Mark George: Photography Agent
Need to put a face to a name, get the background story, the right advice and the inside track on how to get commissioned? This month we talk to Mark George, one of the most important and influential agents in the business of professional photography, whose career spans more than 30 years.
Describe what you do as an agent.
In general my role is to oversee all aspects of the career of any photographer that I represent... more like a manager than an agent, really. This means raising their profile by being in constant contact with potential clients, obtaining commissions, generating quotes, ensuring the best fees – which includes policing the use of the pictures (in essence making sure relevant compensation is paid out to the photographer for whatever usage is made of the images)... in short, doing whatever is required for the smooth running of their career.
Has the role changed much since you started in 1978?
Not really, it’s just tougher because there are a lot more people in the [advertising] industry who don’t know what they are doing. Advertising is a creative industry and as such should be creatively led. Without art directors and copywriters producing inspirational work, it will not exist. That level of inspiration is being severely dampened by the power now given over to the men and women who liaise between the agency and the client – account handlers. Almost all are not creatively enhanced and the knock-on effect reaches right through to the freedom a photographer is given to create effective and ‘best option’ images. ‘Compromise’ is the order of the day.
Why do photographers need agents?
Photographers are creatives and don’t always understand how to do business. They have spent much of their career focussed on their art and often miss some of the practical sides of life. The skill of an agent includes knowing when to include combinations of diplomacy, firmness, confrontation and resolution whenever they may be required. That is my job, not the photographer’s.
Do you find new photographers?
No, photographers come to me. I found my first photographer by coincidence and then went and found my next guy, but since then they’ve come to me. There are a lot more photographers than there are agents, and there are a lot more bad photographers than there are bad agents, so it’s not a balanced situation.
Do you see many photographers in person?
Given the increased number of photographers seeking representation, the only way I can do it now is to look at their work when I get an email and then if I like it I’ll contact them and ask them to come in. There are just too many; I’m getting four or five emails every day of the year and from all over the world. I have to check them all to see if there are any really good ones, but I just don’t have enough time in the day to have them all come and see me. However, when and if they do, I do try to give them positive feedback.
What appeals to you and also frustrates you in the work you see?
What appeals is a uniqueness and a recognisable style that goes through the work, so you can definitely say that this is one photographer’s pictures. I don’t want to see three pictures from when he’s been assisting one guy, then a few more that he’s picked up by working with someone else. It’s got to have a continuity and a feel that shows his thumbprint on every image. What I don’t like is a repetition of other people’s ideas, lack of creativity, lack of inspiration and never going in any new direction.
Are you casting a commercial eye over work as well as looking for something unique and interesting?
They go hand in hand. If it’s unique and interesting, it’s commercial. There are enough good creative people in this country, art directors and creative directors who would recognise talent and rather than say, “We want to do this type of campaign”, they look at a photographer and say, “He’s the guy, he will do this campaign, and it will be different.”
Do photographers put their books together with an awareness of the commercial world?
I think most do, actually. I don’t think your book should be totally commercial but it shouldn’t come totally from the art world either. If you want to get commercial work you need to study the form, look at magazines and posters, look and feel of what’s happening now and create something that relates to that. If you design sofas you don’t take your work to a company that makes tables. But that’s exactly what some photographers do. You have to understand the business and what’s wanted nowadays.
Do you take on photographers in the early stages of their careers?
Actually I prefer to because they are more enthusiastic and as an agent you get more satisfaction from helping them get to a level of success. As an agent what you give them is the space to be a bit naive and to gain experience and learn about the business and learn how to work on commissions. Giving my experienced advice to younger photographers, and watching them improve because of it, is very satisfying, as is praising them and helping them to gain confidence in their ability.
How can inexperienced photographers show a breadth of work in their books?
I think that anyone who is any good will be enthusiastic, so it will come through in the type of work they produce, primarily because they’ll be shooting all the time. One thing I won’t be involved with is lazy photographers. It’s no different to being a musician, you have to practise all the time but a lot of people just don’t. They think they can do a still life once in a while, when they should be doing one a week at least. It doesn’t even cost a lot anymore. You can recognise that level of enthusiasm in portfolios.
So, are personal projects important?
Yes, absolutely. That’s where uniqueness will come from. Plus, if you’re a budding photographer and you see a project through from beginning to end (hardships and all) you’re going to create something and you’re going to learn from doing so. The end result might not be worth its weight but it’s a learning process. Everything you do to reach an end goal will be a worthwhile experience, ie if a photographer decides to shoot a project within the Houses of Parliament, they have first to deal with the logistics of how to get into the place and then how to gain permission from MPs to allow themselves to be photographed. The experience of doing that can be as valuable for their commercial career as the taking of the portraits themselves.
If you’ve got an agent does a photographer still need to think about how to persuade people, how to get on with people etc?
Yes, because you’re no different to a film director. You need to draw the best out of people (to direct them) and your agent is never going to help you improve on those skills. If you’re a location photographer you still need to figure out how to get into places. I mean, I can organise how to physically get into the Houses of Parliament but when the photographer is on the shoot I’m not going to be there to help him get into a particular room he spots in which he suddenly decides he might want to shoot.
Is photography still as respected as it was when you started out?
Oh yes. The mistaken idea about photography is that it’s flash, cool and glamorous. Actually, it’s really hard work. It’s like acting, where most actors live in bedsits with a Baby Belling stove in the corner trying to make it, and most photographers will end up in a similar situation! It’s the ones who really stick at it, who focus and have certain ability that make it. That ability comes from hard work, experience and practice, but also how you’ve been brought up and how you deal with life in and around photography.
How do you approach an agent?
You can get a list from the Association of Photographers (AOP) and there’s also the Agents Association (GB) in London. Go and look at their sites and consider if you’d be a fit for this guy or does he already have three photographers who do what you do you. Once you’ve got a short list, call them or email them and try to get to see them. Probably most of them will do what I do – look at the work online and then, if interested, contact you. Don’t expect too much reaction. An agent can only represent so many people. An alternative would be to start somebody off yourself. So if you’ve got a mate who’s quite good at organising things and can afford to give it a go for six months, then the two of you work it out together and go for it.
What are the effects of declining budgets?
Well, it makes my job harder because I’m having to negotiate vigorously. The problem is there are so many photographers out there and if you say no they’ll use someone else and then your guy will have no revenue. So the juggling act I have to perform as an agent is to give my client the photographer they want, for the money the photographer will accept, both as a fee and as a sensible production budget, so as not to have any detrimental effect on the outcome of the shot.
Does the fact that photographers are now shooting HD video make your life more complicated as an agent?
Of course it does, but it’s an absolute necessity for photographers to have the ability to do it if they want to get on. It’s going to become more and more the norm. I do believe that at some point soon a lot of the currently ‘still’ media will be based upon the moving image; you’ll open a magazine or newspaper and there will be a moving ad in there. It’s already been done, in fact. It’s something photographers have to get on top of; some will be able to do it and some won’t, but if you don’t try you’re never going to know. In fact, I believe it will become the most important aspect that photographers will have to embrace in recent times.
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