By Brooke Hodess
With a background in photography, being instinctually good in library research, and a natural aptitude in understanding how images communicate visually, Paula Gillen was well equipped for the demands of a photo editor and researcher. After receiving her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Gillen segued to New York and began as a photo researcher at Diversion magazine (“For Physicians at Leisure”). Within a couple of years she was freelancing at iconic publications like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, which lasted from the 80s to the aughts. In 2008, she headed to Boulder, Colorado, where she now juggles photo research, photo retouching, book design and her own commercial photography.
Visual Connections talked with Gillen via email about her various ventures and her continued self-expression as an artist.
VC: You’re a photo researcher as well as photo book designer, a photographer and an artist in your own right. How do you do it all?
PG: It’s been a juggling act between making money and making my own art, as one feeds and funds the other. For the twenty years I was living and working in NYC, I concentrated on my career as a photo editor and photo researcher, as it was all consuming. When I moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 2008 I had more time to retrain and learn InDesign and develop my skills as a book designer. I also continue to develop my skills as a photographer.
VC: Does working as a photo researcher influence your photography and vice versa? Has it made you more business savvy, for example, as an artist?
PG: Working in the photo industry has not made me more business savvy as an artist. I make art because I need to on an emotional level, but I don’t expect it to pay the bills. My art is not necessarily the type that one would hang over a couch. You can drive yourself crazy marketing 24-7, so I would rather market myself as a photo researcher and have less pressure on myself to sell my artwork.
VC: How has the stock photography industry changed since the 1980s?
PG: Stock photography used to be more of a niche mom and pop business with a few bigger players and many individual photographers who sold their own stock. When I worked in the ’80s and ’90s I would speak to the image researchers or photographers by phone and they would fill your order based on your specs. There was a personal connection between you and your contacts as there was no email, only the phone. I would sometimes go to the offices of Image Bank (now part of Getty Images), Sygma (now part of Corbis) Saba Agency (now Redux Pictures) and Archive Pictures (part of Getty) and look through film and prints in person. Previously, there was more idiosyncratic imagery out there. Now I use the Web to track down imagery, as well as Flickr, PhotoShelter and smaller stock agencies for more eclectic imagery.
VC: Any warnings or concerns regarding the direction of stock photography and/or photo research, specifically in the area of the Internet?
PG: With the ease of taking digital images and posting them to the Web, it’s a perfect storm that devalues the imagery, which is often stripped of its original copyright holder data.
VC: So are photographers and illustrators less protected now than they were 5, 10, 20 years ago?
PG: I think people are less protected from copyright infringement now than they were in the past. In the past you had an idea about how many people had access to your work. With the ease of making multiple digital copies it is harder to control copyright infringement. Also, isn’t it a compliment if someone likes your Facebook image and copies and shares it on their page? Staying on top of images is a Sisyphean task with statistics like ‘27,800 photos are uploaded to Instagram every minute’ and ‘200,000-plus images make their way to Facebook alone every minute’ (from an article by Stan Horaczek, Popular Photography online May 27, 2013). We now swim in a sea of images.
VC: What do you attribute that to?
PG: People like to take photos as it holds time, captures the world, makes note of our loved ones and takes life and transforms it into manageable pieces, maybe it’s the hunter-gather or collector gene in all of us. Photography is a democratic form and it has been since the Brownie camera.
VC: There is work that you do to pay the bills and work that is about self-expression. Are the two mutually exclusive?
PG: I have a business side (it’s about you) and an artistic side (it’s about me) and I try and keep the two separate. However, in today’s environment, all sides of your personality seem to be porous and merge so it can be very tricky to run a business and also have an art persona that is so wacky. That is why I have two websites one for my artwork and another for the photo editing/research and book design work. But I might need to rethink that and have three websites. One to represent my commercial photography (portraits, jewelry and copy work), one for my artwork, and one for the photo research/book design. I find my artistic ability to be creative has helped me solve challenges as a photo researcher. Being creative, curious and self-directed has helped me solve many problems that arise being self-employed.
VC: Given all the hats you wear, what do you like best about your life’s work? Any common thread?
PG: I rarely get bored. Everything for work and for myself is based on my love of photography and art—that is the common thread in my life. I wear many hats as living in a small city like Boulder it’s common to do more multiple freelance jobs to survive and luckily it’s an easy place to network. I have learned to drop and add skills as the market changes. It helps to be flexible and resilient, and know how to bounce back from mistakes. And especially in today’s work environment, it helps to have a strong willingness to learn new skills.