Magazines and photography have been inextricably linked ever since the first half-tone reproduction was printed. So much so, it’s difficult now to imagine a magazine without photography; from the early photo-news magazines of the ’30s and ’40s, through the consumerism of the ’60s and ’70s, the style-obsessed ’80s and ’90s and on to today’s love-hate celebrity culture, photography has retained a central role in magazine publishing.
The amount of photography created for and reproduced in magazines today is phenomenal just check out one week’s output at your newsagent. But what value is put on all this photography? As I write, the current issue of Heat carries an extraordinary 484 individual pictures, of which only 17 are reproduced at anything like page size. Just as mainstream magazines themselves have become increasingly commodified, so the photography they reproduce is suffering the same fate. There is little space here for anything different or experimental just more of the same, please, to be used as a stamp-sized visual cue.
Luckily, the same technology that enables Heat to reproduce such a quantity of images on a weekly basis also serves the independent sector. While once the independent press relied on photocopiers and staplers, now an Apple Mac and a digital camera enables even the smallest publication to reproduce photography to a high standard. It is easier than ever now to not only publish your own magazine, but do so to a professional standard.
There are many, many examples of self-published magazines, ranging from the mainstream wannabe through the clever niche publication to the absurd experiment. The key factor for success as a magazine is the passion and love of their subject matter, however obscure. Titles like France’s Yummy (fast food), Denmark’s S-magazine (erotic fashion imagery) and Germany’s 032c (art and trends) command small but loyal, international readerships.
But what better subject to get passionate about than photography itself? There are plenty of independent magazines specialising in the subject, although many are hit-and-miss portfolios of imagery that simply don’t hold together as magazines, however great individual contributions might be.
But give the content an editorial stance, a theme or an opinion, something for those creating the magazine to get passionate about, and chances are you have an engaging publication. Here are some recent launches that have, with different degrees of success, taken photography as their lead.
Perhaps the most wilfully difficult of the lot is Chance magazine. This large-format, loose-leaf publication is published by west London design agency Ubos. They invited submissions from photographers on the theme of “chance” and acted as mediators, choosing and combining images on spreads to create a flow of imagery that appears to be quite random. Without words, the reader (viewer?) is left to search for meaning in the combinations of pictures, and occasionally one can find visual links between images on a spread. But it’s unclear how much is intended and how much is, well … chance. An added dimension is provided by the unbound pages pull the spreads apart and suddenly there are whole new combinations of images and half-images. This works well with the theme Chance, but an appeal for submissions for the second issue, to be themed “prophecy”, makes me wonder how the format can reflect that theme as strongly as it does Chance. But for this first issue, the minimal design suits the chosen images well, the paper and print are very high quality and the issue contains some great images.
Day Four also uses a theme to hold each issue together, and has recently reached issue 5. Published to a very small print run by Fiona Hayes, who has a full-time position as art director on a major consumer magazine, Day Four commissions content from international contributors. Recent themes have included Summer, which delivered few surprises but was nonetheless a satisfying visual précis of summer life here and abroad, and the more intriguing Ulysses issue. This involved 44 photographers around the world recording the minutiae of a single day, June 19, 2004. They were asked to take a picture on the hour every hour. The result is an endless drip-drip-drip of the mundane yet fascinating, made all the more interesting because that June 19 was a Saturday. This is people taking their leisure: watching TV, attending a football match, doing the shopping, preparing for a party or just hanging out.
125 has a similar approach but a more ambitious scope. Announcing themes on its website, its four directors judge the submissions and assemble the accepted work to make an issue. The magazine is now available in 14 countries and is able to publish a combination of work from newcomers and name photographers. The recent Music issue included classic images of Iggy Pop by Mick Rock alongside a fashion story featuring a Bob Dylan look-a-like by Nick Clements. The theme stretches to include still lifes of expired tape recorders by Julian Ward, and a James Deavin series on sites where pop stars died. 125 is a heavy, glossy title that is well worth tracking down. The people behind it, Perry Curties, Jason Joyce, Rob Crane and Martin Yates, have the luxury of being able to choose from a strong submission and use high production values to publish the final edit.
Steppe magazine takes a more conventional approach, using words and images to express the editors’ passion for Central Asia.
Summer Coish and Lucy Kelaart have created a magazine with a great depth of knowledge of their subject, suggesting that they have travelled throughout Central Asia and found it, in the words of their press release, “one of the most enchanting regions of the world”. It is certainly refreshing to discover real information about this relatively unknown part of the world, a region often misrepresented in the west. The states of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to name three, are easily written off as ex-Soviet republics, areas that don’t even achieve the negative news coverage of neighbours such as Afghanistan.
That love for the region comes across in the pages, with photo stories about the less obvious Soviet-era modernist architecture, customised bus stops mixing with others about traditional village and religious life. The overall design and presentation lets the magazine down, and as there is a sense that its publishers wish Steppe to be taken as a serious commercial project, this is something that needs to be addressed. Another magazine, Bidoun, attempts a similar reflection on another often misunderstood area, the Middle East, and benefits from a more consistent design approach.
PowerHouse magazine also seeks to reflect a specific single area, in the case of its launch issue the South Bronx. If, like me, you assume such a familiar-sounding theme has little new to offer, think again. Editor Sara Rosen grew up there and has used her knowledge of the district to compile a compelling set of images and stories that tell the story of hip hop from its birth 30 years ago. Yes, there are the obvious images of graffiti and rappers, but they sit among archive images of DJs and breakdancers and pictures of ordinary people going about their lives. The magazine is an upbeat reflection of one person’s love for their home district.
The publishers behind these magazines share a passion for their subjects that makes their publications more than the sum of their individual parts. Having devised, commissioned, designed and printed their magazines they deserve our support as they hit the hardest part of the process getting their publications out to us, the readers. Jeremy Leslie
Jeremy Leslie is Group Creative Director at John Brown, and writes a blog about magazines