Susie Babchick: Maverick Talent And Creative Management

The Notebook | 20th November 2019

The head of photography at Ridley Scott Associates announces a partnership with Mortimer House and discusses a career spent in the company of visionary talent

Susie Babchick is the head of photography at Ridley Scott Associates, an organisation that will be hosting a number of talks in the Living Room & Den next year. She has long been a force to be reckoned with in the world of contemporary image making, producing game-changing shoots for the likes of Vogue, The New York Times, Elle, The Telegraph and i-D, as well as advertising for the likes of Gap, Burberry, and Vivienne Westwood. Like many maverick talents, her journey into the realm of visual image began with a leap of faith. Having gained a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from the School Of Communications at The University Of Texas, she found herself on a study-abroad program in London in 1991, where she would meet a young Jefferson Hack, and become part of the founding team of Dazed & Confused. Falling in love with visual image, she cut her teeth on the iconic independent publication, before moving on to a publicity role for the about-to-go-stratospheric band Oasis, where she would first work with the world-renowned photographer Corinne Day. From 1999, Susie became the sole agent for Corinne, overseeing all of her projects until her untimely passing in 2010. In 2013, Susie joined Ridley Scott Associates to shape a new division within the existing moving-image production company founded by its legendary namesake. Here, she talks to Maslow’s Notebook about the art of creative management and tells us why visual literacy takes time.

What first sparked your interest in art and the visual image?
My relationship with art started in my teens as my mother is an artist. I can distinctly remember the fist show that finally spoke to me and made me realise how much meaning and depth art can have. It was Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’, which was showing at an exhibition space at University Of Houston. I was astonished. Later, at University of Texas in Austin, I was studying journalism and writing for the university’s daily newspaper. I met so many people, but I realised that I was just reporting on each scenario and then moving on, and wasn’t part of making things happen. I could see then that being part of cultural development would be more interesting to me. The journalism degree entailed taking photography classes, which I really enjoyed. I started with black-and-white photography and printing and then moved on to documentary and colour photography.

When did your journey into the industry first begin?
When I graduated from university I moved to London with a British university exchange program. I eventually wound up living in a housing association flat in Clerkenwell which had been a legendary squat–Gray's Inn Buildings–with my British boyfriend, Mark Vincent. At that time, David Sims and stylist Melanie Ward would photograph Mark for The Face and i-D magazine. I became very aware of British style magazines and the influence they have on youth culture in this country. I hadn’t seen anything like that in the US. Soon afterwards, I met Jefferson Hack, and I worked with him when Dazed was in its infancy. In 1993, I went on to work with the music management company that looked after Oasis. I learned a lot about management from Marcus Russell, who still manages Noel Gallagher today. At that time, I met Corinne Day as she was friends with the bands that we were working with, and I would commission her to photograph single and album covers. I went on all of these shoots with her and I think she liked the way we worked together. It never seemed like work. In 1998, when I was working at The ICA, Corinne asked me if I would like to become her agent and producer.

What was it like to work so closely with Corinne Day?
I knew that she could be very difficult–she had a stubborn nature, and usually held on hard when she wanted things to go a certain way. Even so, I thought that it would be interesting to give the opportunity a try, so I gave up my job at the ICA and got a desk in a small office in Soho near Brewer Street, where her legendary flat was. Corinne taught me a lot about photography production, and also about copyright laws and licensing of images. In the ten years that we were in business together, I learned so very much about her vision and about the map of credible characters in the international fashion community. Her point of view in photography was different from anything I had understood before. She had a subtle way of expression and, at the same time, really relished boldly breaking many of the rules of composition.

How would you say Corinne Day changed fashion photography?
Corinne brought her new vision to the fore in the early 90s as a rebellion against the very bold, glossy and glamorous fashion photography of the 1980s. It was full-on rebellion for her as she was a model in the late-80s and, as beautiful as she was, she was petite at 5’7” and really thin. She was unlike the supermodels of that era, who had more curves, and Amazonian long legs. I remember asking her about the very skinny aesthetic in her casting–especially in relation to Kate Moss. I am a feminist and was concerned about the psychological well being of young women who were emulating this body shape because they loved Kate’s super-stardom. Corinne explained then that she was representing and championing her own natural body shape when she decided to photograph Kate Moss continuously during both of their early careers. The main thing I learned from Corinne was to look for soul, to look for originality and also for humour. It takes time to become visually literate.

How did setting up the photgraphic divsion at Ridley Scott Associates come together?
I joined Ridley Scott Associates just over six years ago. The company has directors who are also accomplished photographers, and it makes sense to be able to offer to handle a photography campaign alongside a moving image campaign wherever possible. My mission is to develop the photographic careers of the artists on my roster. As mentioned, some of my artists are directors already, and I am promoting their photography alongside their moving image work, and some have come to the division as photographers and are moving into directing. What I love about the role is discovering and nurturing new talent–breaking new ground for existing talent and helping artists fulfil their creative ability and make a living using their strongest skills.

What is an essential skill in managing creative talent?
Empathy has got to be the biggest skill necessary for managing talent. Artists put so much on the line–their vision, their ability, their way of earning a living–and a manager needs to understand that they can feel vulnerable underneath it all. I always try to stay reassuring no matter what, and I also try to make working together fun and not like work. I'm looking forward to co-hosting talks in Mortimer House’s Living Room & Den on these kinds of subjects. It will be a chance to share and explore image-making and and empowerment in creativity.

Find out more about Ridley Scott Associates at www.rsaphotographic.com