And Then There Were IX
October 2002

By Peter Howe

One of the most depressing aspects of the recent Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan was the fact that almost every photographer that I talked to told me this had been their worst year ever. It was almost universal, and affected photographers and agencies alike. The tales of woe told of lower fees, fewer assignments and sharply reduced income from resale. This was definitely not a year to start any kind of new photographic venture.

Unless of course you started an agency whose members were some of the finest editorial photographers in the world, several of whom had extensive experience covering conflicts. It would help if one of them lived a few blocks from the World Trade Center, and happened to be home last September 11th having just returned from the launch of the agency four days before in the previous gathering in Perpignan. This is of course exactly what happened to the photographers who formed the Agency VII. Even after Jim Nachtwey’s brilliant and courageous coverage of the attack on the twin towers, the subsequent hostilities in Afghanistan provided continuous employment for several of VII’s members, especially Ron Haviv whose work there eventually provided the material for a book.

One of the most uncomfortable aspects of our business is that bad times are good for it, and it would be foolish to pretend that launching VII just a few days prior to one of the pivotal events of recent history made no difference to its success. Gary Knight, one of the chief forces behind the formation of VII, is anything but foolish, and readily acknowledges the role that these events have played in the success that the agency has had so far. Many of the VII photographers have contracts and established relationships with magazines for which the cataclysm of the past year has been their primary focus. He acknowledges that this would not have been so in any other given year.

Knight is convinced that it was the right time to start the agency even if September 11th had never happened. His point is that if you can start and manage a business in a down market then as the economic environment improves, as we all maybe naively believe it still will, your job becomes much easier. He also feels that the founding members were in Gary’s words “grinding to a halt” where they were, and each of them needed the energy and impetus that the agency’s birth provided.

The business is set up to be a lean operation. Photographs are only supplied to the client digitally, and it is each photographer’s responsibility to edit, caption, scan and transmit to the office the selects that will be available for resale. Not one roll of film has been seen in the office in Paris. The office itself is tiny, housing three staff members and two computers. Whether the lack of a third computer causes internal tension was not made clear. Ashley Woods, the senior of the three staff members, and the man who has to make the business work, told Gary Knight that if they could break even during the first year then this would be a success. In fact during this period of time the agency has published in over 125 different titles in 25 countries, and without any sub-agents apart from Grazia Neri in Italy. The reason for this exception, according to Woods, is that the Italian market is very complicated, and operates on a much more one-to-one basis than any other country. The only other region where he believes one may be necessary is in Greece, but apart from these two areas he feels that using a sub-agent only slows the process down, and that he or another staff member on the phone or via e-mail can provide a much faster and obviously more profitable service.

Woods believes that the events of last September not only altered the dynamics of the launch, but also changed the market for VII. His original intention was to mine the archives for stories that could be recycled to monthly magazines and color supplements. Because of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the events in Afghanistan the agency was thrust into the news business, and was in daily contact with publications such as Stern, Paris Match, Expresso and Time Magazine. Ashley networked 10 such clients in different markets together, and for several hours each day transmitted the latest material to them. Given the competition that every agency faces from the wires and in this case the effective job that Getty did, it was not only the speed with which the material could be disseminated that enabled VII to make the sales, but more importantly the quality of the photography that they could provide. But another important difference that he believes the agency provides is through the staffing of the office with journalists rather than marketers. Having people answering the phone that understand the stories that they’re selling, who are aware of developing events, and equally importantly know where the photographers are and what they’re working on is a crucial difference in his mind to the kind of service that many of the larger agencies give.

Although VII represents only one French photographer, and is in fact a British company, the office is located in Paris. The reasons for this are simple: financially there were not enough resources to open in more than one location initially; Cosmos offered space and assistance; for resale, which is the agency’s raison d’etre, Europe is the healthiest market especially in France; Paris still is the spiritual home of photojournalism. One of the two new photographers is also located in Paris. Chris Anderson’s reason for living in the City of Lights is also simple, and very French: a woman. He also cites the convenience of Paris for traveling to many different regions, plus the desire to broaden his experience culturally, and that living there is cheaper, but when you get right down to it, cherchez la femme seems to be dominant. His reasons for joining the agency are also uncomplicated. He admires the work of his agency colleagues, and more importantly has been friends with them all for some time. In fact he first started talking to Antonin Kratochvil over a year ago, but the decision to join didn’t turn into something more concrete until spending time with Jim Nachtwey and John Stanmeyer in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

For both the newbies, Anderson and Greenfield, a high priority for joining was to be able to maintain a greater degree of control and autonomy over their work, not only in how it is produced, but also how it is sold. In fact Anderson has cut back on his contractual commitments to US News and World Report in order to be able to work for a lot of different clients. Although on the outside he hopes to increase his independence by joining the agency, within the dynamics of an association of some pretty high octane personalities he recognizes that he will have to be very flexible, especially as the younger brother. He likens it to sitting down at a table with your family and getting your share of the mashed potatoes, an analogy that would probably be more recognizable to a woman in Indiana than Paris.

For Lauren Greenfield the agency was as perfect a fit as she’s likely to find in this life. She has always worked independently on self assigned projects. Even when she was with Sygma her Los Angeles location meant that she was more isolated from the agency than many of its other photographers. As a result of this she was already used to editing, captioning, scanning and transmitting her own pictures in the same way that all of VII’s photographers work. She also places a high priority on control over the use of her photography. The nature of her subject matter and the intimacy that she manages to achieve means that she has to be sensitive to its reuse. VII allows her to continue to work in the way that she prefers, but gives her the added strength of the alliance and its infrastructure.

Superficially Lauren’s work, dealing as it does with sociological themes in the United States, is not as perfect a fit as that of Chris Anderson. He is very much more in the same mold as Jim Nachtwey, Chris Morris, Ron Haviv, John Stanmeyer and Gary Knight. However when you dig a little deeper the similarities become more apparent. Philosophically they are all aligned with a deep commitment to editorial work of either social or geo-political significance; all of them are strong minded, independent and determined self-starters. In fact Antonin Kratochvil works in a similar way to Greenfield, and Alexandra Boulat has shown a comparable approach in her documentation of Yves Saint Laurent. Ashley Woods welcomes the broadening of subject matter that Greenfield’s photography brings. He feels that it will enable him to work with magazines such as Elle to extend the reach of publications the VII services. Reciprocally Lauren is looking forward to being published in European outlets where her work is still relatively unknown.

The feeling in Perpignan that surrounded VII and its photographers was one of immense energy and optimism. Their workspace which like their office in Paris they shared with Cosmos was always full and buzzing. To schedule interviews with any of them was a challenge because of the number of like requests that they had from many other journalists. However this year’s Visa only marked the end of VII’s first year, and one that was extraordinary by any standards. They still face the hurdles of time, and the frictions that it will inevitably bring. Gary Knight describes the agency as “a collection of mates” whose friendships have been tested harder in the field than they ever will be within VII. Whether this is true over the long haul remains to be seen but for the present his optimism appears to be justified.

I realize upon reading over it that there’s not a lot of criticism of VII in this piece. (I bring this up because I know that if I don’t you will.) As of this moment I find little to criticize and much to praise about the achievements of their first year. They have managed to realize the balance between a digital and traditional agency that has eluded many others. So far they appear to have avoided the internecine warfare that has plagued Magnum for so many years. However in my interview with Lauren she relayed to me a conversation that she had with David Alan Harvey the night before on the subject of Magnum. He said that their accountant threw up his hands in despair when he saw the Magnum business plan, a document that I didn’t even know existed. However the accountant acknowledged that despite its deficiencies the business has been around for a very long time. As Lauren herself said, if VII can be in business for as long they will have achieved something remarkable. Time will decide one way or the other, but at their first anniversary, if I can add to the already large store of bad VII jokes, the verdict seems that it’s definitely VII up.

© 2002 Peter Howe

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