“I grew up in a small town and National Geographic is how I traveled the world; through the eyes of adventuring, wandering, brave photographers.” – Johanna Jones
We often profile photographers and their work. We are also interested in the art producers behind the work. What is their background, how did they get into art production, what makes them tick? Here we spoke to Minneapolis based, freelance art producer Johanna Jones. Read on for what she had to say.
Not all art producers take the same path to their job. Where did yours start and how did you end up as an art producer?
I often joke that producing is like the toilet paper that got stuck to my shoe. But honestly, it was the generosity of some really amazing people. It was a winding path to the art production door opening for me. In high school, I was a camp counselor, and I took Jerry Fury’s family from Clarity Coverdale Fury (a local agency in Minneapolis) on a canoe trip. I was just a kid, but when we were sitting around the fire, he told me if I ever needed anything in advertising I could call him up. So I tucked that one away for later.
When I moved back to MN, I was volunteering on a local film festival and was able to wiggle my way into coffee with Michael Aaron, who was the head of Assembly Line at Fallon. He blew me off about six times but finally said if I was open to coming after-hours we could grab a bite in the restaurant at the bottom of the building. Three hours later, as I poured out all my hopes and dreams, he said, “I think you want to be an Art Buyer.”
So, there I was, ten years later from the great boundary waters trip. I called Jerry Fury, and we met for coffee. He brought me a Creativity magazine and a piece of paper with a list of about 12 names on it, all Art Buyers in town. I went on informational interviews but wanted to work for Shawn Smith, featured in Creativity. I called Michael Aaron, and he got me in with her. We met for 20 minutes, and she called me a few days later to hire me for my first freelance job with them. The rest is, well, the toilet paper.
We all grow up with influences that make us who we are today. Can you share one or two experiences that have influenced your art producer style?
My mom, being Irish Catholic and living in Southern MN, came from a family of 22 kids. My grandfather had a national geographic collection from the very first issue. It took up an entire bookcase in the living room. My mom felt it necessary to have a subscription also. I grew up in a small town, and this is how I traveled the world; through the eyes of adventuring, wandering, brave photographers. National Geographic is where I fell in love with humanity, through images.
When I describe my producing style, I talk about the sandbox. My job as a producer is to get all the people, and materials into the sandbox so the artists can get into the magic of their creating. My goal as a producer is to take care of all the known variables to protect that time and space and load it with just the right stuff for them.
Do you have a personal aesthetic that comes through in the photographers whose work you are drawn to?
I love work that inspires an emotional connection. Working and traveling with people you get to know them, they seem to all have a depth of character, ways in which they are particular about all things including image, a deep philosophical capacity, and fantastic taste. I love the creative process, so people that are good at what they do, it shows in the way they craft their work and the final image. Watching photographers make creative choices in lighting, or composition or directing talent down to the smallest detail is impressive. I learn from everyone with whom I work. My appreciation for other artists way of being and creating expands my compassion as a human being. It all influences the producing I do, the way I work with the next artist we hire, and my ability to listen.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job? What are you known for on your team?
My biggest personal challenge is life balance. It’s leaving home at home, and work at work. I am a single mom. I adore being a mom, and I try to put family first, but it’s tough.
In the earlier years, I was lucky to have the family at Fallon and to be able to bring my son into work. I ended up leaving Fallon in part because I had been working 110 hours a week, and my three-year-old stole my blackberry and hid it. I freaked out looking for it like my life depended on it, and he just stared at me in his diapers like I was a crazy idiot. That was a wakeup call for me.
I’m known for treating people like family, and I mom them. I have been called the Zen mom, and I do a lot of therapy sessions with people walking in the skyway, or sneaking away to a conference room. I’ve heard I have a calming presence and that I always see the positive. I don’t want to sugar coat it because it’s not all rainbows and unicorns and scented candles. I do get paid to boss people around and be the bad cop. So, it could be a survival technique more than anything.
How has our industry and your job changed since you started?
Two changes stand out: stock art and user-generated content.
I had a glimpse of how stock art was before my time; it came in a catalog by mail. Stock art continues to change; from when I started working in Art Buying until today, it has shifted dramatically. There used to be a lot of different sites that had their creative voice, their specific artists. One of my favorites was VII in France that did editorial stuff, documenting dark and real things happening in the world. Now so much of stock is “an image that could work for anything.” It might be useful, but it has no soul, and it’s just not interesting. It’s a homogenized market, and I see the creatives struggle to find stuff that does the trick and isn’t just background noise.
User-generated content has given the everyday person a mass media channel that has changed the landscape creatively. Clients want to source user-generated content so they can be relatable. Millennials are all over user-generated content, and they could care less about the craft; it’s chit chat, not epic poetry. Today, there is no adult supervision, no approvals process, no editing, and no network trafficking to vet what makes it; everyone is welcome. The rules of the user-generated space are so, so different than real life rules, or the norms of traditional advertising channels. People are going to react in unpredictable and ridiculous ways, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If something does stick, or go viral, there is no way to recreate it. People want less pretend images and video; they want something real and relatable or even something magical that feels real, where they can see themselves and connect with it. It’s forcing clients to look at themselves as brands in entirely new ways and ask a lot harder questions about their marketing communications. The internet is humbling and humanizing a lot of brands. And creative is the wild wild west.
What is your favorite thing to do on a Sunday?
Sleep in. Listen to something like Gets/Gilberto and make pancakes (banana chocolate chip, pumpkin, or lemon ricotta), and sit in my garden or take a walk. I’ll even paint in the woods.