Matrix Unloaded
June 2003

by Peter Howe

In a recent review of The Matrix Reloaded in the Chicago Tribune the Matrix itself was described as: "The real world as nothing more than a virtual-reality program constructed by enslaving machines." It is a statement with which Barbara Sadick would probably empathize. One of the causes of her fifteen-year-old photo agency closing earlier this year was the cost of those enslaving machines. The name of her agency was Matrix.

I have known Barbara for as long as either of us cares to remember. In fact her first foray into photography was in 1979, the same year as my arrival in the United States. She started an agency called Picture Group with her husband at the time, the late Don Abood. The agency was an interesting departure because it was based in Rhode Island, not New York City. The advantages of the location were that the costs of space and labor were dramatically cheaper, and the disadvantages of its distance from the Time and Life Building were overcome through the use of an emerging technology known as Federal Express. For the younger photojournalists out there, Fedex in those days was the precursor to e-mail, an improvement over the United States Postal Service of such a dramatic nature that it enabled Picture Group to get photographs to any domestic location overnight, and often within the same timeframe as a messenger service in New York. It was certainly fast enough.

Although the agency was successful, the marriage was not, and Barbara moved back to New York to work with Robert Pledge at Contact Press Images. For her his business was a revelation. Quite unlike the wire service orientation of Picture Group with its network of photographers covering a wide geographical area, Contact represented a small collection of high quality photographers, with less emphasis on news and more on in-depth features and projects. It was a model that she was to emulate when she opened her own shop in 1988. When I asked her why she left Contact she said that she was never very good at working for other people, something that is easy to believe. She is quiet, but obviously strong willed, determined and persistent, and it was these qualities that must have made her a difficult employee, but that also gave the agency its core strength. She also started Matrix with a good counterpart, Jonathon Wells, easy going and affable, although in his own way as persistent as Barbara. They made a fine team for many years.

The photographers that they represented were also a good team. Each of them were high quality shooters, but diverse in both subject matter and style. The early group included Louie Psyhoyas, Karen Keuhn, and Jay Dickman, which gives some indication of the range that Matrix offered. The agency remained small for its entire existence, representing a maximum of twenty photographers, and acting as U.S. representative for Network, Focus, IPG and Katz. The business started on a shoestring, and unfortunately remained on it for the rest of its life. Like so many "mom 'n' pop" operations it was undercapitalized from the beginning, and as Barbara puts it was "never swimming in money", but money wasn't the reason that they were in business. She wanted to represent quality work, and quality is the hardest commodity to market without money behind you. Even Rolls Royce went bankrupt. Having said that, with only an initial investment of $50,000 and an original location of a room in Barbara's apartment Matrix became one of the key players in New York's editorial photography market.

At its height the company employed eight people, and its terms of business with the photographers were that they got seventy per cent of the assignment fees, and fifty per cent of the resale. I have always felt that the only reason that a fifty/fifty share on resale was standard is that photographers started the original agencies, and that this seemed to them the most equitable arrangement in the truest sense of the word. Barbara herself admits that the only way to make a living on this basis is to do a high volume of sales, and that did not interest her because it would take her away from photography and create a more factory like feel for the people she employed. She also did not have contracts with the photographers. She said that she tried to, but none of them would sign. The only reason for attempting to have a more than handshake relationship with them was that Matrix was in some cases co-producing stories and Barbara wanted to make sure that the work in which the agency had invested would be available for them to sell for a defined period of time.

The business was doing well enough to move to larger premises, not once but twice, and it was the second move that in her words "killed us." Like many people at that time, myself included, Barbara was fooled by the economy. The stock market was soaring, dot com billionaires were sprouting up like smug mushrooms overnight, and banks were lending money to anyone who wasn't actually in a penitentiary (and even to some who were.) Matrix also had another pressure upon them beyond the need for smart premises; they had to play catch up on technology, and equipping the business with "the enslaving machines" took most of the $250,000 that Barbara had borrowed. No sooner had the computers been bought, and staff employed to deal with their tantrums than the economy tanked, and with it the market for the kind of editorial photography for which Matrix had a reputation. With advertising pages at an all time low publishers were not prepared to offend an advertiser with an edgy journalistic story. In Style prospered during this period; Life Magazine went out of business. Furthermore the business had already started to change in other ways. When Arnold Drapkin was the picture editor at Time he would give a guarantee for a story on Staten Island, never mind Baghdad. Now magazines didn't have to pay for photographers to go anywhere; they were already there on their own dollar.

But the hard truth of the matter is that Matrix was not so much a victim of a bad economy or expensive technology; it was an example of an old way of doing business, and ill suited to adapting to the new models. Its archive was completely analog and digitizing it would have been cripplingly expensive, but more importantly Barbara herself was a product of the old world of photography, and one with which she herself admits she feels much more comfortable. "I didn't want to become a computer operator" is the way she puts it. In fact to compete against Getty and Corbis she would not only have to change her attitude towards computers, but also towards pricing and many other aspects of her relationship with her photographers. She would have to get much more comfortable with volume.

She feels to this day that it could have been different, that the smaller agencies could have exerted pressure with the magazines had they put on a united front. Indeed there were several meetings with the heads of other agencies of a similar size, but because of a combination of concern over anti-trust laws and possible charges of price fixing plus the almost standard lack of unity that affects photography nothing ever came of them. "Everybody's out there on their own. I don't think it had to be that way," she observes. Having watched Barbara work for more than fifteen years the saddest statement to my ears that she made during the whole interview was the following "I just can't love it that much any more; to battle every single day" The "it" to which she refers is the business of photography, not photography itself. In fact she may not only be a part of photojournalism's past but also of its future. Her plans are to go back to school to obtain a master's degree in health advocacy with the intention of using photography as a part of the communication arsenal that she feels is needed to promote much needed changes in a flawed system. It is areas such as this that photojournalism can make the most difference and which will inevitably be a part of the solution to drag the craft from the muddy ditch in which it now resides. If the days of the "mom 'n' pop" shop are numbered, the days when most photojournalists could rely on magazines for their livelihoods are already history.

When I was thinking about the changes that have affected our industry over the lifetime of Matrix I came across a quote from Maya Angelou that I think should give us all pause for thought. She said, "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Don't complain." During the conversation that I had with Barbara about Matrix I heard regret, but not complaint. One of her regrets is not being able to pay all of the photographers she represented all of the money that she owed them. I also heard nostalgia for an industry that she clearly preferred in its old form than where it is today, but along with that an acceptance that there will be no return to times gone by. The determination that served her so well when she started Matrix will propel her into her new career, and who knows, maybe the Arnold Drapkins of the future will be working in the fields of health advocacy, child care, education, environmentalism, or anywhere else that the powerful communication tool of photography can best serve. The future is there to be defined, and Barbara and the rest of us have the responsibility to define it.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor


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