Photo credit to Art Streiber
Barbara Griffin has a national reputation as a creative director, photo editor, and industry leader. Experienced in creating connections between artwork, stories, and brands, Barbara worked for Turner Broadcasting System for over 20 years transforming ideas into images. Now, she is spearheading her own photography consultation company, Barbara Griffin Productions, L.L.C., and is an acting member of the advisory council for ATL Photo Night and president emerita for Atlanta Celebrates Photography. Additionally, she recently joined the Space for Arts Advisory Board.
What are the defining experiences across your career?
Having my first magazine job was defining for me because then everything changed. I had a lot of photo agency experience, but this was where I learned to assign photographers and how to make the best possible connection between a photographer and a story. I learned to make this connection so that the story could be brought to life in a wonderful way.
I heard Gregory Heisler speak at ICP many years ago and he said something that changed the way I approached photography and interpreted projects. When looking at his work, he initially didn’t see consistency or a straight through-line. He ultimately realized that it wasn’t about his style or applying his style, but studying a scenario completely and finding the “appropriate response” to each portrait or shoot. I’ve always felt like this was an inspirational and pivotal concept that affected my career. Figure out the appropriate response. And that applies to finding the right photographer for each shoot, putting together the team of artists to bring an idea to life and every other aspect of production. It is not just about what I want to do, but what is right for the project. That became and has now always been a guiding principle for me.
What is your creative process for pulling together content?
I’m a very curious person first of all. So, I’m constantly looking at visual images whether it’s photography, painting, illustration, animation or live performance. I’m fascinated by how images or experiences are put together to create something new. So inspiration for me can come from anywhere. When approaching a project, I really try to look at each specific part and work on specific problems. What is the best way to tell that story? What are the important elements of the story? How do we represent the pivotal points with motion or expression? My goal is to tell the story in the best way possible, to make sure the resulting photographs are in sync with the script, the idea or the concept.
I like to create the space for photography to happen. Everything that goes into a shoot, all the planning and production, the location – all of those elements affect the end result. All of that is so carefully thought out. How do you make it a great experience? How do you create a place where everyone can bring their character forward? Creating a space for that to happen is a really important aspect of putting a shoot together that people don’t realize.
It’s magic. Magic that takes really hard work and a lot of thought. You have to leave room for surprises, to create a context that will allow something to happen. We often get too formulaic, needing something in exactly the right position or to adhere to super specific request. However, I have always felt the need to leave room for something extraordinary and surprising to happen.
For example, when preparing for a shoot with actress Holly Hunter, a colleague sent me a picture of literally a barbed wire fence on the beach, saying this is what I am seeing for the artwork. It was this pole with barbed wire around it. I completely got it. Her character was prickly and rebellious, she had to fight for herself and deal with a lot of tough experiences. It was the perfect symbolism for her character. I didn’t tell anybody at the network, just thought we’d take a chance and try to add this shot in. So, we hung barbed wire around a couple of C stands and that was the set.
I told Holly Hunter the thought behind it and asked if she would be willing to try to pose with it. She was on board with the idea and it actually became the key art. You never know where or when a reference is going to come to you. It could be barbed wire on a beach, it could be an idea on a napkin, something someone says, or maybe you wake up in the middle of the night because it just came to you. Being constantly creatively curious helps in that process.
What are you currently curious about?
This is hilarious. I go through major obsessions that turn into something. When NASCAR began airing on TNT I went crazy for 3 years, followed every race and actually shot on a few. I followed the bands Green Day and My Chemical Romance for years, which actually led me to Comic-Con. I ended up going back to TNT, showed them photos of the scene and gave a presentation of the extensive marketing and branding opportunities there, showing them we needed a bigger presence at Comic-Con. Within the next year, we had a much bigger presence. My passion brought something real to my job.
These passions hit me and I become wildly obsessed. Right now I am listening to KPop and watching Taiwanese, Chinese and Japanese dramas and films. I’m fascinated by the level of creativity, performance and innovation that is happening there. Many of the music videos are incredible, highly produced and visually stunning. As I am recovering from a foot injury, I have been watching these Chinese epic dramas. The storytelling, the production value, the acting, the wardrobe – are stunning! So that is my current obsession. I have no idea what it will lead to, if anything, but I am enjoying it. If anything, it gives me a visual reset and anything I get visually excited by is bound to spill over to my creative life in some way.
Why is the photo industry still relevant?
There is still a need to tell stories in a really specific way. Everyone can take a picture, even I can take something and I am not technical. To be able to go into a situation and tell a story is something else. Anybody can take a great picture on an iPhone, but to do it consistently is next level. To be able to deliver, time after time, to tell a nuanced story is still essential. To make something extraordinary is a craft that needs to be honed. There is a need for really amazing photographs.
Photography is the fastest growing art form. It has transcended itself in some ways; it is a language. I just worked on a project pulling images for an individual with Alzheimer’s to help stir their memory. Photographs can do that. There’s so much we can do with the power of imagery, we don’t even realize! Photography is still relevant in telling the human story and how we express ourselves. Those who didn’t have a voice now have opportunities to be heard through the accessibility of photography. I am passionate about it. When I transitioned from corporate work to freelance, I was feeling burnt out. I had to remember why I love photography and to return to my lifelong romance with photographs. Photography is our history, our nature, our stories. Getting back to that has been the greatest gift, and I think I am more in love with it than ever before.
What makes the Atlanta creative community special?
I’ve been in Atlanta since 1991 when I started my time at Turner Broadcasting. The creative community is on fire! It is really exciting, very cool. For example, there’s Atlanta Celebrates Photography, which is a month long festival every October. There’s all these cool workshops, exhibitions, photography galleries, photography projects during that month. There’s also the Atlanta Photojournalism Festival in November. APA is active here and hosts many events. There’s ATL Photo Night which hosts talks once a month featuring local photographers and anybody can come along. Everything is happening here! There are amazing photographers and events, and a lot of entertainment photography surrounding the huge Georgia film industry. It is a wildly exciting place to be.
What is it like being a woman in the industry?
The one time it really mattered to me was when I was promoted at Turner. By the time I left I was a Senior VP and I had never envisioned that happening to me. When it did, I realized how important it was to have a woman seated at the table and have my voice heard. It’s important to me to see women given opportunities. Women have almost always been more on the editorial side and I think it has taken a long time for that to change. Women are telling more stories. They’re more empowered to make great work. There’s still a long way to go and I have so much respect for those out there bringing more diversity to photography and pushing through the boundaries.
You are a member of the SfA Advisory Board. Why did you accept the position and what are your hopes for the board?
An honor! First, I know and have worked with the people involved including fellow Advisory Board members Marcel Saba and Carol Leflufy and also Allyson Torrisi. I knew that these were people who would make an experienced board that could really help and contribute to making Space for Arts work.
The first time they showed Space for Arts to me, it seemed so natural, like how did we not think of this before? This is amazing and will be so helpful. I am looking forward to seeing it spread and really reach out to other cities. I think that will be huge. Anything that makes a producer’s life easier and helps them find the right place for whatever project is a big win.
To have access to studios in any city is amazing. You don’t know what you don’t know, and maybe keep going to the same old place and you’ll miss the opportunity to find something fantastic and different because you wouldn’t have even known what was out there. Space for Arts changes that. It covers the affordable to the high end. They have studios outside of NYC and LA, a list which is growing, and that is tremendous. How many times do producers need to find a location for a shoot in the middle of the country? Space for Arts is a huge benefit to producers and photographers alike.
Studios are places with so many creative possibilities. There’s the power and the place to make something amazing. It’s like watching a performance, watching a studio mold to fit the shoot, and I love that feeling. Making the studio booking process easier to get to results faster is a great advantage.
A huge thank you to Barbara Griffin for taking the time to share her experiences with us!