To Specialise or Not – That is the Question

Francis Hodgson, photography critic and Professor in the Culture of Photography at the University of Brighton, has written an interesting post called Teenage Kicks about the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans who currently has an exhibition at Tate Modern in London.

Tillmans is a fine-art photographer, essayist and campaigner (most recently campaigning against the UK’s exit from the EU). He also won the Turner Prize in 2000. If you take a look at Tillmans body of work, either at the Tate show, in his books or on his website you will see it’s hard to pin down exactly what type of photographer he is. Calling yourself a “fine-art photographer” often, of course, releases you from the challenging task of actually having to decide what genre of photography you specialise in. Portraiture, street, landscape, documentary, art-nude, architecture, all it seems are valid subjects for the fine-art photographer to train their lens on. In many ways fine-art is itself the specialism which, it seems, gives you carte blanch to go out there and photograph whatever takes your fancy because it’s art, don’t you know.

Cynicism aside, is it a good thing to not specialise in any particular genre as a photographer and are you limiting yourself if you do focus (pun intended) on one subject? As Hodgson says: “Tillmans has made it his badge to be un-precious about what he photographs: he is one of those artists who photograph to understand, not to inform.” Surely one of the main purposes of photography is just that, to inform, and therefore we owe it to ourselves as photographers not to get mired in one subject area, chasing an ever decreasing set of potential shots that have not been done before?

I have just attended The Photography Show at the NEC near Birmingham where I took the opportunity to attend as many talks as possible, both paid and free (the latter often put on by equipment and accessory manufacturers), to listen to the photographers and find out what makes them get out of bed in the morning to pursue their passion. Most of the photographers whom I heard speak were specialists and were very, very good at what they did. Indeed, to keep on making it as a commercial photographer in today’s climate you have to be pretty damn good and be able to keep churning out the work so you had better be pretty passionate about what you do and in some ways specialism is one way of ensuring that; you can just focus on the thing you love and not worry about anything else.

One exception to the many great specialist photographers who I saw was Albert Watson. Watson has made quite a career out of not been pigeon holed as a particular type of photographer but just stays interested (and even obsessed) in all types of photography. As he says, “you have to become obsessed and you become obsessed because you love it.”

All of this has set me thinking about the benefits, or otherwise, of specialising in one particular subject area when it comes to photography and what the pros and cons are.

In favour of specialising we have:

  1. You get to be very good at what you do because that’s all you do and so you can continuously refine your craft in that area.
  2. You can probably command higher fees once you build up your name in that area (assuming number one above actually is the case of course).
  3. You only need the kit that supports your particular specialist area so don’t need to build up a vast collection of gear.

Against specialising I see these problems:

  1. Commercially unless you really are at the top of your game you are going to be one of thousands struggling to make a name for yourself. You need to be in it for the long haul.
  2. You might find your specialism suddenly falls out of favour and suddenly not get the work or commissions you have become used to.
  3. Spreading your wings photographically can actually be a good thing because you learn more by dipping into other areas occasionally.

On my part I struggle with the idea of specialising I must say. As the below set of images shows I like to experiment in different areas simply because I enjoy all aspects of photography. Whilst I have my specialist interests I, like Albert Watson, don’t want to be exclusively known as one particular type of photographer. Maybe one day I will, but for now I prefer to dip in and out of lots of photographic genres. I think the name of one of Wolfgang Tillmans previous shows pretty much sums it up for me: “If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters”.

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