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James Gerrard-Jones, Photo Agent: Finding a Visual Voice

This post is part of a series called Conversations With Creative Collaborators.
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Conversations with Creative Collaborators: Dewi Lewis, Photo Book Publisher

In this series we look into how people in creative industries view and engage with your work. In this interview we meet James Gerrard-Jones, a partner at London-based commercial photographic agency Wyatt-Clarke & Jones. I caught up with him recently to discuss the role of the photography agency, how that fits into the wider creative commercial industries, and what he enjoys about engaging with photographers and their work.

Hi James, could you briefly explain your role as a photography agency?

I should start by saying that all agencies differ; what’s true for us and our agency won’t necessarily apply to all photographer’s agents. Our niche has been to bring the work of documentary and fine-art photographers into the world of advertising photography, from there we have grown into a fairly mainstream agency. But that idea of bringing together the best of different disciplines of photography, regardless of their ‘obvious’ commercial appeal has been at the core of what we do. Our agency has always thought long term with the artists we represent. Rather than a ‘one-in, one-out’ annual turn-over of talent we really do sign up for the long term. You have to really, all of the work we do takes so much time. The work of an agent is all about hundreds of conversations to make sure people know who our artists are, what they have been working on, why they might want to commission them and more specifically: what they might want to use them for. This long term approach has meant we’ve been able to support our photographers through blips where fashions turn one way or another and their work is less in demand. That support also extends to involvement in personal projects that might not have been made without the money commercial work can bring in.

So an agency is there to support you in the busiest times, at those points literally to help manage your entire life, and the quieter times, when you need to know that what you are doing is still relevant. We help to strategise what commercial work you should be going after and how to do that. We get out there and meet people and generate a buzz about the work. All of this frees up the photographers to do the one and only thing that we insist they all do: keep shooting!!

We don’t ask a retainer but work on commission. Most agencies take 25% of fees on commissions. This is why you can trust that your agent is working to get you all the jobs they can and will be keen to get you the best possible deal. All the fees for advertising photo shoots are structured around how the shots will eventually be used, the rates are freely available at the Association of Photographer’s site, but negotiations can be time consuming and delicate. It’s another thing you can leave to your agent whist you concentrate on what you love doing. 

Negotiations aren’t always about money either. You can expect your agency to help navigate you through every unexpected twist turn and obstacle of any commission, making sure everyone comes away happy and looking forward to the next job with you.

Boys in locker room
Photograph by Julia Fullerton-Batten

Does still imagery still have an important part to play in the world of commercial advertising and publicity?

This is a question we get asked a lot. There’s a group out there who seem to have been keen to sound the death knoll for print ever since retouching came in, all those years ago. Then there was computer-generated imagery. Then digital posters/online advertising and the ease of producing film work rather than stills. I think when photography was first invented the same people declared that painting was dead!

Photographic stills do still have an important part to play in advertising. This is a fact rather than an opinion as advertisers still part with huge amounts of money to get photographers to shoot campaigns for them. Photography, like music, film or good writing, is hugely emotive. In a world where we are surrounded by imagery more than ever before, what has become important is finding a visual voice that cuts through all of that. That’s what advertisers are on the lookout for, work that really resonates. It might be that it’s a beautiful portrait by David Harriman that has an incredibly still, quiet, quality. Or it could be the latest stop-smoking campaign by Nick Georghiou: some gruesome, visceral representation to turn your stomach. Whatever it is, the work needs to make you stop, make you feel something.

Photo Illustration of hair and ampersand
Photograph by Jenny Van Sommers

What do you look for when considering photographers you would like to work with?

We’re looking for people who just can’t help but do what they do, who are inseparable from their work. This doesn’t mean standing still though, the best photographers are re-inventing themselves over and over again and keeping up their love of the medium. Your agent can only work with what you give them, so we are looking for drive, energy and enthusiasm, as well as having a gift for photography and a style that’s totally distinctive. We’re always on the look-out for whatever might be new, but then I’d like to think we’re not slaves to fashion and the latest grade or treatment. It takes years to develop skills as a photographer and the best can use all of that craft to nuance photography for print advertising. Unlike film where pictures flash past and things can be missed, there’s nowhere to hide with a still image, every tiny detail is important. I think there’s a big misconception that advertising is looking for brightly lit pictures of beautiful people living beautiful lives and that’s just not the case. We spend a lot of time encouraging photographers to show commissioners their real work, the work they care about and work they might not feel would be commercial at all, in many cases this will get you a lot further than showing a folio of work that you imagine ‘advertising’ would want to see.

Photo illustration
Photograph by Nick Georghiou

How closely do you work with clients and photographers to develop ideas and concepts for campaigns?

The concepts tend to come from the ad’ agency creatives (normally and art director and copywriter working as a team) but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to add. We often marvel at the difference between the sketches that come through and the finished adverts. Often the best and most award winning work will be a long way from what’s originally briefed. With advertising you have to take a lot of care to do exactly what the end-client and agency want, but all the time push for what you think will be best for the job. Adam Hinton is a good example as he will always shoot the hero visual, so the agency and client have something that was pre-agreed, then he’ll go on to explore and shoot around whatever the scene might be. More often than not the unplanned and spontaneous shots will be the ones that get used.  We find the best art directors tend to be looking for people to take their idea and run with it a bit, so everyone tends to be on the same side. It’s very rare that photographer and creative are pulling in different directions, although this can happen! That’s when you find a quiet corner and get on the phone to your agent so they can help sort things out for you.

Public service announcement about knives
Photograph by Adam Hinton

Do you have a favourite project you have worked on?

The best projects are when the agency art-buyer or creatives have matched the project to the photographer just perfectly, you know you are onto something really exciting from the start when that happens. I’ve been in a few meetings like that over the years, the mood board comes out and you see work that you really wouldn’t expect in an advertising context. You can see the photographer’s eyes light up as they realise they are going to get proper money, time and production back-up to do exactly what they love doing at the very highest level, and with national exposure.

There are the projects that excite from that point of view or the ones where the photographer gets to travel the world, we get a vicarious pleasure from sending Andy Glass off to dangle out of a helicopter over the Iguazu Falls in Brazil for the umpteenth time. Or getting that first really perfect job for a less established photographer that we’ve been trying to get-going. That’s always the favourite project!

A waterfall in a busy street
Photograph by Andy Glass

What’s your favourite part of the job?

As an agent you have to do the slogging type promotional work, the negotiating, deal with the conflicts that arise and manage expectations left right and centre. There’s a lot of satisfaction from simply always having a lot to do, providing you can manage your time so all can be done properly. But the real buzz, I can say this for all of us working here, is getting to work with photographers who you know are going to be part of the history of photography one day. The work we do to make sure they have a healthy income goes a long way to support the personal work they produce. Say David Harriman with his long term project on the Mexican border ‘La Linea’, or Julia Fullerton-Batten’s fine art projects. I’m not making any bold claims that none of it would happen without us, but we do feel proud to be a part of it all. And very privileged to have a life surrounded by photography we really love.

Man in a pickup truck
Photograph from 'La Linea' by David Harriman

What advice can you give to aspiring commercial photographers trying to find their niche?

I think the most important thing is to try not to worry too much about how your work will be received and whether or not it will be commercially useful. That’s the beauty of study in a way, you have a few years where all you need to worry about is the work, so you have time to find your visual voice before setting out in the working world. Much harder to do once you are working, whether that’s assisting or whatever else. Pressures of time, money; worry about what your niche is… the worrying will never help you find your niche but giving yourself the time and space to let it all happen naturally might.

As well as this, identifying people who are shooting the sort of assignments you see yourself working on and trying to assist them would make sense. Aside from working on your folio you need to plug yourself into a network of people who value the type of work you identify with.

You can follow James at @jamesgjones and check out Wyatt-Clarke & Jones at their website.

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