I got an email from a photo editor this week asking for advice in a situation that he’s found himself in at a magazine. His Art Director is an “old-schooler” where you pick your images based on physical qualities like focus and level horizons. He also has a penchant for sunny blue skies. The editor on the other hand wants the literal translation of the story in pictures and will pick the worst image of the bunch as long as it contains the who, what, when, where, why or how of the story. Top that all off with the fact that the two of them have been around for a long time and tend to use the length of their experience as a way to push their same as it always was agenda.
This situation is a little unusual in that it’s usually only the editor that favors literal images and uses things like the meteorological conditions in the image as a point of argument for or against using something. In the past I’ve always had good luck teaming up with the Art Director to get things past the editor and I made a post awhile back about my techniques for getting new photographers past them for assignments:
1. Gang up. Get the Creative Director to back you in the meeting. “Oh yeah he’s great, I worked with him at my previous magazine and he always delivered.”
2. Shiny Objects. Toss out important people or magazines they’ve shot for. “He shot a feature in Vanity Fair recently.”
3. Padded Portfolio. Print the portfolio shots that back your case. “See, she really gets what we’re trying to achieve here.”
4. Play Dumb. Assign and feign telling them about it recently. “Oh, I thought we discussed that she was shooting this earlier.”
The same sort of ideas work well for getting the images you want published.
1. Stall- I used to find myself in a situation where the editor would end a layout review with “Let’s see if we can top that.” To which I would spend the rest of my time that month not trying top it, because I was perfectly happy with the images we had picked. I also recall a separate situation near the end of my tenure where I had commissioned a heavy hitter to shoot a portrait for the opener of the story. The editor was not pleased with the results because he was expecting… something more literal, so I was tasked with dredging up every little bit of stock that might work instead. I didn’t completely phone-it-in, so as not to arouse suspicion, but I did find it handy to read blogs instead of scour Getty for hours on end.
2. Withholding- The classic technique is to simply leave out the obvious choices. This is like playing chicken: “Is this all there is?” “Well, these are the best.” “Can I see all the images?” “I’m still working on it, can we try these first?” “Ok, but then after this I need to see the rest of the images.” “I have a doctors appointment so it will have to wait.”
3. Showdown- First, you need to lean on the Art Director to include your images in the layout choices for the editor. Looking at pictures in the layout is so much better than on your screen or the light table (sadly only used for printouts now) and brings you one step closer to the final OK. When your variation comes up on screen or is presented you need to fight tooth and nail to defend it. This is where reading books that talk about photography comes in handy. Defending an image by saying “I like it a lot” will get you nowhere. Sometimes, honestly it comes down to a fight where telling them they’re making a huge mistake and the picture they picked blows is your only choice.
4. Build Your Case- Changing someone’s mind about the photography they think is “good” can take months and possibly years of laying a foundation with examples of work you think is important. You need to provide examples and reinforcement of quality imagery in the field. I used to have a huge bulletin board where I would rip pages out of magazines, tack up promo cards and prints of the images they didn’t pick as sort of a massive mood board to the direction I wanted the photography to go. Also, buy plenty of magazines that are using photography well and show them to the editor whenever you get a chance. Anything redesigned by Luke or DJ at Pentagram is always a sure bet.
None of this is easy. Expect your stomach to be doing back flips and your hair to tingle as you try to steer the Titanic away from the ice.
Finally, I will say this about the future of magazines and photography. There is no future for magazines that don’t challenge and surprise their readers with original sophisticated imagery. The internet has set the ground floor and if you can’t rise above it, you will disappear.