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Most photographers dream of signing with an agent. But how do you get their attention? James Gerrard-Jones, managing director at Wyatt-Clarke & Jones, shares what he’s looking for
For many photographers, being signed by an agent is the stuff of dreams. The hustle to find new clients and bag great commissions, the careful act of maintaining professional relationships, the delicate process of negotiating fees – suddenly, an experienced pro is on hand to do all that for you. With an agent on side, you’re suddenly and newly liberated to focus on mastering your practice; the thing you’re singularly good at – travelling, collaborating, meeting people, being on location, using your camera to make relationships, creating beautiful imagery. What’s more, you can benefit from the deep and long-standing connections an agent has developed with clients who need photography and are willing to pay for it. All for the price of a percentage of fees so lucrative they were once mere flights of fantasy.
Is there another way? Sure. Plenty of photographers carve out successful careers without agents. Many photographers with agents still manage to miss out on the best gigs or the top shows or the magazine spreads. But, the fact remains, most successful, well-salaried photographers have some form of representation.
Having an agent remains the best guarantee of remaining in the ecosystem of advertising agencies, gallerists and fashion houses, the most tried and tested way to be in the mix for the top-tier fashion and advertising jobs. But if a photography agent can really help your career, then attracting and securing one remains an abstracted business.
James Gerrard-Jones, a partner and managing director at the agency Wyatt-Clarke & Jones, is one of the leading photography agents in the UK. Whilst Wyatt-Clarke & Jones is an agency at the heart of the mainstream advertising establishment, Gerrard-Jones and his team have built his own career on discovering and then introducing young and emerging photographers to top advertising clients. The WC&J team represent a diverse roster of photographers including Adam Hinton, Laura Pannack, Julia Fullerton-Batten, Sophie Ebrard and Catherine Hyland; all great artists and successful commercial photographers who have demonstrably managed to bridge their personal practice with successful, widely-seen commissioned projects that still manage to communicate their unique concerns, themes and signature style.
Gerrard-Jones and his team spend a fair amount of his time scouring graduate shows, festivals, publishers and galleries in the search for new photographic talent, and are regular participants at portfolio reviews for D&AD, the AOP, Photo Meet and 1854 Media.
Gerrard-Jones and WC&J are also closely involved with the international photography and creative industry publisher LE BOOK, as well as Connections by LE BOOK, a custom-made tradeshow for the creative community which has recently migrated to the online space with the launch of Connections Digital.
”We also work closely with many of the universities,” Gerrard-Jones says. “We’ve met several of our current group whilst they were still studying.” But, what exactly is he looking for? “We’re looking for artists who have something original and distinctive to bring to commissioned work,” he says.
Whilst a strong artistic voice is important, Gerrard-Jones also stresses the importance of interpersonal skills; “We’re looking for the people who enjoy working collaboratively and really thrive in that environment,” he says. “You can feel in the finished work if a photographer has invested in the project and cared about making the work great. We’re looking for something magical in a photographer’s work, but we also want to work with someone who we know can really bring it all on commission.”
“The best examples are when a commission comes in that sparks something new for a photographer. They produce great work and love working with the team, but then go on and make personal work that is, in some way, influenced by the project.”
This is key, Gerrard-Jones says. Whilst being brilliant with a camera is a pretty important part of a photographer’s job, it’s not the be all and end all. “It’s not enough to be a brilliant photographer,” he says. “We’re looking for people who enjoy the process of making advertising.” This, Gerrard-Jones says, is not always apparent – even for widely-celebrated and well established photographers. “We’ve seen photographers who are legends in the wider world of photography produce commissioned work where you can tell their heart wasn’t in it,” he says.
On the best occasions, Gerrard-Jones has seen a “feedback loop” between a photographer’s personal practice and professional work. “The best examples are when a commission comes in that sparks something new for a photographer,” he says. “They produce great work and love working with the team, but then go on and make personal work that is, in some way, influenced by the project.”
Having an open-minded attitude to the project is fundamental, he says: “Commercial work can be creatively nourishing as well as putting money in your pocket to support your practice.”
But how can a photographer demonstrate that they can do this? A graduate photographer has to be able to show how their personal practice can inform and interrelate with the work they do to pay the bills, Gerrard-Jones says. “That relationship between your personal practice and how you work on commission is exactly what we’re looking at.” That’s where a portfolio comes in. “Having a single presentation of your work is essential for networking with agents and commissioners,” Gerrard-Jones says.
Whether this is a physical book or a digital platform, he advises photographers to find ways to develop a cogent and coherent portfolio. “You should avoid showing multiple projects in different books or formats,” he says. “You need a single offering – a bespoke commercial presentation. And don’t get thrown off track by that word ‘commercial’ – this is a place to share the best of your personal work, to show who you are as an artist. You want to make a statement that leaves a strong impression.”
For younger artists, this can be hard, Gerrard-Jones acknowledges. “At the start of your career, you might get asked to work on commissions that don’t feel so relevant to your personal practice,” he says. “In that case, don’t just include them in your book for the sake of it.” Instead, show the work you’re most proud of, the stuff that best expresses your ability as an artist. “You can show your best personal work whilst networking with your portfolio,” he says. “If the right commissions come in, then you can start to include the very best of those in your presentation from there.”
Whilst a physical portfolio or a smart website remain integral, a photographer’s use of their social feeds can tip the balance too. “If your digital presence has synergy with your folio, that’s only going to help,” he says.
This isn’t always easy. Whilst you need to show the full range of your true work, it doesn’t mean you should always put all of your best commercial work online. “Some of our artists will just show a very small selection of commissioned work as a way of hinting that they can cover an area,” he says. “Managing your digital identity is something that needs careful thought. But – if done well – you can retain artistic integrity whilst making it clear you are keen to be considered for commissioned work as well.”
The best advice, Gerrard-Jones says, is to stay connected to the industry you’re looking to break into: “And social media is a great way of doing that. Connecting your work with potential commissioners, growing your network, making links between the industry, you and your work.”
Gerrard-Jones sees the work of an agency as “working together with an artist towards a common goal.” If you have a great social media identity, that only makes an agent’s job easier. “Work doesn’t tend to drop at your feet, no matter how great your portfolio is,” he says. “We will still send links to photographer’s social media, as well as digital folios, when introducing a photographer to a commissioner.” And, if your feed can give a sense of who you are, what makes you tick, what drives you, then all the better. “Your social media can really provide a commissioner with an idea of the person behind the work, as well as the work itself,” Gerrard-Jones says. “And that’s so important, because it helps us to introduce real people and the work they really care about to the top names in the industry.”