Kate Chase, Kate Chase Presents

Wednesday, December 02 by Juliette Wolf-Robin, ADBASE

Posted in: Industry Interviews

Juliette Wolf-Robin meets Kate Chase, the San Francisco-based founder of Kate Chase Presents, a unique group that represents artisanal photo retouchers. Her website, www.katechase.com, publishes Artisan magazine, which focuses on interesting elements from the work of these craftspersons. Listen in as Kate describes the benefits and the pitfalls of the photographer-retoucher relationship.

  • What photographers need to know about buying retouching services
  • The importance of building long-term relationships with several retouchers
  • How to realistically estimate the cost of retouch work
  • Why DIY photographers should bring in an experienced retoucher
  • The difference between a CGI artist and a retoucher

Interview Transcript

This is an edited transcript of Juliette Wolf-Robin's interview with Kate Chase, principal of Kate Chase Presents, San Francisco

Juliette Wolf-Robin:

Tell us a little bit about Kate Chase Presents and how does the rep firm function.

Kate Chase:

It was founded about almost four years ago [with a] mission statement to agent for retouchers, [and to] educate and advocate for independent artisans as business resources. So, Kate Chase Presents serves similar to a photographer's agent where I help estimate, take on sales and marketing and otherwise consult with a variety of clientele on postproduction projects.

Juliette:

And who are your clients? Is it the agency or the photographer?

Kate:

We have both, actually. ... the "old world" used to be mostly agency-direct. But the new paradigm is certainly photographer-brokered retouching. So, I would say we have about 70 percent photographer-based clientele and about 30 percent agency-direct.

Juliette:

And usually is one retoucher attached to a photographer? Does the photographer always work with the same retoucher?

Kate:

That is a kind of complicated question to answer. I believe that, certainly, it's best for a photographer to have a long-term relationship with not only one but maybe several retouchers, depending on a look and feel that a client may be asking for, similar to a film director having editors that do different things for different projects.

Juliette:

Do you think that a retoucher has their own look that they're bringing to it? Or is it the photographer directing a variety of retouchers to their look?

Kate:

I think the answer to that is it can be both. Certainly the best relationships that I see are the ones where there's an understood shorthand. Where the photographer will be able to... in a little bit of time... sort of like a dating relationship, be able to intone what they want on an image. But I also think the retouchers that I know sort of fall under the master chef category... are the ones that can also take an image and bring something to it that may be a surprise for a photographer... but that may just be a homerun.

Juliette:

Is the direction given to the retoucher from the photographer or from the agency or a client?

Kate:

Oh, it's a little bit of both. It's a stew, for sure. So, it usually starts out... I think that most agencies have become very addicted to the photographer doing the first pass on what the image should look like. He and the retoucher work behind the scenes, and then they present that image to the agency, to the art director. And then the art director starts to weigh-in on some detail work - what needs to be done to make the image client ready.

Juliette:

How many revisions are usually acceptable to go back and say, "Okay, the agency wants this now"; "The client wants this now"? How many times, in the initial bidding, should the photographer assume that that's going to happen as they're putting this together with you?

Kate:

Oh, Juliette, lots of complicated questions here. I think that's the tip of the iceberg. And, for certain, estimating processes is a guessing game. You're really into a pre-estimate based on a variety of criteria. How many elements the photographer's going to give the retoucher. "Guesstimating" how much time the art director is going to need and on what level, on a scale of 1 to 10, what is their anal-retentive, obsessive quality. If they're a 2, you could be done in 2 or 3 rounds. If they're a 10 and really indecisive, you could be there for a lot longer than anybody has expected. So, I think that most jobs are really, on average, they probably fall into a 6 [out of 10].

There is an old myth of rounds... how many rounds? And I think... it's a way to sort of put a stake in the ground. But, is a round simple color work? Is a round being asked to extend out a background 16 inches for a bus side? So, I try to give... like a bank account, is how I look at it. I'll give as many hours as the estimate can possibly stand, and you withdraw from it. So, whether it's 1 round or 10 rounds; if you have 20 hours of art direction, you have 20 hours of art direction.

Juliette:

And I heard from an art buyer recently where the budget for the retouching was higher than the work that was done for the photography. Are you seeing that more and more? Or do you think that's an anomaly?

Kate:

I don't know. I'm not privy to too many photographer-related fee charges, so I don't really know what that would mean. I think that retouching can creep up pretty quickly if you have a low-budget job but [with] a lot of elements after the fact.

So, a hair-care ad could be one shot of a model with five or six exposures for highlights and lowlights on the hair. And it can take a retoucher 40 hours to put all that together. So, if you're charging an hourly hour rate of $200 to $300 an hour, then sure, that can be more than what the photographer was paid.

Juliette:

And what are some of the most common issues that come up in the relationship between photographer, retoucher and client?

Kate:

The most common is a lack of... I think "understanding" might be a little bit too strong a word; but a lack of awareness of what each person's role is in this relationship. Because photographers are, I would say probably only a few years into buying retouching services.

They haven't had enough experiences to understand how the agency model is so complicated and how an art director can tip the retouching estimate into a really uncomfortable place. And if [the photographer] is the one who is brokering it, there's a lot of, sometimes, "hope" that a retoucher will just finish the job at the budget that was estimated. And please don't make waves for my client.

Juliette:

Just do it... for me.. Just this once...

Kate:

Yeah, right, absolutely. So, there's a complicated quagmire. Did I use that word already? But you also have the fact that photographers are becoming educated. When they do stay attached to the project and they weigh-in on the retouching, they're seeing how complicated it is. And so they're starting to embrace art direction being added as a separate category that could have a lot more hours than what makes them feel comfortable. And I think that's a nice thing to witness and be part of; that falls under the education part of the mission statement.

Juliette:

It seems like there are a lot of photographers who were established as traditional photographers, who then were able to create a completely new look by working with retouchers and redo their portfolios and introduce a new quality to their work. Do you think the next generation of photographers [who are] coming out of school, because they're more familiar with computers... that they are less interested in collaborating? That they want to control every aspect of it? Or do you think that there's still a different level that you get from the collaboration?

Kate:

I really don't think I'm being biased when I say it's sort of back to that old belief of, do you become a master of one or are you a multi-trade kind of person? And can you do both things really well? I see a lot of up-and-coming photographers with really underwhelming, underdeveloped Photoshop skills. I don't think there's a level of expertise there that can ever be learned, as what I see with somebody who's a full-time retoucher; who's a really good full-time retoucher. I mean, I can say with certainty that there's a lot of bad retouching out in the world. And so seeing and knowing the difference... I don't know if that's a good thing or bad thing sometimes for me.

But definitely, I do think that the next generation is capable of doing their portfolio work, but ... I'm not a fan of watching photographers spend hours and hours on a commercial job, doing the retouching and how giving away their own time without charging for it, to make a client happy, is a very good model for the industry in general. So, even though you have this hope that photographers will support one another by keeping fees and expenses consistent; that when it comes to retouching if you can do it yourself and you give it away...

I see photographers all the time who tell me, "Oh, my God I was up 'til 4:00, two weeks in a row doing retouching on my images and it was crazy."

Juliette:

Right. Does that really make sense?

Kate:

So, yes, you may be getting paid for the job but then you're giving away your retouching because you're hesitant to charge the client. It doesn't really seem like that's a professional quality that you would want to maintain for a very long period of time.

So, I think it's about developing relationships early with retouchers and knowing how to sell them into your process along the way, and also knowing how to support them. Support the retouchers so that they're not taking the bath financially that you would...

Juliette:

And how do you see the role of a CGI artist versus a retoucher?

Kate:

How do I see that... I think that they're very different. I think they have different mindsets. CGI is about formulas and retouching is about a craft that's been around for hundreds of years. So, how I see CGI playing out - even in some of the bigger shops - is that, that [they] used to do peer traditional retouching even with a computer... They're now focused heavily on finding people who understand software programs. So, it's changing what imagery looks like. And some of it is very immaturely done because you have people who are really interested in software. So, I think it takes an incredible amount of apprenticing for a CGI artist to become a really photographic CGI artist. I think you really have to start with some basic skills that come from an artist background.

Juliette:

Is everybody in your group a retoucher or are some of them considered both?

Kate:

The people that I associate with, and agent for... I have one CGI artist and the rest are traditional artists. So, they are really pure retouchers. And [with] the one CGI artist... it took me a long time to really understand the process. But the fact that he's an artist, he comes at it, I'm guessing from a really different place. It's not about software for him. It's about the finished product of being iconic. He comes from a design and typographer background.

Juliette:

It seems like your agency was the first to really take on the role of representing these artistic retouchers that were at a really different level... and not just about cleaning up an image for a beauty shot, but actually evolving and collaborating with the photographer. And we're starting to see, I think, more of that. Have you noticed that more reps seem to be taking on people like that or taking on CGI people?

Kate:

Yeah. I think in this "new normal" economy, people are looking for problem-solving additions to their roster. So it's really anything income-generating. Yeah, I think that there are a lot of CGI artists out there in the pond, definitely ready to be bought and sold by a photographers' agent.

Juliette:

And what would an agent look for in taking somebody like that on? How can you tell the quality difference? For instance, if you're looking at a retoucher, how do you know how much [of the work] was done by the photographer and how much was done by the retoucher? Do they show you the layers they created? How would they show you their work?

Kate:

Definitely, they show you the before and afters. I also think the finished product is sometimes, on an esthetic level, enough to be able to turn somebody's head.... I mean, my retouchers don't look at another retoucher's finished work and say, "Oh, wow! He's amazing!" They would want the layered file; to see how it was built, named, masking, definitely blacks. Everything you look for in a quality, sort of "old dark room technician," is what they would look for in that.

I think it's a little bit of a land grab taking a CGI artist on to a photographers' roster. But like I said, I think it's about a new economy and definitely looking for ways to add income.

Juliette:

When dealing with estimates, how do you deal with the photographer... really making sure that they've considered all the elements that are involved? What happens if they haven't thought of everything and they come back to you and they need more?

Kate:

Certainly, when we get a request for an estimate, there is a lot of consultation that goes into it. And we sort of try to protect the client from themselves, especially if it's a photographer and they are new to the retouching world. So, a lot of times, I'll get in a layout and it will be a single page vertical and I'll ask if it's going to be a billboard or different proportions and aspect ratios.

Juliette:

That's going to cost more on the retouching, and the photographer may not have thought about that as far as a retouching cost. They might have [costed the job]... and how much they are charging for other usages, but not that it's going to cost more on the retouching.

Kate:

Yes. So, it's about learning how to definitely read your usage and think about that when it goes down the line for retouching. If you are giving usage for outdoor and you'll have a comp, that's a vertical, 8½ by 11, [and] an outdoor board is 14 by 48... you, as the photographer, may need to capture extra elements: left, right, top, bottom. Everything could change... how you shoot.

Juliette:

So, the photographer has to supply that as well [to the retoucher]?

Kate:

Definitely.

Juliette:

And are there times when they haven't supplied what the retoucher needs, and the retoucher has to build it?

Kate:

Yes. And that's...

Juliette:

...more expensive.

Kate:

Yeah, and I think that as photographers are becoming more educated as to [not] being surprised on the back end, whereas retouchers are sort of ... they're comfortable with being surprised... not that it's a great thing. [Photographers are] definitely learning how to manage an estimate better.

Our group has a project manager on board who works with the artist. And she definitely works very closely with the photographers so that they're in the loop on managing the estimate. It's complicated, a little bit of a slippery slope. If you give an estimate for a 10-part composite, and 15 elements come in, who's responsible for putting those additional elements together? Is the photographer going to pay the retoucher for the extra work? Because the agency doesn't open their wallet to say, "Oh, retoucher person, you have 15 elements. Here, let me cover that for you."

Juliette:

Right.

Kate:

So, there's a little bit of an accountability issue that's still grey and can be a little bit conflicting when the photographer's not managing that estimate, on-set. And because... photo producers don't really get involved with the retouching estimate. It comes to the photographer and they're not on the lookout for, "Okay, you're on your tenth element... I'm going to have to make a call to get this approved..." So that part is still evolving.

Juliette:

The estimate from the retoucher - that does explicitly say what size, how many elements? So, it's just a question of who's looking at that... because for you to go back afterwards and say you've gone over budget... nobody's happy about this... right?

Kate:

Yes. And there are some really wonderful photographer clients that we work with who absolutely take responsibility for that. Yeah, and so the bar has been set; they'll either pay you, the retoucher, from their own pocket. Or they'll have the producer find other areas that have come in under [budget] to definitely cover surprises and the retouching that happened on their watch. Like I said, the bar has been set by a few really conscientious business/MBA-type photographers.

Juliette:

Excellent. Thank you.

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