PDN: What kinds of changes to the industry had the biggest impact on your work as an agent?

JR: Before I answer, I should say that the governing principles remain the same. It’s a timeless dynamic, going door-to-door flogging stuff. There’s all sorts of nuance, but it only takes one bout of sitting in an advertising agency’s reception area surrounded by portfolios—waiting for the assistant art buyer to totter out and escort you to a conference room—to allay any doubt that there’s something fundamentally Willy Loman about the whole gig. That hasn’t changed. Nor has the fact that we need them more than they need us.

There were times I’d take some conference call, having stepped away from the dinner table at home; I’d be pacing about on the porch, gesticulating like a spastic cranefly, snorting, laughing too loud, spouting platitudes about “authenticity” and “shooting from the inside out.” Then I’d come back in and there’d be [my family] Juliette, Winnie and Dusty staring at me with half eaten meals and that collective “who the fuck are you?” look. Like the girls had just watched their dad dance on a bar in a Speedo for nachos.

Digital changed the landscape. Before the pixel, craft was still an elemental component of the narrative. A process that involved trusting strips of cellulose in a mysterious dark box was replaced by instant, impeccable rendering, in situ on vast monitors. The photographer’s role as sorcerer and custodian of the vision was diminished: The question “have we got it?” became redundant. Now it was the photographer asking the art director asking the client. Which is a big deal. Because the previous dialectic was that you engaged people who brought something to the party you couldn’t provide yourself. Like Magi, the “creatives” brought creativity; photographers, vision. By abdicating those responsibilities to the guy who’s paying, you’re undergoing a sort of self-inflicted castration. A culture of fear and sycophancy develops. Self-worth diminishes, because nobody really likes being a eunuch, even a well-paid one. There’s less currency in having a viewpoint. The answer to the question “What have you got to say?” drifts towards “What do you want me to say?” There’s reward in being generic, keeping one’s vision in one’s pocket. Trouble is, when your vision has spent too long in your pocket, sometimes you reach for it and it’s not there any more. Something Pavlovian sets in: the bell rings when it’s kibble-time and you drool on cue. Suddenly many jobs can be done by many people, photographers become more interchangeable, the question of “Why him over her?” shifts to ancillary aspects of the process; personality, speed, stamina, flexibility. And there’s profit in mutability; being able to gather several photographers under a single umbrella with a shared mandate makes you more flexible and attractive. But the corrosive byproduct is that the unique sniper’s eye of a Greg Miller, Chris Buck, James Smolka, Sian Kennedy becomes not only less relevant, but actually an obstacle. In shifting ground to garner a larger share of the mainstream, you risk losing identity, licking the hand that feeds you.

There were other strands that played into this shift. The “make it look like my niece could have shot it” esthetic; the bespoke corporate stock library with its emphasis on bulk delivery of cliché; endless emphasis on “aspirational” as a reaction to difficult economic times. Oh, and how about the Death of Print? Half the industry getting fired in a month and no sign of a magazine this side of Bulgaria. Loop back to the top. Add decimation and fear.

Read More: PDN Online.

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  1. “Digital changed the landscape”. Completely applies to music also, and any craft that has been highly digitized. Quite a double edged sword unfortunately.

  2. I totally agree with Julians perception of the industry ( and to a certain extent industry in general). I think its an attitude problem with society at large – we have gone through the phase where everyone feels they have a right to complain and seek recompense, to the stage where any potential employer of professional services feels they can bully and screw down any potential service provider. Its an attitude rife in society.

    The photography business has been harder hit than most since the advent of digital cameras – everyone is now an aspiring photographer, and with editting software, most people can achieve reasonable levels. The true art of photography is, as Julian rightly says, dying.

    It takes a brave and determined person to act on his beliefs – i wish him all the best in the future, whatever that might be!

  3. I expect he’s being a little earnest and grave, but I wholeheartedly get his drift.

  4. “our industry is too depressing to work in”
    -Julian Richards

  5. Great interview, so honest.
    Good luck to you Julian

  6. “There’s reward in being generic, keeping one’s vision in one’s pocket. Trouble is, when your vision has spent too long in your pocket, sometimes you reach for it and it’s not there any more.”

    This hits the nail on the head. As an ex agency-staffer, so many times I’ve seen people move up the totem pole by sheer complacence and obedience. I got in that groove, too (thinking erroneously that some pragmatism would help my clients and sups come around to my ideas after I’d proved that they worked) and searching for creativity and inspiration today as a freelance shooter has definitely been challenging. And with limited opportunity for it, based on what else Julian pointed out earlier.

    Those “ancillary aspects of the process” are absolutely what’s becoming more attractive to clients, and there’s no real shame in that. It sucks that we’re not as free to bask in our recluse, nichey, comfortable defaults, but the world is still very green on the outside and—also in my experience—if you make yourself just accommodating enough, most legit clients will still treat you for respect for doing something they know they can’t.

    Best to you, Julian. Thanks for this well-written food for thought.

  7. That was such an elegantly written response. I have a bad feeling I’ll be carrying the image of a man dancing on a bar in a speedo for nachos with me the remainder of the day.

  8. “The ‘make it look like my niece could have shot it’ esthetic…”

    That’s hilarious and exactly right. Thank you for nailing so succinctly so much work out there.

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