Hi Deb. I am so excited that you had time to sit down with me. What’s your middle name?
Ilana. I L A N A. Do you want me to use it in a sentence?
How did you start DS REPS?
I started as a photographer. I went to Art Center. I loved documentary photography. Cross processing and fish eye lens stuff was big and I didn’t like it. But I still did fine and I got really cool documentary type style editorial work and I was doing well…In the end, I just didn’t want a job that had so much anxiety due to being freelance and an artist. I started repping at the same time and did both for a number of years and then I really started to dig on the rep side of things and stuck with that.
How many photographers did you start with and who were they?
Two of my first were David Roth and Katrina Dickson.
And do you still talk to Katrina?
I do. She’s a good friend. I love her.
Are you going to keep the UM’s in there?
No, well maybe a couple.. I know I sound like a 10 year old.
What do you feel is your role as an agent?
My role is to be a part of a team which includes myself and my office, and then photographers that we represent. My role as the rep has three different aspects: One, is who they are as an artist. The other is how they want that applied to the commercial world and lastly there is the level of just friend/mentor in there too.
How do you think you are different than other agencies?
I think I have a good eye for that right combination of art and commerce. I also think that I am just real and the photographers who I represent are real and that creates a nice family environment that we all work in.
I also think you are a different from other agents because you spend a lot of time going through the work of your photographers. I don’t think a lot of agents do the amount of editing that you do.
Yes, I love doing that! Especially if I love the work and that’s the thing, I really love who I rep. The only downside is when they are not giving me new images that they have shot because it is so important for photographers to turn out new work constantly; and if I show the same images for a photographer, after a while it just looks bad. When they are getting me new stuff all of the time, a really good energy and flow gets going and they get work.
Have you ever taken a chance on someone with very little commercial experience?
Hell yeah… A lot of people. My first was Katrina. I took her on when she was an assistant and she just fucking killed it.
What have been some of the reasons you turned someone down?
Either they did not have enough experience. I didn’t like their work. I couldn’t relate to their work. Or sometimes it is just a matter of some kind of personality clash.
DS REPS has remained somewhat small? Why don’t you want the agency to get too big?
I just don’t ever want it to feel out of control, like I don’t have time for each of the photographers and I just don’t want it to be too big of a machine. I want to be involved and not have a ton of overhead and reps under me. It would just feel discombobulated and so too many issues come in to play there. I really like being involved with everything that is happening.
Have you ever regretted signing someone and then felt stuck?
Yes. No further comment.
Have you ever had to end a relationship early and for what reason?
Yes. Well, it’s like when I take someone on I feel that they have a lot of potential and it has happened a few times where I didn’t feel their potential was being lived up to, that they weren’t shooting enough personally or turning in enough interesting imagery to keep things growing. And then there is a whole other side to it if they were difficult or if clients had a hard time with them and I felt like I could not stand behind them because I saw that they were indeed being difficult. It is such a complicated process. I mean there have only been a couple of times where it’s ended where you know it was frustrating on both sides. And then there are other times when I am just not getting them work and I have to let them go because I don’t want them spending money on the promotional stuff that we do or I feel worried that they can’t even pay their bills. It becomes too much of an emotional burden for me if I can’t get them work and I feel responsible for them financially. Like if I feel like I am doing all I can and it’s not working then its times to move on and try something else because I’m not able to do it for you.
Do you feel like there’s a big difference between male and female photographers? Because I still feel like it’s still a male dominated business in a way.
I actually don’t feel that way at all. I think that it is all about great photography – be it from a man or a woman.
Like I feel like the women who make it in this business are more masculine in like their toughness and intensity.
I would not say toughness at all but I know a lot of people who make it may be difficult on set but they are not masculine people. I do think that there is that age-old thing in business where a woman who is kind of intense is a bitch and a man who is intense just knows what he wants for his vision. But I do think nowadays that the people who do the best have both aspects: they have a strong vision and follow through and don’t just cater to everyone to just get something vanilla in the end - but they are still affable and good with people. It might still get intense but it always gets worked out in a way that feels good in the end. And that to me is the ideal photographer.
Am I the most high maintenance photographer on your roster?
No. You’re not. You used to be. You used to drive us bananas. : )
How often weekly do you actually speak with your photographers? Do some you talk to more than others?
That really depends. For example the ones who are giving me a lot of new work to go through and who are putting together galleries for projects, I am talking with them constantly. And obviously, I am talking to the photographers who are the busiest the most because new projects are coming in for them that need to be discussed.
What is an aspect of your job that you don’t enjoy?
The part that I don’t like is when photographers are stagnant (not shooting new work) and then to boot, their way of trying to get things going again is to ask us to set up a bunch of meetings for them. It puts me in an awkward position to set up meetings for someone who is going to show the same work that they have showed for the last year or more. On the other side, when they are shooting a lot of new stuff, the word gets out and people want to meet with them – they want to see the new work – and it isn’t a used car sales job to get them in for meetings. There really has to be a draw for the Art Buyer/Creative/Photo Editor and not just like… hey can I land this pile in your office?
Who is the most successful person on your roster right now? Who is the busiest?
Is it always one person? Or is that changing all the time?
I would not say that it changes dramatically. There seem to be a few different levels of photographers. There are the ones who are always working. There might be a little lag here or there but for the most part, they are always working. There’s the really great photographer whose schedule fluctuates – they have a really busy few months, and then maybe it’s slow for a month and then really busy etc. but then it’s slow again for even a few months but in the end of the year that photographer has still done really well. And then there is the photographer that is just doing ok – they are still getting clients because they are good people and are talented – but for varying reasons they are just not jumping to that next level.
And do you think it is a difference in skill? Or is just personality? Or how much they are putting into their work?
All 3. Having passion for photography and the art of it is a big part of that whole picture. If you really love it, like let’s put it this way: there are people who fucking love, or even live for photography. They may hate the business side, but that has to get done, because when you have that, you are going to do well. So then you eventually have to hire the studio manager and you have to hire the accountant and your rep is going to bug you until you have a fulltime bookkeeper as well. You know it’s that kind of thing. I would say the business side of our field is forced upon really good artists and they either have to be able to figure it out themselves or hire the right people to take care of that stuff. And they will continue to get work if their personality doesn’t get in their way.
How often do you think we should be doing our own promos?
At least once a year.
Are you upset that I haven’t done my promo yet this year?
No I am not, because I feel like you are pretty good about your promos. I feel like it’s best to wait until you have a good amount of new work to choose from for a promo rather than just try and turn out a new promo because of timing. I think it’s far more important to have a great gallery of new images and to feel like we have too many great images to choose from. When you feel like you are scrounging through a small number of new and worthy images – then you just aren’t there yet. But if you are not there within a year then you aren’t shooting enough shit. It’s such a formula.
Are you frustrated that my new site is not up? Because I am.
Yes but I also know how long it takes because I just did mine.
Do you think most people just go to your site anyways?
I have no idea? That is a good question.
Do you think photography is still a worthwhile career for new comers or is completely over-saturated?
I think there is always room for someone who is amazing. Always..
You have a son and a successful agency how do you balance?
I have a lot of stress dreams. A re-occurring stress dream.
Oh what is it???
I am somewhere that is not home. It usually is some sort of vacation type thing where I am away but I have to get home and I either like can’t get into my hotel room in order to pack my bag, and then when I do finally get someone to let me back in, because of the key or whatever, there are like 70 suitcases worth of stuff, and I only have one suitcase to pack and I have to figure out what I am going to take of everything and my plane is international and it’s leaving in 3 hours, and I am an hour away from the airport and I still haven’t started packing, and I can’t find my passport… it’s that. I have that dream many nights. Actually when my back was out and I was resting a bit I wasn’t having it anymore but right around the promo time I started having it again and I have it on a regular basis.
Do you get night sweats? I get night sweats when I am stressed.
No. It’s a different kind of stress. It’s a big picture stress. It’s not a stressing over something in particular it’s just a life stress. It’s just trying to get it all done and feeling like I can’t.
So do you feel like you are always almost failing at one like as Mom or as a professional?
No I never feel like I’m failing. I feel like I am kicking butt at most things, but it is at the expense of time with my son, years off of my life, and TMJ. And the things that do get left behind are things like my New Yorker subscription. Over the last year, I had only read one. And they just sat there piling up and I just kept looking at them longingly, and finally I just had to give them up. I was just like fuck it!
Ok even with all of that, do you just dream of giving it all up and moving to France? Or do you really love it?
I don’t ever want to give it up. I will tell you what I dream about. I want to be able to pay my house off and pay off any debt and have enough money in the bank to pay minimal bills. You know, just general stuff and food. I don’t care about living a high maintenance lifestyle. Just simple but still be able to go out for a nice dinner or go visit family and not worry about going broke. So being able to do that, and then do this simply because I love it.
What’s your favorite part of being an agent?
The personal relationship between myself and the artist that I really like, and that I get to help and watch grow and do well. That is really fun for me.
What was the most lucrative job you guys have ever had?
I take the 5th.
Why don’t you do editorial or syndication?
Editorial was a heart-breaker for me because I love it. I really do, and it’s my roots, but it got too expensive for me to handle to the point that I had 2 full-time people in the office whose job was almost solely editorial. And those 2 people were not then doing the things that I needed them to do for other sides of the business: blogging, website updating, getting books out and setting up meetings and travel. All of things that I needed them to do to help run the business, and I felt like no one was handling those things that I couldn’t keep up with because they were so swamped with dealing with editorial work. So yeah anyway, now those 2 people are dedicated to the things that I need them to be doing to keep the business growing, and the photographers deal with the editorial work themselves. Magazines want to deal with photographers directly anyway, and it is good for them to be more directly involved with the photo editor than a rep doing that part. I will say though that I am still involved, I am still doing the same things that I was before with the editing and I still am pushing you guys in that direction because editorial work is so important.
Do you think having kids can negatively hurt a career?
No, not at all. I just think that it’s really important that those photographers have a lot of support.
What did you want to be when you grow up?
I didn’t know, I knew that everyone expected me to be a doctor, because my parents were doctors. And I was like, yeah yeah, I want to be a doctor, but I never felt a draw to it. And then I went through the typical teenage “who the fuck am I”. Then I took a photography class during my pre-med undergrad studies, I discovered 60’s and 70’s documentary photography, and I was like “wait there are other people out there who question the normalcy of what’s considered normal”. And there was my path.
What was on your “To Do” list today, run me through your day today?
I don’t really do a to do list, I mean basically I just feel like I put out fires all day. Today was an odd day for me, but for the most part I feel like I put out fires. Then I edit…
A couple of specifics from today?
Well, today was an odd day because it was Miles’ last day of school and he is going on a trip with his dad and I won’t see him for nine days….
Are the fires usually with photographers or clients or both?
Well fires meaning like, this job just came in, and I’ve got to take down the information, make a job folder, and decide which of us is going to take on the job… answering emails…taking calls, putting together PDF’s for projects…
Where do you see DSREPS in five years and ten years?
I feel like we have really hit our stride, so I would love to be at the level creatively that we’re at right now with everyone just continuing to do better and better. You know? I mean there’s a certain point where you’re working too much and you don’t have a life and you’re miserable, so where everyone I have is working to his or her satisfaction.
Do you want to expand the NY office ever?
I feel like it would be good to have an office that was a little bit bigger that had two or three people in it. I think two should be fine so we have one person who’s always answering the phone and who’s just there, you know whatever, putting books together… all that. And then one who is out there selling.
What about, I know you want to curate and have a gallery?
That’s the other side, yes. I would love to have a gallery because I love art and I feel like I have a really good eye for interesting work. It’s all a matter of time and money.
I want to know more about the life/work balance. Like on a typical day, who makes Mile’s lunch?
He likes his school’s lunch.
Last year was the first year we started doing that because he wanted to try it. And he loved it, so I was like, you know, great. That was easy!
And how do you think that having your job and being around art and being exposed to art and photography and all these different photographers in and out of your life so much is affecting him? Do you think that he’s more creative because of it?
I think that, actually, I think that there are two sides to it – there’s a good influence in that I think that he’s growing up around some really interesting, smart, unique, successful people. And, he’ll hopefully think outside of the box having been influenced by that his whole life. The down side to being a busy woman is that I feel like I don’t spend enough time with him as just a mother. Taking him to the park, you know, just playing so, um, yeah. But on the other hand, Miles has so much energy, he’s such a boy, and I hired a manny to take care of him after school and until dinner. And that guy picks him up and runs for like three hours with him – basketball, baseball, swimming, jumping, guitar lessons, you know.., constant, doesn’t stop moving. And so, I work during the day, and Miles is happy to be able to run around, and you know as soon as my day is over we cook together, I read to him, take a shower – we have a whole routine. But that’s like at the end of the day when all the running has stopped. For both of us.
Does he have any interest in photography?
Yeah, but, I don’t know… I mean, it’s one of those things that like, we’ll see when he’s older what rubs off on him. He’s really into sports. He’s a guy’s guy, to no end. Which is great for him. But he also has a really artistic side is in his sense of humor and his personality and his.. he’s got a really adult brain and he’s funny and he’s, um, just interesting the way he thinks about things. And when you can get him to slow down for a minute and just have the armor come down, he is a really funny, interesting, incredible little creative being who just blows me away. So, we’ll see how that comes out.
How old is he?
He just turned eight and he just finished second grade.
As 5:00 or 5:30 hits, when it’s time to be a mom, do you turn your phones off?
I for the most part, turn off at night. I do… and on weekends, I have to. But if something comes in, then I deal with it. I feel there’s another side to it though, like, I deal with the creative side of it on the weekends and nights, and Jannelle will deal with the business side of it on weekends and nights.. I feel like we’re a really good balance like that. She’s totally, you know, my partner. She really is. She’s the best.
Okay, last question! Name three reasons why you like having me on your roster?
1. I think you’re incredibly talented.
2. I think you’re incredibly motivated. I can only give three reasons? …
Oh, you can keep going if you want!
Um, you’re talented, you’re motivated, and you, I can say this at your point in your life — you get it. Which is a big term – you get it. You didn’t always get it, you had like a “V-8” moment in the last couple of years and you just got it! [lots of laughter] It all came together for you.
Let’s say you were to describe Me to someone else, how would you describe me?
She’s the perfect combination of kinda- neurotic, and an amazing artist, but totally gets that she’s neurotic, and is able to laugh at herself about it and doesn’t take herself too seriously. Which just makes her sort of an adorable and quirky artist. Who is a shrewd business-woman as well.
Interview by Christa Renee.