Heidi Volpe interviews Patagonia photo editor Jenning Steger.
Heidi: What a bold move to put a spread photo by Oskar Enander in the catalog, was that a hard sell since the rider isn’t one of your ambassadors?
Jenning: No because the photo is so stellar it did not leave much room for discussion, it’s a fantasy photo, ambassador or not everyone wants to be him. I admire and respect the Chouinard’s for having the courage to let a commercial entity operate with a photojournalistic heart. It’s more about the spirit of the photo rather than the logo being seen. This is why I love my job.
How many people work on producing this catalog?
Lots, we are an ‘in house agency’ more or less, so we touch almost every aspect of the project minus cranking the wheel on the press and licking the stamps.
The main group consists of:
Catalog project coordinator
Product photo shoot- studio, stylist, photographer, clothes steamer
Creative Director final sign off
How do you submit work for consideration? I can’t imagine you can get back to everyone who submits work.
We work primarily on ‘spec’ meaning a photographer submits images on the speculation that we might purchase them. We sometimes offer up-front assignments if the story involves: a Patagonia athlete/ambassador, an original idea, or has an environmental focus. We try our best to get back to everyone but it’s impossible. That being said one of my favorite things about this job is communicating with photographers. I pick up the phone and call to chat as often as I can, its an important part of being successful at this job, communication is key so we can meet our photo needs. The use of social media has helped, customers can post photos to our Facebook page. The rest of our pro photographer’s submit via FTP. We strive to be a paperless dept abd are always trying to improve workflow to be more time efficient, so we have more time to edit.
How much of this catalog was spec?
90% of the Patagonia Winter catalog was built on ‘spec’ photo, the parting shot was on a company partnership trip to Alaska and we had some staff photographers around the same day the photo of Forest on page 17 was shot.
You can see some video of that day here:
When helicopters and high production costs come into play, that shows a level of drive on the photographers part since you don’t cover that cost and in essence these are personal projects. Are those photographers hard to find?
I think since we don’t operate under a typical commercial photo structure most of our photographers have some personal interest vested in their images, it goes hand in hand with working on spec. You would not work on spec unless you loved what you do, because there is some risk. For Patagonia, finding photographer’s is never hard, because we treat our talent really well, but I guess it would be a lot easier to find a commercial photographer where all elements are mostly controlled. I always encourage photographer to embrace personal projects even if they take years to accomplish. To fund the big expeditions a photographer might have a variety sponsors all chipping in to pull the trip off financially, this can complicate things, but is necessary in some instances to join forces for the greater good.
How much direction do you give the photographers, if any?
We rarely set up shoots, of course this varies per project and purpose of shoot and image needs. If we do offer an up-front photo contract we get a general who, what, where, where, why from the photographer, and then supply a basic shot list, art direction and product. From there we let the photographer run with it and embrace their creative eye.
We had a good snow season this year, does that makes your image pool richer?
Yes, especially for ‘backyard photos’ which are always a pleasure to see. It was a fantastic season to be a photo editor in North America on 63 page color winter action sport catalog. I had a blast with all the eye-candy and loved to see the high snowfall combined with a late season which yielded insane photos. Also the chica’s stepped it up this last snow season, one of my favorite photos in the catalog is on page 44 of Holly.
How much post do you have to do on these images? Of course Photoshop is a no-no as your visual approach is more photojournalistic.
We do very little photo manipulation, every once in a while we take a logo out to keep us legal if we were unable to clear permission (this is how we differ commercial vs. editorial, logo permission, model releases etc are mandatory. We had to try to get Tropicana logo permission last week, the big corp companies are different than the outdoor industry, its hard and time consuming). In the 5 years I have worked here I have removed 1 snowflake coming out of a rider’s nose and 1 rock at edge of the frame for type legibility so very little to no photo manipulation. What you see is what the photographers saw and shot. Each frame is a piece of original art and I am not the artist so I have no right to alter. We are kind of old-school like that, we like well composed images that are captured in camera vs. in computer (post).
We do about 2-3 rounds of color with our separator fine-tuning how image will print on our recycled paper, next to or in-line with what color product etc.
Who are your new riders this year for the ski/snowboard team?
In addition to our fantastic team already in place we welcomed, Forrest Shearer, Josh Dirksen, Carston Oliver, Aidan Sheahan and Ryland Bell. Check out our entire ambassador roster here:
Jay Beyer’s work is heavily featured in this issue, is that a new find for you?
Jay Beyer has been contributing to Patagonia for the last four years, but in the last two years we have been publishing him a bit more regularly. It’s been fun to watch him grow as a photographer, he is a pleasure to work with and gets the Patagonia quest for authenticity.
Do your new athletes also bring in new photographer’s since many of these images are authentic? Meaning it’s a good powder day with your friends, and you capture it.
Yes and no, it goes both ways. For sure ambassadors bring new to Patagonia photographer’s to the photo dept as well we sometimes try to connect the dots between some of our core snow photographer’s to the ambassador’s depending on location, riding style, etc. I also do my homework and am always looking at photographer names of shots I adore in the top editorial mags. Group dynamics and safety are very important in any trip so I can make photographer suggestions to an athlete but it has to happen naturally and there has to be a trust relationship. Some athletes come with their own set of photographers and we honor that relationship and look forward to collaborating with new talent.
I’ve worked with Christian Pondella over the years, he is such a solid photographer and athlete. What do you enjoy about working with him?
The things that stands out the most for me is he is a true ski mountaineer photographer. It’s one of the few sports where the cameraman has to have the same skill set as athletes/rider to get the shot.
The photographer has the burden of humping in the camera on his back or skiing with a brick on his chest. In order to correctly shoot they have to essentially ski the same line safely and quickly, they must always be two steps ahead. He isn’t afraid of a little bad weather and submits comprehensive XMP data which makes a big difference. Our photo dept receives over 60,000 unsolicited images a year, (less than 1% of those are published approx).
The shot of Carston on Mt.Baker is pretty sick, how did Jay get that image?
I enjoyed seeing Jay’s Mt.Baker photos as we see a lot less Cascades ski imagery than we do of AK or Utah so it’s refreshing. Grant Gunderson has been up there for years producing exceptional work. Grant is somewhat responsible for putting Baker on the world ski map through his photos. Mt. Baker holds the record for the largest single-season snowfall in the world (1999, proximity to the ocean and prevailing west winds). I also like Baker partly because it’s the anti-resort, I am much more comfortable publishing an in-bounds photo of Mt. Baker than a shot off KT-22 one of the best chairlifts for terrain access in North America. Something about the Baker crew seems so tough, raw and real. We like gritty photos here at Patagonia.
I remember one discussion I had with Jay regarding winter photos. Almost every photo shoot he went on he was by himself, meaning not joined up with a film crew to shoot for the day. It’s good for the athlete when there is a film crew and still photographer but not necessarily good for the photographer. Last year Jay primarily shot by himself, meaning no film crew, just an athlete or two. It’s a bit of a risk on the photographers side but I admire him for having the confidence to skip out on the larger production. For Jay in my eyes, it was more about the skiing than the shots and it worked, he got the sweet shots cause his head and heart had the spirit of skiing. I appreciate photographer’s who are not afraid to shoot in bad weather, life isn’t always bluebird, a sense of atmosphere is good.
Here is what Carston had to say about that shot:
That photo is actually kind of an interesting one, because it is in a slack-country zone at Mt Baker that gets skied all the time, but I don’t think that particular little flute has been shot or skied before. It’s on the wall of a popular chute, but is located right at the end of a mandatory straight-line, so nobody skiing the chute ever notices it because they’re going too fast to focus on anything other than what is immediately in front of them. Also when approached from above, it’s pretty much a cliff that either gets aired, or passed by to get to a pretty rowdy pillow line. This shot was taken on the first day of our trip to Baker last winter, and I was showing Jay around because he had never skied there before. The only reason we found it was because I sent Jay down the chute on our first run while I went to ski the pillows. He ended up side-slipping down it instead of just pointing it like everyone else, and looked up to see this perfect mini-spine/flute. He then shouted to me to ski it, guided me into it from below, and shot it from a spot tucked up against the wall of the chute. It’s pretty cool how a new set of eyes can find a new feature in a zone that get’s skied so often, particularly when almost everybody through there ski’s past within a few feet of the thing.
Check out their new iPad Snow app for more images, avail for download in iTunes.