Resource Magazine's Audrey Kobayashi explores the history and contemporary role of the art producer in both commercial and fine art photography.
This article has been contributed from the Winter 2008 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.
Illustrations by Lydia Nichols.
Nothing exists in a vacuum. Not life. Not art. Not balloon dogs.
Since the first caveman outlined a mammoth in charcoal on a damp and tepid cave wall, art has always been dependant on the means of production. With each breakthrough in technology a new medium in which to create was discovered. All art begins as a flutter of an idea that must be materialized in order to come to fruition.
The roots of art production as we know it can be traced to the prewar avant-garde with Duchamp's infamous signed urinal and the emergence of the Readymade art movement. However, the true blossoming of the production revolution came in the '50s and '60s as artists began to co-opt and appropriate the methods of industrial production. Suddenly the method of making art not only conveyed meaning but became meaningful in and of itself.
The prewar tableau of an artist in his Parisian attic apartment, alone but for a model and paints, an easel and the light streaming through an open window, has been supplanted by the current image of Jeff Koons pacing the floor of the Carlson and Co. foundry in San Fernando, directing from a polite distance a group of specialized technicians as they cast and polish to perfection a silver balloon dog of horror movie proportions. A parallel of this evolution exists in the world of photography. A comparison stands between the production revolution in sculpture and multimedia and fine art's co-opting and adapting of commercial production techniques.
To history buffs the word “production” elicits thoughts of Marx and Engels' "methods of production" and conjures images of assembly line workers, lined along a conveyor belt, who were in time replaced by machines. To varying extents artists have been grappling with these very concepts when borrowing industrial production methods.
But in the realm of photography, an art form that in essence captures light for a split second in time and imprisons it in an indelible image, it is only natural that production should be a more ephemeral and loosely defined thing.
Inna Khavinson of Inna Khavinson Productions has produced everything, from fashion to editorial to advertising shoots. She describes the responsibilities of a producer as, “everything from putting together the budget, doing location scouting, organizing the crew [and doing] casting when necessary.” With twelve years as a photo editor for Glamour, among other publications, before she began producing, Khavinson can attest that a commercial photo shoot requires a huge collaborative effort involving dozens of professionals. Depending on the number of people involved and the size and scope of the shoot, preparation can take days, weeks, or even months. Much of it is really the “no-brainer logistics of getting motor home and catering,” says Khavinson. “I have this network of great people that I can rely on who are an integral part of making the shoot successful even though they are not in the forefront.” The producer’s job is to integrate and orchestrate these disparate groups so that the photographer can turn a vision into a reality.
The requirements for each shoot vary with the job. Mitsu Hagiwara of Hideoki Productions deals almost entirely with Japanese clients. “Oftentimes,” he says, “[my clients] know what they need to get and I tell them how to get it and how much it’s going to cost.” But his responsibilities also extend beyond the shoot itself. “When I have time I don’t mind showing them around. I love it. It’s a very good way to make lifelong clients. I’m all about tour guiding.”
It’s not all pleasure on the company’s dime, however. Even the best-laid plans are subject to clients’ whims. “You have this nice schedule laid out and something changes,” Hagiwara explains. “They bring it up to the big boss for final approval and he suddenly decides that the location is not good, or wants a blonde model now. And it’s just a scramble.” You have to accommodate clients’ requests, and “there can be no mistakes because you really don’t get a second chance.”
Cindi Blair of Cindi Blair Productions / Turks and Caicos Productions has dealt with these kinds of quick reversals innumerable times. “Some companies are so big,” she says, “there are six people who need to approve either a location or a model or a prop. This process, though not difficult, is time-consuming because you are dealing with ten or twenty chefs in the kitchen as opposed to one.” Clients retain so much control because they are paying for everything. They have invested money into the set, location, cast, crew, and postproduction, not to mention the campaign itself, with PR and magazine spaces, catalog pages and billboard, often on a global scale. It seems money does make the world go round.
Even though there has been a downturn in the market, Blair explains that commercial photographers “may say they have less money but on the whole they are getting paid more. The money’s still out there.” Khavinson agrees, although she laments that because budgets have shrunk and assignments are fewer and farther between, “the same very top photographers are getting all the jobs. It’s not like it used to be when there was more money and more opportunity for younger talents.” Because of this, “it seems that some clients are turning to stock photography.”
Cheaper, readily available due to the proliferation of the Internet and the high quality of digital photos, stock photography has been growing as an alternative to assignment photo shoots. Hagiwara has also seen the future. He says, “In still life, I think digital photography has really opened up the field for more people. It’s more competitive and you don’t need as much experience to get high-quality shots.” Perhaps the future of the industry lies in a merging of assignment photographs and stock shots. “By being able to photo-compose people with stock photography you are only going to have to drive the car onto a soundstage . . . there will never be a weather day again.” He believes that professional photographers will never become obsolete, however. “The intimacy between models and photographers will always trump any kind of technology.”
Fine Art Production
Quancard Contemporary Art is a new company with a new idea. The woman behind them both is Muriel Quancard-Johnson. Before she jumped into the fledgling field of fine art production Quancard-Johnson worked as the director of Yvon Lambert Gallery and the manager of Casey-Kaplan Gallery in New York. As she explains it, “The producer’s job in the art world is to produce works that are too complex for the artists to produce themselves. The job is so new that it is still not clearly defined yet. When I started my company a year ago I didn’t know of anybody doing that.”
Quancard-Johnson drew upon her experiences and observations in the gallery world when making the leap into production. She explains that money has allowed artists to tackle new modes of production that were formerly prohibitive, especially in New York with its high concentration of art galleries and dealers. In the past, financing would normally be the responsibility of the artist, but with the intense competition between galleries, many of them have taken on the roles of producers. This has its drawbacks, she feels. “ Galleries have staff to install the work, but they do not have engineers or skilled specialists to produce complex sculptures or installations.” Quancard Contemporary Art helps artists by coordinating the production and putting them in contact with organizations other than galleries that are able to finance or commission their works.
Though art has often been erroneously viewed as a solitary pursuit, many contemporary photographers have begun employing large staffs and methods of production that would be familiar to their commercial counterparts. When Gregory Crewdson shot his latest series of surreal suburban dreamscapes in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he brought with him set designers, builders, hair and makeup artists, lighting specialists, and a select group of A-list actors such as William H. Macy and Tilda Swinton. Multiple rooms were built on a soundstage. In Ophelia, an elaborately staged scene of a middle-class family’s living room, the set is flooded with three feet of water. In it a woman floats in a nightgown, delicate and apparently dead.
Cinematic and rife with narrative, Crewdson’s photographs are feats of absurdly high production value and would never have been possible even a few decades ago before budgets expanded so explosively. “Budgets in fashion and advertising used to be much higher than in fine art, but it has changed,” explains Quancard-Johnson. “There is a lot of money injected in the art market. Artists work with bigger budgets because there is more demand and people are paying more money to buy their work. . . . Because of that they have been using production methods that are comparable to ones of commercial or fashion photography. They are able to hire a team.” But unlike photographers in the commercial field, each and every decision in the process of creating the work is the artist’s alone to make. Crewdson and other fine art photographers are not beholden to the guidelines set by an editor or an ad agency footing the bill.
We cannot discuss high production value in modern photographic art without mentioning Thomas Demand, who employs a mini factory of assistants in creating his work. Starting with images culled from mass media, ranging from German filmmaker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl’s archives to shots of Saddam Hussein’s kitchen in his hideaway in Tikrit, Iraq, Demand and his team of thirty to fifty assistants assemble life-size paper and cardboard replicas of these tableaus, which he then photographs with a large-format camera before destroying them.
While Demand explores the concept of photographs as representations of reality, new artists utilize commercial techniques in order to comment on the monetary aspects of commercial photography. Kalle Lasn, of Adbusters magazine, openly subverts the magazine as a medium for social and political purposes through mock advertisements. Jeff Wall, an artist from Vancouver, showcased his cinematically staged photos as transparencies mounted on lightboxes with his installation Overpass in 2001, an idea directly inspired by backlit bus stop ads in Europe. Many artists react and comment on the increasingly blurred boundary between commercial and art photography.
It seems these days one cannot escape the ubiquitous images of Terry Richardson’s snapshot aesthetic. From the pages of Vice magazine has emerged an entire movement in advertising that (though utilizing all the tricks of production, with makeup and hair artists, perfect casting, and the best catering and locales) on the surface seems to reject the excesses of big business with its amateurish feel. Jeff Burton’s photographs have emerged as a kind of antidote to Richardson and his ilk. Whereas Richardson’s photographs flagrantly dart back and forth across the borderline that defines porn and fashion, Burton’s works find the art in pornography. As an art student making a living shooting for the porn industry in Los Angeles, he began taking personal photographs on the set of adult films. A glimpse of an actor’s feet on worn shag carpeting, the reflection of a bare torso in a framed print above a sofa . . . there is tragedy and narrative contained in each print. Perhaps Burton’s work is the most subversive of those who have been discussed here insomuch as his photographs stand as the only true example of Readymade art comparable to Duchamp’s urinal. The production is there, provided by the adult film industry, but Burton steals moments from it and re-labels them as his own.
No matter where a particular artist’s work falls on the spectrum of art and commercial photography, there is one point in which all works are in agreement: money. It takes money to make money, whether for the photographer, the crew, the ad agency, or the gallery. If there is a definable difference between the two fields, then it lies in their purpose. Photographs by fashion photographers like Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin may hang in galleries and on walls of posh hotels, but most commercial photographs will solely appear on magazines or billboards, only to immediately devalue. Fine art photography, however, if it garners critical praise and recognition, will only gain in intrinsic worth for what it is
―a snapshot of one person’s vision, in a place and time that can never be revisited.