Beate Sonnenberg shot this image for Wallpaper*. Image © Beate Sonnenberg, courtesy of Wallpaper*.
Take a look at the shopping guides now ubiquitous across all lifestyle magazines, and most are little more than advertiser-friendly fluff, accompanied by the kind of photography you’d expect to see in catalogues, pasted into grid-like page layouts as uniformly simple cutouts. By contrast, the more elitist style magazines such as Wallpaper* and Fantastic Man have greater ambitions, arranging their objects of desire centre stage in sophisticated tableaux that show off the publications’ creative credentials. At the former, the still life shoots tend towards bold colour and highly graphic arrangements, while Fantastic Man’s stories ooze retro glamour; either way, each reflects the ethos of the titles in their approaches.
Wallpaper* commissions 95 percent of its images from scratch, and James Reid, photography director of the magazine, is responsible for much of it. He thoroughly coaches each photographer on the Wallpaper* style to keep the images consistent and on-message, but then tries to step back to allow contributors their creative input. “We shoot a lot of still life work every issue, and I try to keep the aesthetic fairly constant, but evolve it slowly,” he says. “It’s important that we show all the different products – one of the pillars of the magazine – in a creative, flattering and interesting way, so we usually give photographers a fairly specific brief.
“I’ll always discuss the approach and send references, and where possible I’ll art-direct the shoot, either in person or remotely. I have to oversee all the shoots to make sure we don’t have three different photographers in three countries shooting their still life stories in too similar a way. For an average issue we shoot stories in the UK, North America, France, Spain, Scandinavia and Japan. That said, I will commission photographers because of their style, so they can execute the story with a voice, without the kind of art direction that an ad campaign would entail.”
Reid has worked with many photographers over the years and they have helped refine the character of the magazine, he says, but he tries to make sure there is a mix of both established and emerging talents in each issue. “I look at everything people send me, even if I don’t have the time to respond, and if something catches my eye I will remember the work, and when something relevant comes along, I’ll try and commission them,” he says. “I look at the work coming out of the various colleges around the world, I try to go the graduate shows, and I’m always interested to see what [art photography] magazines like Blind Spot, Foam and Next Level show. There is always someone creating something new and unexpected and interesting, so it’s nice to try to find a story that work could complement in the magazine.”
At Fantastic Man magazine, Jop van Bennekom tends to work with a small group of trusted photographers, often favouring fashion shooters over still life specialists – an approach that’s intrinsic to what he and co-founder Gert Jonkers are trying to do. “When we started we wanted to create a different kind of still life,” he says. “We didn’t want to show still lifes as objects. We wanted to bring them to life and show them being used or worn, like they did in the 1970s. Back then magazines would show people wearing clothes and cut the face and head off the top of the page – but somehow it then became a complete no-no. We thought clothes and accessories look better when they are actually being used, so we started doing it again that way.”
Image © Leandro Farina; spread courtesy of Wallpaper*.
The first issue of Fantastic Man came out in spring/summer 2005 featuring a 12-page story on footwear in which only the shoes were shown, despite being photographed worn by models. “It looked so elegant, and it was something that hadn’t been seen for a long time,” says van Bennekom. In a nod to its retro inspiration, the story was also shot in black-and-white, and monochrome has since become a regular characteristic of Fantastic Man (and its stable mate, The Gentlewoman). It’s an unusual tack to take for still lifes and fashion because it’s less descriptive – but for van Bennekom, that’s an advantage. “We want to take the focus off the product so that the story comes to life, not be some kind of catalogue,” he says. “Black‑and-white doesn’t reveal everything, so the photography seems more editorial.
“Plus I like the way that black-and-white works with the typography. Rather than separating the images from the text [because one is in colour and the other black-and-white] they all use one language and make the magazine feel more like one entity. So many still life shoots in magazines are product-driven; we don’t want it to be all about the object.”
Van Bennekom and his team also avoid using models or shooting still lifes in the studio – again taking the emphasis away from the object and putting it back on to its everyday life. But while Fantastic Man’s approach is unusual, it also speaks of a wider shift in still life photography that is affecting magazines across the board.
Leandro Farina, who regularly shoots for Wallpaper* (and features in this month’s Projects section), thinks that print magazines can now be more creative because consumers go online to see straight, descriptive product shots. “Magazines today can serve a different purpose because you don’t need them to relay current information in the same way they used to,” he says. “So some magazines are creating these cinematic journals that are as beautiful as objects in their own right.”
Daniel Riera shot this story on glassware for Fantastic Man. Image Daniel Reira; courtesy Fantastic Man.
“There is a conscious move away from overly retouched, slickly commercial photography in [some] editorial titles,” agrees Reid. “It’s so soulless and uninspiring. There is definitely more willingness to experiment, to try more than a ‘traditional’ still life shot. Images that show the craft and skill of the photographer (and stylist) are far more rewarding, because you get a sense of how much work went into any given shot, and know there was a concept behind the image.
“There is a new generation of even more interesting still life and conceptual photographers coming through at the moment I think, particularly in the US,” he adds, referring to some of the same people featured in BJP’s cover story this month – including Lucas Blalock, whom Reid commissioned for Wallpaper*’s March issue.
“These photographers are coming from a more academic but still incredibly creative education, and are now starting to get recognition and commissions. We’re going to see some really strong, directional work in the next couple of years – editorial work bordering on conceptual fine art photography.”
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