I made a resolution to update my blog more frequently but seriously...where's the time. In the last three weeks I've shot a 16 page fashion editorial for Verve, 10 pages for Elle, 2 ad jobs for Lowe Lintas, a publicity shoot for Sunidhi Chauhan (well known Bollywood playback singer), several model portfolios and an interiors shoot for the new Bang Bang Films office in Bandra. Not to mention looking after my seven and a half month pregnant wife and editing all the above jobs.
but enough excuses...
here's the second part in my interview series. This time its with the wonderful Iona Ferguson, Photo Editor of Vogue India. Iona and I worked together for the first time almost a year ago and since then have become good friends. She's a fantastic resource on photography and a lot of what she has to say will be pertinent for the aspiring fashion/editorial photographer.
So here goes:
Martin: Give me a little bit of your background as the photo editor for Conde Nast
Iona: Well prior to Vogue’s launch in October 2007 I was living in Delhi and working as Fashion Editor for Maxim magazine. I heard on the grapevine about Vogue’s proposed launch and thought that this was an opportunity too great to be missed. I had no prior Photo Editor experience per se but had been working with a lot of Indian photographers and I love images. So I put my name forward for the position. And here I am.
M: What exactly does a photo editor do?
I: The way that I like to think of my job is that I’m conceiving the visuals for a story. Every month we (editor, writer, art director and myself) have an art meeting in which we discuss how we want to treat all the stories for that issue. It could be through research, press, illustration, commissioned shoots whatever. The photo department will go away and find these images.
You kind of need to have a pretty good network for finding the best way to visually bring life to the story. When we research we are constantly referring back to the text so that we choose relevant material. We also need to make sure we identify a good selection to help the art department create beautiful lay-outs. Always at the forefront of the photo editor’s mind is choosing an image that best fits the DNA of the magazine. So if you’re thinking of Vogue, Vogue is fashion, glamour, celebrity and it’s really beautiful. So the pictures have to be 100% within that realm. Thank God I have a great researcher on my team, as there is a lot to do.
I do spend a lot of time commissioning photographers to shoot for us. As we have a broad range of styles we need a broad range of photographers. So if you’re doing something that has a very high glamour quotient, then you’re going to choose a photographer who can depict that in a very effective way. It may be through his use of lighting or how he works with his models. Maybe if you’re shooting an artist you’re going to select a photographer who shoots lovely black & whites or brings a different more creative mood, or you want to give the story a reportage feel then you want a photographer skilled in that field. Building your network amongst the photographer fraternity is crucial.
These are the fun aspects of being a photo editor and I guess in any job will also have the boring admin tasks like managing budgets and making sure our production team get the right res of image. Photo Eds are no exception.
M: How many photography portfolios do you see in a week?
I: To be frank, India is an emerging market and there aren’t 50 million photographers. The younger generation of Indian photographers is definitely coming up but I would say I see a new portfolio every fortnight to three weeks. However we do spend a lot of time on the Internet looking at international photographers’ portfolios, especially if we are commissioning a shoot abroad.
M: What are the things you look for in a photographer’s portfolio?
Iona: That is a very good question and I have to say that it’s quite unusual to see a good portfolio in India, as it is quite a new concept. Equally the position of photo editor in magazine publishing is very new so many photographers have never had to present their work in a formal setting. I think if you have a photographer coming from abroad they have traditionally spent time putting their books together and there’s a lot of thought that goes into what is being shown to the photo editor. It’s just part of the system over there. The book usually seems to be well edited and thought through. I understand that it may cost money to get your book done but in my opinion it is money well spent.
When I’m looking at a photographer’s work I want to see a nicely presented book, well edited with a consistency of style. I like to get a sense of how a photographer shoots, how he sees things. In terms of his work I want to see how he puts his pictures together, his sense of composition, use of light, depth of field, his creativity, that kind of thing. If he shoots fashion how the clothes and model are coming across or how he brings out someone’s personality in his portrait shoots. So to summarize: I look for excellent quality of work, creativity, fresh perspective, beautifully composed images and the photographer’s style.
M: What turns you off in a photographer’s portfolio?
I: for one when somebody hasn’t done his or her homework. It is really great when a photographer knows and loves the magazine they are coming to see. And understands its style! Looking at back issues and familiarizing yourself with the content will really help in determining what pictures make it in the book and what don’t. They must look though their work and if there’s nothing that they feel is appropriate then don’t even bother making the call. Don’t get me wrong I am not talking here about only wanting to see similar work to what we have published. We do want to evolve and challenge our style but if a photographer only shoots very grungy, gritty, avant-garde work then Vogue is probably not the right fit. However, if they feel that there are some things in their work that would be good for us to see then it’s worth the call.
Next is sloppy editing - be brutal about what makes the cut and only put in the best work. I know it’s an incredibly hard thing to do but too many pictures are a pain in the neck. Ideally I like to see work that is a maximum of 2 years old. Again when putting the portfolio together they need to think about the person that will be viewing it. Make it as easy to follow as possible with a nice flow and good segmentation - fashion, beauty, portraits etc. And really think about the kind of work they would like to shoot for the magazine. If they don’t want to do still lifes or landscapes then don’t bother putting them in no matter how beautiful. If it’s fashion work then only put in fashion and beauty. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. The last thing the photo editor wants is to be insecure about the photographer’s abilities. They don’t want to come away from the meeting thinking ‘oh god I’m not quite sure if they going to be able to deliver.’ What I want is a very clear idea of what the photographer can deliver. There is a lot riding on the shoot in terms of money and time and no one wants it to fall short.
M: How many images would you say are enough?
I: I mean I’m biased because the moment I see a beautiful body of work than I’m happy to spend half an hour going through the images. But I think again from a book’s perspective 30-40 images is really great. Basically what the photo editor wants to see is what the photographer is capable of delivering and you can definitely do that amount of images.
M: How important is the photographer’s attitude?
I: (laughs) good question! What I have learned more than anything else working on a magazine like Vogue is that fashion and portrait photography is a 100% team effort. With other types of photography the photographer may get away with behaving badly because he’s not relying on others to do the job. But with us there will be a stylist, hair and makeup, the producer, personality. It is really important for him to be professional. However, photographers are creative people and they have their quirks and fancies and so a certain amount of leeway maybe given under certain circumstances. My own personal perspective is that I like people to be professional but I don’t mind that people demand great things of their team and under moments of stress nerves can get frayed. That can all be understood under the context of the shoot. But ego tantrums and unprofessional behaviour is out.
M: Do you work with photographers that work with film?
I: we do but it happens increasingly rarely. It does somewhat depend on the shoot. If it is a large story and we can build in the extra time needed for processing then I’m more than happy to accommodate somebody who shoots film. We recently did a shoot of Indian designers in New York and it was a beautiful black and white story and the photographer asked if he could shoot on film and I was absolutely delighted that he did. So we do try and accommodate people but I really think it depends on the story. Most people however are shooting on digital.
M: How often do you guys work with international photographers?
I: For the shoots that I commission I tend to work mainly with Indian photographers or international photographers living or visiting in India. So yes we do and are very keen to continue doing so. The fashion team also works a lot with international photographers for their large shoots. We are always looking at ways to evolve an aesthetic in India and working with people from outside can introduce a fresh perspective. The mandate was to raise the benchmark of fashion photography in India and one of the ways of doing that is to bring outside talent in. We spend a lot of time selecting people whose style will work for our market and I believe we’ve been extremely successful. So yes we’re very keen.
M: Why is it a good time to be a photographer in India?
I: I think it’s a good time because there is a lot of scope for western talent here. The market is evolving with a good number of magazines launching. You just need to read the papers and realize that India’s market is growing at a good % rate over maybe more competitive and saturated markets out West. I think foreign photographers can bring a different aesthetic and professionalism to the market, a quality that is definitely appreciated by the magazine world. It helps challenge certain visual stereotypes. I’m not saying that creativity is lacking here but I think India can just gain from outside expertise.
M: What advice would you give to a young photographer who has dreams of shooting for Vogue one day?
I: My advice to them would be to develop a nice body of work across the same segments as Vogue. The work should give a good indication as to his/her style of shooting and be nicely individual. Once they have done that then the next is to pick up for phone and call. Don’t be shy but be clear about the kind of work they want to shoot.
M: Do you have any thoughts on Post Production?
Iona: This is a debate I’ve had with many people, the difference between a photographer and a digital artist. As a magazine we would prefer to receive an image that is 90% perfect, which needs minimal retouching. In today’s age because of digital photography you can obviously alter your images as much as you want. From my perspective I would rather have a near perfect image than I would one that needed a lot of post. There may be an aesthetic you are looking for that demands a certain type of post production in which case if its in the context of the shoot brief then that’s absolutely fine but skin for example, should look alive, porous, healthy.
M: Thanks for your time Iona; I know there are a lot of photographers out there that will benefit from this information.
Iona: My pleasure!
Martin and Iona at the Conde Naste India offices in south Bombay