Interview with Tom Joyce
John interviews leading photographers about the future of stock photography and other important issues.
Tom Joyce Interview
John: Tom, when we first met it was a different world! I was dragging a book of 8x10 transparencies around. Does anyone still do that?
Tom: No. But I get a hell of a lot of photographers sending e-mail promotion.
John: Back then you were an art director with Visa. I believe you were running around the world doing TV ads. You’ve worked with a number of prestigious agencies. For a number of years now you have run your own agency. Can you tell us a little of your history, how you got into the business and how you came to have your own shop?
Tom: I went to art school in Philadelphia because I sucked at math and science. That’s rather ironic, considering how technologically oriented the visual arts are today. I graduated with a BFA from college and moved to San Francisco, worked a bunch of odd jobs—in and out of the arts—and finally ended up as a junior art director at Cunningham & Walsh, fortunate to get into advertising at the end of a “golden era” when guys like Fred Manley and Hal Riney were mentoring young creative people. Then, at Visa, I had the chance to work directly under Dee Hock, the petulant genius who created credit cards for banks. We had a full advertising agency within the organization and as associate creative director, I had the opportunity to do comprehensive broadcast and print campaigns, travel around the world shooting, and win very prestigious industry awards like the Clio, Andy, and Cannes Silver Lion. It was an incredible period, which came to an end shortly after Dee retired. The bankers who inherited his empire lacked creative vision, but leaving Visa pushed me into opening my own agency with Robert Johnson. We’ve been partners since 1985, in various incarnations, the latest being Creativewerks. I no longer refer to it as an “advertising agency” though, because our work has more to do with business-to-business corporate communications than consumer advertising. We no longer buy media for our clients, and we don’t do TV commercials anymore, or enter award shows, which have become very lucrative for the organizations that put them on but have little or no benefit—beyond ego-stroking—for creative people.
John: You have done both art direction and graphic design. Do they require different skill sets?
Tom: They dovetail, really. An art director is first and foremost a communicator. He or she requires not only a strong sense of visual design, but also the skill to communicate a vision to other artists and clients who often have their own agenda. A graphic designer is an information architect, if you like, interested in how visual elements join together, and how they are perceived or processed by a viewer.
John: My business of photography has undergone dramatic changes, and I imagine you feel the same way about advertising and design. What are some of the changes that you appreciate, and what do you feel are some of the changes that are a challenge for you?
Tom: When I started in this business, an art director needed to be able to sketch layouts and storyboards, work with photographers and illustrators to achieve a vision, negotiate costs with artists and producers, specify typography, prepare “mechanical art” for a printer, direct cinematographers and editors, and press check printing. While many of those skills are still germane, we now have to be able to create a finished ad, brochure, web page, etc. on a computer screen in order to sell the idea to a client. We have to be experts in photo-retouching, typesetting, layout design, and know a lot about on-line technology. We have become more and more dependent on our tools and more constrained by them in some ways. Conversely, with these new technologies, we’re able to visualize more quickly and elegantly than ever before. Using these tools has actually made me a much better graphic designer.
John: Online advertising, if you believe the hype, is fast replacing print and perhaps even television. Is print dying?
Tom: Certainly becoming more focused. Newspapers are dying because the once-lucrative classified ads have been annihilated by Craig’s List. Magazines are becoming more targeted to esoteric audiences. The most effective on-line advertising is the interest-based type invented by Google and Amazon. Pop-up windows and flash banners are just a lot of noise in most cases, but that is no different than most TV commercials or outdoor billboards.
John: What percentage of your work is now for the Internet?
Tom: I would estimate about 75%.
John: Is there any fundamental difference in designing for print and designing for the Internet?
Tom: Yes, the Internet has some design restrictions that are not inherent in print media, but those are being reduced as the technology improves. At some point, design will only be restricted by the shape of the device on which you view it.
John: How has your use of photography changed?
Tom: It is almost entirely royalty-free stock these days. Rarely do I have assignment work for photographers. Larger companies are accumulating their own stock photo libraries, which they now view as “marketing assets,” and expect all designers to use in order to maintain “brand cohesion.” To me, this is often a foolish consistency that only limits a designer’s creativity, and in the long run is not in the client’s best interests.
John: I assume you use more stock these days. How do you go about finding the stock you need? Do you use RM, RF, Micro or a combination of those models?
Tom: A combination, but mostly I use royalty-free images and buy only the resolution I need.
John: Do you always start with a certain agency, and then expand your search out from there?
Tom: Usually Veer or Getty.
John: Do you ever do Google searches for images? If you do, do you use ever use Google Image search?
Tom: I have used it, but mostly I work with the stock houses I like.
John: How much promotional material do you get from photographers these days? How much is print-based and how much Internet-based?
Tom: I get almost nothing directly from photographers anymore. Unless it’s something I see on your wall and want to sell to a client. Sometimes that works, but not often.
John: What would be the best way for a photographer to get your attention?
Tom: Occasionally, I get a promotional e-mails that gets me to a photographer’s website, but I still don’t hire them. They do get my attention though. You just can’t get around the fact that a client wants to see what they are getting before they buy it.
John: Do you have any predictions for the future of advertising and design?
Tom: Think Internet. Print won’t die, but it will become more high-end as trees diminish.
John: I also know you as a dedicated traveler. You have been to some amazing places and done some amazing things. Can you briefly describe some of your favorite journeys?
Tom: I spent about 12 years traveling to places associated with different spiritual traditions because I wanted to find out if “sacred” ground had some common denominator, or “morphic resonance,” as physicist Rupert Sheldrake would call it. Sometimes, I went to extraordinary length to see these places, like walking over the Himalaya to circle Kailash, Tibet’s most sacred mountain. I also became a Muslim in order to enter Mecca as a pilgrim and touch the Black Stone in the ancient Ka’bah. I saw the sun rise from the summit of Jabal Musa, Moses’ mountain in the Sinai, and I saw it set on Mount Athos from a medieval Greek Orthodox monastery. And in the process, I’ve developed a great respect for all of the world’s spiritual traditions. Beneath all the dogma, I think they are conveying an identical truth to different cultural groups.
John: You are also a photographer and have shot some compelling imagery in, among other places, Tibet. You recently had a showing of that work. Any more shows in the works?
Tom: I made in 1998 at Chuwar Gömpa in Tibet, a Kagyü-pa Buddhist monastery built in the 17th Century by the 10th Karmapa, below the cave where Milarepa died in a remote Himalayan valley, and one of the last monasteries to be desecrated by the Red Guard in Mao Zedong’s brutal Cultural Revolution. These images were first exhibited last year at the Thoreau Center for Sustainability in San Francisco after the protests over the Beijing Olympics put Tibet under lockdown again.
John: Any plans to expand your art beyond that of the fine art world?
Tom: I’ve been inspired by you to put my photo archives up on our website in the near future. More and more, I’ve been getting requests for book covers and editorial usage.
John: Are there any personal projects you’re working on now that you would like to share with us?
Tom: I don’t think she’d want to be mentioned in this interview.
John: Final thoughts?
Tom: Do whatever you do with great passion and make it as perfect as you can. Then let go of it and grab a beer.
John: Thanks Tom!