A compelling series of coincidences led me to Amy Yvonne Yu. I was having lunch with photographer Maren Caruso when she mentioned a dinner party she was going to that evening at an art buyer’s house. The focus of the evening was a recipe-test of a balsamic strawberry cheesecake she was currently perfecting despite the fact that she was allergic to strawberries. Apparently she was also a popular DJ and the art buyer at Draftfcb San Francisco. Curious, I filed it away.
A few weeks later, a client asked me to call Draft to talk with Amy. I recalled my lunch with Maren and made a note to call Amy the following day. That night I attended an APA event and found myself talking with Cristina Rivera of Friend & Johnson and her friend Amy who had just left her full-time job as an art buyer to go freelance. At the moment I realized she was Amy from Draft, Maren walked in. I connected the dots and thought perhaps the coincidences were at the very least suggesting we should do an interview. My next thought was that it was my lucky day and I might somehow get to try that famous cheesecake.
I asked Amy if she would do an interview and she responded with an enthusiastic ‘yes’ and that we start with lunch at her place where she would make me both brandied-cherry brownies and peach crumble. This was starting off right. I did my research and read testimonial after testimonial claiming Amy was ‘the best’ art producer they had worked with. When we met, I wasn’t surprised. She was open, welcoming, whip smart, and in addition to the stream of highly entertaining stories clearly displayed a relentless pursuit of excellence. She approached the interview with this unwavering tenacity and devotion, giving the same 110% to this as she does to everything she is passionate about.
Beyond talking about her career and interests, she showed me. By baking amazing desserts while bouncing around between stories of Todd Selby and Albert Watson, her years as SF’s ‘Best DJ,’ and her philosophy for baking the perfect dessert. And allowed me to capture some nice shots of her while she worked. We had lunch at Great Eastern (where she hosts a monthly Dim Sum roundtable) followed by hours of conversation while she made both desserts, fed her cat ice cream and showed me her color-coded sock drawer as an example of her organizational talents.
Currently launching a career as a freelance art buyer and producer Amy worked at both ATTIK and Draftfcb with clients Adidas, EA Games, Levi’s Dockers, and Toyota Scion and with photographers including Albert Watson, Ben Watts, Jill Greenberg, Peggy Sirota, The Selby, and Vincent Dixon. Big thank you to Amy for being so fun to interview and for sharing so many great stories! Enjoy.
POP: Before we get started, let’s get the basics out of of the way.
POP: eMails or postcard mailers?
I enjoy getting both. But there is something special about getting things in the mail. Especially since it’s so rare nowadays.
POP: Conceptual promos?
I have never gotten a llama delivered to me yet. Unless someone had the wrong address.
Yes please, especially if there is nice paper inside.
POP: Subject lines?
Subject lines should be brief but let me know quickly what the promo is for mental and physical filing purposes. Some days I get over a hundred promos, you want to be quick with a read at first glance. You also want to be easily searchable amongst a few hundred emails if I filed you into a folder for later.
POP: Number of images?
Just a few to let the recipient know what your work is like and drive them to your site for more.
POP: Newsletter style promo?
I enjoy them as long as they are interesting and they don’t come too frequently.
I would say no more than once a month at most.
POP: Hiring local photographers vs. out of town?
I hire what is right for each job, and I do not have a preference. However, if both the agency and client are local, I will likely shoot locally unless there is an excellent reason why I cannot for a specific project. Besides, you don’t always have the luxury of budget and time for travel.
POP: Philosophy as art buyer and producer?
I’m known as a straight-shooter. A producer told me once, “you say what you do, and you do what you say.” People understand that when I call and say there is no money, there really is no money. I also know where we can and can’t cut so that quality suffers the least.
POP: What is your background and how did you get your start in photography?
I was a photojournalist back in 1997 for a Hong Kong publisher. I was shooting tech conferences in the Bay Area back then three times a month. I decided to venture out into shooting concerts soon after as a way of getting into them for free, as concerts did not fit into my college budget and I love live music. I had my uncle (who was a professional photographer) give me a 15-minute crash course on how to shoot with a film SLR and I went off to shoot Dance Hall Crashers and Third Eye Blind that night. That was my first time shooting a SLR ever. It was a Minolta, and I still have it. The images came out well, and the bands kept booking me ever since. So I have been shooting concerts professionally for close to fourteen years now. I also knew all the local bands and DJs and they would all ask me to shoot their promo packets, and I would have them play at my parties. It was a good trade off!
A friend of mine in college who had moved to New York to become an art director at a big magazine would tell me that he loved my work, that I am fantastic at capturing subjects and their movements. But he wanted to see me execute my own ideas. I was working at FatCat Digital for Kate Chase then and working along side Adam Moore, Michal Horevaj, Mark Holthusen, Erik Almås, and other very talented people at the time, and I decided to go and experiment with some ideas. I can do them, but I found that I don’t always have my story to tell visually all the time. But working at FatCat gave me a huge foundation on understanding very complicated shoots, retouching, and compositing. At heart, I am very much a photojournalist. You can tell from my blog.
POP: You studied conceptual art in college. How does this play a role in art buying and producing? Are you still making art?
I think being a conceptual thinker helps in life in general. To be able to de-clutter tasks and figure out the purpose of doing something will shape the foundation of all that goes around it. It is also important to be able to dissect something to its most simple form and understand what elements are vital to the final product. That is what producing is. It’s the same for art buying for me. I never just recommend artists that I want to work with in my career (although sometimes that coincides with the project at hand), I pride myself on recommending artists that are right for the project. People always ask me who are my favorite artists, and I always say, “It depends on what it’s for.”
I am still making art when I have a great idea or when I am asked to participate in a show. I have a few very grandiose ideas that are entire room-filled installations. I would like to show that in New York or London, as those are the markets I thrive best in due to the conceptual nature of my work.
POP: You’ve been a conceptual artist, best dj in San Francisco, and now Michelin-star chef approved baker. How do you do it all? What recipe are you working on now?
I have always tried to be 100% at everything I do, even at a very young age. OK has never been OK to me; mediocrity is never enough. I always want the best for everyone. I suppose I am an idealist. It’s not that hard—you just need to immerse yourself in everything you do.
Currently I have perfected the cheesecake (pumpkin spice and balsamic strawberry), cobblers (apple, bourbon spiced peach, balsamic strawberry), and Scharffen Berger brownies with brandied cherries. I started playing around with scones: American and British. I have perfected the American scone, but not yet the British. I think in general desserts are too sweet and too big. So I just use the best organic ingredients I can get my hands on and use other things to bring out its flavor and be light-handed on the sugar. My friend Nikki calls my cheesecakes the un-cheesecake cheesecakes, as mine are fluffy. I never liked cheesecakes as they are too dense, so I reinvented it. Except I get too many requests for them now! I only make them for special occasions now or if I am experimenting with a new flavor. My official tasters are my friends Chris, Tommy, Daryl and Staffan.
POP: You’ve recently gone freelance and have launched your own art production business. What are you providing? With so many freelance art producers, is there enough work? Do you work directly with the client, agency, photographer?
This was a very recent decision. When I left DraftFCB, a lot of people contacted me and told me that they would like to work with me. It is very flattering and I am eternally grateful. I am extremely flattered that people actually want to work with me from past dealings, and everyone has been extremely supportive and helpful. I am sure it will be slow going at first, but I genuinely believe that if you are great at what you do, people who appreciate that will take notice and want to work with you. Since leaving DraftFCB, I have been a project manager doing eCRM, produced three Selby films, edited a photographer’s portfolio, and been a freelance photo editor for Wired. The last week has been busy getting ready for the official launch and doing a few estimates for events and shoots. In fact, the site is now up!
I am marketing myself as an Art Buyer / Producer / Creative Consultant, because that is all that I do, and I like the variety. I have worked directly with clients, agencies, or photographers/directors, and am very comfortable doing all. I am not your typical Art Buyer or Producer, as I used to manage all the creatives and projects at ATTIK, and I was the Project Administrator at FatCat Digital (where I oversaw post production on a very technical level). Photographers have been interested in me editing their books as I have always been very frank when giving feedback, so those that appreciated my candor sought me out. It’s been a great variety so far and it suits me. I am also working on two very exciting collaborations with Maren Caruso and Eva Kolenko in the near future. Right now I am getting all caught up with my Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. I am having a bit of a withdrawal.
POP: You’ve been known to have fun/play the occasional trick on a shoot. Any favorite stories?
On a shoot for Dockers, I asked model Chris Folz to give me Blue Steel while we were waiting for his next shot. He said, “I only know Le Tigre.” So I took that picture. So I said, “I am going to send it to your agent.” He said, “Yeah. Send it to my agent!” So I started the email to his agent on my phone. Then I asked him for the head agent’s email at his agency and CCed him as well, to make it look very official.
Subject: What is this?
Message: What is the deal with this guy making the same face for every shot? What is this? Le Tigre?
As I was sending the email, I asked my friend Valery (the MUA/groomer on set) to start the timer on his phone so we could see how long it would take his agent to call either him or I. Needless to say, we were giddy as school children over our little prank. So it is now time for Chris’ shot on set. He hands me his phone in case it rings while he’s shooting. The second he is on set, my phone rings, and it’s his agent. So Valery quickly checks his phone to let me know that it’s been 5 minutes and 39 seconds. I work very hard at getting myself into serious mode.
Me: It took you a whole 5 minutes and 39 seconds to call me about this.
Agent: Amy honey, what is going on over there?!
I heard the panic in her voice. So I quickly said: It was a joke!
Agent: At first I thought it was a joke, but I don’t know you very well, so I had no idea…
Me: Precisely. That’s why we both thought it was the perfect prank.
Agent: You should have seen us at the board. Looking at his book. Arguing this whole time. “He never makes that face!”
Me: HAHAHAHA. That’s really funny.
Agent: I am never going to send you one of those serious guys. You may set his toes on fire or something.
So every time after that, if I am calling that agent about Chris Folz regarding anything, I refer to him as Le Tigre Face.
POP: And you really got Albert Watson addicted to Shakeitphoto?
On 3.26.2010 in New York on a shoot for Dow Chemicals, I got Albert Watson addicted to Shakeitphoto. This image was actually guided by the man himself as he told me to go over there with my phone to capture this. A week later I got a call at work.
AYY: Yes? (not a voice I recognized)
AW: It’s Albert.
AYY: Hi! (confused)
AW: Amy, I have called with a complaint.
AYY: (silent, the shoot went well, is it the retouching?)
AW: I am waking up in the middle of the night taking pictures of my faucet with my phone.
AW: I cannot stop taking pictures of my prints with this either.
AYY: (if he sells those in galleries, I ought to get a percentage…)
POP: What is most challenging on shoots?
For me, the most challenging shoots are always celebrity shoots. Sometimes it’s the celebrities themselves. Sometimes you get 2-15 minutes to shoot them (I have been timed for a 2-minute shoot before). Sometimes it’s the entourage. But right now I am producing a private dinner on Alcatraz. It has its challenges.
A great producer is one that runs a tight ship and is extremely calm when the storm comes. Panic trickles down, so I never hit the panic button. I would get calls at 4AM telling me that the models did not make the flight from New York due to a snow storm. I would say, “Just call me when they are on the next flight out and we will go from there.” It’s a choice – to freak out or not to freak out. Freaking out solves nothing. I guess it’s good that I am very grounded and rational and understand that a lot of things are out of my control. I try to control those things that I actually can control instead. Magic! You don’t get to see behind the curtain for my productions.
POP: Favorite prop from a shoot?
I just love the stand-in Morrises we had to make for the 9Lives shoots. We had two for the first shoot: one standing and one sitting. I even nicknamed them Murray (after the creative director Scott Murray) and Maurice. I have pictures of them in different scenarios on set.
POP: What did running a creative studio give you on top of your art buying and producing background?
I saw campaigns from briefing to end result across all mediums during my years at ATTIK. It was an invaluable experience. I know what needs to happen and who all needs to be involved and why. I don’t need people to tell me what to do; I can figure it out quickly and get it done. This goes back to the foundation I was speaking of earlier. It also helped that ATTIK is a great studio and I got to work with some of the best talents all around. We all pushed each other with our great tastes. Also, I had to deal with creatives, account personnel, and producers constantly, so that taught me how to deal with up to 50 people regularly, which is a lot like producing a photo shoot.
POP: You’ve worked on bigger projects that entail motion and still. What drives the client/agency decision to have the photographer shoot motion or director shoot stills in addition to motion? Where are we at with this?
As Cyndi Lauper said, “Money changes everything.” Why spend the extra money on shooting it properly for stills and motion when you can do both for less? Well for starters, capturing stills and capturing motion require completely different skill sets. The lighting and gear are also different. For stills, it’s all about the details and they are a lot less forgiving and it’s a lot more meticulous. It’s a lot more forgiving in motion, but motion demands other things too.
For best results in both, it is in my experience you treat it as two separate parts, so neither production could jeopardize the other in any way. However, not everyone has the luxury of time or budget to do that, so you see productions piggybacking off each other. It can be extremely stressful for both productions. There are some rare-breed photographer/director types that can do both extremely well. We’ve shot with Aaron Ruell at ATTIK for AOL Moviefone and he did both the videos and stills, and both were amazing. I work with The Selby and he’s a great photographer and director. Another one I’ve always admired and met but have not yet worked with is Barnaby Roper.
Edible Selby | Kirk Lombard | NY Times T Magazine
POP: I know it’s different for every agency and art buyer, but in general, how open are art producers/buyers to getting calls from and meeting with individual photographers?
For me, it was all timing. If it was a slow week, I tried to take all the meetings I could. If it was a busy week, you’d be lucky if I even picked up the phone. Also, it depends on the agency and the clients I have. At ATTK, we didn’t look at anything that wasn’t “edgy,” as that was the aesthetic. However, I am very unusual in that I looked at every single promo that came across my inbox or mailbox.
POP: When meeting with an art buyer, what are the do’s and dont’s for photographers?
Don’t show up and late and don’t have a crap book. Do be professional and be yourself so we can see who you are and what you are like.
POP: Advice to young photographers?
Find a strong voice in your work and have your body of work be consistent.
POP: When would you take a chance on a new photographer?
I take chances on up and coming photographers that I think are very talented and have a lot of potential. When the opportunity strikes, I present them to my creatives.
POP: Favorite blogs?
POP: Photographers with whom you have not yet worked but would love to?
POP: Does your cat really ice cream and crumbles?
Tiger eats only certain flavors of ice cream. He loves red bean, Bi Rite salted caramel, and Cherry Garcia. He’s a lot less interested in crumbles though. He’s got a very sophisticated palate. He likes spicy tuna rolls! I always ask for a box for my leftover sushi, and the waiters usually look at me like I am crazy, since I only have two pieces left. Then I say, “It’s for my cat.” And they think it’s sweet.
POP: How does one get on the invite list to your Great Eastern dim sum brunch?
You have to love dim sum and you have to be quick to RSVP when I send out the email invite. As I max it out at 12 people.
For more stories and to see Amy’s portfolio and menu of art buying and producing services, please visit her website.