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Interview with Mary Virginia Swanson

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Mary Virginia Swanson is considered an expert in the area of marketing and licensing fine art.  Swanson makes it her goal to help guide photographers towards the strengths in their work and to identify appreciative audiences for their prints, exhibitions, editorial and licensing placement.
Interviewed by Ann Marie Popko

Author image © 2009 Athena Lonsdale

What’s the first thing you notice when you look at a photographer’s portfolio?
Consistency of craft, style, and clarity of intention (or not).  If bringing smaller samples of what you typically exhibited larger, start with an installation view showing the work in the scale you prefer.
What’s the biggest hurdle for most of your clients?
Strategizing about who make up their most appreciative audience(s), and conducting effective research on how to find them. If I may list another:  most artists are weak when it comes to branding themselves and their bodies of work.

How did you first become involved in the world of marketing photography?
I always helped friends navigate offers that came their way, be they from a gallery, a museum, a private commission or a graphic designer.  I have a natural ability to see both sides of issues, a fierce desire for artists to be appreciated and for copyright to be retained.  From my Special Projects desk at Magnum Photos in NYC, I overheard the diversity of day-to-day business of photography being conducted.  I realized that artists knew little about the many opportunities for their existing images, mixed in my fascination for reading contracts and this is how I became an agent for artists.  With the launch of Swanstock in 1991, I managed licensing rights for fine art photographers, and that experience is part of what makes me an informed advisor for artists today.

Do you have any favorite photographers you have met through your consulting work?
Impossible question to answer!  I am most happy when my clients reach their goals, be it regarding completion of a body of work, determining final presentation, exhibition or publication of that work,
and the courage to begin new work after finding success.

What do you do to stay tuned in to the market?
Print mailers, art and photography blogs, the New York Times and art magazines, attending exhibitions and art fairs, and seeing new work at portfolio reviews.
Your “FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Does Your Website Speak For You?” lecture during PhotoNOLA will focus on the importance of a photographer’s website…what do most photographers miss in this arena?
While many photographers may clearly express themselves and present their work well in person, many more do not effectively communicate in the web environment.  Reading a website is not in any way similar to reading a print brochure or listening to an interview.  Attention spans are shorter, visual distractions are greater…it is, I believe, a tremendous challenge to hold one’s attention on the web.   A clear, simple, well-designed and branded website that speaks in the “language” of the desired audience is not a simple task.

I want artists to consider whether they are reaching out to a collecting community, to photo editors, to graphic designers & art directors, to educators, to today’s youth…to whom are you wishing your images will touch?   The availability of an increasing number of templates (with monthly billing plans) gives everyone a chance to have an effective website, with design-coordiated e-communications as well.  You want to exist in the on-line space that your desired audience occupies, and the tools are available for you to do so.  These are but a few of the issues I will cover in my lecture at PhotoNola.

Could you offer any advice to photographers who will be bringing their work to the PhotoNOLA 2009 Portfolio Reviews?
Do your homework on the reviewers, and on your work.  Know what you want to accomplish as a result of your investment of your time and your resources.  Are you seeking advice towards editing, final presentation format/materials, pricing/editioning and more?  Do you feel your project is completed, or do the reviewers sense gaps?  Do we feel there is a “book” within the project, and if so, what will make it unique?  If the reviewer doesn’t comment on something, don’t hesitate to ask that question or raise that issue. 

Be mindful of two major elements that contribute to defining your experience:  20 minutes, and one table.   Think ahead about how to capture all the advice you will gain.  Your hands will be full…if you prefer taking notes on paper, bring it within a firm binder so you can easily take notes in your lap.  Perhaps a stack of post-its to flag favorites…or a sheet of thumbnails of what you are showing for you to note favorites or those that reviewers feel don’t fit the edit…consider bringing an audio recorder (ask first if the reviewer minds if you tape for personal use).  I discourage burning discs as leave-behinds for reviewers unless you are sure that the edit won’t change…rather, make adjustments and then provide a disc as a follow-up.   I encourage a very simple card with an image to share with reviewers and photographers at the event, with a more complete package sent as a follow-up for those who request it.  

Most valuable question to ask a reviwer:
  “Would you like me to keep you informed about this work?”
Second most valuable question to ask (if they say YES to the first question!):  “In what format do you prefer that I communicate?”  Email, print, link to website, CD-ROM?  This is the key to clear communication ahead, in the method they prefer.

When you’re not talking about marketing, what’s on your mind??
The future of print publishing, design as it impacts our lives, how to stay on top of new technologies, how to bring what’s on my mind to my writings and lectures, and when on the road, imagining what my dogs are up to (and wishing I were there!) 

What are you currently working on?  Any upcoming projects/news?
My co-author (and co-reviewer at PhotoNola!) Darius Himes and I have just turned in our manuscript for an exciting book project that Princeton Architectural Press will release in the Fall of 2010.   It is a comprehensive project on publishing your photo book, covering traditional and self-publishing, from concept to market, with contributions from experts in so many areas – book agents, packagers, editors, designers, publicists, photographers and more. Our book will have an accompanying website and workshop series, too.  We are so excited about this project and can’t wait to share it! 

Individually, I’m constantly researching towards updating my public presentations and 2010 workshops (including an upcoming workshop mid-April, and I’m working on bringing my next solo title “Finding Your Audience: An Introduction to Marketing Your Photographs” to print, and/or to audio/PDF/epub/mobi formats…stay tuned!

Anything else we should know?
You should know that PhotoNola is one of my favorite photography festivals of the year! 
Hats off to all the hard-working people involved!