From Photo Editor to Commercial Photographer: Geordie Wood

From Photo Editor to Commercial Photographer: Geordie Wood

Geordie Wood took the scenic route to success as a commercial photographer. The Boston-bred photographer studied photojournalism at Syracuse University’s heralded Newhouse School, but spent much of his 20s shooting editorial portraiture for publications like Vogue, Nylon, and The FADER, where he also served as the photo director for over three years.

But the vibe of his images soon caught the attention of commercial art directors and buyers, and Wood now finds himself splitting his time with clients like Adidas, Converse, Deutsche Bank and more. Wood and his wife, photo editor Meagan Ziegler-Haynes, recently had a baby, and I caught with him while on daddy duty.

How did your work as a photo director influence your photography?

It affected my photography in a number of ways that I am very grateful for. I thought that being a photo director was like going to grad school, and it had two big effects. One being in the creative bucket, and the other in the professional/production/minutiae bucket.

I got to sit on the other side of the desk and understand how magazines operate, how editors participate in putting stories together, and how editors also participate, for better or worse, in images, art, and final selection.

Now as a photographer I operate with an understanding of what happens behind the curtain and can better serve photo editors and photo directors with that knowledge of their goals and their constraints and what they do day-to-day.

On the other side of it, someone handed the reins to curate an object – a book almost – cover to cover every two months for 3 ½ years. I was able to work in photography on a really macro scale. Prior to being a photo director, I spent a lot of time as a portrait photographer. Those were single image assignments where you go in and try and get the best frame. [At The FADER] I had the opportunity to curate, to commission, to think about pictures in large groups as opposed to single images, which was really exciting and opened up my eyes to what the possibilities of photography are in that scale.

Other than that, I clearly got to hire some photographers that I loved, see how they work, saw their edits intimately, got to see how each person kind of interacted with their subject matter, and also got to chum around with some folks that I really wanted to meet and looked up to.

Riz Ahmed for WSJ. Photo by Geordie Wood.

Is there a difference in approach and end result between your editorial and commercial work?

I’d say yes and no. I’m lucky that I feel like most of the time whether it’s an editorial context or commercial context, I’m hired for a certain kind of style, an approach, a personal aesthetic, and kind of a visual voice that I’m able to lend to a project. I always try to cultivate a career and a work that would beget those kinds of commissions.

That being said, of course, in commercial context, there can be a lot more checkboxes to hit along the way. You know to make sure that if you’re shooting something for Adidas, you shoot the hem of the shirt or whatever kind of feature that they want. The way that I like to think about the work is that even though the scale of the work between commercial and editorial is really different, I hope that the result of both of those situations end up sitting next to each other and not feeling dramatically different. I really hope that production and all the thinking – talking about the hem of the shirt, the [production] vans and everything else – fades into the background and the picture can stand on its own merit.

So in that way, the goals are the same but certainly the avenue to get there is different, and involves a lot more conference calls and things like that [chuckles].

I didn’t want to be a hired gun to just fulfill the technical needs of someone else. I wanted the work to have a certain position and perspective and I hoped that eventually that would break through and I’d be able to do that and pay the bills too. And luckily that’s happened in the past two years, but it did take a while.

Michelle Williams. Photo by Geordie Wood.

“Authenticity” is a word that we hear quite often not only in photography but in branding and marketing. What does it mean to you?

I started doing photography because – to be frank – I grew up in a really whitebread suburb of Boston and felt really isolated, and felt like I wanted to get out in the world and have an excuse to approach people and meet people outside of my little bubble. And I know that’s probably a cliché, but that was something that was the core of why I started doing this.

The authenticity that I see in the work is kind of my personal approach to people that I work with. It gets a little sticky in these bigger commercial contexts where there is a lot of pomp and circumstance, and authenticity is maybe out the window when you’ve scouted a location and flown people in and everything else.

But I hope at the core of the work that there is some kind of authenticity in terms of connection and relationship to the people in the work. I think maybe that authenticity in a visual sense is referring to a more traditionalist approach to the work on some level. Because I’m not strapping on 18 strobes, I’ve always hoped that the work has an approach that is rooted in the kind of classical posture to photography in terms of how people are photographed.

Andrew Wiggins for Adidas. Photo by Geordie Wood.

You mentioned coming from a suburban enclave in Massachusetts which I assume is predominantly white, middle class/upper middle class. When I look at your photography it strikes me as being “urban” – such a loaded word – but you have diverse subjects in a city environment. It’s almost more of a reflection that of where you live – of New York. Are you cognizant about shooting not just white celebrities, and then being hired by brands wanting some “edge” to their campaigns?

Really good question, and a loaded one that could probably be a whole afternoon of discussion. I think there are probably two ways to come to that question. One is yes, I 100% acknowledge that I grew up in a white suburb of Boston, and did have a personal desire to go to the city to see things exciting because of interest in music, or art or culture. I absolutely saw the city on the horizon as a place to go and adventure, meet people and see things.

So I absolutely made an effort to try and get out in the world and connect with people and to broaden my understanding of the world. I moved to Nepal after college with the intent of walking around the Kathmandu Valley and did that for 3 or 4 months – made pictures and made a whole project that isn’t even out there. But it was always about a somewhat self-centered desire to enrich my life experience.

Converse. Photo by Geordie Wood.

On the other side of it, as you know, there is certainly a sexiness/appeal/voyeuristic position of advertising photography looking towards urban and non-white subjects to help brands sell their stuff. And often times they’re looking at influencers to help them push their widgets.

I don’t feel 100% resolved with where I sit on that. It’s complicated and in my approach in the commercial world, I hope that I pay respect to the subjects. I try to approach them with the same kind of open heart and relationship that I have with my own personal stuff. But it’s something that I wrestle with personally. You could also say that about a lot of my work at FADER too. For whatever reason, I ended up shooting a lot of young rappers when I was in my 20s, or other musicians who were kind of outside of my personal experience of growing up, or friend group. And there is certainly something complicated about the outsider culturally or racially or ethnically coming in to kind of make images to visualize those folks in media.

In the beginning [of my career] I was so obsessed with my work and my posture, and the way that I approached it. I’ve opened up over time to having subjects being more involved or aware of what I’m doing with the camera because I don’t want to portray or put too much of myself onto them.

What is the current mix between commercial and editorial and are you happy with that mix?

I really just started working in commercial photography in the last year or two. Nowadays if you were to look at the last 6 months or year, it’s been 50/50 or even a little more commercial than editorial in the past 4 or 5 months. It’s been exciting to work on the commercial stuff – again because I’ve been hired to be myself and they are throwing a lot more resources in terms of people and crew and ideas at the work that makes it better. So I’m excited by that possibility.

But certainly I’m cognizant of not going too far down that rabbit hole and editorial is really where my home is and my heart is. So for now, I’m happy with the balance. If I had to say anything about what I’d love to do, I would really love more longform editorial assignments. If I had to change or ask one thing from editors, I would love to see them see the work outside of the single image/portraiture position. Again, because I came from documentary photography and that world, I’d love to do more longform travel or narrative stories or personal narrative projects that go beyond showing up at someone’s apartment, making a situation work, taking a picture and getting out.

Urban Outfitters NYE. Photo by Geordie Wood.

What was the process of getting an agent like?

It was a lot of serendipity. I decided to leave FADER about 6 months before I actually left. And then in a mad dash because I was terrified about what that actually meant for my career and my family – I’d just gotten married – I was like, “OK, I need to meet with everyone on the planet.” In those 6 months, I made a book, I flew myself out to SF, I met with a bunch of magazines and companies, I went on meeting around NY, and I just started to throw myself out there because frankly I was anxious about what the future was going to hold.

Part of those meetings ended up being with two different agencies and that was not really something I was super focused on right away, but I ended up meeting with Tom Claxton at Webber Represents, whom I’m connected to through various friend relationships. A number of people on their roster, Daniel Shea and Tom Prior are very close friends of mind and that started with an initial meeting. Showing this book, telling him my life story and explaining where I was in my career. And then over the course of a couple coffees, and then a beer and then hanging out, almost like dating a little bit – Tom said, “Hey, I think this could work, do you want to make it happen?” I said yes, and I think they’re a wonderful place and could sing their praises forever.

Yours Truly | Wet. Photo by Geordie Wood.

What’s the value of having representation in this day and age? Is it critical for being a viable commercial photographer?

I’m not sure I have the best answer because I haven’t been around the block in the commercial world long enough. But I would say a couple of things. One is that personally, if you have someone good – like a really good agent and a good team behind you – they will help you make strategic choices about your career that you may be unable to make for yourself. For me, coming up in photography, being a part of the hustle, being so hungry, it breeds in you the necessity to say “yes” to things that and go out and work and make things happen.

One thing that the agency has done for me is slowed the pace down a little bit. In a personal way, they’ve kind of helped me understand opportunities that are good for me, that are not good, how to be proactive, and argue for yourself and what you want to do. Once you break through a little bit, [they] try and push the work – especially editorial – in a direction that you’re excited about.

On the commercial business side of things, I’m not sure I’ve completely experienced this yet, but I do acknowledge that agencies can certainly open up opportunities for you in certain commercial clients that you may not be able to open up as an individual. I say that from my experience as a photo director and working in organizations where you have bosses and executives and people that need to sign off. I certainly think there are big agency clients that like a certain safety net – a certain stamp of approval that an agent can give a photographer.

Neon Magazine. Photo by Geordie Wood.

Given that you’ve had A-level commercial and editorial success, what’s your marketing strategy?

I’ve thrown out most of the traditional marketing strategy. I grew up on the cusp of Internet generation. I bought my first digital camera when I was a freshmen in college. I started in film, went to digital, made some websites in high school. I’m not total drink the Kool-Aid millenial but I’m also not a total old school film photographer making postcards and putting my work in Le Book.

My marketing is pretty much focused on tools that I think I have available to me because of technology. Building a great website was really important to me and I spent a lot of time and funds to make something that feels unique and an experience for people.

Certainly now, Instagram has become a thing that I’ve made just totally about the work. I found a couple years ago, as many did, that most art buyers and creatives – all of us are there and why not put the work there in front of them instead of photos of my granola or whatever. So I made the choice to strategically just put the work there, and I think that’s paid dividends.

Ken Okiishi for Deutsche Bank. Photo by Geordie Wood.

You went to photo school. Is there curriculum you think they should be teaching that you didn’t have?

I went to a school where there were two different genres of photography – there was this genre that was documentary  and there was this genre that was to be hung on a wall in a gallery – and there was no middle ground.

A huge thing I would advocate for young people is to have a real understanding of both of those worlds as best as possible, and for schools to teach not only a technical understanding, but also create space for discussion about the work and what we’re taking pictures of and some of the questions around the work. One [question] that you bring up in my work around race and culture – those things are really important to at least try to have discussions about and I would advocate for kids and schools to try to make space for that conversation on both sides of the tracks.

I thought you were going to say they should take an accounting class.

I could probably say all that stuff too.

Younger photographers are taught assignments about really specific technique, or assignments about business, which are really great and helpful in specific instances, but sometimes they miss the bigger picture of what it is to choose a life doing this. You know you can figure out all that other stuff: the accounting. But developing relationships with peers that are in [the field], talking about the work, getting invested in it in a broader sense, that’s been the most rich and helpful thing for me.

Photo by Geordie Wood.

What are you shooting with? What, if anything, would you like to see from a technological perspective?

I’ve been working with a Pentax 645Z. That’s been a camera that I’ve been working for the past 2 years and have completely fell in love with. I mainly work on that camera with fixed lenses and a couple older pentax lenses that you can retrofit onto the new camera.

That being said, I do switch cameras a lot. I’ve used all the Phase systems for commercial projects, I’ve used Canon cameras a decent amount. I’m happy to switch things up to have the best tool for whatever situation I’m in. But for now, the Pentax 645 has been my home base.

The thing that I would more than anything technically from cameras is dynamic range. I’m obsessed with dynamic range.

I was a printer at certains times in my life paying the rent, so I have a decent understanding of Photoshop. I do my own retouching, I work on things myself on the computer, and if I could get more information from the camera in terms of exposure, I think that opens up so many possibilities for the work in the back end. Just as a tool, that would be great. And that’s part of the reason why I’ve gone to the Pentax 645 because it has tremendous dynamic range.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

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