Friday, February 1, 2008

New Feature: Interview With Art Buyer Jen Small

This is the first in a series of interviews with people at agencies. I hope to do more of these. Art Buyer Jennifer Small is first.


TB:I am a little nervous I don't know why.
JS: You are asking me the questions not the other way around
TB:I want it to go well and I don't want it to be boring
JS:What do u want to talk about?
TB:Well a couple things. You are not like most art buyers and I want to talk about that and then I want to talk about the industry but I don't want it to be boring.
JS:Ok. For it not to be boring people always love haters.
TB:We talk about ....
JS:Oh no we can't can't talk about them. You are recording this I can't talk about that.
TB:I am totally recording this.
JS;We have to move on.
TB:So I get the details right. You studied photography at Parson and got a masters in design at University of Texas. You know the first time we met I was struck by the fact you are not like the typical art buyer. Do you get that alot ?
JS:Not so much because of my education or background but because I know alot about photography and looking at it. What's good and not good.
TB: That struck me for sure- more than your education. Your whole take on photography.
JS Alot of people when they hear me talking they ask why aren’t you a photographer? Why aren't you out making pictures for money?
TB:What's the answer to that?
JS: The answer to that is I am just not interested in making a living out of making pictures. I would rather just make pictures and not have to worry about making money off of it.
TB: How do you think your background and your point of view inform how you do your job and how does it make you different?
JS :I probably spend more time with art directors to find what style they are looking for. A lot of times they throw names at me because names are the currency . So I try not to talk to them in names but in style. Are you looking for something realist , romantic or Spartan? What kind of color do you want? And then sometimes people hand me a picture and they tell me they want it to look like this. And I ask them do you want the people to look that way or the lighting to look that way? So I am able to have a more in depth conversation and am able to work more collaboratively. Which I think they appreciate because young art directors especially, get freaked out about the decision and especially because they are going to have to back their decision up to a creative director who for whatever reason may want to work with some else.
TB; So are you really neutral when you recommend a photographer ? How much selling are you doing?
JS: I have to be neutral. My job is to help get things produced. Secondarily my job is to help art directors find the best photographer for the job. You wish I was more guiding? You wish I said oh my god I hate everybody except these three people and they have to do all the jobs I work on?
TB;No .My concern is that here you have vast body of knowledge and this aesthetic but by staying so neutral you are underselling yourself. You know what I mean?
JS:The art directors I know are not interested in having a photography education. If they did they would be photographers. If they want to know then I am absulelty willing to tell them. The hard and fast truth is , that I done it for so long , that they do not want to hear what I have to say. They just don't. They want to own the whole process because they have to stand and say I made this decision. And they don;t care about my opinion. It would be nieve to think that my opinion is the decisive one. There some people where it is very important (to get my opinion) and there are others who say I want to bid this person. But there are more people who are the latter than the former.
TB:Latter is the second one?
JS:Yeah. Another big part of my job is that alot of people say they want to work with Nadav Kander and I say that's awesome let the client know they are going to a ton of money. So that is a bigger part of my job is to find solutions when we can't afford Nadav or Annie Liebowitz. I am sorry if I took the wind out of your sales because I don;t use much of knowledge at work.


TB: Ok I want to talk about Antonin Kratochivil. That is a very unconventional choice for that campaign (ray-ban). Its a big production. He doesn't show alot of that. There may have been some concern that he couldn't pull it off.
JS:The creatives were looking for someone who could make a beautiful but unconventional picture so I came up with Antonin. But you are right he is not a commercial photographer. He is an artist with a capital A and that has its own problems with it. Its just different but his pictures are amazing. He is total purist and shoots with a Lieca. You get to look at contact sheets and there are some art directors who don't know what to look at when you show contacts. Its like showing them Greek or something. You got it give him props for pulling it off. It was never an issue because the pictures were so good.
TB: Unintelligible.
JS: I think those questions (whether a photographer can pull of the logistics of a complicated job) are never client questions. They are always agency questions. And they are questions when an Art Buyer has had a bad experience and needs a photographer who she can trust to do the job.
TB:So if it is not a client concern than the assumption from the client's point of view is the agency can do the job and if there is a problem then it is on the agency.


TB :On every job there is a conference call with the photographer and some combination of art buyer and creatives.
JS:Its like American Idol.
TB What function does it serve? How important is it? Have creatives changed there minds about who there favorite is based on the call?
JS:That call is very important especially when the art director has no idea who they want to use. They are kind of like a try out. I have been on calls before when the Art Director is totally convinced they know they want to go with a particular photographer and he get on the phone and it is clear he absolutely could care less. He hasn't really thought about the job and hasn't really looked at the layouts and just pulling stuff out of their ass. And it is a bummer because we love this guy's work and would love to work with him. And it turns out he is an ass. It really impacts the decision. I mean those calls suck.
TB:They totally suck. I have a hard time sounding like a human being.
JS:All photographers hate those calls but they do them because they have to. It is really hard because it boils down to a personality contest. I am sorry but there it is.
TB It has always astounded me that based on a handful of images and a 10 minute conversation that some one is willing to spend a quarter million dollars on someone.
JS But is not based on those two things. It may appear that way but there is a lot of discussion and thought goes into it.


TB : Last question. When ever I work with a new assistant or stylist the conversation always turns to stories of photographers behaving badly and I love to compile these. Without naming names do you have any prima donna experiences with photographers?
JS: Right when I started working in this business I was on a job. The photographer had an assistant , and granted he hadn't taken a day off in a long time and we were shooting in Wyoming. And there is not really a place in Wyoming to get a catered lobster lunch. The producer went out and got sandwiches but it was all very nice. And the assistant comes up to the table and looks at the food and says,”I can’t work like this!!”and stomps off.

About JSMALL-Jennifer Small's art-buying career began in 1996 at Ogilvy Worldwide in New York. She spent three years at GSD&M in Austin Texas, and after moving to the Bay Area in the fall of 2005, she has spent time at Publicis/Hal Riney, TBWA/Chiat Day and is currently at OgilvyOne (


John Loomis said...

Nice one Thomas... and thanks Jen, its great to hear your perspective. You and Jackanory are using your blogs to fight for awesome, and I'm glad.

favrot - the t is silent said...

i love that assistant

Anonymous said...

TB... Bravo from the Balthazar Breakfast Club!

James Quantz Jr. said...

Thanks Thomas, I always enjoy a peek thru the curtains. I'll keep an eye out for more...

Anonymous said...

---ohhh...that assistant was me.

jojo said...

Great! this shows me that we need more art buyers and less photographers talking on blogs.

I don't think the story about the assistent is a photographer primadonna story though. I rather think its a story about a yet unexperienced art buyer at the beginning of her career.

Although its rare that an assistent is complaining about the food I have been in quite a bunch of shots were bad catering organisation or nonexistent catering have impacted a production in a very negative way. Ask models.My bet is they have more stories about bad catering then about primadonna photographers.

Nick The Click said...


(Usage Disputes)

This misspelling of "a lot" is frequently mentioned as a pet
peeve. It rarely appears in print, but is often found in the U.S.
in informal writing and on Usenet. There does not seem to be a
corresponding "alittle".

Anonymous said...

I'm less concerned about the alot's and more concerned about the whole huge lot of other spelling mistake, typos, and outright missing words from sentences here. Sorry, before I loved photography, I loved words, and this really got on my nerves reading this. I could hardly pay attention.

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