The Gap Between Commercial and Art is Imaginary

Victoria Pizzo reminds us that commercial photography is still art

When I asked Victoria Pizzo to collaborate on a newsletter, to me it was a no-brainer. She was one of the very first people I ran the idea by. When we finally got together to talk she told me when I first asked her to join me she forgot she was an artist for a moment. To me, she has and always remains an artist. She works commercially, for the most part, still life images and product shots that pop with color. She makes products come to life and her stop motion gifs I could watch on repeat. In fact just now while writing this I went and looked at one. Many people wouldn’t consider still life to be all that difficult, but in my opinion it remains one of the hardest genres of photography to undertake with actual skill. I have never been successful with such art, but Victoria always has. It is like a gift bestowed upon her from the heavens, a true calling. A perfect match. Even in school I could see it click with her in a way it did not click with many. Victoria’s work continues to get better and better. She has never been stagnant, she is always creating something new, something better than the last time. I’ve arrived at a point where I can’t see her getting any better (but she always does). It makes me excited to see what brand (smartly) trusted her with their product. If that’s not an artist then I don’t know what is. Sitting down with her to talk about the photography industry, the art of commercial photography, and the dreaded proclamation that everyone’s a photographer, I felt like I could have talked with her for hours. I am so happy and excited to share my conversation with Victoria Pizzo.

This has been edited for length and clarity.

Ava Williams: Please introduce yourself. 

Victoria Pizzo: Hi, I'm Victoria pizzo. I'm a commercial product photographer and stop motion animator. I'm currently working for a social media marketing agency shooting all types of social media and ad work for various clients. 

AW: How did you get your start in photography? What's your background? One day did you just decide you wanted to be a photographer? Or was it something that called to your whole life? 

VP: I'd like to say that I started photography when I was like 5 because I asked Santa for a camera and Santa came through. I got a Kodak one of those not disposable but you put in the film. It was a pink Princess one, so I'd like to say that's where I started my photography career. Realistically, I actually started my sophomore year of high school. 

AW: Me too! Twins 

VP: My brother came back from a trip from Australia and was showing me the camera that he bought for the trip and since then I was just like yup this is it. That's all I want to do. 

AW: Did you always want to do commercial work?  Or was it something that you found in school? Or was there a moment where you sort of really started going towards commercial work?  

VP: So initially I thought I wanted to shoot bands and music like go on the road with bands and I thought I wanted to do fashion for a while too. I quickly realized in school that I did not like photographing people. We had one or two still life assignments and I realized it was just so much more up my alley to shoot still life than work with humans. 

AW: After you left college, did you immediately start working with the agency? 

VP: I started freelancing first, so in college I had...two clients that I shot like a little bit then afterward I just immediately started assisting and shooting on commercial sets. Shooting obviously was a little more low key. I was doing a lot of assisting first, but I did a lot of assisting for photographers. I worked in the HelloFresh studio. Then I found the agency last year during the pandemic. I happened to be on LinkedIn for some reason. I have no idea why it's one of those moments I happen to be on LinkedIn and came across their listing and I always said that I would not take a full time job unless it was a very specific type of job. Which, this seemed to be that kind of job I really wanted to have. I wanted to shoot different things every day and kind of have a little bit of freedom, this job kind of provides that. 

AW: What's it like? Can you describe because... obviously I and photographers alike, probably know what it's like working with an agency. Can you sort of describe what’s the average day? Or maybe the studio space, or what do you do? 

 VP: So we're doing a lot of work from home right now, so part of the reason I was hired was because since I was freelance, I had a little studio set up in my apartment. The day to day it just sounds kind of boring if you are a freelance photographer only because I'm in meetings a lot. The average day I wake up, I check my emails. Hope that there's nothing urgent in there. Look at my schedule, my shooting schedule for the day. And then I just balance shooting, editing, and whatever meetings I have to be in. There's a lot of concepting, so I have to pull references and present to clients and then part of my job is also delegating work to graphic designers and sometimes other photographers. So I have to plan what the content is going to look like. Yeah, just kind of communicate back and forth with clients, and if there's another designer I'm communicating with them hoping that everything is going to come together the way that the client wants it. 

AW: You're just living like a more stressful Mad Men I guess. 

VP: Essentially, yeah, that's a great thing. 

AW: What is the benefits to both lifestyles? So freelancing versus working full time at the agency. How do you see those two sort of benefiting you all at once? That obviously is a huge workload to freelance and then to also be at the agency at the same time I imagine that it's pretty stressful to get everything done. You have to plan all your shoots. Make sure you're on top of all your other work, you're really kind of making it happen for yourself so what are the benefits for you? Or even the cons like things that are hard or bad? 

VP: Yeah, I think there's a lot of stuff that goes hand in hand with them, so having the freelance career prepared me a lot for the agency career in that I had great communication skills with clients already. When you're freelance you have to constantly be putting yourself out there cold emailing, and if you get an email back you really want to be good at communicating with the client. So that's been a big help since I'm working so closely with clients right now. The pros of freelancing versus full time…it's so nice to be able to have your own schedule work when you want to and be able to take your time a little bit more. I think the only con is just having absolutely no security right? That is the most stressful part of freelancing. With the agency it's a lot busier and a lot more work I would say. Because I wear a couple more hats than I would if I was just freelancing for myself. But I have that security and I have that liberty to kind of experiment with my clients and see what's going to work and kind of build those relationships. 

AW: It's always when you’re freelancing when it rains, it pours. So one week you have a million things to do. You're sort of trying to figure out what you're gonna do. I freelance retouch and one week I'll have nothing and then the next week it'll be 40 images to be retouched. The insecurity, the instability of freelancing can be very stressful. 

By Victoria pizzo for Sircle Media

AW: Did you have any expectations going into the commercial world? Was there anything that while you were in school, maybe you were too naive to know because you hadn't been out as much or things that you were disappointed in? Or maybe surprisingly great? 

VP: We never really touch upon how big the team is going to be when you're on a commercial set. Meaning that the photographer is just one tiny part of the entire set. When you're on a big still life set there are so many components between the producer, the production team, which is their own separate thing, there's Creative Direction, creative directors, or art directors. You have stylists and then stylists assistance if it's a food set, there's food stylists. There are so many working parts on a commercial set that we really never touched upon in school, which is a really great thing because it's definitely not all on you. But it's also kind of daunting because you have to work with all these people and be good at working off of each other in order to like make that client's vision come to life. If you're not on the same page as someone else, then everything can just go really bad very quickly. I've seen it happen, luckily not to me, but on a set that I've assisted on. If one piece of the machine isn't working correctly or working well with the other parts, It's not going to turn out.  

AW: There's like this notion, obviously, I've definitely falling victim to this when I was first doing photography. I wouldn't exactly have thought of commercial as being this whole really creative or artistic thing that you can do. Obviously that's not true because it takes a lot of skill. I 1000% do not have the skill to be a commercial photographer. I know this from when I was at FIT, it is incredibly difficult. But it's art. So can you talk about... maybe explain probably better than I how it is an art form because I think a lot of people might see it as sort of a business. I think art photography and commercial photography are seen as 2 separate things when they blend together. 

VP: I do think a lot of people think of it as the business side of photography, and it can be that, but I think that's where you get the very boring cookie cutter, social media stuff, which unfortunately sometimes I do end up shooting. But I think that commercial photography can be such a beautiful thing if you allow it to be. The way I like to think about it is, every brand has a personality and the world that it lives in has a story. And the best way to really represent that brand is to fully try to understand where that story lies. You can think of them as people almost, and then it almost turns into a portrait every time you're shooting whatever product that is like... I'm trying to think look at all of my products and think of something like if I'm shooting...a jar of Ghee. Which for anyone that doesn't know, that's clarified butter. I know that their story is completely different than the jerky sticks that I'm going to shoot afterwards, so you have to get into that mindset. And once you figure out what world that lives in you can really try to explore that world and create based on what you think those characters would be doing. That's why I like to think of products as characters in some kind of story in some kind of world. 

AW: Wow that makes sense because with commercial photography you're representing a brand which is like a person. I feel like right now, everyone is not really thinking of commercial photography as an art form, but they'll think of graphic design as an art form. Which is basically the giant team you're working with. 

VP: There's also just so much planning that goes into a typical shoot, but I don't think that people, especially on the outside, like people that aren't in the photography world, really think about it. A lot of times, if you're just scrolling through Instagram and you see an ad for a brand, that's been thought about for a while. Concepted, and shot, and maybe reshot and it takes a lot of time and planning to get that shot. I think that that itself is an art form that people don’t really think about 

AW: We don't realize how much of that world is sort of encompassed in our own. Brands are thinking of you and [Victoria] kind of seeing that visual representation and so you are basically making art based on the customer. I mean you have the brand, but you kinda have to make it work, make this imaginary person which is incredibly difficult. 

VP: It definitely is. There's a lot of thinking involved especially like you said when it comes to thinking about the customer and thinking about who that target audience is and what they want to see. Then implementing that into the brand story and thinking about how I can make a viewer happy while also making sure that the brand is being represented the way that they want to be. So there's it's a very interesting distinction. 

 AW: Can you sort of describe some of your work? What is your style? How do you kind of go about it? 

VP: So I really love working with bright colors and just anything that really makes the subject pop, so I do a lot of color blocking and I try to work with, like the boldest kind of colors I can while not taking away from what the subject is. Because obviously if the subject has really bright packaging already, you don't want to use brightly colored backgrounds because it's just gonna be way too much. I'm always looking for that balance, but mostly just like solid color backgrounds are my key aesthetic. Hard shadows love that very clean. I really like doing clean, stylized kind of photos. Minimal propping. 

AW: Have you seen your style change over time? I feel like when I go in and edit photos on Photoshop, especially when I'm looking at all my twin stuff the growth is there. I hate to be like oh I'm so much better now, but I look at some of these old photos and I like I would never use them. I don't know very many people who shoot commercial stuff. Have you noticed change? You're evolving quickly, especially if you're doing a lot of work, like are you learning every single day? 

VP: Yeah, for sure. I think even just a year ago to now my style has become a lot more refined. I think when I first started out even just after college, I was doing a lot of experimenting, so there was a big range of what my work looked like and I feel like it took a while to refine that and figure out exactly what I like my photos to look like. Even now though, with certain clients, I have to shoot a lot of different things and different styles for them, which also goes along with being a commercial photographer. A lot of times you’re going to be hired for the style that you want, but sometimes you're working with someone who has a very specific vision and you're gonna work towards that. I think I've really refined my style down to exactly where I want it to be, but I think that's also constantly changing. In five years my work might look completely different from how it does now, and the way that I like to shoot is going to change. Now since I'm shooting pretty much every single day, I'm learning new things with lights and learning new ways to hold my set together. Just all these different techniques that are creating minor changes that five years down the line might completely alter the way that I like to work and alter the way that my work turns out. 

AW: I feel like when you start working on something you know what style you want right? People might shoot like Richard Avedon because they like that style like finding their style that works for them, but I don't love when people start shooting trendily. I'm not saying you can't do that, but like that type of photography where it'll be the subject and then like a ton of out of focus clouds fake clouds around people or paper airplanes. Stuff like that isn’t my favorite. I feel like I've seen your work a lot. But I've never seen you do things in terms of, trendy sort of photography things that people do commercially. I know you have a distinct style of your own that I feel like changes, but it's never something changing for the popularity effect which I really appreciate.

VP: Thank you! 

AW: You were talking, you're shooting every single day. Obviously you have a lot of clients that people reaching out to you to shoot with you. Is it hard to balance all these different clients? Do you find it difficult to tackle all these different visions all at once? Or is it sort of one of those things that you can separate? 

 VP: This is something we've talked about a lot of the agency. It's hard because there are so many clients that we have, and this is like an agency issue, but it definitely is hard to differentiate sometimes the styles that each client has. I might be shooting two photos for three clients in one day and I have to make sure I'm in that correct mindset, or else it's not going to turn out correctly. So if I'm shooting for one client and then switching over to the next, I have to make sure that I'm in the mindset to remember what that characterization is for the second client before I start shooting. I really try to clear my mind of whatever I did before that because it gets clouded, especially if they have similar color palettes that they like to follow, but completely different brand stories or completely different target audiences. I really need to clear my mind and make sure that I'm fully understanding the characterization of this next brand that I'm working on to make sure that they're going to be happy with whatever I produce. 

AW: That is not crazy because like it obviously makes sense when you say it. Obviously I'm not like I don't believe you, but I don't have to clear my mind so to hear you say it, to think about having to go from two brands that are sort of similar but have different ideas for what they want their stuff to be... that sounds like a very difficult process. Or I guess maybe something non artists or artists not in the field wouldn't really think about. 

AW: I wanted to talk about, because I've definitely had this conversation with a lot of people but never in this context. Obviously we're both working in the field do you have any pet peeves about the industry? I mean I have maybe a million, I talk about them frequently because it is so frustrating, especially with Instagram... there's some inequality balance. For example, I have a pet peeve in retouching because everyone is working from home. Some clients who are just creative directors not photographers think that I'll just retouch all night and that's not how it works. I know obviously you work at home with your home studio but I don't want to work 9:00 AM to midnight, you know? So do you have any? 

VP: So many Oh my God. The photography industry in general, I think is a mess. I think that there are issues with freelancers in general being taken advantage of, especially in this digital age where there is so much content creation. It's mind-blowing to me honestly how dumb people can be. Because I just laid out a lot of information about how long it takes to plan and concept and create but people really do think that $200 is acceptable for a full day of shooting, it's not. It's absolutely not because they think that it's like just setting up a tripod, putting the camera on it, clicking the button, and that's it. But it's really maybe a week of prepping, concepting, drawing out lighting diagrams, figuring out backgrounds, colors, props. All of that and all of that pre-production. And then the actual production may be a day or two of shooting, some experimenting, making sure that lighting is good. It takes a long time to get one photo done. Even if all you're seeing is pressing the button. Setting up lights, setting up backgrounds. The manpower that that takes, the strength, the physical strength, and hold that it takes on your body. Then afterwards you're not just done. You're going to sit down and you're going to do Ava’s thing, you're going to retouch. You're gonna make selects, and then you're sending to the client. People just don't see that entire part of the job. They just see the setting up, the camera, and taking the picture. So $250 is absolutely not enough for a full day of shooting. It's not enough for one photo, realistically. Freelancers are just taken advantage of nowadays, especially with these…like I don't know if you've ever seen those websites. I can't think of how to describe them, but those websites where they connect freelancers and clients and like just charge no money, those piss me off so much. 

AW: Yes! Those website’s are like budget $10. OK, yeah, who is shooting that? Someone with their Nintendo DSi like it's ridiculous. Freelancers are completely taken advantage's incredibly difficult to explain to someone that you're not just paying for those services you're paying for all the things that I need for the service. Especially with Instagram so many people are saying that they are photographers. I think a true photographer it takes a lot of work to go through and figure out what you're going to do. A good photographer makes it look easy, but it's not. No legitimate photographer, I mean if we all didn't have impostor syndrome, but no real photographer would like take $200 for a shoot. Freelancing life is really hard, it's all you want to do, but it’s really hard.

VP: Yeah, I mean I like my job, I really do. I miss freelancing a lot, but I know what I'm getting paid right now. I know what my work is so. It kind of makes freelancing look not as great, even though I do miss it, I don't know. Does that make sense? 

AW: Agency life or full time life is great in a sense, but you're always pining for that moment where you can be freelance. 

AW: One of the biggest things that I feel is so frustrating is to see people treat photography as anything but an art form.

VP: Yeah for sure. I do think Instagram has played such a big part in that. Just beause everyone has a phone in their pocket. Everyone has a camera in their pocket nowadays, so everyone thinks that they are a photographer and brands expect anyone to be...they're OK with lesser quality now because Instagram doesn't really require fantastic quality all the time. 

AW: I have a love-hate relationship with [Instagram]. I feel like it's because Instagram was the only one that I used and it just went completely downhill. It's not the place to show work anymore. Social media doesn't give me anxiety, but Instagram does because I'm like, am I diminishing the quality of my work? 

VP: I feel like I was kind of a hypocrite saying that, you know, commercial photography is art and it really is, but because of Instagram, and because of the way that it's just kind of becoming so manufactured now. I feel like there's potential for it to fall. The good brands they want that art, they want that uniqueness, but with the amount of brands, and the amount of quote unquote photographers that there are, there's a fine line there and it's kind of teetering. The industry itself is kind of teetering so I really hope that commercial photography stays the art form that it is. And it can be but like. I don't know I hope it stays there but there is a huge chance that it can just completely fall into the Instagram Tiktok World fully. 

AW: Yeah, and I've seen videos of people being like this is my photo before I edit it. And of course, I never want anyone to see my raw files, I've taken a bad exposure so you know. But I see it and they show multiple and I’m not trying to bash people but every single one that they do the photo, the base of it is really bad, bad quality. I feel like we shouldn't lean on editing. We have sort of accepted bare minimum. I very rarely see a photo, because so much content is being pushed out, that truly captures my attention. 

VP: I totally agree and obviously there's going to be some retouching there, but for the most part it's important to me, for myself, for my degree that I paid for, and just in terms of keeping it real, I really try to do whatever I can in camera, and I think that's what... I'm totally veering off now. I think that's what I really like about doing stop motion work too. Is that I can make anything I want happen and it's still all real, it's. All in camera still, but making things happen that you can't just do with a still photograph, or you can't see in real life. 

AW: Stop motion, which I could never in my life do. To be that intricate because you can't go back in time if you messed up a frame.  

VP: It's very stressful and dumb. I haven't been doing much longer form ones like recently, just you know because of the nature of commercial work or well, social media work in general. It's not going to be super long, so I have a little more leeway there where it's a little harder to mess that up. You still want to be as clean as possible because I have definitely been a culprit of this and no matter how many times I do it, I never seem to learn my lesson, where I let something slip and I'm just like I'll do it in post and it's never fun. It is never worth it. I don't know why I keep doing it to myself. It's not. I don't do it all the time, but when I do, it's just like why didn't you learn from last time Vic? 

AW: Oh jesus yeah, sometimes at the end of a shoot when I just want it to be over I am way more lenient about what I accept as the shot. 

VP: I did a recipe stop motion recently. So that's like the longest form stuff that I do like at most 30 seconds, which I guess that is very long in stop motion standards. When I do something like that, I really need to tell myself when I'm at frame 150 just calm down, just keep taking it slow because that's the most important thing. When you're shooting, stop motion or really just any commercial photo you just need to take it slow because you really don't want to be spending that time in post right?  

AW: Definitely patience is a virtue in our world. 

AW: my second to last question for you is what are some misconceptions about your career or your career path or photography in general.

VP: Well, I definitely think like we've said, just how the difficulty level of it. People tend to think it's just such an easy thing, when in reality there's so much that nobody sees. It's like that picture of the glacier where you see that little piece of ice on the top and then when you look below that water there's a giant piece that nobody tends to realize, and that's all the parts that are going on behind the scenes. Also with the commercial industry people think that it is kind of soulless, which I hate to say, but I think that there are photographers or just general creatives who are helping people market their dreams and grow the business that they wanted to grow, which I'd like to think is a good thing. The good old American dream. I think the commercial industry can be very, very... I'll use the word soulless again, but I think when you're looking at it from the perspective of people who started a company because they really believed in something and you're helping them accomplish what they want. It's a really beautiful thing. 

AW: My last question is sort of in general, either with your career or the phot industry or commercial industry. What do you sort of hope for in the future?  

VP: I hope that the photo world really keeps progressing towards art and I hope that people keep creating art and I hope that people hire artists rather than instagram people who think that they are photographers even though they don't necessarily have the qualifications. That's what I hope for the industry. For myself I just want to keep progressing. I want to keep figuring out who I am as an artist, because I think a lot of times I forget that I do make art because I do get lost in that thought of this is just going to be on social media whatever. But I hope that I keep figuring out who I am as an artist. I know that my style is going to keep changing and my goals are going to keep changing and who knows if I'll even be in the commercial industry in 5 years. I plan on making a short stop motion film. I have the idea. I haven't written it yet. It's been kind of busy with work so we're gonna see when I can start to get that off the ground it would be a very long term project. I hope to get that off the ground and I hope to continue making art for myself that I can kind of use commercially. I don't think I talked about that at all, but I feel like a lot of what I used to do was considered more towards the art photography spectrum, but I always viewed it as commercial and something that I could use in a commercial setting so. I hope that I can continue making my own work and figuring out how to how to use that for others I guess. There's definitely such a strange dichotomy between like is it art? Yes, it's definitely art. And then the impostor syndrome sets in. When you originally reached out to me about this and said something about me being an artist, I was just like wait am I?

AW: You definitely are.  

AW: what’s some unspoken wisdom? 

VP: Just going off of impostor syndrome and I very often compare myself to people who are light years ahead of me in their careers and the only difference between you and them is years of experience. So anyone that's just coming out of college like you're not going to know shit about the industry and there's still so much to learn. And especially with our types of careers, you're going to be learning until the day that you retire. Just don't compare yourself to people who have all of those years of experience over you because they were in your exact position and they put in the effort and the time to learn everything that they did and you will be there eventually. As long as you're persistent about making yourself better. 

You can view Victoria’s work on her

Website and on Instagram @victoria.pizzo

This Newsletter is Brought to You By:

The princess camera, for giving me my start.

The Office, for giving me a laugh whenever I need it.

Cheerios, for being the unwilling star of my first (good) stop motion piece.

Pizza, for obvious reasons.

My future cat, for giving me hope and a reason to keep working and providing

Our next newsletter collaborator needs no introduction, but here’s a little hint:

Check out more of his work HERE in the mean time!