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Are You Selling Out? Probably Not

Some people forget that a creative person can be a business person too. The best business people are the most creative. There is such a stigma with a creative person taking on a business career that the term “selling out” gets thrown into the mix far too often. If a photographer begins making money off of their art, that is often considered selling out. If an artist paints a painting for a client, that could be selling out. There are so many different situations in which those words are summoned, but I want to argue that in most cases, they shouldn’t be.

Something that is implied with the words “selling out” is that an artist is no longer creating art if they are making money. This is part of the reason why so many people are obsessed with differentiating photography from other types of art, and it is the reason why some are hesitant to call photography art. Yes, there are photographers out there who create solely for other people, the way some people work a 9-5 job that they don’t enjoy. However, this does not make up the majority of photographers I would reckon.

I look at this argument from a fine art standpoint. What I do is largely considered art not because of the work produced but because of the label on it: Fine Art. It has art in the title, it sounds pretty pretentious, and we associate that type of art as hanging on gallery walls. I rarely have a problem with people saying that I sell out because I create personal work on a regular basis. I have had the occasional email saying things like “You are clearly selling out because you teach workshops” or “You’re selling out because you did that shoot for that magazine once”. These are some points I want to address, not to make a point to those emailers, but to make a larger point for anyone who thinks it isn’t okay to make money from your art.

Everyday people get out of school and find themselves in the real world. Nine times out of ten, if a person is so successful as to find a job or start a business and then make money from that venture, they are given a hearty pat on the back. We as a society congratulate them for taking their knowledge and applying that to a real-world scenario. There are few jobs out there that prevent us from seeing the positive side of making money. We all need money, and finding a way to make ends meet is an induction into the adulthood hall of fame. There is a thin line here, however, when passion and business collide.

The word “artist” has such a stigma attached to it. It is often seen as a very positive thing, a very unattainable thing…something transient that is reserved for those people who happen to have enough creative juice and umph to simply create. However, there is a catch-22. Someone is not very often categorized as an Artist until they begin making money from their work. At that point, when money is exchanged, people also want to stop calling the artist an Artist because of the fact that they just made money off of their passion. See my point here? What a crazy world this is…

The misconception comes from assuming that making money off of art means that you are not creating from passion anymore. I consider myself fortunate to be a fine art photographer, which means I don’t deal with this a lot. I create for myself and then hope that people enjoy it enough to purchase it. The end goal is two-fold. I create for myself, that is #1. I create for others, that is #2. The difference between selling out lies right here, between #1 and #2. If #2 were to go away, would you still create? If the answer is “no”, then yes, you are probably selling out. If you always create for yourself because it is your passion, and you are also smart enough to make money off of that, the answer is no.

A fashion photographer, senior portrait photographer, sports photographer, etc…is no different. Yes, these are all types of commercial photographers, but “commercial” doesn’t mean that they are creating solely for other people. A fashion photographer’s goal is to make clothes look good, a wedding photographer’s job is to capture memories…but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t creating for themselves too. They simply have to consider the opinions of others while creating. All photography can be considered art, it just depends on the artist.

Some of the most well known photographers living today are well known because they have made a brand for themselves. They were smart enough to understand the business end of things as well as the creative. And in doing so, there is often no creative compromise. We can create all the same, whether we make money or not. And if anything, making some extra cash allows us to create even more, and to dream even bigger.

There are examples all over the place of well respected photographers who have taken business to a whole new level, the kind of level that is to be admired. Some names come to mind that I’m sure most of us know, like Jeremy Cowart or Chase Jarvis. They are both examples of creative people. If you follow them for about 5 minutes on twitter it will be obvious how much passion they have for their craft. What will be equally as obvious is how incredibly intelligent they are for business. Photographers like Jeremy and Chase are branding themselves everyday and carrying with them the key to monetary success while also holding close their passion for art.

Art and business are not mutually exclusive. There is a big muddy pool where the two mingle together, blend and blur. If I were to show you the  picture below and say “I created this with passion”, you would probably consider it art. If I presented the same piece and said “I created this for a magazine” then suddenly the art aspect is lost. The line is blurred even more if I were to say “I created this and then it got put on a magazine cover”. A lot of the “selling out” conversation lies in how something is presented. I present the same picture to you twice with two different stories on why it was created, and suddenly your perception about it changes. If I present it with no text at all, what do you think? That is for you to decide.


In the end, there is no way to stop the often derogatory phrase “selling out” from spreading around to different artists, but there is a way to help ease the minds of those who are outraged at the idea of an artist making money off of their art. Understanding that there is business in art and there is art in business is a good starting point, so fellas, welcome to the conversation.



{ 12 } Comments

  1. Joel | March 15, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I already commented via Facebook but I thought I would let you know here how deeply this resonates with me.

    I’ve spent the past week or so dealing with these exact thoughts and feeling so proud and so rejected at the same time. When explaining it to someone else I used this example; if I were an animator and wanted to be successful wouldn’t it be considered an honor or career goal to work with a high profile company such as Disney or Dreamworks? It seems so contradictory that photographers are expected to create without blurring the lines between creative expression and media relations. For the past few years I’ve said, if people are unhappy with the way that media and buisness is presented, then start creating your own ideas of it, and that’s what I feel like artists are starting to do. Is a clay animation video any less beautiful or artistic because it was created for a coffee shop? Is a photograph any less creative or impressive because it is on a CD cover?

    You continue to be a beacon of inspiration for people like myself who are navigating a new world of art and I thank you for doing everything that you do.

  2. Alicia Savage | March 15, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic analysis and reflection on this Brooke! I can’t agree with you more. Being able to live your passion as your profession is such a unique and wonderful experience- for artists and all that feel that connection to their work. If ones work is purposeful and a reflection of ones self, and is strong enough to create a brand and voice in its self thus resulting in a business- how can that be ‘selling out’? I say that’s living the dream!

  3. Reverine | March 15, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree with you. I don’t understand the concept of selling out, if you do what you like and get paid for that than good for you, I hope that one day I’ll be at that point as well. :)

  4. Liv | March 15, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    This point should be particularly evident if you look at the history of art. Most art before the mid nineteenth century was commissioned, and no one is debating its artistic merit for that reason. Just because Michelangelo was paid to paint the Sistine Chapel does not make him a “sell out.” Sure, you could say the intent of the work changes. But the true artist will find a way to work within whatever medium and circumstance they find themselves. Was Michelangelo painting something because he wanted to? No, he was told exactly what the subject matter would be, that the medium would be fresco, was given the space to do it in, and had to please people. The way he executed the work within those circumstances is what makes him exceptional. The same can be applied to photographers. The artist’s challenge is to be able to infuse new life and creative vision into whatever they encounter.

  5. Paddy McDougall | March 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Wouldn’t worry about the haters on forums saying that you are a sell out or its not art. Storm Thorgerson has been using photography for album covers for 4 decades and they are amazing ( I bet he has made a fortune). Ask yourself what advice would he give you?

    If you could do some time travel ten years from now what advice would you give yourself?

    If you have critics then you are doing something right, enjoyed the post and by the way the wedding photos are lovely

  6. Carl Hensley | March 15, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    If your blog post is published somewhere for a fee I suppose you’ll be selling out as a writer as well. BTW you are a fantastic writer, so glad the creative artist in you limitless. I always let money be a distinction between amatuer and professional.
    Your critics must be genetically related to thosed that coined the phrase, “Starving artist”. “Selling” your art and your creative influence is not-so-common common sense. Not to mention there would be no “market” for your art if it wasn’t truly APPRECIATED for what it is.
    Brooke, the fact that you receive negative criticism, to me anyway, is just plain validation that you, my girl, are definitely on the right path. Bless you Brooke and your family.

  7. Heather | March 15, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I always thought the term selling out meant that you changed who you were as an artist or went against your beliefs as a person to meet the demands of the business. i dont think that applies here at all. its seems your art is still your art but now it is appreciated by a company who choose it to repesent who they were. you didnt change for them, they embraced you in full. imho. love your work. keep doing you and there is never a chance of you being a sell out. those who used it really dont understand the concept to begin with.

  8. David Lane-Ireland | March 16, 2012 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    You selling out???….people out there must think you can eat photographs….. If they keep wanting to oogle over your truly great photographs on facebook and Flickr then they have to realise that you have to make a living. If you don’t make a living you have to work at something else and end up with less time to be creative. These haters are most likley the copycats that can’t do their own thing and just copy you and when you move to a new thing that they don’t get then they feel the right to complain.
    Something I wondered form a while back is wether you are making any money at all from your photography at all, this was after being amazed with your photography style on flickr for a couple of years, seeing and reading the hundreds and thousands of fans comments on your photostream. I flew from Ireland to England to attend one of your workshops..the travel cost me a few euro so I couldn’t afford your Blurb book on the day. I got home and went on blurb and was shocked at the time there were only 2 comments…now a year later 4 comments. All these fans might love your work but do these fans support you financially? Keep your chin up and please continue to inspire and amaze even if you do make a few quid from it.

  9. June c | March 16, 2012 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    In my experience those who like to tell people they are “selling out” are normally envious of your success. “selling out” is just a convenient way to say, I wish it was me!

  10. Sandy | March 16, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand, why shouldn’t artists make money from their art? Isn’t that the dream? To be able to do something you love and enjoy and also be able to make a living off of it? I mean if you didn’t make any money off it it you would have to spend time on another job that does make you money so you wouldn’t starve and have a place to sleep, which would then give you less time to do the art you love.

    You’re photograph is gorgeous, whether it was made for a magazine or for yourself it’s still makes me go “wow, that’s gorgeous” and I think that’s all that matters.

  11. Vivienne Gucwa | March 16, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I posted to your FB but felt the need to come here and tell you how much I really appreciate and love that you made this post. As a photographer who has been creating a brand for myself for a few years now, nothing makes me sadder than the strange misconception that artists must somehow aspire to the crippling starving artist stereotype to make their art somehow valid and pure and that those who do make money off their art are somehow fraudulent and lesser beings to those who don’t (how absurd).

    I think that the notion of artists as creatures existing solely to make art without any other needs grounded in reality is one that has persisted throughout the centuries and isn’t one that will die anytime soon (unfortunately).

    So thank you for this post which so clearly shows the absurdity of the perception that an artist who makes money off their art and is financially successful is somehow a sell-out. Great presentation of the same photo side by side in different contexts to illustrate your points perfectly too.

  12. Niki Aguirre | March 20, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Just saw this on Facebook – great post. I had not realized that this was an issue. I may just be naive that such accusations are tossed around. Blast, that is just so inaccurate to accuse someone of selling out.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your viewpoint. Making money to create images you want to create is a true blessing. That in itself to me is a success, not the other way around!

    Thank you for posting this and for presenting such a clear argument. Sell out based on success – nonsense.

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