Q&A With Redeye Represents Founder MAREN LEVINSON

08Sep11

Founded in 2005 by Maren Levinson, a previous photo editor at Dwell, Redeye Represents is an LA based agency with a unique vision and an exclusive roster of photographers and illustrators who are both successful, well-known and established fine art and commercial artists. In the six years since launch, Maren has built a boutique agency with a list of artists that includes Corey Arnold, Meiko Arquillos, JUCO, Noah Kalina, illustrator Amy Martin, Zen Sekizawa and Noah Webb.

Known for bringing a strong point of view and a deeply engaged and fresh approach to their work, Redeye’s artists shoot for a client list that includes editorial brands Vanity Fair, Travel + Leisure, Esquire, ESPN, Time, Newsweek, Monocle, Dwell, GOOD, Fast Company, Flaunt, Black Book, Paper, Complex and Maxim and commercial clients Target, Nike, Steelcase, Best Buy, Capital One, GE, Columbia Outdoor, VH1, Arrowhead Water, Memorex, Converse, Adobe, HP, and Jet Blue.

Photo by Corey Arnold

I was interested to know what an artist with a fine art perspective uniquely brings to commercial projects, what it takes for an artist to straddle the two worlds and be successful in both, and of course to feature the work of her artists on POP.

Thank you to Maren for the thoughtfulness brought to her interview and for sharing her unique perspective and insights with us and so much of the amazing work of the artists she represents.

Photo by JUCO

Illustration by Amy Martin

POP: When you left Dwell, how did you make your way to being a photo rep?

I tried almost everything the world of photography had to offer for a bit. I interned at a gallery, I freelanced as an art buyer. I wanted to see where I might fit best in the one arena I knew and loved. Redeye was actually supposed to be a gallery at the beginning—one for international, contemporary photography.  My cousin, Katie Baum, and I were going to start it together and she actually came up with the name. At the same time we took a small business course to give our gallery idea some shape, and we found out it was a pretty horrible way to support two adults in San Francisco!  She became a fine art photographer and I eventually turned Redeye into an agency.

I was still in touch with the photographers I had hired at the various magazines where I worked, and I would suggest places for them to visit when they went to New York, which editors they should meet, etc. And they were getting jobs, while I still didn’t have one. Few photographers seemed happy with their options for agents. Noah Webb and Olivier Laude were instrumental in urging me to really commit to this agency idea and had great confidence in me from the get go which I am still grateful for. I was worried, because I’m not a natural sales person, but I realized it’s not about sales if you believe in what you are talking about. This is one of the reasons why I have to be so selective in regards to who I choose to represent. I am a naturally enthusiastic person, so if I can work with artists I respect, repping them is as natural as recommending a restaurant I sincerely love to a good friend (which I do often).

Photo by Noah Webb

Photo by Noah Kalina

POP: When did you launch Redeye?

Redeye began in San Francisco in 2005. As an editor, I had loved the work and rosters of Deborah Schwartz in Los Angeles and Julian Richards in New York. They were my go-to agencies for interesting and humorous work. I felt that San Francisco needed an agency in this vein, and both Deb and Julian were very supportive of me from the beginning. I eventually moved to Los Angeles by a twist of fate, but I never would have started the agency unless I felt there was this marked need in San Francisco.

Photo by Meiko Arquillos

POP: What was/is your philosophy for building your roster and what do you look for in the artists you take on?

There’s an alchemy to developing a roster.  And what I consider now are not necessarily the same things I considered at the beginning.  First and foremost, I need to respond to the work and think it’s terrific, but that is a basic assumption.  What I consider more now is what I think the artists ability is to maintain current, to constantly produce and reinvent and engage in the creative community.  There is a definite x-factor that agents can get a sense for. Does this person take pleasure in what they do? Will they continue to do it with the ebb and flow of the market? How do people respond to them? How do I respond to them?

Photo by Noah Kalina

Photo by Corey Arnold

For me, I also have to like my artists as people. I talk to each of them almost every day. If we don’t like working with each other or don’t get each other’s humor, then our jobs are no fun. I truly admire each and every person on my roster. Noah Kalina has a sharp sense of humor and makes brilliant personal work. Julia and Cody (Julia Galdo and Cody Cloud are team JUCO) crack me up constantly and have an infectious enthusiasm.  Corey is just plain joyful, smart, and skilled at what he does. I know that if this is my experience of my artists, then my clients will have the same experience. Everyone’s jobs are stressful, so we need to find a way for the process to be fun or why do it? And I need to believe we are making something worth producing, or I would not be able to spend the bulk of my time in this way.

My aim is always for a long-term relationship with my artists. I am looking for people who won’t let short term frustrations affect long-term relationships. I always tell people that an artist/rep relationship is like a marriage, so you have to choose to work with people you trust and respect. I know my most successful artists would be successful without me. I have no delusions that I am the key to anyone’s success. But I do believe that they choose to work with me because we have a chemistry and mutual trust and respect. Communication needs to be fairly easy and effortless. We have to speak the same language and be generous and graceful when a situation requires it.

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

This information tends to be difficult to gather upon first meeting, so there is a bit of a wooing process with most artists where I get to know them, I follow their careers a little bit, we talk, maybe we’ll even work on a few projects together before committing to each other.  I don’t sleep with anyone on the first date! We just signed Zen Sekizawa, and she recently reminded me that it has been a year since we first started talking.

POP: All your photographers are also fine art photographers. Are they fine artists first?

I am pretty simplistic in how I define artists. They need to be making work. Good artists make work that makes people see things differently. I am not interested in representing anyone without a voice and a vision. What excites me about good work is when it is fresh and I don’t feel like I have seen it a million times before. People look at Meiko Arquillos’ work and they constantly will say, it’s so “fresh.” No one sees things the way she does. It’s always a little off, a little skewed by her particular lens. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with after a shoot, because it’s never what I would expect or prescribe.

Photo by Meiko Arquillos

Photo by Meiko Arquillos

In the traditional sense, yes, I started the agency with the idea that there shouldn’t be this dirty line regarding fine artists doing commercial work. Most people forget that Diane Arbus was a commercial photographer as was Avedon, etc. I actually think some of the best photographers out there do both, and that strong personal work is what actually gets photographers hired commercially while commercial work sometimes leads to personal projects and certainly facilitates the making of that work in one way or another.

Photo by JUCO

Photo by JUCO

Corey Arnold is known for his fishing work and gets hired for things fishing and sport related most often. The publicity his monograph got him attracted more commercial work, which brought him to places where he could make more personal work. Amy Martin did commissioned work for McSweeney’s and they eventually published her children’s book. The idea is that the work in that book will then attract further commercial clients, which will allow her to work on more books in the future.

Photo by Corey Arnold

Photo by Corey Arnold

Photo by Corey Arnold

People want to know that they are working with someone who brings a point of view or perspective to what they do. Nowadays, almost everyone can make a pretty good picture with a Canon point and shoot (I can!). Unless you can bring something to the table that no one else can offer, you will get lost in the shuffle.

Illustration for McSweeney's by Amy Martin

Illustration by Amy Martin

Illustration by Amy Martin

Now more than ever, an artist needs to have something distinct to say and that needs to come across on every page of their portfolios and website. When I edit work with an artist, I make them ask ‘is that an image only you can make?’ Even if it’s an oversimplification, you want people to be able to say, that’s the guy who _____ Or that’s the woman who does  _____.  Then it’s your prerogative to introduce new work that adds to or changes that sentence, but your message needs to be clear and your work consistent or you are diluting your message.

POP: What does it take to be able to do both fine art and commercial work?

Not everybody can do both. There are some commercial photographers who do amazingly skilled work but don’t feel the need to add anything further to the conversation. At the same time, there are some fine artists who do not like people and cannot collaborate at all, as their vision is so singular. It is a rare and amazing creature who can do both well; there’s definitely a tricky balance to strike.

Some of the skills can be antithetical to one another. A commercial artist has to be really good with people. They have to listen to various people’s comments and input and integrate all of that into what they to. Commercial work is creative work by committee. Being a fine artist is about being your own art director and client and trusting and sticking to your vision.  I truly admire my artists who can reconcile these two impulses and let these proclivities play off of each other.

Photo by JUCO

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

Commercial artists need to be able to make complicated things easy.  They need to be able to delegate.  On a commercial shoot, a good photographer is almost a director. It’s a big job. With editorial work, it can be more simple, as there are not large crews and art directors and clients on set, so there are some editorial photographers and fine art photographers who do not make sense as advertising photographers. Some people are not meant to host 15 people on set and be able to deftly navigate large corporations.

At a certain point, an artist needs to ask themselves what they should be doing. There’s no point in swimming upstream. They need to recognize their skills and desires and read what those signs are telling them to be.  If you don’t like traveling, commercial photography is going to be an endlessly frustrating life for you with all the last-minute bookings. If you get stymied by group decision-making, deadlines, and evolving briefs, you need to recognize that about yourself and identify what area of your field gets the best work out of you.

Photo by Noah Webb

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

POP: How do your artists balance both fine art and commercial?

When the photographers are doing really well commercially, it’s exciting and it’s fun. You go through peaks and valleys. Corey is happy to turn down work when he is in Alaska fishing and I am happy for him to do so.  What he does and makes during this time is what makes him who he is. Sometimes an artist will come to me and say they need time to rejuvenate and get back to what inspires them. JUCO likes to make fashion pictures in the desert, and suddenly their portfolio is benefiting from dazzling new additions.  I’m all for it.

Photo by JUCO

Photo by JUCO

Noah Webb made a feat of a music video because he wanted to exercise that muscle and build a reel. I’ve worked with him for years, and I was even amazed by the complexity of the work. I’m thrilled whenever my artists go off and add to their portfolios and to their body of work as a whole.

I was recently so proud of the videos Noah Kalina contributed to an art show. I had nothing to do with any of those personal projects, but they are all at the essence of who the artists are and why people want to collaborate with him.

POP: Fine artists work from the place of deep personal inspiration that the best commercial artists bring to their ad and editorial work. Do you find that your artists bring a deeper level of inspiration to their commercial work?

Absolutely.  That is why I work with them, and I believe why people hire them.  They are all smart, thoughtful and innovative people. The hope is that they will take a brief and raise it to the next level. JUCO makes mood boards and gathers inspiration for almost all of their projects/assignments. They work with a crew of stylists and hair and makeup artists they trust and present the whole creative package to their clients. They really think about what they do and never merely execute. Meiko actually draws things out and sketches her photographs before making them. Corey is always trying to bring the authenticity of his artwork to his commercial jobs. Noah Webb thinks a great deal about location and compositional considerations beforehand. Amy Martin is a conceptual thinker and brings that to the table with everything she does.  I could go on and on…

Illustration by Amy Martin

Photo by Noah Webb

POP: What changed when you moved to LA?

I couldn’t have loved San Francisco any more, but when I moved to LA I did notice I was more connected to the rest of the world in a very seamless way. People are always passing through and there’s an easy exchange between New York and LA. People hire my artists from LA and Portland to work in the Bay Area all the time. I couldn’t understand that when I lived in San Francisco, but there’s such volume and choice available outside, and it’s very little expense to have access to a much larger pool of artists.

The funny thing is that many of my artists lived in San Francisco for good and formative stretches of time: Meiko, Corey, Noah Webb, Julia and Cody. We’re all SF refugees and we all greatly valued our time there. It’s such a nurturing and supportive place to cultivate your voice and grow as an artist. There are amazing teachers and schools there. The community is tight and inspiring. There’s no doubt I would not have started Redeye anywhere other than the Bay Area. But at some point I was looking for a larger market and to be closer to a bulk of my artists (and warmer weather, of course!).

The ironic thing is that while a good number of my artists were and are down here, few of our clients are. Most of our ad work is in SF or New York, actually. There are great groundbreaking agencies in the Bay Area, like Goodby and Butler Shine and Stern and exciting design firms like Tolleson and AKQA. But they don’t necessarily hire SF photographers all the time because there’s a lot of volume and choices elsewhere.

Photo by Noah Kalina

Photo by Noah Webb

Photo by Noah Kalina

POP: How has having been a Photo Editor helped you as a rep?

I understand that people have tight budgets and that they really want to do something great with what they have and I try to help them with that. I understand how I liked to be approached and not by photographers and reps. I understand that it’s not personal when people don’t get back to you, that they have a lot on their plate, tons of meetings to attend, and crazy deadlines. I know and remember what promos were effective and what stood out and why. When we design promos, I tell my artists I received close to 60 a week and though it might be tempting to put a poetic, subdued image on the promo, it’s more important to find a way to jump out of a pile of 60, and you need to consider that every time you send something out the door. How will I rise above the noise? Often it’s by being personal and custom in what you make, how you address it and to whom you send it. Design and production quality are important. You are sending materials to visual people. You have to speak in a language they respect and understand.

POP: Your agency site is very well organized and easy to navigate with portfolios, tearsheets, website and bio.

I’ll actually be working on a redesign very soon, but yes, quick loadtime, not having too many categories, being able to easily find the most recognizable work of the artists are all things I consider. I’m converting my site from flash to HTML so it’s readable on iPads and iPhones as well, and I like it when you can drag and drop photos. It’s a constantly evolving learning process for me to be better and more accessible online. I learn from my artists and colleagues constantly.

In terms of editing the portfolios, I do keep in mind that people are in a rush, that they’ll click fast through the first 5 pictures and they won’t bother if those first five pictures don’t wow them.

I sometimes put the high energy work up front, as if you’re almost inviting the viewer to your virtual party. When people are having a good time looking at work, when you brighten their day, or make them laugh, it’s a good thing. If you answer the door tentatively or down, your guest will likely walk away.  Unless your brand of down is amusing or interesting, which could be a good thing if you do it right and with great commitment.

Photo by Noah Kalina

POP: How involved in social media are your artists?

All of my newest artists are very active online. Corey Arnold and Noah Kalina are something of internet celebrities. JUCO is also very active in the internet photo community. They all have blogs that tell you more about who they are. Noah Webb uses his blog to show his looser, less formal work. Amy Martin is a mad genius tweeter. The internet just provides a more accessible way of getting to know who these people are and what inspires them, what interests them, what they are playing with and considering. There’s a back story supplied, a fuller picture and extension of who they are.

Everything you put out in the world is an opportunity to say more about who you are and is another avenue for a client or editor or art director to connect with who you are and what you make. Just more reasons to find you compelling and hire you.

Photo by JUCO

Photo by JUCO

POP: You mentioned that youre doing more treatments when you bid for a job. Is this becoming a standard request or are you doing it even when its not specified?

Yes, people are pretty reliant on websites these days and don’t want to pay or have time for the shipping of books very often.  And there’s so much work out there and so much specialization, that sometimes we want to custom edit applicable work for a client, and bring a horse to water, if you will. We used to just do it when asked, but at this point we preemptively send a custom PDF, tailored to the campaign or project at hand, because it helps if a client can visualize your work in their context. I can’t tell you how effective it has been!

Photo by Meiko Arquillos



One Response to “Q&A With Redeye Represents Founder MAREN LEVINSON”

  1. Maren Levinson walks on water! She’s a genius.


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