Peter McCollough: A Shifting Line of Art and Advertising

Last year I documented an event in San Francisco for Absolut Vodka that was a little unlike anything I had done before. The idea was to take a city block, paint it white and then have artists from all over the United States paint, sculpt, plant and crochet their work onto the buildings. A commercially-oriented job like this was a departure from my usual documentary or candid relationship to photography. But when a client tells you, “just do what you do,” you know you’re in the right place. I ended up having a blast. Being around so many creative people working in a single place at once created a palpable buzz. Watching artistic visions manifest themselves onto the streets and buildings in a single day was exciting to say the least. Spectator’s came and went, watching and interacting with those helping and creating. It felt like a huge community art project, and it essentially was.

From the public’s view, the purpose of the event wasn’t readily apparent. What was actually going on behind the scenes is what they would call an immersive or experiential marketing campaign created by Sid Lee for Absolut Vodka. I didn’t know much about advertising at the moment (and still don’t really) so it was a real eye opener to be a part of it and see a little bit behind the scenes. I can’t say I’m a big fan of advertising, so I appreciated the subtlety of it all. The only Absolut Vodka ad was a billboard at the end of the street that seemed unrelated to the whole thing. Most people on the street assumed it really was an art fair until they investigated further.

When you take a step back and analyze it, it’s almost like a Charlie Kaufman script on art and consumerism – a commercial entity gets a city to let them paint a block white then pays a lot of street oriented artists to do their work in public, legally, and then has it documented by a film crew all the while obscuring their brand so most people don’t know what’s going on. That’s kind of a strange guerilla meta-performance art task unto itself. Some spectators found it great that a company would facilitate art in the area and some were miffed that marketing was disguising itself as street art and it was playing out in their neighborhood on such a grand scale. Sure, understandable, but probably better than ads everywhere, no?

Personally, I’m always on the fence about where to draw the line in how you make money as an artist or photographer so the experience gave me a lot to think about. Everyone’s line is in a different place and that line is probably shifting all the time. For me, shooting something like this was a great experience – I made some new friends, answered a lot of questions about the Leica in my hand and was paid to take pictures however I please of artists being paid to create art however they wanted. It seemed like it was benefiting artists and the community, and that’s how advertising should work if you ask me.

– Peter McCollough

Peter Earl McCollough was born in Billings, Montana, in 1982 and grew up in Davis, California. Shortly after turning 18, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps where he served from 2000-2004. After being honorably discharged he began studying photography in Sacramento. In 2008, after transferring to Ohio University, he received a Bachelor of Science in Visual Communication with an emphasis in Photojournalism. He is currently a freelance photographer and aspiring cinematographer based in San Francisco. In his off time he likes to paint and work on his street photography. More photos can be seen on his website,

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