The Daily Edit Interview – Patagonia Catalog Winter 2011

- - The Daily Edit

Heidi Volpe interviews Patagonia photo editor Jenning Steger.

Up at dawn for a sunrise cliff session, Carston Oliver seizes the moment for some Wasatch air time. Alta backcountry, Utah. Jay Beyer

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.

Riding light. Yves Hüsler, Engelberg, Switzerland. Oskar Enander

 

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
Merchandiser
Graphic designer
Photo Editor
Copy Editor
Product photo shoot- studio, stylist, photographer, clothes steamer
Creative Director final sign off
Production
Color Separator
Printer

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:

Patagonia ambassadors Ryland Bell and Josh Dirksen earn their turns with the Deeper crew. Mare’s Tail, Fairweather Mountains, Alaska. Greg von Doersten

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.

Holly Walker leaves her signature on Shuksan Arm – one year after a major stroke. Mount Baker, Washington. Re Wikstrom

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.

Seth Lightcap waits out a storm in the Fairweather Range. Alaska. Tero Repo

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.

Dressed for the occasion. Patagonia skiing ambassador Lorenzo Worster genuflects into the Incredible Hulk Couloir. Bridgeport, California. Christian Pondella

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).

Four feet of blower equals hero snow for Carston Oliver. Mount Baker, Washington. Jay Beyer

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.

Heidi Volpe

There Are 42 Comments On This Article.

  1. I’ve had the pleasure working with Jane and her gang many times and it’s been a great experience every time. Patagonia is one of the only companies that pays and play fair with licensing of photos. They treat photographers fairly and I think their photo program is one of the best.

  2. What are your thoughts on an, essentially, all spec workflow vs a commissioned workflow? I mean on the one hand it means there is more opportunity for unknowns to be a part of thing but on the other hand it means 99% of people do a lot of work for no return. Seems like it’s bad for the industry and great for the client.

          • I primarily shoot skateboarding, which is much like the Ski/Snow market, but with much smaller budgets. So 80%+ of what I shoot is essentially “spec”, where I wrangle skaters on my own and get out for the afternoon, or sometimes an extended trip, and then try to find a buyer for whatever I get after the fact.
            You really have to love the lifestyle to operate this way, since the nature of the sport is that you often come back without a photo at all, or one that never gets bought, and occasionally it means you’re subsidizing the action sports work with other unrelated shoots.

      • Costs of doing business aren’t spec because of the weather. Or to put it in perspective, a great deal of Patagonia’s revenue comes from clothing based on the weather.

        Business aside, absolutely love some of these images!

          • If I don’t get paid, my costs of doing business are not met. Spec and crowdsourcing do not provide good business models to create ROI. Which is why good photography agreements have weather clauses. If I don’t get paid because of weather, I can’t pay you for the website you built. that’s how it works. or doesn’t.

    • And “on spec” may not be the right term – for many, including myself in the 90s when I had a dozen or more Patagonia catalog shots, posters and ads (compensated fairly), it is a lifestyle for the photographer and often a journalistic extension of the outdoor trips and epics we would be doing. As Rob says, their use of photographer’s “stock” images are really what happens. And Jane, Jenning and all in the Photo Dept are great to work with.

      • Kevin, your portfolio is amazing. I can’t believe I haven’t seen you here in Santa Barbara. I’m the Director of Photography for Ampersand Studios, I’ll definitely keep my eye out for you. Keep up the great work!!!

      • Agree Kevin. I’ve had the please of working with Jane/Jenning and crew (as a photographer) and they are first class! Yeah, I’m not sure that most photographers go out with “spec” shot list, Patagonia athlete and idea hoping to create that cover catalog image, but rather after shooting what love and live end up submitting images that very well could be purchased by any number of companies or licensed through Corbis, Getty, etc.

  3. Good point, and I suppose that there are other revenue streams available for the images. Thank you for engaging in a bit of back and forth.

  4. I love that retail companies have seemed to consistently been upping their game in catalog design and photography over the years. It’s nice to see good work put to use like this. The photos are killer I can’t wait to get the catalog.

  5. I’m guessing that heavy dodging and/or burning is not considered “post” or “manipulation.” Either that, or some trees have glowing auras. :-)

  6. I too have had the pleasure of working with Jane and Co. for the past six years, and can say that the professionalism involved is second to none. When you call, they actually pick up the phone. You can chat about your friends and family and anything else and they all genuinely care. I’ve called Jane many times and actually forget what I called for in the first place becuase the conversation is so unstressful.
    Real people for sure, and first-rate photo department.

  7. The book “Unexpected: 30 Years of Patagonia Catalog Photography” goes into how Patagonia have used spec photos from the very beginning, and talks about how revolutionary a “real” aesthetic was at the time. It was a shock to many, but arguably played a huge role in making the company what it is today. Of course, as a photographer, I couldn’t help but have mixed feelings as I was reading about the very minimal pay back then (if any—I can’t remember). But I sure do like the look, and there’s no way “commercial” photographers at the time could have created it even if they tried. So in the end, maybe it has all worked out for the best for everyone.

    • I still have one of the first catalogs from 1982 when I was like, um 6, ahem. There were a few commercial photographers at the time who were in the ’80s fashion ski aesthetic (John Russell) but for the most part it has always been about real users, serious and not-so serious athletes and phun hogs alike. The early images were from the friends, then it grew big but thanks to Jane never lost its mission of outstanding photography. It did not matter if their clothes were even in the shots.

      • I agree, Jane and the rest of the crew do such a tremendous job putting imagery and feel over product. Like Kevin said, often times they’ll use shots that don’t feature their gear, and they’ll even throw images into the catalog that feature other company logos. It’s been great to work with them over the years and I enjoy poring over each catalog as soon as they arrive at the house!

  8. Super-cool to see Patagonia represented here. Job well-done as always. Also, very cool to see O’s photo-spread got a nice mention here. Keep up the good work Jane, Sus and Jenning!

    @Kev p.s John Russell just got (very-happily) re-married a few days ago!

  9. I collect every Patagonia’s catalogs that I received because of the great photos on each page! I like how Patagonia lets the photographers embrace their creative eye… and keep it original and raw!

    I have so much respect for Yvon Chouinard and inspired by his stories and experience! I wish one day I can work for Patagonia! =)

  10. This post gives a good perspective from the view of the person publishing the work. From the opposite end shooting on spec in the sports industry can be incredibly hard. The ante is upped every year and it seems like there is an army of people that want to do it. More than most it feels like. But with everything competition is natural I suppose.

    Being on the receiving end of it is super hard. You basically have to have a reserve of cash to keep you going for the entire winter. You have to be able to drop everything at a moments notice and get to where the snow is. You fighting against kids who are bank rolled by their parents for their “fun.” You have special equipment you have to bring, snowmobiles, avalanche gear etc. It helps to life in an area that is conducive to winter sports, i.e. Vail, Steamboat, Denver, Tahoe, Aspen, Baker, Park City, usually it costs a pretty penny to live there, not always though. You then have to know riders who are willing to work with you. Most groups already have a photography, again one of those “kids” that usually get into it because they can become an athlete themselves. If you are lucky to find a good rider that will be publishable he will probably already be hooked up with a photographer that is already intouch with the mags.

    It’s great that Patagonia is willing to use images where they don’t sponsor the rider. Thus getting published gets harder when working with an athlete that is unknown like a lot of kids are. Yes you can also publish images in other places as well.

    Of course they never have a hard time looking for photographers. Everybody in their brother wants to shoot action sports. Just the way it is. If it wasn’t fun and awesome no one would want to do it. Such is life.

    Anyway, nice images. I always dig looking at their catalogs.

  11. Nice interview but Jenning gives the impression that none of the images are digitally manipulated? Maybe not by his team but certainly by the photographers and it is ridiculous to think otherwise.
    Or maybe I have misinterpreted what he is saying…

  12. I guess the proof of the photography is that I am now seriously wishing I was up a mountain surrounded by snow with a pair of Volkl’s strapped to my feet…..

  13. Weather-based spec work feels highly dependent on your style in snowsports. My roommate Erik Seo ( http://www.erikseo.com ) does quite a bit of flash-based work within skiing, which allows him to shoot regardless of the weather. Good weather / bad weather, ultimately the shot is based on the athlete and photographer meshing to get the shot. Big mountain / adventure ski photographer certainly is significantly more weather dependent, but then again the cover of one of Patagonia’s recent winter catalogs showed a frost-covered climber’s pack against gray light.

    Even Grant Gunderson (mentioned specifically in this article) uses a large amount of flash-based imagery in foul weather. Spec work which eventually turns to publication or finds a buyer it seems.

    Seems to me that the viability of ‘spec’ work in any type of environment has begun to shift thanks to technology (high ISO capabilities, lighter flashes, and more power overall).

    Ultimately, props to the array of outdoor photogs featured in Pat’s book this season. Since the start they seem to have followed their own path towards authenticity (sorry for the catch-term … barf). One read through, ‘Let My People Surf’ by Yvon reinforces this.

  14. Nice read and interview. Jenning and Jane are first class to work with!
    Patagonia has a unique photography model that works very well for their brand. Their cost is heavy in the editing department with 60,000 submissions+ a catalog versus time/money spent on funding a shoot. It’s a reality shooting in the sports/adventure industry as I have professionally for the last 6 years that if you aren’t on assignment then you are shooting for 1) stock 2) on spec (i.e. Patagonia submission) or 3) fine art/personal portfolio in hopes of future assignments. One has to decide his/her business model is and focus therein. (http://kevinwinzeler.com)

  15. Pretty cool. Photo Gifts make great gifts for around Christmas time. You can take that special photo and turn it into a priceless masterpiece!

  16. Great interview & images. Did you happen to do a similar interview for Patagonia’s winter catalog in 2010? There were a ton of great vintage outdoor photos and I’d love to hear the stories behind them.

  17. Great work, nice interview! Love the great images. @brooks, i think what Jenning was referring to was that Patagonia does not do much in the way of processing. It’s very clear that the images all have been processed. Since it’s mostly freelance/spec work, I’m sure the images come to Patagonia already processed. I wonder how interested is Patagonia in working on a Gulo conservation project? Here’s some images from one of last years epic backcountry expeditions. It’s all muliti-day, backcountry trips with volunteers dedicated to the future of the Gulo in North America. Tough bunch of humans! No huge lines, but lots of awesome valley terrain, supper harsh weather that requires the best gear made, and a cause worth the effort! Put 80 pounds on your back and hit it! One of the toughest women I know: http://bit.ly/snShzM cheers!