London-based photo agency Millennium Images has been pursuing its mission to bridge artistic endeavor with commercial success for over 20 years. They’re achieving that through a combination of passion, persistence, and gut instinct.
Bridging the gap
When Jason Shenai started Millennium Images in the 1990s, he set out to bridge art and commercial photography. Although those terms are more fluid now, at the time, there was a clear distinction between who was an art photographer and who was a commercial photographer, and how their work was used. “The two sides were somewhat suspicious of each other,” says Jason, Millennium’s director.
Millennium also aimed to work with young art photographers, and other art photographers who were finding money hard to come by in the usual ways, licensing their works into a more commercial arena. Naturally, that financial focus suited their photographers. But they were also pleased to see their work on something with some longevity, like a book cover, and happy to get exposure with an audience they never before could have.
Now, Millennium works with more than 1,000 photographers. They still seek out and foster emerging photographers. But now they’re also seeing more established photographers becoming contributors. Like reportage-portrait photographer Chris Moyse. “His pictures have a personal edge to them, so he’s a typical Millennium photographer,” cites Jason.
When deciding whether they want to pursue someone as a contributor, they’re looking for originality, technical excellence, and commitment and vision. They also want to see a certain stick-to-itiveness. “From a practical perspective, it’s better for us to have a contributor who will make a submission, and then make another submission, and then another,” says Jason. “We like our photographers to be serious about the long game, just as we are.”
What makes Millennium Millennium?
Bridging the artistic with the commercial can be an ephemeral pursuit — how does the team define a Millennium image? “We know it when we see it,” says Jason. When he and Niall O’Leary, Millennium’s art director, start assessing potential contributors, “that conversation is more like a series of grunts, ahhhhs, ummmms, and ooohs,” laughs Jason. They’re not looking to see which boxes can get ticked off. “Mostly it’s a gut feeling. Sometimes we don’t get it right, but after all this time, we get it right a good percentage of the time.”
Some images are obvious shoe-ins. For instance, they know that book covers often have a single figure. Or advertising prefers something with a strong, straightforward message that could be defined by one word: power, love, happiness. However, even the images in their advertising collection could have a number of layers to them. Jason believes that’s what distinguishes Millennium. “Our images tend to be complex, sometimes ambiguous. We’re also known for images that don’t necessarily present a positive outlook.”
Millennium doesn’t tell their photographers what to shoot. “That doesn’t really work for us,” says Jason. “It’s much more effective to say, ‘Look at our website, at the sort of pictures we have. Based on that, shoot what appeals to you.’” Once a photographer has been through that process a few times, they come to know the sorts of things the Millennium team will accept.
Millennium never takes on work simply because they know it will sell. “It must have a specialness for us,” says Jason. In fact, they’ll represent work they believe in, even though they know it will be a tough sell. Besides, “clients can lag behind in their recognition of what is usable, and it takes time for the work to turn over.” Sometimes it’s less about the commercial transaction and more about giving broader exposure to great photography and photographers.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
In the decades that Millennium Images has been operating, some things haven’t changed at all, while others have changed very dramatically. For one, photography is much more democratic. Photography used to be the prerogative of people who could afford the expensive equipment. Now, with very good gear available cheaply, “Everybody is a photographer, anybody can show their work. That is a huge difference,” says Jason. “It’s affected the way people buy and use pictures, which has impacted big time the way people treat photography in terms of copyright and the way photography is seen.”
What hasn’t changed is the way a truly professional person produces their work: It takes a lot of time, a huge commitment, and a strong vision. “Production of high-quality work has remained absolutely the prerogative of the few.”
What advice would Jason give to photographers just starting out? It begins with — as he once heard iconic photographer David Bailey suggest — “a good pair of shoes.” To succeed, a photographer needs stamina — you must have patience and persistence.
After that, good technical grounding and technique are important, “so you can feel confident that when you’re working, you can produce what you want to produce.” Yet it’s also important for a photographer to step outside the photography world, to explore current affairs, movies, music, reading books, painting. “It’s all intermingled,” says Jason. And of course creative flair comes in there somewhere …