For those of you know Suzee Barabee, you will know what I mean when I say Suzee is one of the most professional, knowledgeable and creative art producers out there. It is no wonder she is Director of Print and Art Production at Goodby Silverstein and Partners.
Suzee was one of the first art producers I met when I moved to San Francisco and I always admired her style, approach to her job and connection to photography. It was on a Polaroid campaign with Hunter Freeman that I got to know her better. I will always remember that shoot because the team had to construct a house set for an alligator to live under (a real one!) and teach a dog to poop on command. The production was crazy and the concepts were hysterical. Suzee was so excited about the campaign and knew that they images would be amazing. She worked hard to make sure everyone had what they needed all along the way – which was a lot. She was of course professional and detailed. Mostly though she was fun to be around. She kept everyone on track and stayed true to the vision. It is no surprise then that these images are iconic and still live on Hunter’s archive pages.
While our paths didn’t always cross, we stayed in touch and often reached out to each other for advice. I always appreciated that Suzee would return my calls and offer insight for a challenge that wasn’t her own. I also enjoyed sitting on panels with her thoughtout the years and listening to her points of view. I respect so much what she has done with her career and feel fortunate to call her my friend. I was so happy when she agreed to be interviewed by Alison McCreery for our Art Buyer Insider series.
What did you “want to be when you grew up?” Are you surprised where you ended up?
I come from a family of attorneys and studied economics in college. I took an interest and aptitude test after college and it suggested I’d be a good librarian. I thought that would be so interesting to be in this great world of books, but wasn’t quite as interested in the idea of being a librarian.
But I never had a clear idea of what I wanted to be. When I was growing up, it was always ballerina or actress. Never a real, practical path. I didn’t know what was out there. My brother knew he wanted to be a lawyer and my sister was very mathematical and scientific. I wanted to be artistic, but I wasn’t inherently artistic. I can’t draw or paint, the traditional silos of art. There’s a whole world out there, but as a kid things are so defined and have labels. I didn’t know that there were jobs that exist that encompass art and business and that are not so clearly defined or labeled.
What was that first moment of inspiration when you knew you would work in a creative position?
I don’t know if I had that first moment of inspiration. I fell into my job in art producing. I was picking an industry and work environment that I thought would suit me and was lucky enough to fall into print and art production and learned and developed a real love for the field.
What was your path to becoming at an art producer?
The first agency I worked at was a small local ad agency that did the advertising for the local McDonald’s and Northern California Toyota dealers. I was the assistant to the CD and he left shortly after I started. I was then adopted by the production department. I had a wonderful boss and vendors who were very patient and I managed to learn on the job about print production.
From there I went to another agency and was laid off after three months. In the time I was there I met a woman who ended up working at Goodby and recommended me to Max Fallon who was the head of print production and art buying. (Most agencies have separate departments, but Max felt very strongly that these two disciplines should be together and we have continued that tradition.)
It was a department of two people and his only employee was going on maternity leave. Max asked me if I could do “paste-up” just in case I needed to rush an ad mechanical out. I sort of stretched the truth and said “YES”. He then asked me if I could do art buying and well, again, I said “YES” in the hope that I could figure it out as I went along. So I was hired as a freelance print producer and art buyer. And I got lucky that the woman on leave decided to take the opportunity to stay at home with her child. And 24 years later, I run the print and art production department.
Growing up, what were your creative interests?
I was more athletic than artistic. I did gymnastics for a long time. I didn’t have a strong, creative-centric background—I came to it later in life. I grew up thinking creativity was judged by being able to paint and draw and to paint it right. It wasn’t looked at as a state of mind.
We grew up going to plays and museums, so I was around a lot of art, but it wasn’t something you were a part of. It was more for knowledge and culture than inspiration.
How have your life experiences influenced your job choice?
I realized very early in my career that I needed to be happy in my work. And to be happy meant being in a creative and unstructured type of work environment. I wanted to be able to grow in a job and keep learning new skills. I wanted to work with people who inspired me. And most of all I wanted work to be fun. I didn’t have that in my first job out of college and I realized how that affected every part of my life. I have been so very fortunate to have found that at GSP. (I keep repeating how fortunate and lucky I have been!)
What one word describes your working style? Is it different than when you first started?
Teamwork–or to be specific–Collaboration. As producers we bring people together. That’s really the unofficial definition of a producer. Our job is to bring various resources together to make the process work.
I try to foster this in the department. I tell people this all the time – that it’s teamwork. And the more everyone is working towards the same goals the more fun it is and the more chance you have at greater success. There always has to be a defined and cohesive vision that everyone is working towards. And if you don’t have that shared vision and that defined path, then no team is going to work well together or succeed. Otherwise it can be a disaster.
The other side of that coin is that it’s important that people have a sense of ownership for their projects. It makes people proud of their work and the role they played in the success of a project.
How do you describe your job to your mother or someone not in our industry?
It’s so hard because everyone’s first reaction is ‘you make the ads?’ or ‘you shoot the photography?’ or ‘you make the illustration?’ It’s so hard to describe that you bring all the elements together and create the final product. Because my mom’s a lawyer I use words like negotiate and budget and facilitate. That’s the context she understands.
What about the industry/your job is exciting right now?
The evolution right now is interesting. It’s almost limitless what you can do with technology changing as it is. You can create and distribute anything and have your images seen in so many different environments and so many different ways. But conversely, having the infinite possibilities detracts from the tradition and the craft sometimes. I like to think that there’s room in this world for user-generated content and iPhone snapshots to beautiful platinum prints.
Top 5 jobs you would love to have?
I would love to work for a foundation and give money away. It would be my top job.
I would also like to be one of those secret hotel testers and go around the world and stay at the luxury hotels and resorts. I don’t want to be a travel writer because I don’t to have to write about it. I also wouldn’t want to have to be the mean one, so I’d be more constructive. I love travel, so really anything with travel.
Professional TV watcher (see question about guilty pleasures below)
Top 10 jobs for which you are especially unsuited?
Dental hygienist. No explanation needed (but thank goodness for the people who do that job).
Toll taker. Anywhere.
Any job at the NY department store Century 21.
Brain surgeon. Because we’re always saying ‘it’s not brain surgery.’
Do you have a personal aesthetic that comes through in the photographers whose work you are drawn to?
I think I’m very classic and simple. I’m old-fashioned and like the photojournalistic, captured moment as opposed to the forced or staged moment. And not so manipulated, honest. A lot of photographers are good at creating an environment and letting people react within the environment and have some control but let happenstance take over in that setting.
However each creative assignment has its own specific needs. And it’s one of the best parts of our job in finding the right talent for the right project. I like the discovery process of finding someone new or someone that I haven’t previously had the pleasure of seeing their work.
What at the moment do you see happening in the culture that you find inspiring or interesting?
We can belong to limitless communities and an unlimited number of different communities. It’s hard to explain. There’s a very interesting thing happening, a massive sharing of interests and ideas. We can connect with like-minded people without ever meeting them or knowing anything about them. The amount of information and inspiration is multiplying. It’s almost overwhelming. It’s a world of finding common interests and using it as a resource and inspiration.
If you could change one thing in the creative industry right now, what would that be?
I would love to change the notion that print is dead. I think that people still react to the tactile world and not everything lives on the screen. I think people still like to touch and use that sense to interact with things as opposed to just engaging sight and sound.
But, I do subscribe to magazines on both my iPad and in print and I believe there’s room for both.
If you could tell photographers one thing, what would it be?
It’s hard to narrow it down to just one thing!
Just shoot, shoot, shoot and provide lots of options.
Get it in camera versus trying to fix anything in retouching (but this is more what I tell my art directors).
We want to make them look good and highlight their talents and artwork as much as they do.
We’re all on the same team.
And most of all, we appreciate all the hard work and endless hours that we probably take for granted. I don’t think they hear this enough.
Favorite way to spend a Sunday?
Going for walks with my dog (she’s a Chug–part chihuahua/part pug) and going to the movies with friends. Enjoying the city and the world. Nothing special, but always something fun. Relaxing and letting my mind relax. Having no obligations. Time to relax is such a rarity.
One thing people reading this would find surprising about you?
(See Guilty Pleasures below) Beyond that, I’m kind of a clothes hound. My motto is quantity over quality. I love shopping but rarely spend a lot of money. I think people who know me know this. This is one of the reasons I couldn’t have been a dental hygienist—I could never wear a uniform every day.
Creative hobbies or practices?
In my mind I’m a crafter and I have all these great ideas. But I’m not an executor, which is why I think I default to shopping.
On your home office walls?
A giant map of the United States. I would have a world map too but I don’t have enough room. It is so interesting to see where things are, where I’m going and where I’ve been. I just love to travel and think it’s fascinating. I’m pretty sure there’s a Chicken, Alaska and it’s amazing to think about who lives there.
I love TV because all day long I talk to people and people expect me be thoughtful and have smart answers. TV doesn’t need me to respond. My favorite show right now is AMC’s Walking Dead.
I also love shopping, especially vintage stores and the vintage clothing fairs.
Do you have a favorite photo of yourself that you are willing to share? Can you tell us about it.
The photo above was taken when I was four. We used to get our photos taken for our holiday cards and I would always blink every time they took the photos. And they would say ‘keep your eyes open.’ So I was holding my eyes open and (ironically) I didn’t like the photographer and was scared of him. So the only way I would have the photo taken is if I could have my finger puppets on my fingers. I remember the dress I was wearing. It was blue plaid and I think it had a petticoat. I would have worn it every day.
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