Bill Pierce
Nuts & Bolts

Shoot For Yourself

I got asked two very strange questions the other day. "Is photojournalism art?" And, "What is the difference between photojournalism and art?" I could not possibly answer these questions.

To answer either question you have to know what the words "photojournalism" and "art" mean. I've spent most of my adult life in worlds where these two words are used a lot. And I haven't got the slightest idea what they mean.

They seem to mean different things to different people. A person who photographs houses that are for sale in the local shopper says he is a photojournalist. A photographer who does portraits, many of which appear in newspapers and magazines, but often provided by the subject, says he is a photojournalist.

After having spent most of my adult life, but not all, shooting pictures for the editorial sections of news publications I still have no idea what to call myself or my friends who do the same work. I have a great reluctance to sum up my professional life with something as simplistic as "I'm a photojournalist." When I'm asked what I do, I usually reply, "I take pictures." If the questioner wants to know more, I answer their questions.

If the word "photojournalism" is relatively useless because it means different things to different people, try the word "art."

To the art gallery owner, it means something that can be sold as art. To the art museum, it means something that can be exhibited as art. To the dilettante, it is something he can do to impress people. They are all correct, and they all leave me confused.

I like the term photo gallery rather than art gallery. And all the galleries of which I am particularly fond, use a term close to that. Sadly, my favorite museum in all of the world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in N.Y.C. uses the dreaded "A word." I'm glad it doesn't keep them from exhibiting snapshots and really neat suits of armor.

As for those of us who occasionally take pictures with no other purpose than our own pleasure, and perhaps, the pleasure of those who will see the prints, I prefer the term "self-unemployed." It is more specific than "artist."

Was it the photographer and writer, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Lewis Carroll, who had one of the characters in Alice in Wonderland say something to the effect that words meant what he wanted them to mean? If a photographer of his stature can promote that idea, it is probably OK for me to give you my answer to the question I was asked, "What is the difference between photojournalism and art?"

Photojournalism is something you do for money. Art is something you do for yourself. They are things that used to overlap a great deal. Diane Arbus, Werner Bischof, Cartier-Bresson for example. Photojournalism and art don't overlap much, now. So, it may be important to you to shoot a fair amount for yourself.

Of course, it may not be important. I know lots of photographers who only shoot for the money. Some of them do quite well. But, I don't know anyone whose pictures knock your socks off that doesn't also shoot for themselves.

Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer

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