APE contributor Meaghen Brown interviews Howard Bernstein about the most often asked question we get.
Considered among New York’s most respected photography agents, Howard Bernstein, has been keeping an eye on talented photographers for over 25 years now, and his artists management firm, Bernstein and Andriulli, now boasts a hot-list of clients ranging from Adidas to The New Yorker. We caught up with him for a bit of insight as to how the relationship between photographers and agents actually works.
MB: So how does it start? How does a photographer approach a rep?
HB: I think it kind of happens in two ways. Sometimes we’re approached by recognizable talent that we’re definitely already aware of, and in that case it’s a pretty straightforward email. Basically, “Hello Howard, I’d like to discuss possible representation.” And that’s usually fine, but part of doing our job is knowing who’s out there and what’s going on. The other type of email we get tends to be, “I’m looking for an agent, please look at my work.”
MB: What does a photographer do to get to the point where they’re even on your radar?
HB: It’s a whole host of things. It could be that they’re shown by a gallery that we recognize or follow. It could be that they’ve published books. It could be that they shoot for magazines and we’re seeing their editorial work out there. And then there’s just being contact with art buyers and art producers at various agencies. The point is that we’re aware of who’s out there and who’s shooting with who.
MB: Once that initial email has been sent, how are you vetting those photographers?
HB: I get many emails every day, and I used to be able to look through all of them, but that’s not really possible anymore. My advice to photographers is that their website be easy to navigate. Not a Flash site, and not one that takes time to load. If I’m not recognizing the person, it’s also helpful if their note to me is more in a traditional cover letter style where they’re saying why they want to be represented by us, not just that they’re looking for an “agent,” and also how they think they would fit into the agency. That’s very helpful.
MB: How many photographers can you take on at a time?
HB: Not too many. There’s only a few people every year that get hired. Our firm represents about 50 photographers. We also have quite a few agents so the ratio is about six or seven to one of agent to talent.
MB: Do you think that allows the agents to form a strong relationship with the talent?
HB: Absolutely, there’s no other way to do it.
MB: Do you ever have trouble with photographers saying “why aren’t you getting me any work?”
HB: There’s always that question when a photographer is busy or slow. I think we try to manage that with our talent as a collective process. The photographer and agent work together to take a look at everything- from what we’re doing to the work that we’re actually showing.
MB: What is your day to day interaction with your talent?
HB: It really just depends on the talent. There are photographers who we speak to occasionally when we have work, but they may be in Europe or other parts of the world. And then there are photographers that we talk to 15 times a day because there may be work that’s going on. With some talent we may be involved with the complete management of their career.
MB: I think you touched on this during the talk you gave in Palm Springs in April, but what are the right questions that a photographer should ask when seeking representation?
HB: From smaller agencies to larger agencies, the primary question is, “who’s the actual agent that will be managing my career,” which means asking questions like: How will they manage, and what kind of personal selling will they do? How often? Are they out there nation-wide or just in a specific region? Do they cover New York, LA, Chicago and Texas; or are they just in the Northeast? What is the business arrangement that takes place? How are agreements handled? What kind of marketing dollars are involved? etc. Sometimes people do their own marketing while other times agencies do their marketing as a group, so that’s something else to be aware of.
MB: And in terms of pairing a photographer with a client, how does that part work?
HB: It’s a combination of marketing your talent properly so the clients are aware of what’s out there and then, of course, name brand talent. There are people we represent that client are very aware of and about 80% of the time, they’ll call and request a specific photographer for a specific job.
MB: Would you ever take on a photographer who was fairly ‘green’ but very talented and had maybe written you a great cover letter?
HB: Definitely. There’s a photographer by the name of Jamie Chung. I saw his work at a portfolio review at a college and basically I signed him right of college.
MB: So is that another thing that you’re doing, looking within the realms of Universities and Colleges too?
HB: Usually at this time of year, all the colleges reach out to us- whether it’s SVA or Syracuse or College of Art- different colleges come to New York with their senior class, typically wanting us to see what the students have been up to and to offer whatever advice we can. These students are about to go off into the real world. The portfolio review I attended had to do with a class. I was asked to come in and talk to the class about the business of photography and I happened to see that portfolio.