Michael Norseng- Director of Photography, Esquire

Michael NorsengI consider Esquire to be one of the great publishers of editorial photography in the history of magazine making. Like any publication there are ups and downs but their standards remain very high and Michael does a tremendous job filling those very big shoes.

He originally moved to New York from Wisconsin to work in post production and editing for film but got sidetracked playing street-ball in Brooklyn (hey, goofing off does lead to great things), then started freelancing and landed a month long gig at GQ that ended up lasting 4 years. After taking some time off from GQ, Nancy Jo Iacoi called to see if he’d like a position at Esquire and 3 years later she left to become the director of Orchard (Getty Assignment). Michael interviewed with the Creative Director and Editor and was awarded the DOP position.

Esquire is among a handful of magazines that influences the editorial agenda for national magazine photography. The people you hire and the stories you publish have a far reaching impact. Are you aware of this and if so, how do you reinforce it?

I am aware of it to a certain extent and I’’d be lying if I didn’t say it was somewhat motivating to know that people are watching, but if it does anything, it pushes me to be smarter about who and how we assign photography. The magazine is held in such high regard, that I think initially when photographers get the call, most know they have to elevate their game. We collaborate, work with them, and still often have to push to go a little bit beyond.

Do you have a specific plan for how you use photography in Esquire? Win awards, entertain your readers, avoid the wrath of Granger?

The goal is to be progressive, cultivate and use emerging talent, just not for every story and every issue. We really try to pace the commissions and be conscious of established and proven artists that still contribute great work.

Because we’re a general interest magazine, Associate Photo Editor Alison Unterreiner and I need to be on top of photographers and work across a lot of different categories like– portrait, still life, photojournalism, art, fashion, etc. We try not stick to the same photographers over and over, because if you do the aesthetic becomes too homogeneous and stagnant. The goal is to give the reader a visual trail mix, offer a new experience or collection each month. Luckily the stories in Esquire dictate a lot of this variety.

Awards are nice but just a side result. All photo editors secretly hope that an assignment, commissioned at any size, will be award worthy.

It seems like the window to produce photography for a monthly magazine continues to shrink because editors want the stories they assign to be more topical. How do you make sure you’re getting talented photographers who are always busy into the book without the long lead times?

If the initial photographer, that I know in my mind is right is unavailable, I’’ll go to the next person on my list. If that person is unavailable, I’’ll go to the next but if it doesn’t happen after that third person, I often step back and think about other ways to visually represent the story photographically or dig deeper, then I’ll have a discussion with David Curcurito (and of course Granger), about altering the photographic approach or going with a new name.

I’ll admit that I poached a good handful of photographers from Esquire over the years do you use any magazines to find photographers?

No, not really, I’’ll go to Universal News maybe once a month and flip through titles and if someone’’s work happens to strike me, I’’ll catalog it to look it up later. But, I wouldn’’t really say I poach. I do enjoy looking at New York magazine though, I think Jody and her crew do a great job.

What are your methods for finding new photographers to hire? How do you prefer to be reached by people?

Alison and I have started to do occasional lunches where we will sit and show each other work and websites of people catching our eye. We’ll discuss their work and make lists of people who we agree on, who maybe will fit at some point in the magazine.

The other ways are through references from people I trust in the industry, mailed promos, portfolio drop offs or members of the creative department saying ““hey, check out this site or this image.”” I have to say that email promos are the worst way to reach me. If I recognize the person, fine, but often there is a problem with the images embedded in the e-mail, or the link to the site doesn’t open. We have so many pertinent work emails that if the email promos are setup badly or confusing, they become almost like digital noise.

You work at a magazine where the story trumps the photography and I’ve been in similar situations myself where “the story is running photography be dammed,” so you’ve got to figure out a solution that’s not going to embarrass you. Illustration is a natural choice but often I’ll see snap shots the writer took running in Esquire. What’s your approach in a situation like this?

I’’m actually fine and in many cases I prefer writers to take snaps while they are reporting, especially if it gives insight to a location or subject or something happening spur of the moment related to the piece. If its trash we of course won’’t use it, but if it can run small on a turn page and it adequately supports a part of the story, I’’ll take a look. Some of our writers, Colby Buzzell for example, have on multiple occasions made the images a key part of the reporting process. Again, it goes back to variety. Do I want all the images in the magazine to be shot with a digi point and shoot, of course not, do I want that kind of shot to be the opener of a story, –almost always no, but sometimes things are what they are. In fact, without telling you what the image is, next month we have a shot opening up a feature story that’s haunting, poignant and was taken by a non-photographer with just a basic camera. Look out for it, the story it’s attached to is fantastic.

Tell me about the recent Obama cover and how you came to run an outtake from a shoot published on the cover of Time.

In response to the original question you refrenced, “we wonder how Esquire failed to get an exclusive portrait for their cover” my guess is that they didn’t bother to read Charles Pierce’s story on the inside of the issue “The Cynic and The Senator Obama.” Charles observed the Obama campaign from the outside, as the millions of us in the crowd are doing, and offered a critical appraisal of the Senator without a sit down interview. As you know, its rare, especially for a guy who had bigger fish to fry at the time of the issue, to participate in a shoot when there is no direct involvement with the piece.

We were of course aware that the Platon shoot was originally commissioned by Time and how they ran the material. However, Platon has a long history of shooting key political figures for Esquire, starting with, one of the most iconic of all time, the Bill Clinton cover in December of 20’00. Since then, he has done others, GOP candidate McCain in ’06 and Senator Edwards in ’07. So, if a shoot would have somehow presented itself, its fair to say that he would have been at the top of our list. Thus, we were extremely happy that the B/W shot was available and that we got it for our cover.

Finally, I think that David Curcurito’s innovative cover line treatments continue to make the covers unique.

So, number five on your list seemed about right, but I did find all the speculation entertaining.

Michael has agreed to take a few reader questions in the comments, so let him know what’s on your mind.

There Are 24 Comments On This Article.

  1. just some guy

    do you or your assistant take portfolio view meetings with ‘emerging photographers’ or does one just drop their book off? when hiring a photographer does it matter if they have a rep or not? thanks

  2. Great interview Rob!

    A Question:

    How do you decide when to use black and white versus color for an article? Is this decided up front and you go find the photographer? Or, do you have photographer in mind that works primarily in Black and White and it seems like it his work will best complement the story?

    Would be interested in how you did it also Rob.

  3. What do you think of Russian Esquire? Now that’s about the most radical ‘mainstream’ magazine I’ve seen…

  4. I’ve got a few questions for you, Michael, from an editor perspective:

    1. What’s your policy on retouching images once they’re in-house?

    2. Do you have a standard usage contract or is usage determined on a case-by-case basis?

    3. How much professional experience does the shooter need to have to be considered for an assignment? How green can they be?

    4. How often are shoots attended by staff?

    Thanks for the insight, Michael and thanks for the forum, Rob!

  5. Good interview, Rob. Thanks.

    My question:

    Michael, I’d be interested in your take on website portfolios. Any insight you can give on what works for you would be great. For example, do you like to see a wide variety of images? Just the photographer’s best work? Personal work? Or do you like to see a set of images from one story that show the photographers ability to capture a whole story?

    Thanks

  6. Yes, good interview…. You should consider syndicating this to PDN, would be a great “Questions for Creatives.” Keep this type of thing coming, very informative for all. Thanks.

  7. Great interview Rob and Michael!

    My question for Michael concerns the culture of a publication/magazine and how easy it is to change a culture.

    I work for a large publication in Chicago, but our culture and style has become very stagnant. As a Photo Coordinator I am always trying to push new photographers, edgier design, anything to bring something fresh to the newsstand.

    Although Esquire has always been ahead of the curve and seems to produce great covers and layouts each month, do you ever encounter difficulties trying to stay one step ahead and not become repetitive?

    Thanks again guys,

    Kevin

  8. This is a very apropos interview.

    Back before Rob was “out”, I was convinced APE was actually Michael Norseng. He’s got a similarly smart, worldly, intellectual view of the industry.

  9. Michael,
    Despite being well branded Esquire is “not afraid” to give each story a strong, unique graphic statement. To what degree is the AD involved in choosing photographers? Which comes first, the graphic treatment or the photography style?

  10. chris kargotis

    Probably too much to ask, but I would like to see filmed interviews. Think there is an importance to the documentation aspect as well. That came across with Platon’s Putin shoot with is high quality verbal articulation.

  11. @ 2. Lucas: Photographer comes first unless I’m ordered to make it color by the editor or there’s already too much B/W in the issue. Most of the editors I’ve worked with wanted mostly color photography in the book so if we already had a couple black and white features I’d have to make sure the rest were color.

    @11. Chris: Video would be great and next time I’m in the city I might try that with a few brave volunteers.

  12. Great interview. As an editorial photographer, I have had the pleasure of working with 100’s of photo editors, photo directors and art directors at magazines through-out the world, but I rarely get the chance to ask them these type of direct marketing questions. Thank you. Keep up the great work.

  13. Thanks once again Rob. I’m inspired to hear that Esquire is always looking for emerging photographers. Those promo cards are a valuable way of introducing yourself.

  14. Hi Dudes,

    Here’s one for the both of you:
    A freelancer photographer wants to work for you. How persistent can they get before you call security? Where’s the common ground between, “That kid’s determined” and “That kid is crazy as hell.”

    I’m a pretty subtle guy. Sometimes I think if they don’t call me, why call them? But obviously you want to make an impression. Thoughts?

    Great q&a guys. Thanks much.

    -Marshall

  15. Oswald Bates

    Will someone please describe the difference between fashion and portraiture? Pick any image you like and please discriminate either, portrait, fashion. thanks.

  16. Oswald,
    A lot of people struggle with these terms. The answer is simple: Clothing is an element in many images. If the photograph is featuring clothing it could be considered a fashion photo. The distinction is borne from the publisher’s intent. The truth is that a photograph may cross over into many categories. A Victoria’s Secret catalog could be interpreted as a book of environmental portraits although the publisher’s intent is to sell underwear! Inside the fashion industry there is a lot of jargon thrown around, attempting to pigeonhole images: “on-figure, laydown, lookbook,
    campaign, editorial, and lifestyle” (to name a few). It’s all very confusing, especially when you throw the connotative aspect of words into the mix.
    “Fashion” carries a certain glamorous mystique while “portrait” sounds comparatively banal. In reality, great photographs speak for themselves,
    while lesser minds try to describe them.

  17. Apologies for the delay…
    As penance, I’ll try my best to answer all questions.

    1 – We do, but just occasionally. We are a relatively small, and busy staff, so the best way to reach us is through a drop off.
    2 – Rob – I pretty much agreed with your answer @ 12.
    3 – Its important. We watch out for it just as much as any other style. Thanks Massimo.
    4- Russian Esquire is fantastic. I just wish I knew how to read it.
    5- (3) I’ve hired some relatively green people for some big assignments. If someone is passionate, the work is “there”, and I know I’ll be able to work with them well, then published experience is just a small factor.
    6- Websites should be easy to navigate, not take a lot of time to load, and show a selection of your best work. You don’t want to muddle up a website with your entire archive. I also enjoy seeing links to personal work.
    8- It all comes down to collaboration. You have to make strong arguments about your perspective and surround yourself with supportive people who push you creatively.
    9- Some people almost convinced me that I was Rob for a while…
    10- At most (most) magazines the Creative/Art Director is involved on either approving or suggesting photographers or styles for stories. They are responsible for the overall visual aesthetic for the magazine, so there is a close, collaborative bond.
    16- At a certain point you have to let your work – work for you. Persistence, for the most part, is an admirable trait, but send out a promo…touch base once, maybe twice a year…and let the cards fall where they may.

    Thanks Rob for the forum.

  18. Emily Jones

    Hi Michael, I’m a graphic design student at Mississippi State University entering the student SPD competition. My subject is Neil Young, and I am using a Neil Young photo that I believe was taken during the same photo shoot as the January 2006 Esquire article “What I’ve Learned: Neil Young.” I need to credit the photographer before I send in my entry, and I was wondering if you knew who took those photos? I have a jpeg of the photo that I can send you if you need it. Thank you so much!