Over the 40 years of my practice in commercial photography I continue to be honoured, yet astounded, by the popular assumption that many great photographs in commercial campaigns are the work and brainchild of the photographer. Seldom. In almost all cases there is a symbiotic relationship of client, photographer and art director. And I’ll briefly tell you why, as a client, you have incentive to include the talents and expense of an art director in your budget.
While I am pretty good at it, when I am relied upon to wear all the hats in the creation of a message through photography I am distracted by too many elements of the process to be exceptional at all of them. And you’re hiring me in the hope of exceptional results. The truth is that commercial photographers’ main strengths are in the technical problem solving first and the details of the story-telling second. We can’t begin to tell the story until we have solved the myriad technical challenges. Everything about the real action of the direction of people and props is on hold until the tech side is ready for commitment to “film”. That plays out in real-life situations where we are often internally elated at solving these problems and are anxious to get to the story-telling because everyone is waiting for us to be able to get going. All the while we’ve also been fixated on what the action is planned to be; that’s why we have set up camera and lighting the way we did. It’s all planned out in our minds. All week long, leading up to this moment we have been mulling over solving the tech. of the plan. The problem is that once we get going with live action we tend to be so close emotionally to the “plans” that we have less ability to stand back and really see how well it is all working. We’re working the plan, with some flexibility of course, but it is a pretty predictable resulting image. And often less that what it could be.
Enter the Art Director. Early on. His or her responsibility is to have ( or devise) the total effect of the outreach and a sense of the angles, perspective, lighting and nuances that will best present the message. They are unfettered by the technical stuff and have the time to reflect on the variations on the theme, directing it to be shot several times in slightly different ways to give a final choice that is exceptional. Just when I am congratulating myself in pulling off a great shot, the Art Director will say, “OK, now let’s try it this way…”. Invariably, it is the Art Director’s creative vision in the variations that makes the truly exceptional shot and we seldom use the “planned” shot in the end. (And once completed, that planned shot is often just when photographers tend to think it’s a wrap.) The world famous photographers rightly credited with great “self-created”commercial scenes all have talented assistants who do almost all of the technical stuff leaving the photographer time and energy to be a great Art Director. In the final tally of the costs to create and publish the images, the extra cost of the Art Director is a very minor component but one that will often make a huge difference in your viewer’s interest in your message.