By Jeff Zuschlag — Illustration by Rachel Gurchin —
So you’ve been at this photography gig for a while, and you’ve decided that it’s time to move up into the world of the pros. You’ve got a bunch of great shots organized into a portfolio, and you’re brimming with energy and enthusiasm; good for you. However, it isn’t long before you come to an unsettling realization: you don’t just have to get people to see your work, you actually have to get them hire you! How on earth are you supposed to do that? You’re a creative visionary, not a shrewd businessperson. Perhaps you should look into getting an agent (art representatives)–that’s what most professionals do, right? It does seem like the next logical step in the process. Get photos, get agent, get noticed, get success. Simple. But how does one go about getting an agent these days? And, in the end, is it really worth poking a new hole in your not-that-steady income?
The first step to getting an agent, as backwards as it may seem, is to first build up a client base on your own. Make a portfolio that showcases your talent, build a strong presence on the web and in person, and get out there and sell your work. After all, agents are distributors looking to sell a product (your work); and the first thing a distributor is going to look for is whether or not a product has the potential to sell. “I think it’s true that most of us agents do expect that a photographer has made a fair amount of effort in establishing themselves in the industry, getting their business up and running before looking for representation,” says Lisa Pritchard in her Ask an Agent column. “It also makes our jobs easier and more enjoyable if a photographer has a good understanding of how the industry works and realistic expectations – and this usually comes from working with clients.”
Once you’ve established yourself as a capable professional, start looking online, or in your city, for agencies that you think fit your style and purpose. Be persistent, but also realize just how glutted the market is right now. If you’re expecting to simply throw your work out there and “be discovered” by a famous agent, putting you on the fast track to success, think again. “There are a lot more photographers than there are agents,” explains 30-year photography agent Mark George, in an interview with professionalphotographer.co.uk. “It’s not a balanced situation.” Agents can only take on so many photographers at a time; couple that with the recent advances in photography’s accessibility, and it’s easy to see why expecting agents to look for you is a mistake. Unless you’re a super-brilliant wunderkind, you’re going to have to deal with a lot of rejection, and a lot of unreturned calls.
Still undaunted? Well, before you start thumbing through an agent directory, ask yourself: “do I really need an agent?” Good agents can certainly be a big help; they’re experienced businesspeople, who know how to sell pictures, get you jobs, and promote your work. However, agents are just as subject to the peaks and valleys of the market as any mortal, and there’s always the risk that an agent will just become another fee you have to worry about paying as you try to market your work. If you’re so flush with potential clients that you need an agent to help you handle the business side of your work, then by all means hire one. If you’re just starting out, however, or if you have a small, niche market you’re selling to, you might want to consider going at it alone.
Hiring an agent, like any business decision, requires hard work, research, and careful consideration. Look at your work, look at your situation, look at the market, and make the best decision for you. But, no matter what you choose, keep shooting, keep promoting, and keep trying to carve out your own spot amongst the pro’s. Nothing gets results like good old-fashioned tenacity.