I was fortunate to attend Connections last week and to meet some very nice photographers and reps and see some great work. Top of the list of highlights though was meeting Art Director Charlie Hess of Chess Design at the Brite Productions booth. Introduced to me by Kate Chase, I instantly recognized a kindred soul and off we went to pick up a toasted rice tea for Kate and to walk the show floor together. We went from booth to booth while I conducted what was the beginning of an interview with someone who is possibly unmatched in his love for photography and enthusiasm for the discovery of new talent.
We also discovered that his wife, who cast The Artist, was a friend of the friend with whom I was staying in LA. I’ve learned to pay attention to these coincidences, but already knew I had to interview Charlie and emailed him the next day to ask if he’d be interested in continuing our conversation on POP. As a tenured art director and photo director for consumer titles Print, Buzz and Shape, Charlie now runs Chess Design where, in a unique position to work outside the constraints of the twin newsstand and publicity machines, he regularly commissions work from a list of top-tier photographers for educational and institutional publications UCLA, Anderson, Thacher, and Manhattan among others.
Charlie spoke with POP about hiring photographers for their dream projects, bringing back the photo essay, and the role that a photo editor can play in the career of a photographer. A big thank you to Charlie for sharing his time, insights and inspiring work with POP. Hopefully I’ve made a new friend if I didn’t wear him out with all the calls and emails that started out with “just one more question…”
They actually play Quidditch (the game with the flying brooms from Harry Potter) at universities around the country. It’s a cross between extreme dodgeball and rugby. I hired photographer Patrik Giardino to shoot it the way he would for ESPN.
POP: You now work as a freelance art director and photo editor and run a publication design studio. What is your background?
I was lucky enough to start my career at Print Magazine, so that was like paid grad school. I had great mentors and saw the best work every day. (When you’re young you never fully appreciate how good you’ve got it!)
After Print we moved to LA. I took a year of independent study at Art Center, and then started getting jobs art directing magazines. For years I designed big consumer magazines (Buzz, Code, Shape, etc.), doing celebrity cover shoots, commissioning lots of illustration, and for a while, running feature-length, artist-driven photo essays in every issue. It was learn as you go. But one of the best parts about making magazines is that it’s not so precious—by the time you realize you screwed up a layout or a shoot you’re on to the next one.
Laura Dern, shot by Frank Ockenfels 3 in a field of California poppies. We always shot our covers with natural light, in part to differentiate ourselves from our competition at the time (Los Angeles, and LA Style) but also to take advantage of the beautiful So Cal light.
Looking back I think my career so far has reflected the changing topography of the publishing industry. As the consumer magazine model was becoming less financially stable I discovered the brave new world of custom publishing. They were good gigs (Hotel Bel-Air, Golf Living, etc.). I still had decent budgets and enough autonomy, but didn’t have to deal with celebrities and publicists—so, overall, it was win-win.
And now that design work has morphed even further, primarily into magazines for universities and other institutions (UCLA, Anderson, Thacher, Manhattan, etc.), I no longer have to worry about newsstand sales or celebrity profiles. The people we shoot aren’t always as pretty. But on the plus side, they are finding cures for cancer, composing masterpieces, or saving the planet. And they all have interesting stories to tell.
Generally speaking, my studio, chess design, does magazine start-ups, redesigns, ongoing art direction, and some web consulting. Plus, whenever possible, we do work for good causes. And coming up this year will be our first tablet mag launch.
Coach Wooden is considered the greatest coach in the history of college basketball. But he also taught generations of young men how to live their lives beyond the court. He was also deeply humble. We chose this archival image and added the beam of holy light.
POP: About a third of each issue is new photographers, where are you looking and where are you finding the most interesting work?
This may not be exactly what photographers want to hear, because it’s so intangible and out of their control, but the best way for people who commission art to find new talent is word-of-mouth. A lot of my friends are art directors, photo editors, gallery owners… even reps! We talk. We get excited about some brilliant new photographer we’ve stumbled across, and we share.
Besides that I look at all the juried annuals (SPD, Print, CA.) Not so much the books you pay to get into—they’re too big and a lot of the art doesn’t really work for me. And I do portfolio reviews at Art Center.
Ann Johansson shot this story about traditional old-school church gospel and the new wave of alternative gospel. Love this juxtaposition of the gangbanger clutching the beat up Bible and the ecstasy of the women singing, hands raised in the moment.
POP: With so many publication clients, you have to assign everything from portrait and reportage to landscape and still life. How do you stay on top of all the photographers? And what are the most effective ways for photographers to reach you?
I think that to be good at this job you have to love photography. I look at photos all the time. I go to galleries. I read magazines. I see what my friends post on Facebook. It’s not really work. It’s what I’d be doing if I didn’t have a job.
I probably pay the least attention to mailers and email blasts. They mostly just go in the trash. They feel too in-your-face. I think it’s way more effective to use social media and blogs. That way we can “discover” it on our own.
Story about the graduate fine arts program, which is known to be very cutting edge. We let the photographer loose on the night that all the gallerists and collectors came to see this year’s crop of artists.
A lot of people complain about the state of the industry, but in some ways I think it’s better than ever. It’s just different—and you have to be willing to adapt. In the old days you had to schlep portfolios around, drop them off, wait to pick them up, have them slammed in the taxi door, or get lost in a pile at a magazine’s reception desk. Now you’ve got blogs and Facebook and Instagram and a thousand other ways to show your work. Put it out there. Share it. Write about it. Tell a story. Make it interesting.
It’s the same for Art Directors. In the old days, the only way to make a magazine was to show up in the office every day. As great as it is to work with people face-to-face, it also sucks up a lot of your day. I’m way more efficient on my own. Now I get more work done in a morning than I used to in a full day—and at night, of course. I can work with clients, illustrators, photographers and designers all over the world—as long as Time Warner doesn’t mess up my internet connection!
With limited budgets we often have to be clever how we shoot a story. Susan shot these cops in our makeshift studio and then composited them into the background image. It would have been prohibitive to shoot them on location.
POP: How have the smaller editorial budgets affected creativity?
When I was Design Director of Code Magazine (it was basically the black GQ) I had a million plus annual art budget. We were doing huge celebrity and fashion shoots. We had big crews and fancy locations. But I really can’t say that I liked it any better than the little, low budget shoots I do now. Having less money forces you to be more creative and be smart about your choices.
We tried to shoot the celebrities as real men, quirky and casual, more than set-up and staged.
A couple years ago I did a shoot called “Outlaw Biology” for UCLA Magazine where we shot in my neighbor’s garage, another neighbor does set decorating for CSI and loaned us the science lab props, and my friend who’s an actor was our model. We had a great time. Gregg Segal shot it. And I bought lunch!
Gregg Segal shot this image in my neighbor’s garage, borrowing props from our other neighbor who props CSI, and featuring my actor friend Wiley. We do a lot on a small budget!
If you give smart, creative photographers good assignments, things they want to shoot, you don’t have to have big budgets. Just give them the freedom to do great work. They’re never going to get rich on editorial anyway. Hopefully they’ve got some big corporate jobs to pay the bills.
Now I’m trying to match up great photographers with their dream projects at UCLA. Back in the old days at Buzz we used to run a photo essay in every issue. I’m trying to resurrect that here—personal visionary projects that fulfill the photographer’s passions and the magazine’s mission at the same time.
JB Fitts is a talented and thoughtful fine art photographer working out of LA. His special talent is finding the hidden beauty in the everyday, innocuous world. And making visual order out of the randomness of life. I asked him to wander UCLA campus and find the beauty in the in-between spaces that we all pass by but never notice.
POP: You have commissioned and worked with some of the most unique and iconic photographers working today. The collaborations must be very fun and rewarding.
Because of the nature of the magazines I work with, I’m outside of the publicity and newsstand game. As a result, I get to focus on the steak and not the sizzle—on illustrating the heart of the story and the person. I don’t need to use tricks and artifice to make them more than they are because they’re interesting as themselves.
Most newsstand magazines sell the idealization of the sports star or Hollywood celebrity. It moves copies. But we don’t have to. We’re not competing on the newsstand. And besides, we’re shooting student-athletes—they’re kids. Even our “celebrities” are scientists and doctors — we don’t have to mythologize them. It’s one of the many nice things about art directing trade/institutional magazines.
Recently we had a story about two 6’10” identical twin basketball players. I knew they were visually interesting, and I knew that I didn’t want to do the usual athlete hero fetishizing poses. And most of all I knew that I needed a smart photographer—so I hired Timothy Archibald. Never underestimate the power of a smart, passionate collaborator.
We came up with the idea of modeling the shots after the Depression Era work of Mike Disfarmer. It was the perfect inspiration for the job. The twins fit the bill perfectly. They looked like they just stepped out of a Disfarmer. And in person, they were low key and laconic. Consequently we got something that revealed them for who they are, not just some preconceived notion of what an athlete superstar is supposed to look like.
Timothy Archibald shot these 6’10” identical twin basketball players in the style of Mike Disfarmer.
POP: How much direction do you give your photographers and how closely do you collaborate with them?
I want to make a distinction between photo shoots that are heavily thought out and art directed, and those that just happen organically. Either approach can work. As an art director you need to know when to step in and when you should just let the photographer roll with it, and be smart enough to pick the right images.
For a shoot that was planned and staged I’m thinking of our cover story on sex and sexuality. The problem, of course, was that there was more we couldn’t show than what we could. But the challenge made us think harder and plan better. I hired Diana Koenigsberg to shoot it, for both her color sensibility and her thoughtful way of approaching a shoot. We wound up with this beautiful, voyeuristic image of a couple kissing, seen through a window. It suggested more than it showed. And it worked because we’d done all the legwork going in.
For a cover story on sex and sexuality, shot by Diana Koenigsberg. Because we were so limited in what we could show, we carefully staged this cover, cast the models and set up the location. It suggests more than it shows.
Other times you just have to hire a great photographer that you trust and let them do their thing. One of my clients is the Thacher School, a very old and prestigious prep school in Ojai, California. We don’t have much budget to work with and I can’t always be there to art direct the shoot. So I have to pick a great photographer that I trust, talk them through the theme of the issue and send them off to Ojai on their own.
Tamar Levine shot the last issue. The theme was Tradition and Change. We brainstormed some ideas, but in the end it was a one-off shot that became the cover. This photo of a girl in the grass was successful because it exuded such pure joy, but also because it captured two of the school’s controversies—planting grass in this dry Western environment had been a hot topic. And making the school coed was a relatively recent change. In the end, as the art director, all I had to do was recognize the best shot and lay it out well. And convince the client to chose it, but in this case that was easy.
Cover on the theme of Tradition & Change, shot by Tamar Levine. A moment that the photographer stumbled upon and was smart enough to shoot. And the rare example of a cover that exudes unbridled joy—something that magazine covers rarely do.
POP: With so many variables with edit assignments, there must have been a time something didn’t work.
Portrait shoots are a good example of shooting without a net. You can hire the best photographer, give them the best directions, but they’re only as good as their subject. We recently had a portrait shoot where the profiled person lived across the country. I was able to find a good photographer locally, but on the day of the shoot the subject was rushed and not that into posing for pictures. The photographer was bummed, but I wasn’t really upset—she did what she could given the circumstances. We needed one good frame for the magazine, and luckily she captured a single moment where he let his guard down. That’s what we’re running, and the readers will never know the backstory.
Many years ago I wrote a profile of Fred Woodward for Print. He said that in order to get good work you’ve got to give the artists a big safety net, so that they know they can take chances and if it doesn’t work out, they know you’ll still hire them again. That idea stuck with me. Take chances, go for it, or the work will always be expected and vanilla.
POP: As a photo editor, how much do you play the role of mentor in a photographer’s career? And what do you look for in the photographers you work with?
Well, I’m somewhat unusual because, out of necessity, I work almost equally as an art director and a photo editor. I actually love both jobs. Certainly an art director can mentor a young designer’s career. I’ve tried to do that with my staff (when they were receptive!) And it’s definitely true as a photo editor—where you find young talent and give them the opportunities to make great work.
The academic study of hip-hop culture shot by Naomi Harris. We went all around south central LA shooting rappers and break dancers. This opening image is shot at a hole-in-the-wall (literally) barbecue joint with two young rappers. There was an actual building burning in the background —we didn’t have the budget for special effects.
Personally, I’m looking for photographers who have a great eye, of course, and a unique way of seeing the world, but also, that drive and work ethic where it feels like they shoot because they have to, not because it’s an assignment. I think Frank Ockenfels is a good example of that. When we started working together at Buzz he was pretty young and untested, but he always had that passion, and I think he’s never lost it.
My friend Lisa Thackaberry (LA Times Magazine, Los Angeles, and now Angeleno) is a good example of a Photo Editor who has nurtured some great photographers. She can pick out that one great photographer from an endless sea of portfolios and give them the opportunities to shoot and develop their craft. And give them that safety net that Fred Woodward was talking about.
Amanda Friedman shot this diptych of LA for a feature story on air pollution. This is LA at its most polluted and the promise of blue skies ahead.
Feature story shot by Jeremy Samuelson on an environmental biologist shot at the home of the professor who had grown 50,000 kinds of cacti and succulents in his backyard! Interesting approach to a portrait — he and the dog are tiny in the frame, but the setting says a lot about him.
POP: Can you tell me about SPD’s Unsung Heroes project?
The only professional organization I belong to is SPD, the Society of Publication Designers. They run a smart, current website and have a lot of great events. But all the fun takes place in New York. So I started bitching to my friend Emily Smith who, until recently, ran SPD, about doing something in California. I finally wore her down!
I wanted to present the best west coast talent, in an informal setting. It was a chance for us to all get together, and show off the strongest LA creative work to art directors and photo editors around the country. With tongue firmly planted in cheek I called it “Unsung Heroes of the American West.” (Think Steinberg cartoon of New Yorker’s view of the world.)
The first event featured five top designers and photo editors, each picking their “unsung hero” and presenting them to the audience with a video, followed by a Q &a A. Everyone interpreted “unsung” in their own way, which meant we got some wily, underappreciated veterans and some brilliant up-and-coming talent. It was so much fun we’ve done four now. Lately we’ve included some legendary designers as our keynotes, like Jim Heimann and John Van Hamersveld.
We’re planning a fifth show for May, hopefully still at Smashbox Studios, our home away from home. We’ve been doing them twice a year, and that feels about right. It’s a lot of work for a small group of volunteers to pull off.
Pamela Springsteen shot this classic portrait of Herbie Hancock for this story about the Herb Albert School of Music merging with the Thelonious Monk Institute. The design is a nod to the Blue Note covers of old.
POP: I get the feeling you truly love photography. How did this evolve? Do you shoot for yourself?
I can’t remember ever NOT loving photography. And illustration too, by the way. I love finding great artists, love working with them, and love laying out pages of their work. Sometimes they’re a pain in the ass (!) but you’ve got to remember that they’re putting themselves out there every day, and taking chances.
For the last couple years I’ve been obsessed with Vivian Maier. If you don’t know her, go directly to Google now. And my lifelong hero is Robert Frank. If you don’t know him…
These days, personally, I mostly shoot on my iPhone. My family thinks I’m obsessed with Instagram!
POP: Any photographers you are hoping to work with this year?
Brilliant new photographers I haven’t met yet. That’s the fun part of this job.
And if Robert Frank is free for an assignment, call me.
POP: What is on your office walls?
You mean what’s on the studio floor and every clean surface? Stacks of photography and illustrations, framed and strewn around the office. For a while I designed for a photo gallery in trade for art. And I’m constantly supporting my friends’ passion projects on Kickstarter. I don’t really care about getting rich, but I really could use a bigger studio!
POP: And finally, do you want to plug any new talent you’ve seen?
There are so many talented, smart photographers out there, but if I just limit myself to ones who are fairly recent grads and LA based, here’s a few: Michal Czerwonka, Tamar Levine, Betsy Winchell, Coral Von Zumwalt, Zen Sekizawa, Matthieu Young, and a young woman I saw recently at Art Center portfolio reviews, who blew me away, Zhe Chen—her series of Chinese girls who are self-mutilators is devastating.
To keep up with ChessDesign and for highlights from past projects, please visit Charlie’s blog.