by Christopher Armstrong on March 4, 2019
There's not a day or an event that goes by where I'm not inundated with questions from aspiring (and even veteran) photographers asking me questions about how to best go about getting an agent and what to expect when finally finding what will hopefully be the beginning of a long and prosperous working relationship.
I've compiled a list of questions that I feel are relevant as well as adding a few that have been asked of me recently. I then posed them to San Francisco agent extraordinaire Heather Elder. I hope this helps shed some light on some of the dos and don'ts in approaching an agent, managing expectations, and then with any luck, signing with the right one.
Are you a photographer with an agent? Leave a comment and tell us about your experience (good and bad). It's well worth celebrating the unsung heroes in this industry.
CA: How often do you get approached by photographers who are looking for representation?
HE: We are in a business where there are many more photographers than there are agents so we are approached many times a week.I suspect it is the same for most agents.
CA: How often do you find yourself in a position to take on a new photographer?
HE: It is very rare when there is a spot on our roster. We have represented some photographers for twenty years or more and others for much less. We try to stay small as a group, which has gotten harder over the years. There was a time when representing six photographers kept us relevant and busy. Now, with the changing needs of buyers and the competitive nature of the business, we represent ten. Adding photographers happens either through attrition or when we need to add a certain style to round out our roster.
CA: What are some things that photographers have done to get your attention? What worked and what didn’t?
HE: Above all else, the work is what gets my attention. It is always an image or a story that catches my eye. It doesn’t hurt if a photographer comes with a recommendation from an art producer. What doesn’t work is when a photographer I don’t know at all, randomly emails me asking if I would like to represent them or ones that ask for feedback. I have a full roster so my answer is no every time; which isn’t helpful to them. And, giving feedback isn’t easy. That takes a lot of time and I would need to ask a lot of questions. Asking an agent for feedback on a website is the equivalent of asking a photographer to take a “quick shot.” The more effective emails are the ones that share work with me with no expectation or ones where the photographer wants to me get to know their work. I look at most of the emails and even click through to the sites or instagram accounts. It is my job to pay attention so if you are consistent in sharing new and relevant work with me I will notice.
CA: Do you take on more than one photographer in any particular category? If so, how do you handle any conflicts that may arise from the perceived competition?
HE: That is a great question and one that we have spent years trying to find the best answer for in our group. It used to be that we could have a roster of totally unique photographers, one photographer for each category. As our industry changed, more photographers had to begin to expand what they offered and we were finding more and more cross over.
Add to that the fact that many art producers look to us as a resource. They come to our site when they do not exactly know what they need and are hoping to be inspired. Sometimes in those cases, they will find two photographers that, while they both have a different style, could each shoot the project. Being asked to bid two of the three photographers being considered is an enormous compliment to our group and we are always appreciative of it. We had to reframe that conversation from being one of conflict to opportunity.
At first this was challenging but over time and many many conversations we have landed on a few important points:
- The more people who see our group as inspiring the better. So, if everyone is working hard to create that inspiring work then everyone will benefit.
- Even though some photographers cross over in category they absolutely do not in style or brand. Each person on our roster has a very specific point of view, aesthetic and approach to a job and it will be up to the agency to decide which best works for their project.
- Re-read #1.
CA: Have you ever loved the work from a photographer but just realized that they weren’t quite right for your roster? If so, do you make the effort to help them find the right agent?
HE: Yes, there are so many photographers whose work that we love that we are not able to sign. I do not usually help those photographers find agents but I will refer them to another one if I know that agent is looking.
In the case of photographers that we already represent but for whatever reason, we have decided to part ways with, we help with the transition whenever it is needed. There has not been an occasion where we have been asked to help them find a new rep.
CA: After signing a new photographer, how do you manage their expectations around how a rep will immediately get them work?
HE: We work hard to manage these expectations before we sign with a photographer. And, doing so means lots of conversations about the process and what we do as agents to cheerlead for them. We have a very specific on boarding process and do our best to clearly explain the steps.
Any photographer that thinks signing with an agent will provide immediate results is mistaken. I used to say that it would take at least a year to move the needle but now it is often much longer. So much of it depends on how engaged the photographer is in the process and how much new work and promotional content we are given.
CA: While I’d love to ask you who your favorite photographers on your roster are, I know that wouldn’t be a fair question. Instead, tell me one thing you have learned from each of them.
HE: Hunter Freeman has taught me that finding joy in life comes first. David Martinez reminds me that keeping things simple reveals the essential. I learned from Andy Anderson that being curious helps me stay relevant. Chris Crisman sees things not as they are but how they can be and that is how I see my role as an agent. He helps me remember that anything is possible. Leigh Beisch reminds me that trusting my intuition means I trust myself. And since Doug Menuez looks for the common connection in us all, I am more empathetic. Mark Laita values the details and since I move fast so he reminds me to slow down and pay attention. Tim Tadder is fearless in his work and he reminds me how important it is to get people thinking. We just started representing Blaise Hayward and Cade Martin and already they are reminding me that change is good.
CA: What’s next for Heather Elder Represents? Where do you see yourself going and more importantly, where do you see the business going?
HE: Being transformative is an important value to me. I am always looking towards the future and how to best market our photographers and evolve with the industry. We are in a transition time right now in our industry. The typical agency/client model is changing rapidly. More clients are taking work in house, production and digital companies are seeing a rise in project driven work. Every client wants more and more content and photographers are very relevant for this reason. Many people say print is dead, which may be true in the traditional sense. But creating content is very much alive. No one can forsee the future of course, but thanks to the talented people we represent, I know the possibilities are endless, I will trust my intuition, I will be fearless in my pursuit of transformation and I will absolutely enjoy the process.
Photographers Currently Represented by Heather Elder
©2019 Andy Anderson
©2019 Blaise Hayward
©2019 Chris Crisman
©2019 Cade Martin
©2019 David Martinez
©2019 Doug Menuez
©2019 Hunter Freeman
©2019 John Blais
©2019 Leigh Beisch
©2019 Mark Laita
©2019 Tim Tadder
Heather Elder graduated from Boston University and started her career at an advertising agency on the east coast where she worked as an account person at Leonard Monhan Lubars and Kelly. It was while working on the Polaroid account that she realized her interest in commercial photography. She left the ad agency to become an agent and producer for a Boston based photographer where she used her agency background to develop her own style. 20 something years later, from her offices in San Francisco and New York, she is still representing photographers and directors, producing and recording a podcast, writing a blog and hosting a website for freelance art producers. Mostly though she is always thinking ahead.