INTERVIEW

« At the end of the day if you agree to a job, then you accept the conditions and should behave as a professional. »

Condé Nast's art-director Brendan Allthorpe gives advice on how to break into the magazine circle, what's expected of photographers when things don't go well on shoots and how he sees talent.

Brendan Althorpe

With more than twenty years of editorial experience, the Aussie art-director spent seven years working with the Russian counterparts of the famous brands, heading the visual departments of GQ, Vogue и Allure. Initially meeting Brendan at GQ Russia's office, then bumping into him while in India on a stint a year later (Vogue office this time), we then met again in Moscow when he was invited to help launch Allure, at which point we officially became colleagues. These days Brendan lives and works at Condé Nast's La Cucina Italiana in Milan.
Anton
"What is the main difference between working in Russia versus the rest of the world?" is the most frequent question I hear from photographers. Having worked as an art director in Sydney, London, Mumbai, most recently Moscow (GQ, Allure, Vogue) and now Milan (la Cucina) you seem to be THE right person to pass this question onto. How would you compare Moscow to these markets?

Brendan
Honestly, I'm not sure there are such big differences for me as I have always approached a shoot in more or less the same way. Of course, there are differences in budgets (or rather what your budget gets you), quality of studios varies (Moscow is amazing now compared to my first stint there in 2003 when studios were almost non-existent), the attitudes and personalities of the talent vary too. While in India there could be hundreds of people on a shoot's set, in Russia there might only be a couple of people. For example, each light you hired came with two people. A photographer had two assistants. Drivers. Set builders had many people. The talent came with their own team. Hair, make-up - all had assistants. Fashion teams had assistants - the "boys" who packed the clothes. Add to that catering. Studio people. Art director. Producer. Journalist. A huge bunch of people.
No matter where I have worked though, I have generally approached the planning of a shoot the same way. You research your subject, put together a mood board, work with the photo editor or producer and photographer and work out the set or location etc. So in many ways, it is the same. Most often in the west, I would know the person I'm shooting, whereas I knew nothing of Bollywood stars when I started in India for instance. Which was often an advantage when they walked on set - I had nothing to be nervous about as I didn't know their star power.
What has been your role as an art director in all these magazines?

My role as an art director is really to steer the visual identity of the magazine. I don't consider myself as a flashy art director. I have always worked with readers in mind and have been lucky enough to work with some great editors over the years that knew what made a good editorial layout and what didn't.

What has been your role as an art director in all these magazines?


My role as an art director is really to steer the visual identity of the magazine. I don't consider myself as a flashy art director. I have always worked with readers in mind and have been lucky enough to work with some great editors over the years that knew what made a good editorial layout and what didn't.

You must have worked with a lot of photographers over the past 20 years. Could you guess how many?
Goodness knows. Surprisingly in newer markets, there really is still only a handful of photographers that seem to break into editorial and commercial work. The talent pool of established photographers is relatively small.
Why do you think that is? Up-and-coming photographers often share their frustration that they can't break into the magazine industry.
I don't know why that is, hahaha! Perhaps its because in newer markets the whole industry is young. Which means that there aren't enough schools that can consistently produce enough pools of skilled photographers (and other types of professionals in the industry), to work with. However, this is changing fast now.

Source: allthorpe.com
There must be an even larger number of photographers that you chose not to work with. How do you decide on whether [to convince your editorial team] to give a photographer an opportunity to shoot or not?

I wouldn't really say there are photographers I choose not to work with. Photographers are selected based on the strengths of their work and the suitability for a particular story. If I can show my editor references of a photographer's previous work, which matches what we are after in terms of creativity, then there isn't much convincing to be done. Although this is where reputation and attitude come into play sometimes also. Maybe there was a past experience that didn't work out so well etc. I'm always open to giving someone a go. Your first job might not be a cover shoot though. There is a bit of an expectation that someone is willing to do some smaller things to work up a rapport with the magazine.

Source: allthorpe.com
There must be an even larger number of photographers that you chose not to work with. How do you decide on whether [to convince your editorial team] to give a photographer an opportunity to shoot or not?

I wouldn't really say there are photographers I choose not to work with. Photographers are selected based on the strengths of their work and the suitability for a particular story. If I can show my editor references of a photographer's previous work, which matches what we are after in terms of creativity, then there isn't much convincing to be done. Although this is where reputation and attitude come into play sometimes also. Maybe there was a past experience that didn't work out so well etc. I'm always open to giving someone a go. Your first job might not be a cover shoot though. There is a bit of an expectation that someone is willing to do some smaller things to work up a rapport with the magazine.
You went from GQ to Vogue to Allure to GQ and Vogue again, shifting between male and female magazines without even a blink. What is the main difference between male and female aesthetic that photographers need to understand? Was it tricky for you to shift between the two?
I'm not sure it is really a specific photographic thing as such. The content in itself was different. It never really about one type of lighting worked for Vogue and another for GQ for example. However, there were considerations to take into account. For instance, with Allure, it was always important that the makeup appeared in the magazine as close as possible in colour to the real thing. With Vogue, the styling is obviously of the utmost importance - and the clothes need to be seen in the pictures. At GQ as well styling was often an important part of the equation - being creative enough but without being too fashion forward to scare the readers or it was something sexy without crossing the line too much. At the end of the day, it is all about storytelling. So with decent planning and a good brief on the editorial side of things made it not difficult to switch between them.
Was the job as an art director a popular one where you grew up?
I grew up on a small Island of the east coast of Australia. It was probably the last thing on most people's minds to do - especially 20-odd years ago. Fortunately, a friend of my parents was a magazine art director and after work experience with him and working on the school magazine (I know…that sounds rather dorky!) - I pretty much knew this is what I wanted to do.
Photographers are selected based on the strengths of their work and the suitability for a particular story.
How did your parents react when you told them about your decision?
My parents are the type that are happy if their kids are happy. At the time I finished high school there wasn't the number of design courses available as there are now. I applied for IT-focused courses. Fortunately, I found an opportunity to go to art college instead.
Let's go back to the number of photo shoots that you have been a part of. There must be at least a couple that didn't work out. What happens after such shoots? Does the photographer automatically become 'blacklisted'?
I can't really think of any shoots where a photographer is automatically blacklisted. Sure, sometimes there are shoots that don't go as well as planned. This can be due to a number of factors. More often than not whether a shoot is successful comes down to planning. If a shoot is rushed - its chances of being great are less. Sometimes a team doesn't quite gel, or the talent [the person being photographed] is difficult. I think the biggest influence on a shoot succeeding (and indeed in getting hired again) is a photographer's attitude. If the shoot is difficult - that's the time for the photographer to step up and have a positive influence rather than adding to the stress of a difficult shoot. I hate to be blunt, but photographers often forget who the client is. That would be the magazine. Budgets are often grumbled about - but at the end of the day, if you accept the job, then you accept the conditions and should behave as a professional. Most of the people I work with do just that. Otherwise, yes…you are less likely to be hired again.

Another instant turn off comes down to how a photographer speaks to and about the talent and the magazine they work for. Probably the easiest way to get blacklisted is if it gets back to an editor that the magazine or talent have been spoken to or about poorly.
If you accept the job, then you accept the conditions and should behave as a professional.
What behaviour in a photographer drove you not to want to work with them any longer?
Besides all of the above, cancelling a job at the last minute is also never going to go down well.
Some photographers would love to shoot for magazines but are convinced that its impossible to break into this circle. What would you advise them?

I would still love to see more people come in via the traditional route of assisting well-known established photographers. Those that have been around for a while. Not only would you learn on the job, but you would also get to meet art directors and develop relationships with them who would be invaluable to your career later on when you start showing for yourself. I'm also a traditionalist in that I want to see a printed portfolio. Especially if you are pitching to a printed product. I want to see images reproduced on paper. Sometimes something looks great on screen, but it shows knowledge to have professionally printed and edited your work down into a book of no more than say 30 images.

I think another thing to consider is to choose your speciality and stick to it. I don't want to see and won't have much confidence in someone that shows me a portfolio that includes every style of photography (still-life, food, fashion etc.). Stick to one or two areas that you love and do them well.

Some photographers would love to shoot for magazines but are convinced that its impossible to break into this circle. What would you advise them?

I would still love to see more people come in via the traditional route of assisting well-known established photographers. Those that have been around for a while. Not only would you learn on the job, but you would also get to meet art directors and develop relationships with them who would be invaluable to your career later on when you start showing for yourself. I'm also a traditionalist in that I want to see a printed portfolio. Especially if you are pitching to a printed product. I want to see images reproduced on paper. Sometimes something looks great on screen, but it shows knowledge to have professionally printed and edited your work down into a book of no more than say 30 images.

I think another thing to consider is to choose your speciality and stick to it. I don't want to see and won't have much confidence in someone that shows me a portfolio that includes every style of photography (still-life, food, fashion etc.). Stick to one or two areas that you love and do them well.

What do you think makes a person talented?
Attitude. Attitude. Attitude. How you deal with things like mentioned above. Obviously, you have also to be passionate about what you do. I think being a photographer now is harder than ever. Technology has moved so fast and anyone with a digital SLR these days thinks they're a photographer. I think it is good to have a portfolio of both commercial work with a little bit of personal work - as it shows a real interest in the field. Good communication skills are essential. For both being able to sell yourself to potential clients and also on set - directing the crew and talent.
Everyone around you knows that you love cooking. Now, living in Milan and working with the Conde Nast's La Cucina Italiana, you seem to have managed to combine your two deepest passions - magazines and food, into one. Are there moments when it is a hard job even though this is what you love doing?
Of course, there are hard moments. When the cheese on a pizza is starting to look sickly, and you're spending time trying to get the styling right. Hahaha! In all seriousness of course sometimes it is hard. But it's been a great learning curve so far. Again, it all comes down to planning. My Italian isn't great, but certainly better than my Russian. And I always said that working in a visual field it is almost an advantage not to know what the headline says for because I have to concentrate on making the story understood clearly visually without relying on the words to sell it. Which is exactly what images can and should do.
If you want a job with Russian Vogue - buy it. Study it.
What is one most important skill that you recommend photographers to develop?
Communication skills first and foremost - as I touched on earlier. I often think that with creative fields you have to be born with a certain amount of artistic talent. Anyone can be taught how to use InDesign and Photoshop, but I think good photographers don't just know how to use their cameras but are born with a certain amount of creative flair.
We talked about both talent and creative flair - what is the difference between the two?
If you are looking into this industry, then you have a creative flair already! However, you might be more talented in, for example, photographing landscapes rather than fashion, so you need to take your creative flair and work on discovering what you're most talented in and offer that to your clients. Of course, later, once you've become very good at it, then nothing stops you from trying your hand in new directions.
What would you suggest photographers do to expand their horizons?
You need to get out and visit exhibitions, read, watch movies, travel. Also, I think it is important as a photographer to know a bit about the magazine you are pitching too. If you want a job with Russian Vogue - buy it. Study it. Look at the sections etc. You'd be surprised how many people that I have met with to shoot for me that have never opened my magazine. It is an instant turn off. TU
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