How Does A Photographer Land An Agent?

- - Artist Rep

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.

There Are 31 Comments On This Article.

  1. Keep in mind, that when you sign with a rep, you have to have about $20,000 on hand to pay for all the promotion that is necessary in the first year. You also need to be constantly shooting and updating your book and most reps have about a 20 to 25% turnover in their groups each year because photographers aren’t getting enough work. Reps always want to sign photographers who are busy, so they can get their 25% from photographers who are currently working a lot and can’t handle their billing and negotiating.

    It is rare in this business, for a rep to stick with a photographer who isn’t shooting as much as they would like. So reps will cycle through photographers, hoping to sign the next great talent who is the current hot hand. I’ve known reps who are friends, say that they love this photographers and represented them for years, but, well, you just don’t see black and white portraits in the marketplace any longer.

    It’s a business. Getting a rep is much like getting married. So shop around and don’t sleep together on the first date!

    • Do you think that’s low or high? Let me do a little figuring:

      My math on how much reps cost:

      At-Edge = $8,000
      Workbook (online only) $1600
      2 snail mail promos = $2500 each minimum $5000
      Livebooks website = $1600
      5 new books (every rep wants new books and you will need 5, down from 10 to 20 10 years ago. And if you are a young, new photographer you will be making and printing these books.) A basic book from House of Portfolios is $500. (11×14 size) and then there is the printing costs. Even if you print the book yourself, it’s going to run you around $300 for paper and ink per book. So that’s $800 per book, which I think is cheap. (Some reps will push and require you to get a graphic designer for your website and book and promos. But I won’t count that right now.)

      So five new books at $800 each is $4000.

      Shipping and messengers to Art Buyers and Photo Editors per month, $200 minimum, so that’s $2400.

      Rep travel and breakfasts for the rep group per year (usually all photographers in a group are charged for a rep to go to, say, San Francisco and meet with all the AB’s and AD’s in that town. Let’s say that’s that’s $1000 per year.

      Contest entry per year: $300. (PDN, Communication Arts, etc.)

      So I am at $23,900, and I have not included just running your photo business and the normal costs of being in business. And I’m sure there are a lot of photographers that spend much more. Costs for promotion can be much higher, but I can’t imagine anything lower than $15,000.

      Other charges that may or may not apply:

      Shooting for your book: $5000 per year
      Advertisements in Archive or Communication Arts $2000 plus
      Portfolio reviews at such events as Fotoworks in New York: $800 to $4000 (and that doesn’t include travel and lodging if you don’t live in New York.)
      Promo for rep group: i.e. a booklet, designed by a professional graphic designer that has one image per photographer and gets mailed or inserted into a magazine such as Archive.

      Some reps even charge the photographer if the photographer is listed on the front page of the reps website.

      There’s more. I’m sure I’ve missed some promotional charges and fees.

      • Wonderful explanation. In all my years in this business, I’ve never seen anyone post even a smidgen (oops! I showing my age) of what is cost to enter into this type of relationship. Well done, Greg!

        This seems like a lot, yes. But consider that it’s still less than one year at most colleges. Both are investments. Photographers have no problem spending $10,000 on the latest and greatest gear, but when it’s comes to promotion, even $2000 for a mailing is more than they can bare.

        • Thanks Stan (nice work by the way!)

          I get a lot of young photographers asking me how they can get a rep, and then I ask them if they can afford a rep and then the questions begin. It should be good info for those just starting out in the business. Again, I’m sure I’ve missed some things and every case is different.

      • This is incredibly helpful and also a great guide to promotional costs for those of us without a rep. This describes a ‘real’ national marketing effort essentially. THANK YOU!

      • Well, my one issue with your numbers is that you should already be spending money on some of these things. If you don’t already have a professional website, I can’t imagine most reps would take you too seriously. If you’re not already spending money to shoot to update your book, I doubt your book is in the kind of shape that they are going to want to see. I’m already spending money on snail mail campaigns without an agent.
        So, yeah, I think you’re right on those costs, but a few grand worth of them is money I’m already spending/have spent. And I’d think any serious candidate for a good agency would be as well. But I certainly don’t know everything…

  2. The photographer/ rep relationship definitely doesn’t look like a decision one would make with immediacy.

    With all of the shopping around and figuring out whether if the talent is a good fit for the agency, one would only assume that the relationship lasts for a substantial amount of time (years?). So what’s the reasoning behind photographers changing reps and what does it say about them both? When that does happen, is the split amicable or is it filled with drama like an episode of MTV’s Jersey Shore?

    • The relationship lasts between 2 and ? years. On average 5 years perhaps. The reason for switching reps can be drama filled and fraught with legal issues, but usually photographers and reps just move on, typically because the photographers doesn’t feel he or she is not getting enough work they will usually point to the rep and the rep will usually point to the photographer. Or because the photographer is getting a lot of work and wants to move up the rep ladder to a more prestigious agency like Art and Commerce. Reps want to fill their groups with photographers who are working a lot or who are potentially the next hot hand. Reps run a business and in the end, they look out for their bottom line and the relationships they’ve built over the years more than they look out for any individual photographer.

      Keep in mind that a great rep can get most photographers work, so some reps can make your career successful.

  3. Elizabeth

    I’m sorry by those figures are the most inflated and absurd things I’ve ever seen. Books are being called in less and less. I have three and that’s plenty.

    No one uses Workbook or any of those online databases.

    I don’t even know what an At-Edge is.

    My House of Portfolio books were all around 350.

    This just all sounds very antiquated. How on earth does “shooting for your book” cost 5k?

    I have had a rep for years and if I had to pay this kind of dough I’d have been out of business a long time ago.

      • Elizabeth

        That Workbook listing is laughably out of date. Also, notice how there are only a couple photographers per agency listed? That’s because no one wants to waste money on that crap anymore. I clicked on a very well known agent, DSReps, and half of that roster isn’t even legitimate anymore. All of these pay-in directories are on the way out.

    • I’m in agreement with Elizabeth. I have a rep as well, they require 3 books (only 2 really, the 3rd is for myself when I go to meetings with editors, art buyers, etc.) and as a Elizabeth said they are about 350 each at HOP.

      I use virb.com for my website, it costs $10 a month and is clean simple and flash free. Livebooks is expensive uses flash and to be honest, most editors and art buyers find them hard to navigate and slow to load.

      My agency does not use Workbook or At-Edge.

      Most agencies are going to charge a yearly marketing fee; these used to be quite high, around 10,000. Now they are more in the 4k-5k range.

      Like Elizabeth, if I had to shell out that kind of money on top of a commission I’d be out of business.

      • Elizabeth

        Thanks! I think the old business model is slowly on the way out. We younger photographers are landing campaigns based simply on the strength of our websites and our presence in the online (and offline) photo world.

  4. Elizabeth

    sorry, my wording was unclear. the photographers listed aren’t represented by that agency and haven’t been for years.

  5. us PDs, ADs & ABs will always call in books. Please dont ever get rid of them completely, we beg you. Especially for editorial, flipping through your gigantic photographs as if its a gigantic feature story. We know what we’re doing when we accidentally leave your artwork spread open on our desk for the whole office to walk by & drool over. We always wipe them off before returning, naturally…

  6. I appreciate, lead to I discovered exactly what I was looking for. You’ve ended my four day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

  7. I appreciate Elizabeth’s and Anthony’s posts.

    It looks like we are entering an era where buyers of photography are going to be more knowledgeable and sophisticated, and no longer depend on exorbitantly expensive sites that preselect photographers for them.

    And it’s no longer true that photographers are better, just because the can afford to plunk down a lot of money to be on an expensive site like Workbook or At-Edge.

    On the contrary: artists who pursue their own ways may not catch as many well-paying middle of the road jobs to pay for overpriced sites. Instead, they work on the individual expression of their oeuvre. Which is something photo buyers increasingly appreciate, because a unique voice is the only way to stick out of the daily onslaught of images. The images are all professional and very often of high quality – but few have a voice and individuality.

  8. At a certain point in your career, say, if you signed with a prestigious agent, they would expect a certain amount of promotional dollars to come from the photographer for the things I listed. You would not have to do all of those things, but you would have to pay for some of them and there are things I did not list. If your career grew and you were shooting many major campaigns, you would be encouraged to keep things going with more promotion and to perhaps expand your skill set to well produced video.

    It’s true that books are being called in less and less, but a book still can seal the deal on a big job and is expected for many advertising campaigns.

    Although I agree that the printed source book is on it’s way out, it’s not dead yet, and some reps still want you to take that plunge.

    Shooting for your book can cost an arm and a leg if your work is highly produced and includes sets and models and stylists and you live in a big city. On the other hand, shooting for your book wouldn’t cost a ton if you shot lower budget still life and food in your studio that you styled yourself. So it depends upon what kind of photographer you are and what your production values are. Either way, you are expected to produce lots of new work for your book.

    Sure, younger photographers do a lot of promoting in other ways, but a big league rep still requires many of the items on my list.

  9. Also, I’m not advocating that you do all of these things. The business is changing and I think that spending money to be in source books is NOT a great way to spend money. Whereas winning a contest or being in PDN’s 30 (mixed results from the people I’ve talked to) can jump start a career. But if you talk to Art Buyers, one likes printed mailers, one likes Wonderful Machine, one only looks at photographers with reps they trust, etc., etc., you learn that no one thing works for every AB.

    If you can do your own website, great! But when you get busy, you better be able to hand the updating off to an intern or employee.

  10. Interesting that the comments have more useful information than the article at this point. Obviously, reps can only market the materials they are given, so photographers will always be somewhat responsible for that material (whatever form it takes) … I’d like to clarify that big reps can charge an annual line item for marketing (covering costs associated with the things Greg mentioned) which can range widely, but average to be 10-20K (on top of all the things you do for your own business).