Impressionism Versus Traditional Art: Thoughts of a Commercial Photographer

Impressionism Versus Traditional Art: Thoughts of a Commercial Photographer

Whether you think about conceptual art, impressionism, or high fashion, they are all deviations from the traditional art expressions. Is the emperor naked, or do these forms of art have nothing to do with that well-known story? Is it possible to make more profit from impressionism than from traditional photography?


Whether it's photography, paintings, or motion pictures, the philosophy of art is the same: visuals that have a certain impact on the viewer. The result of that impact could be propaganda, fame, praise, or profit. I know "propaganda" may sound scary for some readers, but that's the word that explains the act of propagating ideas to an audience. Some works of art may contain several of these purposes together.

An example of combining (many times) propaganda, fame, praise, and profit, is the advertisement. Its name means "to turn towards." Works of artists who want to "bring awareness" can be put in the group of those propagating ideas. Amateurs most of the time seek praise and fame by shooting non-commercial work and then sharing it with the world.

Artists of old times, such as painters and sculptors, were frequently propagating ideas related to religion or mythology. Others were drawing moments from their time: battles, landscapes, daily routines, and peculiar or common people. They were creating themes that were digestible by everyone. Young and old could understand what that piece of art was showing even though there might be details that were not known (e.g., a specific battle story, or a story from the Bible, or a character from the Greek mythology).

Rembrandt - The Night Watch

Not long ago, traditional painters began to observe another movement that was gaining strength: impressionism. It was contrary to the traditional art form. It was presenting ideas that were not known to the general public. The majority of the general public does not comprehend that form of art. However, there are already societies of artists, art buyers, and art admirers who are all about impressionism.

Vincent van Gogh - Starry Night

Later that form of art started to impact modern activities, that the readers of Fstoppers are more familiar with: photography and video.


Traditional forms of photography include images of objects and ideas that are understood by the general audience. When a wedding photographer shows portraits of the bride and the groom, there's no need to explain that. Children and old people know what this is. People pay for that photography because they see personal and historical value in it.

Wedding portrait

It's the same with photography of still objects where a company displays their products through nicely crafted images, so that buyers may be "turned towards" their business and buy something. This is the way the company makes a profit. Corporate portrait photographers make portraits of working people, which portraits form the image of a company to the world.

Traditional fashion portraits

Traditional fashion photographers shoot portraits of models who are wearing certain clothes or accessories, so people may find them pleasing to the eye (both models and products) and eventually make a purchase from that company. I doubt a couple, that is going to be married, will rush to an impressionist to ask them to photograph their wedding, because the grandmother of the bride won't understand the final images (so to say). No company wants to display vague imagery to customers who won't associate it with their products or services.

Impressionists are not like that. They don't seek to please everybody. They live in their own world where they show work, hope to receiveĀ praise, and make a profit. Profit is not something an impressionist can easily achieve yet, because there are not as many art buyers like there are for traditionalists. "Porsche" also doesn't have lots of buyers, but the general public appreciates their cars, whether or not they can afford them. Impressionistic art, on the other hand, is not consumed by the general public, and even though some could afford it, they might not invest in it. This makes impressionism more challenging to make money from. Despite that, the movement gains more and more publicity. But is that publicity widely spread for the sake of propagating ideas of "something different," or it is gaining more and more followers because the general public starts to appreciate it?

High fashion is a form of impressionism. It was originally meant to be a dressing style for the rich people. Today it's not quite like that. Many times you see a dressing style that you won't see on the street or even at high-society events. Obviously, the purpose of the photograph is not to sell a certain clothing line. Yet high fashion shows, photographers, magazines, online media, TV programs, etc., manage to make a living from something that has no tangible value for the common people.


Traditional filmmaking still dominates in the world of motion pictures. If a two-hour movie was based on impressionism it wouldn't make a dime at the box office, because a movie is usually aimed to be consumed by a wider audience. It is not meant to hang on someone's wall. Maybe that's the reason feature films won't embrace impressionism in the near future.

However, that movement has found its way in the video industry through music videos. They are short and while people are listening to the audio, the imagery that supports it could be anything. The difference is the storyline: in a music video, the music and the lyrics are the main hooks that will keep someone watching impressionistic art. In the music industry, people pay for the audio, not for its accompanying video. In films, however, images and story go together, and people pay for consuming both of them. If they don't understand any of these, they won't recommend it, and the film won't make a profit. That's why we don't see much deviation from the traditional visual stories there.

Future and Sustainability

Sustainable art is the art that makes a profit. Yes, non-profit photographers who shoot impressionism may continue doing that, but it won't make their ideas live much longer because their work won't have publicity. When their work doesn't have publicity it won't be appreciated and little by little that form of art will die out. The current impressionism is backed up by magazines, modern-art galleries, people in the fashion world, and they all do that for profit. If they don't do that, modern art will be gone.

Traditional art doesn't need that much of a publicity because its consumers and clients are in a close vicinity. These artists don't need mediators who explain to potential buyers what is the value of that kind of work, because it is comprehensible, and most people feel the need to own such art.

Do you think impressionism in photography and video will last long? We don't have any historical evidence for the fate of such an art form, and it's hard to make predictions. Traditional art has endured the test of time and is still going well.

Are you going to take the risk and work in the area of impressionism rather than being traditional?

Log in or register to post comments


Previous comments
Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I agree with your terminology, but the meaning behind the different terminology is the same: it's a form of art that is not comprehensible to the general pubic.

Tom Jacobs's picture

A few thoughts...I am not sure I would call fashion a form of impressionism. There is also a big difference between modern art and impressionism. Also Monet, Degas, etc.. were quite controversial with their impressionistic paintings and were eventually quite successful. Certainly a commercial photographer does not want to stray very far from more traditional photography - images usually need to appeal to a mass audience for profitability.

Art, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. It should stand on it's own merit regardless of the medium. I am not interested in "top 40" photography.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The term "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" was introduced by impressionists, because otherwise they could not tell masses that their art was beautiful. This also has a relation to the introduction of the relativistic philosophy of the early 20th century where everything is relative and subjective, which denies the objectivity of the masses.

The word 'beautiful" has an absolute meaning for almost everything. We have words such as "provocative," "strange," "ugly,", etc. Most of the impressionistic art (the modern one) can hardly be described with the word "beautiful," but despite of that, it is used as some kind of "metaphore."

As I said above, classic impressionism was quite close to the traditional art, while the modernistic approach is very stylistic and the general public can't understand it, can't appreciate it, and thus won't buy it.

When speaking about fashion, I talk specifically about high fashion, not fashion in general. Fashion is the way people like to wear clothing, accessories, hair, makeup, moustache, beards, etc. High fashion was used to represent the fashion style of the high-society. Today it represents provocative, strange, and not-so-high-society-wearable clothing and accessories, but a subjective vision of an author. I haven't seen anyone in the high-society wearing the pink "clothing" from the picture above. Not even Lady Gaga :)

Michael Yearout's picture

Tihomir: Your story gave me pause and made me think. Interesting analysis.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

It's good to hear that. Thank you.

Larry Chism's picture

Tihomir, I feel out of step with your definitions. But that aside the art world and commercial world are waves which sometimes cross for short periods and move on. Impressionist Art sells at high prices at auction houses, some of the current stuff who knows yet? We are suffering from revisionism now in both art and history.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

As I mentioned in the comments above, it is different terms with the same root and the same meaning in them: odd (to the public) ideas displayed in a very stylized way that is easy to be replicated by a multitude of people. Yet, there are people who pay for that not because it's "beautiful," but because it's shocking, different, or someone with authority told the buyer "this is art even if you don't understand it." Common people see the new clothes of the emperor and wonder. That's the very truth.

That movement has gone through different stages but even the general public can tell if something is close to the traditionalism or way off that track (called impressionism, post-impressionism, futurism, modernism). Words can be very misleading and that's why I try to stick to the roots and explain what meaning I use when I write this analysis.

Wedding photography is commercial too. Not all of it is of high quality, but it is commercial and yet people find it beautiful and traditional.

That (impressionism) movement has pierced not only paintings, photographs, sculptures, but also architecture (both interiors and exteriors). Today the buildings I see are glass cubes. The furniture I see is flat metal or flat particle board with shiny plastic on top of it. The eye slides along it and it can't stop anywhere because it's all the same. Yet these are sold for quite a lot of money not because they are art, but because people are told these are modern and are worth buying.

That is also influenced by the time we live in where everyone wants everything quickly, today, now, all of it. Having boxes (that are very easy and quick to be assembled) and putting them in the interiors is the same form of art. It is not uncommon for people to find cosiness in the interiors of old and buildings of old time, while new architecture is felt to be sterile and without warmth.

I have been fond of modern architecture for some time, because that was the only thing I was shown as "beautiful." After I started studying the old architectural principles, and appreciating the slow process of making the art of old times, I had two things I could compare and evaluate what is what.

I don't blame people who like modern art in all its forms, because most of them are just like I was: they are shown only a fraction of what art could be and they are taught this is the standard of beauty.

This is extremely obvious in countries where there was a specific form of communism. During that time they removed all the beautiful pieces of art and replaced them with modern ones and told its people: that is the standard. Follow it. Generations grow up with these standards and it takes quite a lot of effort to open your eyes and compare what people of old deemed "beautiful" and what is presented as beautiful today.

Larry Chism's picture

You mean the architecture of the basic box? Everything conforms to the box, balls are not welcome? Communist are not the only purveyors of the basic... To not know today but maybe tomorrow? Now, how to tell that story with photography.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I'm not talking about boxes and balls here. I'm talking about the time consuming process of making something that's out of the hand of a master, appreciated for their hard earned skills, not for their perversion or bravery to do provocative stuff that doesn't require that much skills but ..."nuts", so to say.

I haven't said that commuists are the doyens of impressionism/modernism/futurism. Just saying that they are marketing it. So does the current status quo.

The principle is the same with photography: introducing weird ideas of things that are often useless, shocking, even perversive. The idea is vague, the story is not understood by anyone but 17 people in the whole earth. If there weren't industries and individuals who supported that type of art, it would have vanished, because the general public doesn't understand it and doesn't want to pay for it (even if some have the money). It's not like that with beautiful products like nice cars where even if someone can't afford it, they appreciate the beauty of it.

I don't have problems with the non-traditional art as long as it's not called "beautiful".

Larry Chism's picture

Tihomir, we are thinking similarly on different paths.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yes, it is possible.