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PERSPECTIVES: DAN MERCER @ SEVEN | by Phillip Simpson

Founded in 1997, Seven has grown from a one man band to a team of twelve passionate individuals from a range of backgrounds. Famed for their fantastical mid-winter parties, these guys can design just about anything and have worked for clients on all four continents.




Phil Simpson: What has caught your eye from the world of photography recently?


Dan Mercer: I love Jason Tozer's 'planet bubbles' project. He has shot soap bubbles, super-macro, on a black background. They are beautifully lit, so they look like planets that are just cresting. The colours on screen (god knows how you would print them) are awesome. It's an incredibly simple job that is purely aesthetic. It harks back to those crazy Phillip K. Dick sci-fi books of my youth. Those seventies pictures of spaceships just hanging there.

I was also interested to see that a web design agency called Poke have rebuilt the 'Newton machine' for Top Shop in the UK. Helmut Newton's original had a big mirror that the model could stand in front of and the camera was on a shutter release cable, so the model took their own photograph. This was desperately revolutionary stuff at the time, with a beautiful camera, beautiful lighting, and beautiful women wearing amazing sixties couture. Poke have done the same set up, but you go into a room and shoot yourself in Top Shop gear with a digital camera that posts the images to the net.


What sort of work do you respond to most strongly in general?

I'm interested in Martin Parr's end of the photography world, where he's stripped everything down to its bare aesthetic and is just trying to just see. But I also respond to work at the more commercial end of Parr's stuff, where the photographer is seeing but also embracing the craft of photography by being very aware of the lighting. Yet still letting it still feel natural. You see more and more of that work at the moment.


Changes in the market and technology have forced photographers to adapt and take on many new roles. How has the role of designer changed in recent years?

Because we now have multi-kitted software, the role of a designer has become blurred. There isn't enough body of work out there for us to have one fixed focus... to be the person with the vision who then does the compositing. So you get designers who will do their own shots, etc.

A true designer is a director. I'm not going to go out and try and take a photo or draw a picture myself... that's not my skill set. I'm going to find the right photographer or illustrator to help me. I'm going to craft the type, get the look, get the feel, get the passion across, but I need help with that.


So collaboration is the key?


Yes, I want collaborative processes. I think any designer worth their salt, does.

You see lots of great individual photography projects and lots of great individual projects by designers. But when you see really successful creative partnerships between an art director and a photographer these really stand out. A legendary example of this was Vaughan Oliver of V2 and Simon Larbalestier - exemplified by the Pixies album covers in the late 1980s. All that great era of music design was spawned from a collaborative process.

So we are really looking for a fostering of like minds. The difficulty is always going to be (A) finding a like mind and (B) finding a project that you are both likely to get paid for.


In finding a like mind, how important is it for you to see strong personal work in a photographer's portfolio?

Very, very important. I'd much rather see where someone's passions lie than see their commissioned work. You need to have a good relationship with the photographer you're working with because that is where the best work comes from. So seeing where they want to go is a good thing and within the context of a meeting, engaging work is obviously going to get a dialogue going.

Hopefully sooner or later someone who is sensible enough and has got the commissioning power will use that personal work and you will be able to take it to the next level.


Does the same principal apply for photographers websites?

If I go into a site, I'm looking to get a good understanding of someone's style, relatively quickly and I do like to see what is tagged as personal. There are basically two types of photography websites, the 'gallery' and the functional site which is a sales tool. I think both can be done within the one site, but the more uncluttered it is the better as far as I'm concerned.


As visual communicators, designers and photographers have traditionally had a lot in common, but looking around a lot of designer's websites these days, commissioned photography is often notable by its absence. What are the main factors that have caused the decline in commissioned work?


Usually it's for want of budget. Compared to advertising agencies we are the poor cousins in terms of the commissioning of the arts.

Advertising agencies have always embraced photography because the budgets they play with are big enough to actually use it in the way it should be used. If an agency decides to spend 100% of their creative fee on photography, the client doesn't see that, they just see a bottom line figure. The campaign works, everybody is happy. The photographer's actually had the opportunity to do what they do well.

Advertising is quick turn around and has an immediate measurable result. Whereas design and good branding invests in the long-term and so is not directly measurable. Therefore clients don't want to pay as much, because they don't see the value in our services - unless you are lucky enough to have a visually aware client that understands the value of looking good. So jobs often end up being a mates favour done on a shoestring.


But haven't many design companies taken market share away from advertising agencies in recent years by taking on a brand management role?

Yes, we have taken away branding work to a degree. But the reason companies have come to the design companies to take care of their branding, is that we're cheaper, so all of a sudden all the luxury items like the photography that could be commissioned because there was a bigger budget go away!

Generally the word 'brand' has become overused. It's the most ridiculous buzzword out there. The problem is that everyone has got so hung up about protecting everything. Brand guidelines close down creativity.


Photographers tend to view licensing as the best way to ensure they receive a fee which reflects the end use of their images and conversely that the client only gets charged for the actual usage they require. Are clients now accepting that licensing image use is no different to say licensing computer software or is it still difficult to explain the issues to them?

Often during the first round of presentations, you can actually be selling the client into doing a photograph in the first place, because they often just don't understand the cost of producing them.

Sometimes by the time I've done the explaining and hand holding about why they are then going to have to pay more next year for the license, I've blown the budget before we've even produced the shot!

We often get photographers using the licensing that they would apply to an advertising agency, to a design agency's brief. Now if that design agency is actually doing a piece of advertising fair enough, but often photographers are pricing themselves off the planet in terms of the budget. They don't consider that within that budget we have got to be able to sell the services of the photographer and do the art direction and design work, while still trying to actually make some money. So you find yourself having to limit what you are going to use photographers for.

I spend so much time fighting rights usage battles for photographers that they'd never see. But sadly at the end of the process we end up with "can't we just use a stock shot?"

Photographers and designers need to find some way to meet in the middle, so we don't end up awash in those dreadful shots of small rubber duckies on white backgrounds!


That would be scary. So do you take a dim view of the increasing use of stock imagery in recent years?

Yes, it kills creativity. It's a make do. It stops you having to think. Contrary to popular opinion it's not that much cheaper and it's never exactly what you want. It limits everyone involved in the process of producing a good piece of work.

That's why we commissioned Becky Nunes and Lewis Mulatero two years running for the Best Awards. Because it was fun and interesting and stuff turns up that you are not expecting.

Conversely I do find it interesting that things like Flickr have revealed some really quite amazing talents. People who are just doing their own thing. They aren't looking for payment, they are not even calling themselves artists. As with the music industry, the web has allowed a dialog that wasn't there before. I do find it encouraging that there are that many hobbyists out there.


How do you go about persuading clients that commissioning original work will give them a unique identity?

It's down to the designer being careful about how they present the work. The key is to present the photographers portfolio alongside the concept, or at least a couple of shots. Unfortunately nine times out of ten, designers don't actually get the time to do that.

So when a designer calls you to ask if they can use some of your shots for a pitch, say yes! The reason they are doing that isn't to print them and makes loads of money, it's probably because they want to use you for the job.

Sadly, clients often don't realise the degree of collaboration there is when there's a good commissioning process. There is often no consideration of how or why or where the images are going to function. This results from the misguided speeding up of the process, this desperation to have everything now.

That's one of the problems with the legacy of desktop publishing. Back when we used to do preliminary sketches, you could sell off the passion of an idea but you can't do that with a client anymore. Essentially they now want the finished idea, first time... and then they want to fiddle with it.

To counteract this we sometimes introduce clients to notion of the 'good-cheap-fast triangle'. We politely tell them they can have good work fast, but it won't be cheap. Or good work cheap, but it won't be fast. Or, cheap work fast, but it won't be good.


Fantastic! I must remember that one. While we are on the on the 'cheap and fast' theme, how do you think the proliferation of affordable digital cameras and the subsequent glut of dollar-a-pop micro-stock imagery has affected the value that is placed on photography generally?

In the same way that the arrival of the desktop publishing devalued design, because it sped the process up and many failed to realise it wasn't 'design'. You jumped onto the computer and got magic stuff at then end. But there was often no craft or ideas behind it.

The best solutions tend to come out of thinking carefully at the front and then doing. Faster doesn't necessarily equal better. It means that you think less and act more. The machine does away with all your happy accidents. That's why there was a huge backlash against digital cameras, when they first came out. They were seen as a threat to the organic nature of what we do in any kind of creative art.


The idea of the photographer as a sort of alchemist was about to be lost.

Yeah. If you have a happy accident with a film camera or a pencil it's intrinsically linked to you... your physicality, your moment. It's not a line of codes inside a machine. It's a thing that's organic.

I have always felt that a mistake can be a doorway. Somebody who's worth their salt will recognise when they have made an interesting mistake and be able to exploit that and turn it into something bigger and better. We don't have so much time for this process now, because everyone is expecting the job tomorrow.

You can still have a happy accident with a digital camera. The problem is that you can only have that happy accident if somebody else programmed it. I think that's the thing I mourn. That's the bit I feel we have lost.


So do you think there will be a resurgence of interest in revisiting analogue processes as there has been in music?

I hope there will be a resurgence of the handcrafts in the design and print world. If work is being produced for exhibition, then I still question whether you can beat really beautiful printed work... like say an Ansel Adams silver halide print, where the print itself is as passionate as the piece and has that epic quality that you are never going to get in 90% of the stuff we do as a job. But while the purists and anyone who is truly passionate will appreciate these things, most people will not know the difference between one and the other unless they are an avid collector of photography or print.

Digital photography definitely makes sense within the production values of most commercial print uses, because no matter how much you care to craft a shot, it's going to be compromised by the final output.

So while I mourn the loss of the analogue craft, really the best place for that technology is still within the arts realm.


It can sometime appear that technology is taking away work opportunities. Do you think it's creating new ones as fast as it's taking others away?

Yes I think technology led breakthroughs will continue to propagate work.

At the moment we are still careful about the size of images we put on the web, but as the web becomes more sophisticated, imagery will become easier to download. So we will be able to view beautifully crafted images at high resolution. Perhaps the budget that was being spent on printing will in future be spent on producing those images.

Having said that, print advertising is really the last bastion... because with TV you can blank all the ads and the proliferation of channels means that medium no longer reaches everybody. So the big budgets that were being applied to TV are gone. Even with web downloads you can filter the ads, so that guaranteed media slot is dwindling. So what's the last place, you can actually guarantee that people will see your message? It's the street. It's printed material like billboards, posters, flyers. With a physical media, you can't say "I don't want to see it"... it's there!


So ultimately we are looking to create a visual experience informed by old school processes, while utilizing new technologies to their best advantage?

Apple is an example of a technology based company that has got this right on so many levels. When you open an Apple box the experience is akin to when you were sixteen and you got a new album. It's perfectly packaged, it's beautifully weighted, it's well designed. What made them successful is their understanding that there is still a need for a tactile, beautiful, crafted experience. You can't put too much of a price tag on that.
 

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