The New York Times Magazine
Director of Photography: Kathy Ryan
Associate Photo Editor: Clinton Cargill
Art Director: Gail Bichler
Designer: Raul Aguila
Photographer: Dylan Coulter
Dylan: This was my first commission for NYT Magazine. I’ve been sending emails promos to the photo department for a couple years and in the last year Director of Photography Kathy Ryan had responded to several of them with kind words. With that said, it was an unexpected call when Clinton Cargill, Associate Photo Editor, called and asked if I’d like to photography and direct videos of the world’s best soccer players.
I’m not certain if there was one thing that lead to the assignment but, the first email promo responded to was a multiple exposure image of professional baseball pitcher R.A. Dickey that I shot for The New Yorker and, also, a larger project for ESPN The Magazine entitled “Anatomy of a Pitch,” that consisted of both photographer and video.
I’ve always had enormous respect for Kathy, but hadn’t met her before this project. From afar, it’s always been clear to me that she has a tremendous eye and, of course, a reputation for commissioning immensely talented photographers. To actually work with her was a dream come true. She has a strong sense of vision from the magazine’s perspective, but also was an incredible advocate for my creative ideas as well. She was supportive at every step and had valuable insights along the way.
From the moment I was given the assignment there was a lot to do, so I didn’t have much idle time to contemplate a bad result. With that said, I was definitely aware of the incredible forum that is NYT Magazine and I wanted to create something really good. The magazine did too, so that was always the driving factor and pushed me throughout the project, from developing treatments, to when I had the athletes on set, to whom I collaborated with at all stages. Clinton and Kathy were instrumental in not letting failure be an option in so many ways. One key area, was by not taking no for an answer when it was unclear whether some of the athletes would be available to us.
The goal of the project was to both photograph and create short films of the world’s best soccer players. We would travel to them, take portraits, create multiple exposure photographs of a particular skill each player is known for and make a short film about each athlete. The overarching idea was to focus on the athletic prowess and physicality of each athlete and capture that in an unexpected way.
First and foremost, when I found out, I remember feeling excitement. It was a massive opportunity. I also felt incredibly fortunate to have been chosen for the commission. Also, frankly, some pride, in the sense, that the hard work up until that point was being recognized. I think most photographers in an unguarded moment, or perhaps even in a guarded one, would admit that a photography career can be a bit of roller coaster ride. This commission was a marker of sorts, that I was indeed on the right path. It’s not always easy to have perspective when you putting one foot in front of the next each day. All of those feelings though quickly settled, with the exception of being excited – that remained present throughout – and I started work on it like any other project.
Kathy and Clinton were interested in creating motion studies – multiple exposures images for the printed magazine and employing slow motion video. So that was initial framing that I started to concept from. I wanted to pare down everything, so the focus was on the beauty and skill of each athlete’s action. We took away everything that wasn’t necessary. I used black as the background for both the multiple exposures and the videos to bring the viewer immediately to the subject. Everyone was to be dressed in their national team jersey – fabulously bright colors. The ball we used was simple, all white and purposely pedestrian looking. Our lighting was a hard source and spare. For the video I had each athlete emerge for darkness to enhance the drama. The slow motion aspect, in the way we employed it, ran counter to how sports is typically portrayed. It encouraged the viewer to look at one single action and admire the masterful skill being performed. This was further enhanced by using a single take, no cuts for each video. Jake Silverstein, Editor-in-Chief, Kathy and Clinton, deserve enormous credit for encouraging this direction. The covers were intended as a contrast to the inside pages and were shot on white.
Our initial creative direction – for the photography and film was based on having 2 to 3 hours with each athlete. That was the initial ask. Fairly early in the process, it became clear to Clinton Cargill, who was the primary photo editor and producer, we weren’t going to have that kind of time with the athletes. Everyone we were shooting plays in Europe and when we started the project, they were just getting into the playoffs. That was quickly to be followed by all of the athletes heading directly to their respective national teams in preparation for World Cup. With that said, we didn’t realize how little time we would have until just before each shoot. And that’s after we were told on several occasions that certain players were not available whatsoever! Clinton, to his credit, would not take no for an answer. In the end, we had between 8 and a half minutes and 25 minutes with each player. We had Leo Messi on set for the shortest amount of time. With the brief amount of time we had, we were able to stay true to our original creative direction, but had to be as efficient as possible. I didn’t want to waste a second of time and that was reflected in the choices we made in terms of shot list order, equipment and crew. My hats are off to the crew, many of which I was working with for the first time (all our shoots were in Spain). They were professional and extremely talented. My digital tech Andrew Katzowitz traveled with me from New York and my DP, Edward Gibbs traveled from London, everyone else was based in Spain.
I’ve always believed that less is more in regards to retouching and prefer images to look natural and real, but flattering. Working with the NYT Magazine though was a new experience in this regard and frankly, took some getting use to. Retouching, in a traditional sense is not allowed. In the end, though, it’s was a great exercise in letting go and embracing more imperfection than I’m use to. Essentially being ok with fly away hairs and wardrobe wrinkles.
The portraits were all single frames. The short films are comprised of a single take. The multiple exposures, though, were a composite of different takes and for that reason they were labeled “photo illustrations” as the NYT photography guidelines mandate. This was the first time that I’ve been credited in that way. Which is fine, I do think of the multiple exposures as being as much art as science. Purposely so. They’re technically an evolution of a film based multiple exposure. The technique is to capture each moment as a single photograph and then composite all of the frames together in post production. I work closely with my retoucher, Alex Verhave, to decide which frames to emphasize, through greater opacity, and which layers to de-emphasize, through more transparency. That helps create a visual hierarchy that leads the viewer through the image. In many ways, it’s more important what you leave out as what you choose to include.
There were three shoots. Cristiano Ronaldo was shot in Madrid. Neymar Jr. and Andrés Iniesta were shot in Barcelona. Leo Messi was shot in Barcelona as well, several days after Neymar and Iniesta.
I think it’s really important to have a conversation with the subject on a general level and, also, explain what it is I’m after creatively. It used to surprise me, although I’m accustomed to it now, but a lot of athletes and personalities arrive to set having no idea what the concept is. I’ve always felt that involving the subject and having them take ownership is always more fruitful. With all that said, our time was so short and there was language issues. Cristiano Ronaldo speaks English well, so we could communicate easily. The other guys spoke just a bit of English. I speak a touch of Spanish, so we were able to general understand each other. There was always a translator on set, so he’d help convey whatever was not clear.
It was tremendously helpful. Having started my career as an art director, I learned how to concept, storyboard and have a basic understanding of the production process. That said, for the video portion of this project I relied on the kindness and skill of others. Alexis Stember’s expertise was invaluable. She was my post production coordinator and advised on the production portion also. My cinematographer, Edward Gibbs, and editor, Georgia Dodson were essential. Many more people as well. This is an obvious statement, but video is such a collaborative medium. For this project it required the talent of many.
I wanted the music to be unexpected and compliment the spare nature of the visual. During the video process, Georgia, Alexis and I kept discussing and both Philip Glass and Nine Inch Nails. And somewhat odd pairing, but that was the reference that I discussed with Will Bates of Fall On Your Sword who composed the music, Keith Reynaud who did the sound design and later Cory Melious who did the mix. Specifically, each piece needed something different in terms of tempo and emphasis, but we wanted them to family well together.
Where you afraid Neymar was going to hit you with the ball in the video?
Ha, no. I was actually hoping he would! Not the camera, but the plexi glass that was in front of the camera. In a couple of the early takes the ball was leaving frame too soon, so I asked Neymar to try and hit the camera. At first, he didn’t believe me, but once he understood I was serious, I think it engaged him even more. He seemed to like the challenge and maybe the mischievousness of it as well.
What did this assignment teach you and how did it further develop your skills as a photographer?
In many ways I’m glad this commission happened at this point in my career, 12 years in, and not earlier. At one point or another I drew upon most, if not all, I’ve learned along the way. More than anything it reminded me of the importance of grace under pressure. It truly was a dream assignment for a magazine I greatly admire shooting enormously famous personalities in a very short period of time. Sometimes the most important thing to remember was just to take a moment and breathe deeply!
Certainly there is no one way, but I’d say first pursue a liberal arts education. There are so many more aspects to being a photographer than taking a picture, so it’s important to be able to express your ideas through writing and discussion. And then, I’d say, find photographers who’s work you admire and work for them, gain technical knowledge and insight into the business side of things, production – essentially all the aspects that go into a shoot. Always take photos, even if you’re working for someone else, make the time. With all that said, I didn’t do it this way. I went to school for art direction and ventured down that path first, then decided later on to somewhat blindly jump into photography. So, there’s many ways to get going, but that’s my advice for someone starting from scratch.
Cristiano Ronaldo, “Quick Feet, Slowed Down”
Andrés Iniesta, “Quick Feet, Slowed Down”
Neymar Junior, “Quick Feet, Slowed Down” video credits