Marksteen Adamson: Partner, ArthurSteenHomeAdamson
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 speak to Marksteen Adamson about his approach to working with photographers and how he commissions.
What do you think defines a good online portfolio?
What I really want to be able to do is flick through a website as I would a magazine. I find that some professional photographers, even some very famous ones, over complicate their websites. There’s too much stuff on them, such as borders and all sorts of colour fades. If it takes ages to download the images I get annoyed. I like websites that are really easy to navigate and well categorised.
What do you look for in a photographer?
At ASHA we do a lot of corporate work, so it’s important to find a photographer who is able to navigate through an organisation, which is quite hard. It’s an emotional thing really. When you’re an art director working with a photographer, you commission them to go and capture some magic around an organisation, so they need to be able to connect with people and not piss them off. They must also be able to work with CEOs, secretaries and various types of people. Some photographers are able to work at all levels, be approachable and friendly. I also like it when a photographer can make commercial work look like editorial work, I think that’s a real skill. I’ve found that a lot of really good reportage photographers, when they get commissioned, have more of an art director head on them, they almost art direct themselves. It becomes too contrived and just doesn’t work. Some people can do it without looking contrived.
Can a photographer fulfil the brief if he doesn’t connect with the subject?
I think it depends on what kind of photography it is. If you are doing street photography you can be at a distance, you don’t have to connect, and what you’re doing is capturing people unawares. That is an essential part of street photography, so you don’t have to make a connection. Clearly you can’t piss off people or you wouldn’t be able to get the pictures, but to an extent you’re hiding. If you’re a portrait photographer you have to have an emotional connection with the person whom you’re photographing. There has to be some sort of connection for the subject to be really relaxed.
How has photography changed within the design industry?
In the past, I think it was very ‘designery’ with heavy art direction. You could feel the art director’s hand contriving the image to make ita graphic image rather than showing pure photography. Photography started to loosen up in around the early 1990s. I remember back then doing a project for a Dutch bank where we suggested to the client that we should use reportage photography. We commissioned a street photographer to shoot images of everyday life in Holland and it was a complete departure from what banks were doing, from ‘serious’ imagery. The fact that reportage photography was being used by big corporate brands started to make them seem more exciting. It was the first time in corporate work that we were saying to photographers: “You’re a good photographer, we like you. Go and take some pictures; we won’t come with you and tell you what to do.” If you’re heavily art directing a shoot then you’re using the wrong photographer.
Do you commission a photographer based on a perception you may have of them?
Definitely. If you’re doing a fashion shoot it’s a little easier because you’ll get a photographer who is very good at doing fashion. If you’re doing commercial work for an organisation, such as a blue chip client, you do need that person who is able to navigate their way through the company and has good people skills. On top of that, you probably also want to commission someone who doesn’t have to be art directed too much. Even from early on in my career I haven’t liked art directing photographers too hard, I think that if you have to heavily art direct a photographer, well, why not do it yourself? It’s important to find a photographer who has an inner strength that enables them, once briefed, to go off and do what they have to do.I’ve been on shoots in the past with art directors who were running the whole show and the photographer was just setting things up; it didn’t make sense. I think that’s changed though, because photographers now have such strong styles that you pick them specifically for those styles, even for commercial work.
Does a photographer risk looking like a jack of all trades by showing variety in their portfolio?
I think that the worst portfolios to look at are the ones that feel like a stock library. The ones that are really interesting have a real depth to the work, where the photographer chooses a subject and spends months with them, like NationalGeographic photographers do. In this way it becomes like body of work or photo essay. The best photographers who come to see me,including students, are the ones who have created photo essays. They have chosen a subject – it can even be a boring subject – but they’ve explored it in depth. It shows commitment and also pushes a photographer to the absolute limits, which helps to create their style. You can’t achieve that by photographing people one day, vegetables the next, it just doesn’t work.
But is there a danger in being pigeon holed?
I think those photographers who can jump genres and still make it work are very rare. They are the ones who have half of an art director’s head on them. They can create the theatre so they can,for example, make something commercial seem like a reportage shot. When you take most photographers out of their comfort zone it looks contrived. That’s not surprising if they’ve spent years honing their style. Some of the leading reportage photographers are best left doing just that and shouldn’t be forced into a commercial setting. Photographers do it, though, not only because they need to financially but because some companies want to commission a big name.
What effect do declining budgets have on they way you commission photography?
Most clients want either to use imagery they already have or that they are commissioning regularly. A global client might have an internal editorial team that commissions photography for specific projects that ends up in the organisation’s central stock library for use on other projects. In the 1980s and 1990s it was so different because people had massive budgets for that kind of thing but they don’t have them these days. Clients often don’t see the value in commissioned photography. There was a time when stock imagery looked just that, but now some stock libraries are so good that if you’re clever enough at selecting images you can make a set look like commissioned work.
Do you find it harder to convince corporate clients of the power of good imagery?
Absolutely. The commercial world is always more of a challenge, which does make it more exciting. In the 1990s it was a challenge for designers to push photography in any publication, trying to shoehorn Martin Parr into all their corporate projects. It’s always been a struggle to get really good shots into corporate publications. In the past, not in editorial but in other sectors, pictures were often used as wallpaper, as something to add colour. At ASHA we aim to give the photography importance, let it tell a story in its own right. Investing money in one great shot rather than seven bad ones is always going to be worth it as it draws people in and makes the client look better.
What effect has digital had on the industry?
There’s a lot of rubbish out there now; you only need to go on to Flickr and people’s websites to see that. What I do think is satisfying about lots of people taking rubbish pictures is that it highlights the fact that a talented photographer is worth his weight. Anyone can take pictures, but not everyone can take great pictures and you start to notice the difference when you look around.
Is convergence affecting commissioning?
When technology changes and a photographer is able to multi-task it’s great at the time but I do think the industry will eventually move back to specialist areas. If you’re shooting a video, you’ve got to have on a different head than if you’re shooting stills; to try to do both at the same time is a complete nightmare. When you try to tell a story through film making there’s so much to think about, it is a very different process from that of taking stills. So I think eventually it will segment but for now we’ll do both and make lots of mistakes. Eventually people will say: “Well, we tried that last year and it didn’t work, so we’re going to commission it separately from now on.” It will all settle back down again.
Junior designer: Saatchi & Saatchi
Junior designer: Pentagram
Creative director: Newell and SorrellGlobal
Creative director: Interbrand
Featured in the October issue, back issues available online and by calling 01858 438832
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