Photographers Unite! The Rise of the Collective
Collectives have long been a way for fine artists to join forces, but it’s a somewhat new development among photographers, who have largely depended upon their own individual hustle to sustain their careers. The desire to group up has as much to do with solving financial challenges in a radically evolving market as it does with the deep desire to connect with fellow photographers. And for many, the formation of a photographer-run collective was just a natural next step.
Prime Collective was founded, in part, as a response to traditional agency representation in documentary and editorial photography, according to co-founder Dominic Bracco II. “Up until that point,” he tells PDNedu, “agencies still held a certain amount of power in the industry, and getting into that room, getting into that world, was a really difficult task for anyone starting out. So we were like, ‘Why don’t we do this on our own? What’s the point in going with this older industry model that seems to be struggling as it is?’”
Bracco, Brendan Hoffman and Max Whittaker had already begun to lay the framework for a collective before its inception. “We just naturally shared information,” Bracco says. “The three of us were constantly sending each other emails with basic business things that we didn’t really know how to handle on our own, like, ‘Can you take a look at a contract for me, because I don’t really get it,’ or, ‘Do you have a contact for this editor, because I’d like to reach out’—that sort of thing.”
As the three of them included more people in the conversation, Prime coalesced and officially launched in 2011. “Our goal was to take what was a relatively unknown group of photographers and draw in the sort of attention we were unable to gather on our own,” Bracco explains. “We weren’t able to get the kind of industry recognition that we were able to get immediately after [forming]. And a large part of that was because a crowd of creative people is quite frankly a lot more interesting than one person’s body of work, and I think that’s just natural.”
GRAIN Images had a similarly organic inception. Founders Greg Kahn, Lexey Swall and Tristan Spinski were all staff photographers at a daily newspaper, but behind the scenes functioned more like a group. After leaving their positions they created GRAIN as a way “to continue the same accountability with one another” they had at the newspaper, Kahn says. “We worked well together—helping edit each other’s work, [providing] moral support, talking through story ideas—and that was something we realized was important [to have] going forward.”
Likewise, Boreal Collective, based in Canada, “began as an idea between friends speaking casually in basement apartments and smoky cars,” says Ian Willms, who founded the agency with Aaron Vincent Elkaim, Rafal Gerszak, Brett Gundlock and Jonathan Taggart. Now Boreal is internationally recognized. “At the time there was little-to-no interest in our style of long-form photojournalism and documentary work,” Willms explains. “We were all young and wanted to support each other at a time when it felt very scary to be trying to make a living in Canada with this kind of work. We also saw the collective model as presenting an opportunity to accomplish initiatives that were larger than any one of us as an individual.”
Joining up doesn’t mean sacrificing other opportunities, as collectives provide a flexible model for its members. For some photographers, a collective can replace representation altogether. But it can also work as a supplement, especially for photographers producing work in more than one field. Katie Orlinsky recently joined Prime, but is represented by Levine/Leavitt for her commercial photography. Willms follows a similar model, with editorial support from Boreal and commercial representation from NAMARA. With less experience in the realm of commercial work, he explains, “having an agent is key for being exposed to those kinds of potential clients.”
Bracco emphasizes that each member of Prime has his or her own personal path within the collective. “We’re not asking you to fit in,” Bracco says. “We want you to take the organization where you want to take it. It’s not always easy, because we’re all growing and expanding in ways that are completely different.” Specialization is even encouraged in Prime so that members become authorities on different subjects within editorial and documentary work. This feature has become increasingly important as assignments have shifted: the onus is often on the photographer to research and pitch story ideas to clients.
Spinski similarly notes that it’s the individual visions that make up the character and substance of GRAIN. “This can be a fairly solitary life,” he says, “so being a part of an active, ongoing conversation and self-assessment helps me work toward being the best version of myself. All of us are moving toward our own identities as photographers and storytellers.”
Unlike photo agencies, GRAIN, Boreal and Prime don’t sell members’ work, and they don’t have the typical photo agent 50/50 model. Members control their own income and keep the revenue they make on assignments. Nonetheless, photo collectives are a business model, and each collective provides increased opportunities and visibility as a unified brand. Members contribute to website and marketing costs, in addition to expenses for collective projects and events. As a limited liability company, Prime requires an initial investment for new members, followed by a buy-in to become a co-owner after a year.
Photographers who join a collective become part of a brand, and each member is responsible for marketing the collective. But members aren’t hindered by their own day-to-day advertising in a collective, according to Bracco, meaning there’s more time to focus on their work. He says most of their marketing is built upon “old-school relationship building,” which is easier to do in a group.
Even through traditional marketing campaigns, such as postcards, emails and newsletters, there’s an advantage to being part of a unified group, according to Kahn. “[By] combining our work [in GRAIN’s promotions], we show that while our work differs in style and subject matter, all of our work connects.”
While it’s up to individual members to define a photo collective’s goals and structure, and each one handles the specifics slightly differently, with each group, it’s the smaller structure that allows flexibility in the group’s overall direction. “We believe that a younger, small photo collective can more easily adapt to the rapidly changing landscape of our industry,” Willms explains. “Many larger, more established entities have struggled because they are bogged down with overhead and business structures that came about in a different era. We are streamlined and malleable.” It’s that malleability that allows for collectives to juggle group projects, events, workshops and partnerships, while still sustaining members’ independent careers.
And, no matter what direction the collectives take, their members are in it together. As Bracco says: “It’s just nice to know at the end of the day I can have any sort of issue, like safety, or business, or family, and I have a group of people around me who are going to do their best to make sure that I’m okay.”
–Amy Touchette and Jacqui Palumbo
Read more from the Fall 2016 issue of PDNedu at digitalmag.pdnedu.com