Interview: Frank Meo
Interview by Katie Heiserman
Us members of the photo world are accustomed to long days in the studio or the office, but once in a while we really crave community. We want fresh ideas, feedback, or an opportunity to share our expertise. Turns out that opportunity awaits! Musée Magazine sat down with photo agent Frank Meo to discuss his monthly talk series, PROJECTIONS, where photographers, creative directors, photo editors, and members of the public gather in the Bowery over brews and brats to share, view, and discuss peers’ works.
Aside from creating and hosting PROJECTIONS, Meo is the founder of The Photo Closer, a company that offers one-on-on marketing and negotiating consultations for photographers, as well as group workshops and creative brainstorming sessions. With twenty-five years of experience, Meo has worked with acclaimed trade groups and academic institutions across the country as well as represented both emerging and world-renowned photojournalists and commercial photographers.
Musée: Where did the idea for the talk series come from?
Frank Meo: It actually came from my wife, Sylvie. It was her idea and she found the venue. I mean, it was sort of a mutual idea, but I couldn’t find time to do it. You know sometimes you have great ideas – “Yeah that’s a great idea! Now go and do it.” – it’s a whole different thing. But then, once you make a machine out of it, it runs. So the idea was to engage the photographers and the community and give the photographers a place to expose themselves in a way that could garnish them business, but could also help them get feedback. Because they’re looking for answers to questions like “what do you think of this project?” And the photographers or the art directors in the audience are looking for “how did you shoot that? What are you going to do next?” So there’s a lot of this back-and-forth, which I really love. And you know photographers - they’re in their own bubbles. Generally speaking, they create, and they may have a studio manager, but they’re in this small little space, and to come out and show their body of work – and it doesn’t even have to be complete, and it doesn’t have to be provocative, like it’s going to change the world – it could just be the latest fashion shoot that you did or beautiful still lives.
Would you say PROJECTIONS helps build community?
FM: Yes. That’s what the photographers crave – contact. There are also photo editors and art directors from ad agencies and producers from ad agencies who attend. Some of those people are coming because they probably know me or somebody who’s presenting and say, “this’ll be a nice little night. I’ll grab a beer, have something to eat, and see some work.” It’s a casual thing. It’s a New York City thing.
How does the event run? How is it structured?
FM: We have a monitor up on the wall and the artists tell the story behind their project and slowly go through the work. We have a time limit of twenty or twenty-five minutes per person and there are three presenters in one night. And while people are presenting I pepper them with questions. Questions like “What’re you doing next? How do you sell this? How do you take this body of work and promote yourself with it?” And I’ll ask a question and then somebody else will.
What kind of people attend? Are most audience members art-world professionals? What are the interactions between the presenters and the audience?
FM: It’s probably a crowd of fifty to seventy people, so it’s not huge and it’s not small. Presenters get a chance to get some feedback from the audience and then the photographers in the audience will often ask technical questions like, “what camera do you use? What’s your lighting here? Did you use a smoke machine to get that effect?” The conversation really depends on who’s presenting and who’s in the audience. So generally, the photographers present their work and then we all discuss it. The photographers in the audience also ask things based on how it relates to them and their projects. Or sometimes photographers are trapped. They’re looking for inspiration – which is the idea. And while the other people present, they’ll notice what could be better in someone else’s work, and it will help them with their own inspiration and thinking. And it’s not just young people learning. It’s also people who have been in the business who have become less energized.
So established artists are learning from emerging artists as well as emerging artists learning from established artists?
FM: Yes. I think for a lot of folks in that forty to fifty range, it’s a kick in the ass. They see their competition.
What do you hope presenters walk away thinking about?
FM: Just recently we had someone present who does environmental portraits, but a creative director told him they needed someone to shoot on a white background and that he wasn’t the right photographer. The photographer then became so compelled to shoot on white, to have it in his portfolio, that he went to Africa and photographed African warriors. So after he presented the photographs of the African warriors I asked him what happened when he went back and showed the art director and he said, “oh I never did that.” And then I was screaming at the guy! “How could you not go back?!” He didn’t even remember his name! So you see, photographers don’t have a business sense. I come at it from the business side. I represent photographers and I know how ad agencies work. Photographers are looking for that kind of advice. “What should I do with this? How do I approach an art buyer? How do I talk to a creative director?”
Can you give me a sense of how some of those conversations go?
FM: In terms of that portrait photographer, I told him that the art director he never contacted is a potential client. “Do what you can to find out his name.” And I told the whole audience, “don’t lose opportunities. If someone likes your work, then follow up. Make it part of your business model.” For instance, if the portrait photographer had sent that creative director a 16x20 print on white of one of the African warriors and written on it “see I can shoot on white,” and even made a joke out of it, that’d only cost twenty or twenty-five dollars. So many times photographers say to me, “You know Frank, I never thought of that.” And it’s so horribly simple! I’m not coming up with a cure for the common cold. Sometimes I feel like I’m Einstein. But then I get back home and I’m a fucking idiot again.
Another example. David Arky presented a while back and he uses an x-ray machine in his photography and I told him to do a little promotion piece. I told him he should use a Deflategate reference - the controversy where Tom Brady deflated some of the footballs so they’d be easier to grip. I told him if he x-rayed a football that had the inflator inside it, everyone would get that instantaneously. So he ended up doing a little brochure and I got it in the mail and he said to me, “you know you were a major influence in coming up with that.” And that makes the whole day.
You founded The Photo Closer seven years ago and PROJECTIONS is one of several programs. You also host workshops about brainstorming, portfolio building, and creative marketing, as well as offer one-on-one meetings with photographers looking for creative guidance. Would you say that the business advice you give photographers at PROJECTIONS fits into The Photo Closer’s larger goals and vision?
FM: Absolutely. This is where the projects dovetail.
I know some of PROJECTIONS’ speakers have taken on heavy topics including domestic violence and discrimination against transgender youth. Would you say PROJECTIONS gravitates towards artists who build social commentary into their work, or were these projects out of the ordinary?
FM: You know, sometimes the work is better than the story and sometimes it’s the other way around. Annie Tritt presented her photo essay on transgender children in January. In cases like this, if you’re really listening and you’re really getting into the head of the photographer, you’re learning. And at one point I said, “so these photographs, are they an emancipation for the children and their families?” She said, “you’re absolutely right.” So if the work is good, and the storyteller is good, they can get you to that space. And it turned out that the mother of one of the children was in the audience. We asked her if she’d like to speak and she did speak, and immediately started to cry. And I cry so easily now – I don’t know what happened, I became a crier. But anyway, she starts crying and she tells us that she’s lost friends because they don’t want their kids playing with her kid. And she talked about the stress on her marriage. So part of PROJECTIONS is unearthing this stuff – having a moment where a thought enters your head that you’ve never had before. It’s so rewarding. But all I’m trying to do is create conversation. But it doesn’t happen in a contrived way. There are some nights where you don’t get as dramatic a story as Annie Tritt’s. Coming up we have a project by four photographers who went to Mt. Everest. That’s sort of light fare. Or someone who did a fashion shoot in Iceland. But then we had Nancy Borowick, who did a project on the death of both of her parents from cancer.
Is there a particular genre of photography that you look for when selecting speakers? What is the selection process like?
FM: Anyone can present. Young emerging artists probably need it more than anyone else. They’re looking for criticism. They’re looking for direction. I don’t make it elitist. Pretty much anyone who wants to present emails me and they’re on the queue. We sometimes have people who are selling their books so they make PROJECTIONS like a book signing.