Design and Photo Director: Jesse Southerland
Art Director: Colin McSherry
Designer: Jimmy Cavalieri
Heidi: I understand you do both the photo direction and the design direction which is becoming more often the norm. What are the benefits and the drawbacks in your eyes?
Jesse: Tighter photo budgets each year are no surprise for editorial photographers, but hopefully they can take some comfort in knowing that their clients are legitimately feeling that pinch as well. Yes, in my case I have absorbed the photo director responsibilities in addition to the design direction.
The benefits have been pretty rewarding actually. Being involved from start to finish allows for better communication without as much getting in lost in translation. There aren’t as many surprises (for the most part) when the edits come in. Overall there are less kill fees which unfortunately don’t even have their own budget lines anymore. We absorb that cost out of the real budget, so it’s crucial things go right the first time. In addition to better communication, I think the process is expedited with fewer people involved. I can get back to a photographer who is on set with direct, immediate feedback. They aren’t stuck waiting as long as they would with the workflow of a traditional art department. Also, when pre shoot problems pop up I can generally get back to them within a few hours as opposed to the next day which was often the case before.
It obviously isn’t all roses. Make no mistake, there wouldn’t be a blog of this name if photo editors’ weren’t crucial to most magazines. I’m stretched extremely thin. I’m used to working ahead, but now it isn’t uncommon to be working on 4-5 issues at once every day. The time needed for photo research is greatly reduced. I love having tried and true photographers, but I miss having the time to dig deeper and find younger photographers with a completely fresh and inspiring outlook on the assignments. I feed off of their excitement and hunger. The time spent designing is the time most sacrificed. I can always pull an all nighter to lay out a feature, but I can’t stay up all night and magically produce all of the photos. So the time spent photo directing is more important for me to focus on in most cases.
I see you have some international coverage, how are you sourcing those photographers in such remote places?
For Dario Pegoretti story, we needed him shot in his small studio in the middle of nowhere in Italy for that issue. This stuff is probably another day in the life of a regular photo editor, but it obviously takes more research and logistical communication than the average shoot. I basically scoured through Wired Italia for the coolest portraits and found Max&Douglas who lived somewhat close. They absolutely fell in love with Dario and produced some great photographs. Again, nothing crazy for a photo editor, but a huge victory in my position with such limited resources.
What’s your approach to the overall photo direction of the magazine?
The photo direction is identical to the design direction which is identical to the editorial direction. Everything at BICYCLING is about being exciting, fun, fit, authentic and real. Ideally the photography will contain most of those attributes, but as long as the photo nails at least one of those descriptions we are good, but it has to really nail it. I am most intrigued by authentic and real. Bicycling photography can go really wrong really quick. You may have a really authentic looking person to shoot, but then they put on their outfit, then a helmet, then sunglasses and suddenly that person is reduced to a storm trooper…zero individuality. We have found tattoos and beards go a long way, thank you hipsters! The lighting and processing plays a huge role in the overall direction. When I first started I really did a 180 and completely got away from the high key, edge lit, over sharpened look and went really low fi in an attempt to feel more real. I think the result was a little underwhelming, and though it felt real/raw, it lacked an energy and excitement. I realized there still needs to be enough punch, just the right amount of polish and authentic environments make all the difference. That is the direction we strive for now. VSCO alone can’t solve all of our problems.
How do you approach gear differently?
Gear is less about the environment and lends itself to more to studio photography which is quite unlike the rest of the magazine. We try to show gear in a very practical, utilitarian way that best illustrates why we feel the need to showcase it in the first place. Bicycling gear definitely evolves over time, but month to month, year to year, the changes appear very minimal. We are often shooting the same things over and over so I try to focus first on how can we best show what is being written about rather than thinking style and lighting first. We work closely with the editors to get a feel for what matters most. Then we go full blown “bike porn” and shoot whatever we think looks the coolest and try to get as close as we can to it. Most often that is what ends up in print, but we still listen to the editors. Also, we take full advantage of provided photography from the companies when available. I figure they have spent a lot more money than we could ever afford on these products. Bonus: they often even come with clipping paths! We have a small but scrappy art department that can comp a lot of provided shots together, add shadows and make it feel like a highly produced editorial page. This allows us to produce and afford our larger shoots.
Gear covers have an entirely different approach to the rest of the magazine. Full disclosure, I cannot get enough ring light for a bicycle cover. I feel embarrassed when I ask photographers to dust off their ring lights, but I honestly think they were made to shoot bikes in studio. Plus there are so many bikes in the advertisements and I have yet to see one shot that way, so it’s really a distinctively editorial look.
What’s the hardest part of doing a single subject title?
BICYCLING requires a direction that clearly separates editorial from advertising. We show people riding bikes and gear. The advertisements are of people riding bikes and gear. Luckily editorial trends and advertising trends usually tend to be the opposite. Cycling advertising is starting to look less produced though so I may have to rethink everything.
Regardless of the direction though, a bicycle can only fit on a 8.5” x 11” page or 17” x 11” spread so many ways. It’s extremely tough to get creative shooting bikes without sinking into a really bad conceptual idea that, at the end of the day, doesn’t even show off the bike that well. This probably has a lot to do with my ring light fetish.
What is your favorite section to design and favorite to photo direct?
I love designing a good profile feature. At previous magazines I would do around 2 every issue. Here it’s closer to 1 every three issues, so I really appreciate them when they come along. My favorite section to photo direct would be the one that requires that doesn’t require direction. That section is slowly in the making, but my goal is to have photographers shooting what they would want to be shooting anyway. I know that sounds cliche, but I really believe there is a bicycling photo culture growing in way similar to skateboarding or surfing. When you have people shooting what they love, their submissions are far better than what I could assign or direct and truly capture everything we want the magazine to be. I am also fortunate to work with editors that see the value in that and are encouraging an art first approach to our features. Hint: please send me awesome stuff.
How often do you ride? if at all?
I ride frequently now. I never did until this job, but I have drank the kool-aid and now I have closet full of tights.
What are you looking for your portraits and riding shots?
I want portraits that draw the reader in and make them spend time with it without realizing it. Something intimate that goes beyond style, but is more about the connection between the photographer and the subject. That connection gets passed on to the reader. For riding shots I’m looking for something with a more voyeuristic feel. The rider should be a real cyclist, not a model. I want the environment to be as much of a character as the rider. These shots should inspire me to want to ride by making it look like fun, an adventure, not necessarily a workout.
There’s a nice range to your covers in both gear, scenics and riding, is that a new direction for the title? I remember it always being riders on the cover ( and gear of course )
It is a new direction, one that is closer to what we have been doing inside the magazine. I have never wanted the magazine to exclusively feel like a fitness magazine, but rather an enthusiast magazine where getting fit is a great result of cycling, but not the sole purpose. The overly aggressive solo rider taking up the entire cover gives off a very intense, heavy, serious vibe which isn’t who we are.
What’s the best way for photographers to get in touch with you?