FORMER ART DIRECTOR
In 2009, when anyone left in advertising was
lucky to have a job, Grace Chon says she told
her boss she was quitting to become a full-time pet photographer. She had an MFA in art
direction and had worked as an art director
for more than five years. At the time, she was
at Deutsch/LA, and had just finished work on
a major car campaign in New Zealand. Now,
she’s shooting lifestyle portraits of people and
animals for Purina, Fancy Feast, Jax & Bones, and
other commercial and editorial clients.
Working as an agency art director, she
says, “is fun, but it can be soul-sucking at
times. You’re throwing out ideas that get
killed all the time.” She had always loved
animals, so she had started a pet photography
business in 2008. She was also photographing
shelter dogs on weekends to help them get
adopted. “I did it for the creative outlet, and
to do something meaningful,” she explains.
It turned out she was really good at
photographing animals because of her
training as an art director. “When you’re an
art director, you have a distinct vision in mind,
and you execute it: framing, composition,
props, subject,” she says. “You’re looking at
things holistically…I want to see the whole
environment, and I want it to be meaningful,
arranged in a way that adds to the story. If
there’s something distracting, I’ll take it out.”
In 2010, Chon landed her first commercial
job, shooting a Purina campaign for Fallon.
“The art director said she had somehow
discovered my pet photography work and
followed me for a few years,” Chon says.
Around the same time, she hired photography
consultant Suzanne Sease to help her edit her
portfolio. Chon started showing her portfolio
at reviews and to art buyers, and by 2014, she
quit the pet photography business to focus on
commercial and editorial work full time.
Thanks to her art directing experience,
Chon brings an agency insider’s perspective
to pre-pro calls with creatives. “I know what
it’s like to be in their shoes,” she says. “I can
instill confidence. I know what they need, and
how to do it, and my work shows that I’m able
to accomplish what it is they want.”
She brings her insider knowledge to the
set, too. “[Creatives] are like, Oh my god, are
we going to get this? Is the client going to be
happy?’ I know what that feels like, and that
helps me help them feel comfortable and
confident in my work.” And at times, she says,
she does the work of the art director on set—
while deftly protecting their egos, of course.
Chon says her agency experience taught
her another important skill: patience. It’s
important for photographers not to worry
about a slow response to a bid for a job, she
explains. Behind the scenes at an agency, “it’s
a wait-and-see process,” she says. “Be patient.
There’s a whole lot going on that you don’t
know about, and have no control over.”
FORMER PHOTO DIRECTOR
Geordie Wood graduated with a degree
in photojournalism in 2007. He moved to
New York, expecting to launch a career as a
photographer. “I had to figure out how to pay
the rent, and I quickly realized you can’t do it
shooting single images for music magazines.”
So he took a job for several years as
a printer and studio assistant for Susan
Meiselas. In 2012 he heard that John Francis
Peters was leaving the photo editor’s job
at The FADER. Wood had shown his work
previously to Peters and The FADER’s then-
creative director, Phil Bicker. He contacted
Peters, who urged him to apply for the job.
“I spent three and a half years in that job,
and I made it up as I went along,” Wood says.
“The sky was the limit. Most of the time, we
TOP: Grace Chon learned as an ad agency art director to
pre-visualize framing, composition, props and subject.
Now she applies that skill to her second career as an
advertising photographer. BELOW: Geordie Wood shot
Tevante Rhodes for DuJour magazine. As a photo
editor, Wood learned how pre-production decisions
influence the outcome of a shoot.
TRANSI TIONING TO PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER
THE CAREER ROADS LESS TRAVELED
Photographers without photo assisting experience explain how other
jobs they held in the photo industry helped them build the foundations
of their careers. BY DAVID WALKER
WORKING AS A PHOTO ASSISTANT may be the most common pathway to a career as a
photographer, but it isn’t the only one. Many photographers have built the foundations of their
careers on the experience they’ve gained as producers, reps, art directors and other jobs.
“I tell students they shouldn’t be too single-minded” about making a living as a photographer
right out of school, says fine-art and editorial photographer Sara Macel, who previously had a
successful career as a producer at Art Department. Before that, she worked as a studio assistant
and editorial assistant. “You should be working on your own career and your own shoots,”
she says, “but find what’s most useful in any job you do to help you build that career.”
We interviewed Macel, Grace Chon and Geordie Wood about their unconventional paths
to careers as photographers. You can read the lessons they shared here. On PDNOnline you
can read more of their advice, and an interview with Stephanie Gonot about how working
for a rep helped her become a photographer.