For the past three years PDN has cheerfully sorted through hundreds, even thousands, of portfolios, tearsheets and promo cards in search of our choice of 30 photographers who we think represent the image-makers of the future. In the end, it most always comes down to which images make us take notice; which images make us take pause and wonder. . .
Singaporean-born photographer John Clang’s work falls into this category, which is why he was chosen as one of PDN’s 30 for 2001. After moving to New York a couple of years ago Clang quickly began landing accounts for ad and edit clients like Nordstrom, IBM, Adidas, Nylon, Surface, Interview and The New York Times Magazine. After getting a call from fashion giant Hermes in Paris, Clang and his rep knew he had hit the big time. But Clang remained, as he does even today, undaunted. “I’m not intimidated by the fashion world,” he says. “When I shoot, I never have the problem of thinking of other photographers’ work. I’m not a fashion shooter. I love it, but I’m not a fashionista.” Not one to pigeonhole himself, Clang goes effortlessly back and forth between ad campaigns, editorial shoots and stark, clean still lifes that he creates for personal work. “I like my images simple and clear,” he explains.
In the Q&A that follows, Clang takes us through his journey from Singapore to New York. Along the way he’s formed solid friendships and business associates including Ogilvy & Mather Senior Partner/Manager of Art Buying Cindy Rivet. All four take time out here to discuss the current state of the photo industry and how young emerging talent can break into that world and rise to the top. As Rivet states, “Ad agencies, art buyers, creative directors, etc. are all supportive of the ‘young guns’ in the industry today. We welcome their fresh eye and fresh perspective.”
The following interview is broken into four parts: Clang on Clang; the photographer and his reps talk business; Rivet and Clang discuss their collaborative process, and Rivet talks about art buying in general.
I: CLANG on CLANG
PDN: Where did you study photography?
JOHN CLANG: I went to an art college in Singapore, but only for six months because it was incredibly slowgoing. Basically, I had lecturers who taught me photography but the last time they ever worked in the industry was like five years before that, or the lecturer was some nobody who just studied to get a degree, it came, and they decided to teach.
One day when I decided to deliberately overexpose a few shots because of the sudden feeling that I got from it and my teacher gave me an A minus! I was quite upset and actually stomped into her room and asked her “Why does this picture get an A minus? Because I think it’s A plus work.” During that confrontation she said she would give it some thought and the next day she gave me an A plus. The day after that I knew that I wasn’t going to attend that school anymore because the lecturer had no opinion. It wasn’t going to guide me anywhere, so why stick with it? Instead I called up a fine-art photographer whose work I had seen in the news and said, “I’ll work for you for free.”
PDN: And so did that become your first assisting job in Singapore?
CLANG: Yes, I was first assistant to a fine-art photographer who owns a well-known gallery featuring contemporary Chinese artists. Working for this particular man was a great learning experience because I had to set everything out for him and he would just tell me “That’s wrong” or “That’s right.” My first day working with him was on a yacht and I was very eager to please him. I grabbed all of the clothes involved in the shoot and tried to carry everything in one hand; I didn’t know that it had all been ironed out and that there were no irons on the yacht. Everything got rumpled and wrinkled. He just gave me a stern look. It was the most terrifying day of my life. But I learned a lot assisting him: from the lenses that he chose to the focusing he used to the models he selected, I did it all. I learned more about my craft from assisting than I ever did from school.
PDN: What would you say was your first big break into the industry?
CLANG: Although I was an installation artist in Singapore from the age of 18 on and had had many successful shows in galleries, I wasn’t really thinking about the future or about having a career. . .I didn’t have to. . .I was living with my parents, so I didn’t have to pay for rent or things like that. Then one day two agency creatives who attended one of my shows saw my work and asked me to shoot an ad campaign for Singapore Airlines. That job started the ball rolling on my photography career.
PDN: When did you come to New York?
CLANG: About two, two-and-a-half years ago. In the beginning, my book was being sent off by my rep, but there was no response at all. Every morning I’d wake up just hoping that the phone would ring. Eventually I got a call from a reputable ad agency who had looked at my book and said there was a possible job for me. It turned out to be a job for Nordstromshoes.com. The agency, Fallon, sent me the layout and then I was supposed to talk to the art director, Scott O’Leary. I filled him in on my background and my experience and we discussed the concept together. I remember it so well because I’d never worked on an ad in the U.S. before. Scott and I had almost one week of conversation before they finally gave me the job.
PDN: Having now established yourself both here and abroad, do you think you have a particular style that clients seek out?
“The client knows that I do things that are nice and simple” – John Clang
CLANG: I’m not sure if a client seeks me out for a particular style but I do know that the client’s response to me is generally based on my sensibility. They know that I do things that are very simple. I have a very constructive mind based on my installation background. The way I work is that I’ll tell the ad agency what I fee l based on the layout they have sent me. And then if it’s wrong, they can tell me it’s wrong. But if it’s something that is wrong yet better, I’d like to know that as well. At the end of the day they receive my faxed treatments of how I see the whole campaign going: the color, the feeling, the emotional quality that emerges from the visual. Through this process the agency gets very comfortable with me because they understand better what I’m saying and where I’m coming from.
PDN: What, if any, differences are there for a photographer working here as compared to working in Asia?
CLANG: I always tell my friends that New York is heaven for photographers because as a photographer here you have more pride and are more respected. In New York, you are chosen to do a job based on your visual sense, based on your style. You don’t feel like you are being compromised. In New York you can rent anything on a shoot, you hire a producer, you hire an assistant, you get three or four assistants, all the equipment. . .it’s all paid for by the client. On top of that, you can set your own fee. But in Singapore there’s a huge overhead involved: There I had to have a studio and I had to hire three or four assistants, full time, on payroll and I had to have all the equipment myself. Over there, I had to keep working, keep taking jobs, even if I wasn’t crazy about them, so I would have money to live on.
PDN: In New York, where do you draw your inspiration from?
CLANG: I draw a lot of my inspiration from films that I watch. And walking in the park, walking in the street. I almost never bring a snapshot camera when I’m going around a place. I always believe that if a thing occurs right in front of you, sit there, open your eyes and enjoy it. Don’t bother to record it. I’m not a big fan of the photojournalistic style. To me the daily life that we live and breathe is a pure inspiration. If you want inspiration just put a sign in a stuffy room. Don’t breathe for one and a half minutes. Walk to the window, open it and breathe. That breath is life. My aim wasn’t to be a fashion photographer or successful commercial photographer. I eventually want to move back to where I came from, to the gallery world.
PDN: Can you tell me a little bit about the photography magazine, Werk, that you started with your friend Theseus Chan?
CLANG: It’s for young artists who really want to say something that hasn’t been said before and it’s amazing to me that I’m the director of photography. We only use young, fresh photographers and stylists, people who are really passionate about their work and who have their own point of view. It’s published every three months, limited copies are sold in New York and Europe, and we cover fashion, arts and graphic design. So far photographers Chuan Do in Singapore, Kirby Koh in the U.K., Leslie Kee in Tokyo, and Christian Webber and Mei Tao in New York have shot for the magazine. I’m interested in featuring fashion and art shooters, any new photographer with a statement to make. Photographers can send their work to me with a letter stating exactly what they see in their photography and why they want to be a part of the magazine.
PDN: What advice do you have for young photographers just starting out?
CLANG: Well, you’ve got to have a promotion or get into a sourcebook but I don’t think good work can be shown with just a single image so I suggest that if you want to show your work well, make a small booklet. Go somewhere like Asia, where the printing is cheap, make it there, ship it to the U.S. and then distribute it. That’s what I did when I first came here. I made four hundred books that I sent out to everyone I wanted to work with.
PDN: Are you surprised by your success?
CLANG: I don’t feel surprised but I feel very fortunate. I’ve always been a very confident guy and I’ve always believed that as a photographer you must have a certain sense of cockiness. You go to a shoot, you have a lot of stars there, all of the assistants, the clients, the fashion models, etc. and you are forced to work with all those egos, including your own. Everybody has the say of what they want to do. But YOU, the PHOTOGRAPHER has to be the one to tell everybody to listen to you. If you are too nice, nobody’s going to listen to you. You have to be nasty to a certain degree. I’m pretty good at psychology games. I think most photographers are.
IV: Veteran art buyer Cindy Rivet has spent nearly two decades at ad agency Ogilvy & Mather and is the first to exclaim “I love my job!” Rivet oversees the art purchasing for Ogilvy, Ogilvy One, Ogilvy Direct Design, Ogilvy Interactive, and BIG (Brand Integration Group). As an art buyer, she assigns photography for various accounts and oversees the production of the shoot, including job specs and legal issues such as keeping track of usage. A list of campaigns she has worked on include American Express, AIG, IBM, Kodak, Kraft, General Foods, Miller Lite, Merck, San Pelligrino, Perrier, Jaguar and Unilever. Below, Rivet and Clang discuss how they came to work together and mention some of the accounts they’ve collaborated on. Rivet also talks about the role of an art buyer on an advertising campaign, and how young photographers can possibly work with her.
PDN: How did you become aware of John’s work?
CINDY RIVET: I found out about John from a creative director I was collaborating with on a photo assignment for an up-and-coming ad campaign. Michael Ash had suggested we take a look at John Clang’s work, which we did, and I thought it was great so he was hired for the job. That’s how we first met and how we first started working together, on an IBM campaign.
Cindy Rivet and John Clang
PDN: What was the experience of working on that particular job like for you, John?
CLANG: Strange at first. Prior to that job I had only been in the U.S. for seven months. My wife and I were in New York, far away from Singapore and were broke. When I met the creative director, Peter Wood, the first thing he did was show me the layouts and tell me that the way they work with new photographers is to give them 15 minutes to either grasp the concept or leave without getting the job. It was intense but everyone was very supportive. It was a good experience for me, I learned a lot from the whole process of how American ad agencies operate.
PDN: How do you collaborate with photographers? What does an art buyer do?
RIVET: We basically assign photography. Nowadays, the doors have opened wide to new photographers, both established advertising and editorial talent and what we call the “young guns.” It brings a fresh eye, a fresh perspective to the collaboration. At Ogilvy, the focus is on the total production of the job from start to finish. I work with all sorts of talent—everyone from fashion photographers to photojournalists. If they don’t have production capabilities, I match them with the right producers. I give them job specs, and the agency takes care of all legal clearances through our own legal counsel. Years ago, we worked only with layouts, where everything was drawn out and planned, but now we work in a more subjective and conceptual way, with written creative briefs, which provide a wonderful collaboration between the client, creative and photographer.
CLANG: When I worked for IBM, for instance, they didn’t give me a street brief. They maybe gave a sentence or two and then from that sentence itself, I needed to come up with a series of photographs that they would use later on as a selling point. I never worked with any agency that did that before. Most agencies have one layout and they shoot you and they say, “This is what we want and keep it as close as possible to that.
RIVET: . . .and what John is able to do is to plan on shooting what we’ve committed to with a client but then he’s also able to bring something a little bit different to the table. He says, “You know what? I’m just going to try a couple of things. Those are the sensibilities he has really brought to the campaigns we’ve worked on.
PDN: How can photographers get an opportunity to work with Ogilvy? Can they drop their book off with you?
RIVET: I have a department of about 12 people and we all see books. We try to see them on an ongoing basis and we’re all constantly doing homework, we’re constantly doing research and sharing ideas. All a photographer needs to do is make an appointment. I also think, however, that agents really help young photographers a lot. A rep helps them protect themselves and helps them communicate and try and understand the commercial side of photography. If they don’t have an agent, I certainly can help them along in finding a producer and everything else you need on a shoot. The most important thing is to just get your book out there.
PDN: How else do you find new talent?
RIVET: Through different magazines, through gallery shows that we are invited to, through museums. A lot of the graduate programs for photography send us a compilation of graduating seniors’ work! Anytime a young photographer can get into a publication, that’s where they get noticed, and that’s where we do a lot of our research.
PDN: Which magazines do you look at?
RIVET: All types, all types of photography magazines. The New York Times Magazine has always been really good for us. PDN has too. We love your 30 Under 30 Special. That really helps us out a lot. In fact, that was what really got us going in terms of finding something different. At Ogilvy we like to show ranges of photography. We look at all types of work: portraiture, landscapes, still life, beauty, chocolate, you name it. . .kids, older women. . .there’s a huge range of work there.
PDN: Any last words of wisdom?
RIVET: Focus on what you put in your portfolio. John and I both agree that it is so important to only show your best work, the kind of work you want to keep shooting. It can be personal as long as it’s beautiful work. You don’t need to fill your book with ad after ad to drop it off at Ogilvy. A lot of art directors would rather see personal work because that helps show a style, a different viewpoint.
CLANG: A fresh viewpoint!