Resource Magazine's Feifei Sun interrogates six big players in the New York photo industry on how they made it there―and what it takes for novices to break in.
This article has been contributed from the Spring 2009 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.
Photographs by Ingrid Hertfelder.
As Frank Sinatra sang, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere!” The "there" he was talking about was, of course, New York City. Each year, a new group of eager young photographers, producers, stylists, and other creatives come to the city to pursue their respective photo careers. But newcomers in the Big Apple’s fast-moving, highly competitive photo world aren’t really thinking about making it big just yet. Many are just trying to break in. How did the big names get their first break? What’s their advice to the industry’s novices? What does it take to land that dream job? We posed these questions to six industry experts. Here, they share their stories and advice, proving that no one bypasses the grunt work—but that it truly does pay off.
Name: Peter Strongwater
Occupation: Producer/Owner of Photo Group, a full-service production company
Business: Photo Group, 88 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10016, 212-213-9539, www.photogroup.com
How I Got My Foot in the Door: While working in advertising at Doyle Dane Bernbach, Peter got a call from his friend Fred Hughes, who was Andy Warhol’s business manager at the time. “Fred said, ‘Look, we need to shoot Isabella Rossellini for the cover of Interview,’” Peter says. “I didn’t even know who the fuck she was, but I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’” Peter would go on to shoot more than twenty covers for the magazine and develop close relationships with the artists at the Factory. At Interview he met Robert Hayes, then the magazine’s managing editor, who introduced his brother Tom to Peter. Tom got Peter a job at Spotty Dog, a photo production company in New York. “It was one of the first production companies on the scene,” Peter recalls. “Now there’s a million of them, but I’d say there were less than six when I started.”
How to Get Your Foot in the Door: It’s increasingly difficult because there’s more and more competition for less and less jobs,” Peter says. But networking is the still the first step. “Intern for somebody in the industry you respect. Do your time. When you feel you know enough, move on,” Peter says. At Photo Group, Peter looks for people who are flexible. “Photo production is creative, but it’s very much a business too.” That means employees need to know how to manage a budget, draw up invoices that are simple to comprehend, keep track of receipts, and act like basic accountants. “People think it’s all glamour, hanging out with models, and going on set. That’s part of it. It’s not to be denied. But when you cut away all the bullshit, producing is really managing a small business that’s very intense for a compact period of time.”
Name: Jeff Hirsch
Occupation: President of Foto Care, a photo equipment rental and retail store
Business: Foto Care Ltd., 136 West 21st Street, New York NY 10011, 212-741-2990, www.fotocare.com
How I Got My Foot in the Door: I had an interest in photography as a kid because of the chemistry and mechanics it involved,” Hirsch recalls. “I remember going into the dark room with my dad at the dentist’s to see how he developed extras.” After taking several photo classes in college, Hirsch graduated and began shooting as a freelance photographer. One day, when he walked into Fishkin Bros., a photo equipment store Hirsch frequented in New Jersey, the owner offered him a weekend job. Weekends soon turned into full-time, and by 1990, Hirsch bought into Foto Care and became President of his own company. “I love my job because I get to continue learning,” Hirsch says. “Photographers come to us with all sorts of questions, and we help them solve their problems, but they also teach us so much.”
How to Get Your Foot in the Door: “If we put the economy aside, there are more possibilities than ever before. When I was starting out, there were only a few ways to break into the photo industry—pay your dues as an assistant or do it cold turkey and go on your own.” For newcomers in a digital age where SLR cameras and Adobe Photoshop can make anyone an amateur photographer, Hirsch emphasizes the importance of consistency. “You don’t have to be the greatest,” he says. “There’s only room at the top for the few greats of that time, but there’s plenty of room for someone who is consistent and does a good job. Clients aren’t looking for a masterpiece each time. Most times, they’re hiring you to do something they saw in your work that you can already do.”
Name: Gylaine Gilmore
Occupation: Casting Director/Producer at Planet PrePro NY
Business: 23 East 4th Street, 6th Floor, New York NY 10003, 212-253-8200, www.planetprepro.com
How I Got My Foot in the Door: After working in human resources for most of her career, relocating to New York changed the path of Gilmore’s life. She began working as a studio manager for a photographer she met through her husband, and quickly started juggling other photo production responsibilities. Five years ago, she joined Planet PrePro NY as a Casting Director and Producer. Although she’s in a different industry now, Gilmore still uses the lessons she learned from her earlier career. “The skills that I had when I was in the human resources world were very much about communicating with people, being organized, interviewing and sizing people up, coaching them and helping them be successful. In casting, it’s really the same stuff,” Gilmore says. “You’ve got to communicate well to understand who you’re looking for, and once you cast those people, you want them to be fantastic—so you do what you can to help them be successful.”
How to Get Your Foot in the Door: Gilmore is the first one to admit that it takes a lot of perseverance to make it in such a competitive city. To score that first job or contact, she suggests keeping an open mind. “First, get your foot in the door in some aspect of the industry that may not be what you want to ultimately do,” she says. “It’s just getting that foot in the door so you are working with people who are ‘in the know.’ Everybody knows somebody, and something as simple as helping out on a photo shoot and then telling everyone you meet what your goals are, can help. It’s a lot about networking.” And with the Internet, it’s easier than ever to do just that. “Look up photographers you like. It’s hard, but I would then make a cold call to a company I admire and say, ‘Hey, this is a business I’m really interested in. Can we get together and have a cup of coffee? I’d love to pick your brain,’” Gilmore advises. “You don’t just want to ask for a job because the answer will be, ‘No.’”
Name: Francesca Mills
Occupation: Fashion Stylist
Business: Represented by Bryan Bantry, Inc., 900 Broadway, Suite 400, New York NY 10003, 212-935-0200
How I Got My Foot in the Door: Mills’s love for fashion began when she was a little girl. “I used to sit in my grandma’s living room and read all her Mirabella magazines when I was four or five years old,” she recalls. “I’d tear out the fashion pages and carry them around with me because I loved them so much.” In college, Mills interned at Boston Magazine, where she helped the Fashion Director on various photo shoots. After graduating from Boston College, Mills and her husband moved to the Big Apple. “I came to New York without any connections, but I knew I had to be here,” she says. After a tough job hunt (Mills arrived in the city two days before September 11, 2001), she found an internship at Glamour with Executive Fashion Editor at Large, Suze Yalof Schwartz. Later, she’d go on to work as Elle Style Director Isabel Dupré’s assistant. Mills spent six years at the magazine, working her way up to Style Editor. These days, Mills works as a freelance stylist on projects ranging from advertising campaigns to celebrity styling.
How to Get Your Foot in the Door: Though she’s worked with fashion’s top magazines and Hollywood’s A-List celebrities, Mills can’t say enough about her early years. “I really feel that I worked so hard as an assistant,” she says. “Getting back from Tahiti at midnight and then unpacking twelve trunks of clothes and getting them into the office early the next morning . . . it’s those experiences that brought me to where I am.” This strong work ethic is her biggest advice to newcomers in the industry. “My main point to put out to students in this awful economy is that you can’t give up, and you have to be ready to work your tail off and just do anything asked of you,” she says. “Really be willing to work hard because that’s what it takes. Any intern will tell you that it’s hard. The ones who come in early and stay late and do everything with a smile are the ones who make it.”
Name: Alison Kist
Occupation: Account Manager at Schawk!, a brand marketing and management company
Business: Schawk! 33 W. 17th Street, 2nd Floor, New York NY 10011, 212-414-9400, www.schawk.com
How I Got My Foot in the Door: Kist broke into the industry on the academia side, beginning her career at Christie’s fine art photography department in London. After seven years there, Kist relocated to Toronto, where her academic experience wasn’t as high in demand. She decided to pursue a more commercial route and began working in advertising. “I had to push my academic experience to the bottom of my résumé and instead highlight my customer relations skills more,” Kist says. Despite the shift in focus, Kist knew she always wanted to hold onto her artistic side. “I wasn’t working with fine art anymore, but I knew I’d always do something creative.” Four years ago she joined Schawk!. There, she works closely with the company’s creative director in securing photographers for various clients’ campaigns.
How to Get Your Foot in the Door: In a fast-moving, ever-changing industry like photography, an up-for-anything attitude and strong work ethic are imperative for newcomers. "You have to be flexible. There are a lot of tasks to juggle," Kist says. "But at the same time, you have to be very detail-oriented." Kist advises novices that many photography jobs require teamwork, and working with others can make your experiences incredibly memorable―or incredibly painful. "When you respect the people on your team and really appreciate working with them, the work can be quite pleasurable," she says. "But when you have a bad attitude, it's unpleasant for everyone involved."
Name: John Hopkins
Occupation: Photographer Representative/Owner of Anderson Hopkins
Business: Anderson Hopkins Inc., 63 Greene Street #604, New York NY 10012, 212-431-5517, www.andersonhopkins.com
How I Got My Foot in the Door: Becoming a photographer’s representative was never something Hopkins set out to do. He assumed the position naturally after working in several different capacities within the photography world. “Working in the industry, I feel like you almost emerge as a representative,” he says. After starting out as a photo assistant, Hopkins worked in photo production, and eventually started Anderson Hopkins in 1999 with his partner, Stephanie. As a rep, he balances photographers’ needs and clients’ expectations. “It’s important to let photographers know what’s happening out there,” Hopkins says. “My job is about finding out what clients are doing, what they’re interested in, and then bringing that thinking back to the photographers.”
How to Get Your Foot in the Door: There isn’t a clear-cut path to making it as a photographer’s representative, but Hopkins advises those interested to have a true passion for the industry. “If you’re surrounded by photographers and art directors, and going to galleries and seeing images, and so on and so forth, it almost seems that the notion to represent someone comes to you,” he says. “It ends up being that you just kind of percolate out of a group of individuals as having that role.”