Business & Pleasure; A Commercial/Creative Balancing Act

Jim McHugh ( came to my attention most recently with his program for the Advertising Photographers of America/Los Angeles chapter (APA/LA) titled "Walking the Tightrope." In the workshop, he offered his personal story and thoughts on how to balance successful commercial work with the creation of personal work. This topic comes up many times in my own business and marketing workshops, so I talked with McHugh to have him share his thoughts on the matter.

All Photos © 2008, Jim McHugh, All Rights Reserved

For almost 30 years McHugh has been doing things his way and from celebrity portraits to large format urban landscapes, his award-winning work has been crossing over from commercial to art with international and solo exhibitions. McHugh is one of the original contributing photographers for People magazine, and has worked extensively with TIME, TV Guide, and is presently on the masthead of Architectural Digest. He has published several books and his artists' portraits hang in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis.

In the past few years McHugh has dedicated much of his time to photographing the "urban built environment" as a "vanishing landscape." Ten of these images are included in the Polaroid Permanent Collection and in 2004 he won the Graphis Photography Award for Architecture with his unique image of architect Albert Frey's mid-century "Filling Station in Palm Springs." McHugh also received first prize from the International Photography Awards in 2004 for his images of Los Angeles.
His special interest now is combining traditional and digital techniques to create fine art prints. A traveling exhibition sponsored by the Polaroid Corporation, "On The Sunny Side of the Street: Polaroid Images from Los Angeles" has been on tour traveling from Los Angeles in July 2006 to the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles through 2007, and then onto London in October 2008.

Shutterbug: What range of clients do you currently work with?

Jim McHugh: I work with architectural and editorial clients such as Architectural Digest and various architects and interior design firms. I also work with The Grammy Awards and commercial clients such as Barclays Bank. I recently did a book with art consultant Barbara Guggenheim, Decorating on eBay, published by Regan Editions.

SB: How do you find clients for your personal work?

JM: I sold work out of my studio originally. I think that by having art shows clients will come to me so I find ways to put the work out there. Finding ways to create (and sell) my personal work really started when I changed the way I started thinking of my work. I now look at the work as it would be seen on a wall as opposed to in an ad or brochure or as an illustration. It is a completely different way of looking at making images for me.

SB: What changes did you go through to create more personal work for sale?

JM: The beginning of the process was to think that the work had to stand on its own; it is a very different process from the usual approach to photography. The real point I want to make is that I started to do my own personal work and I did not wait to be asked. If you wait to have someone ask you to shoot urban landscapes or a dance company or famous authors or anything that you can think of, you will wait forever. Just go. Now. You have to shoot something that's fascinating and wonderful for you and then find a way to show it, and the clients will then find you.

SB: How do you recommend photographers change their thinking?

JM: I recommend you start by getting rid of the idea that you are a photographer and replace it with the idea that you are not on assignment or recording an event or making this image for someone else. The longer you are thinking about creating work for a wall, the more the photo laws go away and you find your way into creating a body of work.

SB: How have you combined your pursuit of personal work as part of your business?

JM: That's the point; I have always pursued personal work, and encourage your readers to do so. Because I wanted to do it, I did a series of projects on artists. Out of that body of work came several shows and books. For example, these three books were published: California Painters: New Work with curator Henry Hopkins, The Art of Light and Space for Abbeville Press with Jan Butterfield, and That's the Way I See It with David Hockney.