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Mark George: not just <br class="br_visual" />a pretty face

Mark George: not just
a pretty face

© Stephen Perry

July 2014

We’ve all heard the line: “Oh, I must get an agent.” But what do you actually need an agent for? The person representing you is not, according to respected manager Mark George, someone who’s going to be working the phone getting you bookings. The role is much wider and far-reaching, as CPN Editor David Corfield discovers...

Note the noun: ‘manager’. Mark George is not an agent. He hates the word, and shuts me up in a puff of cigar smoke as I sit down and sip my coffee. “An agent to me sounds like someone who just gets you bookings, like a rep. I hate that term. I might represent somebody in a managerial way but there is a difference. I look after people who are too focused on what they do to understand that the world around them needs looking at as well. And that’s where I come in.”

© Stephen Perry

Photographic manager Mark George pictured lighting a cigar in his London offices.

Over the course of the last 35 years Mark has fought against the establishment to win himself a reputation for no-nonsense, cut-the-crap, negotiation. “I started right from the bottom,” he reveals. “I began working with one photographer in 1979 and back then I didn’t know who anyone was, or where any of the agencies were, or who to show the work to when I got there. But he gave me a clue as to who to see as he’d been working with ad agencies for years.”

Mark discovered that looking after the talent was one of the fundamental elements of being a good manager. “It’s a bizarre business and it’s getting more bizarre by the minute,” he reflects. “I started to get some big names on my books such as Richard Avedon, Terence Donovan and Don McCullin and with these guys joining me, more began to get interested in what I could do.”

He ruefully remembers an encounter with the Queen’s former brother-in-law, Lord Snowdon. “Because I represent Don McCullin, Snowdon rang up asking me to visit with a view to representing him, so off I went to see him at his place in Kensington and have a chat.”

“I spent the day with Snowdon but in the end he declined me and never explained why. It was only a few weeks later when I was talking to Don, who I did represent and have done for the last 30 years, that I found out the reason. ‘You spoke to him with your hands in your pockets...’ he told me. But I make no apology for that. I am who I am and if people don’t like it they can work with somebody else. I have a very honest work ethic and I will always go the distance. Many times I go beyond that, but I’m trying to keep a distance now between who I represent and who I am friendly with.”

Changing of the guard

Mark George can be credited with forcing a sea-change in how advertising agencies work with photographers – and who they choose. He sees no reason, for example, why editorial photographers can’t cross the divide into advertising work – provided it doesn’t harm integrity. Where previously the notoriously cliquey world of advertising preferred to ‘stick to their own’, along came Mark who shook everything up with a roster of photographers who looked at client briefs in a totally new way, and with totally new results.

© Stephen Perry

Photographic manager Mark George points out his meticulous notes – which include costs from assistants to cups of tea – in his first accounts ledger, dating from 1978.

“I’m very selective who I work with,” he continues. “I always have been. And I haven’t just managed photographers, either. I’ve managed sportsmen, musicians... and even at the moment I’m managing a beautiful woman who is about to appear in a television series in America. But it’s all the same, really: the primary thing is having somebody on your books with a unique style that can earn you a living, and in terms of photography that’s becoming very hard.”

“Some of the photographers I represent now aren’t unique, but I make sure that each one of them brings something a little bit different to the table. I make sure they fit a niche, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to survive. In the early days it was a lot easier to find people who were innovative and unique but nowadays it’s virtually impossible.”

A passion for bikes

Mark is not your usual manager. For a start, he looks like someone you’re not going to mess with but that’s a nod to his first love: motorbikes. Specifically, the ubiquitous Harley-Davidson.

“I left home when I was 17 and went to America,” he explains. “I’d already been into Harleys before that but when I went over to the USA it just snowballed. I ended up living in Oakland, California, where all the Hell’s Angels were, and that was it for me. I came back to London because I got run over and had no money to pay for the medical bills. I got enough cash together to buy myself a Harley, joined a bikers club and that was that...”

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in this business and not all of them have been good. In fact not many of them have been good at all...” he reflects. “It was a lot easier back then. Nowadays the world is global which means that there are fewer commissions being given because the clients are using the same work over many different territories. So the biggest amount of income, these days, comes from usage. For example, we’ll shoot something for a client and they’ll phone up saying they need to use the images again for another year and they want to go to France with them, so they pay us. I fought hard for my photographers to be compensated for that...”

He continues: “With all that globalisation people wanted the status quo to remain the same, meaning that the photographer just got paid to do the shoot, and the client got all the usage rights. I could see that happening, and I felt it was fundamentally unfair. Before the Copyright Law changed for photographers, it used to be that the commissioner owned the copyright, and not the photographer! That was totally wrong.”

“And the trouble with all these changes and shifts is the creativity has been kicked out of the business,” he frowns. “And why? Well, it’s a combination of a few things. The digital age offers many advantages but it also represents a philosophy in society. People have ideas but they are not creative with how they execute them. Creatives that come out of university now are ideas people only. It’s like these bloody pop-up restaurants. They are a great idea but it doesn’t mean that the chefs cook well. If they stop trying to be so bloody trendy and focus on the actual food they were producing it might be better...”

© Stephen Perry

Photographic manager Mark George pictured in his London offices with a Harley-Davidson poster in the background.

Although Mark embraces current digital technology, he misses the old ways and the old days of photography. He misses the joy of film, the smell of a freshly fixed print, the filling in of the large ledger in fountain pen ink of jobs in and jobs out... “The old-school way is no more,” he sighs, “Which is a shame because in losing the ability to art direct photography well, you end up with just a fickle thinness. It’s transparent. Just look around at the creativity these days. It's far more shallow than it used to be. And that’s happened in conjunction with the immediacy brought about by digital.”

“When you used to shoot on an old 10x8in Deardorff [large-format plate camera], with just one sheet of film, under a dark cloth, it was really focused and you ended up editing in the camera. That was special. And now there is just so much scope to recover afterwards when things haven’t gone right. It’s like music in a way: if the voice isn’t quite right they modulate it. If the picture isn’t quite right they change the curves. Get it right in the first place!”

Minder and manager...

Dealing with people is Mark’s forté. He’s not one to trifle with but he is the epitome of tact with interfering clients... “On a shoot, my job is to act as a buffer between the client and the photographer, allowing the photographer to stay focused on being creative while I take care of the client. I can guarantee that on every single shoot there will come a point where I will have to step in. It happened recently on a shoot where I had to say ‘we weren’t asked along to do this, and we are going to do it the way we think it should be done because that is what we do.’ Just because I said they could pass a comment on what had been achieved up until that point didn’t give them the right to change the fundamentals of what we’d done. We can have all the pre-production and planning in the world to discuss a single shot of a toothbrush, but once you’re in a studio and the lights are on it, that shoot will evolve. It’s an organic thing.”

Client expectations. There’s another phrase to get up the Mark George nostrils. “There's a word I can’t stand. ‘Expectation’. It’s bandied around now all the time by marketing types. ‘Oh it doesn’t meet our expectations’ Well what the f**k is their expectation? I wouldn’t mind but most of the time no-one knows...”

“I wish people would make clear decisions and have some imagination. Photographers are just as bad. Every still-life photographer’s portfolio I’ve even seen in the last two years has got images of watches, TV screens, mobile phones, cufflinks, and so on. Boring! They’ve never considered the word ‘organic’. It’s unbelievable! I judged a competition once and the first prize image was of a woman carrying an umbrella. I judged the same competition again the next year and 30% of the entries were of umbrellas! I couldn’t believe the lack of imagination. How can you even start to be a photographer if you have no imagination? I guess it’s always been there – it’s laziness. That’s why I go to every shoot. Everything is a battle, and it shouldn’t be...”

Switching off, and turning on...

Mark lives and breathes his work and – sure – a collection of old cars and bikes and some rather exceptional original prints on his walls suggest that he’s done rather well, but he does try to get some downtime. Three daughters and one pedigree Scottish terrier, Laughlan, keep him busy, for a start...

“I do try to switch off, but it’s hard,” he admits. “And the worst thing in the world that I hate the most are email conversations. It’s a constant battle for me to educate people that you can get a lot more done through the power of speech. Just pick up the phone!”

© Stephen Perry

Part of the vintage Dinky toy collection of photographic manager Mark George pictured on shelves in his London offices.

“I’ve reached the stage now where I know that in the 25 minutes it takes for me to drive from my house to the office, there will be al least 50 e-mails waiting to be answered. You ask my PA Laura; I send e-mails at six in the morning on a regular basis. The brain never switches off...”

But even when he does try to calm down, it’s not long before the cogs in the old grey matter are whirring away again. Mark is keen to help younger photographers come to the fore, and is an advocate of honesty. Honesty in all things. “Be honest with yourself first and foremost and learn to understand what you are as a photographer and what your vision is. Be a true heart,” he implores.

“Be an individual. Be honest with your work, and filter out all the crap from your portfolio. Put the best work in the front and the back of your book and cut out anything that’s going to weaken the rest. A portfolio is like a novel: it’s got to have a beginning, middle and end. It needs pace. I love print portfolios, there is a place for iPads where you have a digital showcase of work, but I like things to be done properly and with integrity. Preparing a print book focuses the mind and helps a photographer learn about his work.”

And at that, Mark rolls up his left sleeve and reveals a rather intriguing message. He smiles through another haze of cigar smoke...

“I went to a tattoo artist the other day and wrote on my wrist ‘what’s wrong with folks?’ and got the girl to tattoo it in. To me that says it all. Why can’t people just behave like decent human beings? Let the creatives create - it is what they are trained to do. You will be surprised at the result.”

• In future articles CPN will look in more detail at other aspects of the photographic industry such as copyright, assisting, working with clients and more...

Biografía: Mark George

Mark George

Mark George initially studied furniture design before a meeting with a photographer altered his career path. “I had seemed to have spent most of my life on the back of a Harley until, in 1978, a chance meeting with an out-of-work photographer, in a small hotel in the Scottish Highlands, led me to start managing.” Mark George has represented some of the world’s most respected photographers including Don McCullin (with whom he has worked for over 30 years), and the two late, great, photographers Terence Donovan and Richard Avedon. Mark George oversees all the production for the shoots for which his photographers are commissioned, and takes a hands on approach, at all times looking after both client and creative interests. Says Mark: “Apart from the love of what I do, I love my three girls; Florence-Ray, Tilly and Scarlett.”


Mark George looks in a bag which contains some of his awards – many of which he has forgotten about winning.