Co-ops and collaborative creativity

Jul 28, 2010
Photographer News

The model of a photographer collective may be emerging as a trend. A Photo Editor points out that in spite of his initial skepticism, it’s become clear that the collective Luceo is not only adding value for its clients, but also achieving success and building a reputation for itself and for the collaborative model.

Wonderful Machine also started as a cooperative, so we’re excited to see our own photographer Justin Gollmer launching a photography collective. Lucile was founded earlier this year, and built by Justin and his friends Dennis Wise, Ryan McVay and Thomas Northcut. Justin and Dennis were working at a Seattle studio. When Thomas and Ryan were laid off from Getty Images, Justin and Dennis decided to quit their jobs at another Seattle studio and found a collective. “The thought was instead of competing against each other, it would be more beneficial to help each other out,” Justin told me. “We all thought it would help us creatively to be around other photographers.”

The enterprising group met for pizza, and realized as they were talking that they had all driven down Lucile Street to get to the meeting. They pulled out their iPhones and discovered that “lucile” is Latin for “light,” and the name was decided. After finding a space, the group did a lot of hard work to build it into a studio (though if the video is any indication, these guys work very fast). The new collective launched the studio with a party; we didn’t get a chance to attend, but at least Justin made it possible to re-live the event digitally.

Justin has had assignments with Nike and Nordstrom’s through Lucile, but so far their biggest and most enjoyable project has been a five-day shoot in San Francisco for Nintendo. Nintendo first hired just Dennis Wise in Seattle, and the rest of the cooperative helped out. They were so happy with the results that they decided to fly the whole studio to SF and have each member participate in the shoot.  “The client saw the advantage of bringing us all down there,” said Justin, “instead of just hiring one photographer and hiring local staff in San Francisco. They were able to use multiple shooters, as well as get behind the scenes video.” (You can watch the Seattle video here, and keep an eye out for the San Francisco video on Justin’s blog.)

One of Justin’s photos from Lucile’s Nintendo shoot in SF.

All the photographers find the situation to be useful and productive. “Our goal,” Justin explained, “is to be able to offer clients what they couldn’t get from one photographer.” Lucile’s photographers find that the collaboration helps them to take better photos, and the clients seem to agree. “I’m constantly amazed at the shots that these guys can produce,” Nintendo art director Naz Ibrahim told me. Pointing to the abundance of ideas produced by the collaboration, he concluded: “To have four photographers in a room together is awesome!”

Another Wonderful Machine cooperative has been operating since 2003 in Cincinnati, called Alias Imaging (one of their product photos is pictured above). Their story is similar; John Carrico of Alias told me that he, Adam Henry and Adam Leigh-Manuell “were frequently calling each other in to help out when we got large assignments, and then we just realized that it might just be better to collaborate and come under one roof.” Each of the photographers takes on different production roles depending on who was selected by the client for a shoot, and the main advantage is the different points of view that they bring together. “Each of us have our own styles,” said Adam Henry. “We’ll have projects that all three of us will sit down… on set and just bounce ideas off of each other.” Adam describes this as “direct collaboration.”

The potential created by collectives like Studio Lucile and Alias Imaging has us wondering what could be possible if the collaboration crossed disciplinary boundaries—let’s say, a creative co-op of three photographers, four designers and one illustrator. Fortunately, two Wonderful Machine photographers in Austin, TX have experimented with exactly that in their group Public School.

Jay B. Sauceda and Casey Dunn founded the collaborative project Public School after sharing a studio for some time; I talked with Jay to learn more about the history. Jay told me that he was spending most of his time shooting on location, so he and Casey decided to bring other people—friends and colleagues they knew from jobs and internships—into the studio, and convert it into “a creative space to work in.” When they were furnishing their space, they bought a table at the University of Texas that reminded them of a public school table, and decided that “Public School” was a good name for a creative studio.

Emphasis on the word “creative”—”our intention in Public School isn’t really to be a photography studio,” Jay told me. Though it began with photography, the group developed and began to incorporate different types of creative work. “When we need promotional work done,” Jay pointed out, “we have an art director in the studio.” The art director is Cody Haltom, who designed Jay’s website.

One of the collective assignments Public School has had was a cover for Good Magazine; Jay worked with Cody, Casey and Will to design it, and the group has gained some attention as a result. You can also watch a “making of” video here.

However, all of the participants in Public School maintain their own businesses and work independently. “Photography’s my first passion,” said Jay, “I think everyone else’s disciplines are their own passions as well.” However, the collaboration has encouraged them to be “more well-rounded.” The group has been hired, for example, to do a promo video. Even though video is in Jay’s background, he no longer works in it very often; but Public School gives its members the opportunity “to work in fields that we might not be hired for individually… collectively we produce different things.”

The “balance” Jay describes between collective and independent work is also about sharing resources, bringing down costs and helping to build the creative community in general. He describes learning from Adam Voorhes and Matt Rainwaters, who have a collective studio down the street, about the importance of collaboration. Adam Voorhes told me that the creative “clique” in Austin, which extends beyond Public School, is productive for everyone in the area who works in creative fields. “We are all pretty close,” said Adam, “and when I travel to other cities I take all of their books with me to show to agencies.  The goal is to bring more work to Austin.”

“It’s easy to be competitive, that’s not something you really have to learn anymore,” Jay reflected. “What takes more time is learning how to be competitive and collaborative at the same time.”

These collectives represent a spirit of collaboration, but there can also be a strong experimental element. Recently Heather Morton wrote about a new collective called Stash. (It was also picked up by Applied Arts Wire.) Like Public School, they are a creative co-op, a collaboration between four photographers (Jesse Senko, Joanne Ratajczak, Mark Peckmezian and Eva Michon), an illustrator/art director (Kathryn Macnaughton) and a typographic illustrator (Nicholas Kennedy). As their website puts it, Stash “advocates a spontaneous, commission style approach with a respect for the artist’s personal working process.”

Heather sees this as a unique model and describes both its dilemmas and its advantages in her blog post:

the majority of Stash photography is photojournalistic, editorial, personal, and even analogue. It will be a special kind of client who recognizes how to use a shooter like Eva Michon… Once again, then, a call for a different kind of agency and client that can align themselves with something more personal and artistic, less comped and researched. If done right and consistently, the pay-off in terms of brand development is huge, but the pay out in terms of immediate sales, may not be.

Have you worked with creative co-ops, or considered starting one? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

-Asad Haider