commissioned work alongside their artwork would the aura that surrounds them diminish? Does it all depend on the genre? A bride for example wants to see a committed wedding photographer, where as an advertising agent may want to see a photographers personal vision.
I approached a number of photographers from diverse backgrounds to gain a better understanding. I first questioned the importance of showing all your work together, or keeping things separate?
Australian fashion Photographer Juli Balla (Balla, 2017) believes it is good to show personal work at all times, the idea that personal work inspires art directors to see an extension to a photographers commercial work. A sentiment carried forward by UK based Michael Cockerham (Cockerham, 2017), adding his thoughts that personal work is extremely important and an area where commissioning editors and marketing directors look to see if a photographer might have the creative vision to realise an idea that they want to bring to fruition.
Fig 1. Website: Juli Balla (2017)
This was confirmed in a interview for the ‘British Journal of Photography’ with advertising agency AMV BBDO Senior Art producer and buyer Jaki Jo Hannan (Hannon, 2017:94), asked what she looks for in a photographer she responds: ‘Their style needs to fit or enhance the brief. I often commission someone because of their personal work as it shows rawness, a strong sense of style and the direction they would ideally like to be headed in’.
Documentary and Portrait photographer John Angerson understands this, commenting that just because you have done some work it does not mean you need to show it, we should be precious with what we release, only releasing the work we are most proud of, and want people to see, the type of work that we want to continue to produce (Angerson, 2017).
So is it dependent on the genre of the photographers commissioned work? Michael Cockerham uses the example of a colleague whose commercial practice is solely around jewelry, but his personal work revolves around conceptual nudes, and so mixing the two on a website may be detrimental to his bookings.
Fig 2. Website: Cheryl Dunn (2017)
New York based Cheryl Dunn also believes that genre is involved but goes on to say that you want to eventually strive to have the two merge as much as possible, for commercial clients to let you do what you do, in the way you do your personal work (Dunn, 2017).
The final question posed for discussion asks if it makes an artist, less of an artist, to be seen to be conducting commercial work?
All the photographers were united in their response, led by Juli Balla who firmly states ‘yes, believing that if one also does commercial work it makes one less accepted in the art world’. Cheryl Dunn adds that ‘unless you have someone paying your rent it is inevitable, you just have to pick the right jobs’. She does however comment that it used to be taboo for a fine artist to do commercial work, or have a brand sponsor at a show but that that has now changed and this is now more acceptable. Michael Cockerham uses another friend as an example whom has had great success as an artist and over time, as his artistic reputation has developed has slowly stopped advertising or publicly showing his commercial work, his artistic reputation being enough to ensure he is kept in work through commercial projects.
Fig 3. Website: Michael Cockerham (2017)
We take the pictures we like and we only show the work that we like, at times we may need to bend a little and stick to someone else brief but ultimately they are still our photographs. This doesn’t mean we need to love and share them all but we must be happy with all the work we are producing. Michael put it wonderfully summarizing that he knows what he likes, therefore no matter who is commissioning the work it is treated as personal work.
Fig 4. Website: John Angerson (2017)
In some respects the ideal may be the place Cheryl Dunn talks of, when we are hired to produce the images we would love to take anyway, the point where our commissioned work simply becomes our personal work. But what of our escape, if we are producing the images daily then will they no longer be our personal work? Will it simply become our work, creating a need to seek out a new perspective, a new format, a new style in order to re-create a new ‘personal’, starting the loop all over again.
Fig 1. Juli Balla (2017) [Juli Balla website] At: http://juliballa.com (Accessed on 2 September 2017)
Fig 2. Cheryl Dunn (2017)[Cheryl Dunn website] At: http://www.cheryldunn.net (Accessed on 2 September 2017)
Fig 3. Michael Cockerham (2017) [Michael Cockerham website] At: http://michaelcockerham.com (Accessed on 2 September 2017)
Fig 4. John Angerson (2017) [John Angerson website] At: https://www.johnangerson.com ( Accessed on 2 September 2017)
Angerson, J (2017) [Telephone conversation about Balancing personal work with Commercial work held on 15 August 2017]
Balla, J. (2017) Re: Balancing personal work with Commercial work. [Email sent to Matthew Walsh, 9th August 2017]
Cockerham, M (2017) Re: Balancing personal work with Commercial work. [Email sent to Matthew Walsh, 9th August 2017]
Dunn, C. (2017) Re: Balancing personal work with Commercial work. [Email sent to Matthew Walsh, 20th August 2017]
Hannon, J J. (2017) ‘Creative Brief’ In: British Journal of Photography (7856) pp. 94-95.

Posted by author: Matthew Walsh
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3 thoughts on “Personal work

  • “All the photographers were united in their response, led by Juli Balla who firmly states ‘yes, believing that if one also does commercial work it makes one less accepted in the art world’”.
    So true, to be valued by the Art World you have to fit in with their ideology rather than just make good work.

    • Perhaps it works both ways? I believe its less about ideology and more about thinking of your audience. The people in the art world are not interested in your commercial work and the commercial audience only want to see that your personal “style needs to fit or enhance the brief”. I had feedback about my previous website where I showed commercial and personal work together and it was recommended that I split the two as a fine art audience made up of curators etc. have no interest in more commercial work. Many photographers nowadays do exactly that and have two websites.

  • Interesting post, Matthew – thank you.
    Whatever way one goes, it’s important to have some sort of aesthetic consistency, and/or some sort of consistency in terms of subject matter.
    Colleagues of mine in the industry (i.e. agents and publishers) value personal work massively, as that is generally where the hints of the ‘real’ you are going to be most pronounced. What’s useful is having pdf portfolios for certain (potential) clients – this allows you to edit something bespoke, but its also usefully if you have pic of kids or other vulnerable people, which is tricky to show in a public (online) portfolio.

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