Magazines report for Ei8ht magazine #2
The new issue of Ei8ht is published this week, with lots to recommend it including my second magazine report for the magazine. Here's my piece:
As I mentioned at the end of last issue’s column, one of the key issues facing independent magazine makers remains how to deal with the economics of magazine production, and in particular how to best distribute the lovingly created publications.
This was a key reason behind the setting up of Colophon2007, the first conference for independent magazine creators and publishers, held in Luxembourg mid-March. The three of us behind the event – Luxembourg-based publisher Mike Koedinger, writer Andrew Losowsky and myself – conceived the project to firstly celebrate the growing number of great independent magazines, but also to encourage the exchange of information and experience between those involved in making these magazines.
So while a programme of exhibitions, speakers and panel discussions was central to the three-day event, equally as important were the public areas where visitors and participants could interact. The Room With a View area had a café-bar and a magazine store – what more does a magazinaholic such as myself need? – which proved to be the ideal place to meet people and discuss magazines.
One of the most common discussion points was a new magazine not present at Colophon2007. Monocle is the new magazine from Wallpaper* founder Tyler Brulé, a self-defined ‘briefing on global affairs, business, culture & design’. Much anticipated, its’ arrival has split the magazine world. While observers acknowledge it as a genuine attempt to do something new, opinion remains split on how successfully it has achieved that ambition. At Colophon (and online since) the general opinion seems to have been disappointment that a grand ambition has failed in execution so far. As I write there have two issues published, and perhaps the most striking thing about them is how resolutely similar the two are.
Monocle clearly sees itself as a journal rather than a monthly magazine. Content is king and design fireworks are strictly out of favour. In that respect it is similar to The Economist, a weekly magazine that refers to itself as a newspaper. That’s not to say the pages haven’t been designed – in fact quite the opposite. The pages are created using a ruthlessly efficient, templated system of design (again, like he Economist) that seeks to help the reader navigate while appearing ‘invisible’. The problem is this look becomes very repetitive across the 200+ pages, not helped by the way that everything has the same weight of presence. There is very little pace through the pages, something that normally photography might be expected to bring.
But like the headlines, pull-quotes and other components that make up the pages, the photography is presented in regularly-sized boxes that often fail to make the most of the images. This is not only a shame in terms of failing to grab the readers attention, but also because there is a lot of commissioned photography in the magazine that fails to register.
A similarly sophisticated design process underpinned the much-lauded Guardian newspaper redesign of 2005, yet that made a deliberate nod toward the importance and power of photography with it’s daily single image centre-spread photograph. For me that remains one of the simple but beautiful highlights of that redesign and one that Monocle could learn from.
Meanwhile, back at Colophon2007, there were many magazines that were making the most of the photography they published.
Carl*s Cars stands out as a singular example of how a magazine can meld photography into it’s overall mix. The magazine, from Oslo, celebrates car culture in it’s most ordinary day-to-day sense. This is not a magazine for petrol-heads or sports fanatics. Carl*s Cars uses humour and a very idiosyncratic editorial tone to record people and their relationships with cars. This includes those that design cars, car salesmen and car drivers. A shoot in the latest issue sums up their approach: ‘Cars in Their Pyjamas’ is a series of pictures by one photographer (name??) of cars ‘wearing’ protective covers. It is about cars but you can’t see a single car in the pictures, just shrouded silhouettes.
Looking at the magazines present at Colophon in a broader sense, one clear theme present was that of found imagery; pictures rediscovered, re-purposed or sourced from non-professionals. This isn’t the first time such material has received attention from publishers – I remember a small paperback book of found passport photo machine images that was published in the eighties and included a set of four images of me – but it is something that has become more common since the internet has
Dutch magazine Useful Photography is perhaps the most established of the current magazines focussing on this type of content. It takes the everyday image and re-uses them in a magazine context. Images from old catalogues, packaging and manuals are run together (usually without words) to create new, random narratives and meanings. Some themes are light, some heavy. One issue consisted of a gallery of product images shot by sellers on eBay, a carefully edited mix of obscure objects digitally rendered in curious detail. Another featured a series of posters celebrating Palestinian suicide bombers in which propaganda images that appeared heroic and powerful on their own are rendered tragic by repetition. Useful Photography pre-dates the current obsession with user-generated content but its editors, who include photographer Julian Germain and advertising guru Erik Kessels, saw this trend coming and anticipated it.
Another magazine working in the same area is Permanent Food, from Italy. It reprints pictures collected by artist Maurizio Cattelan from old magazines and books to create a random reflection on the darker side of life. Misshapen wrestlers, paparazzi coverage of car crashes, kids in make up, seventies building sites – the material sounds familiar, indeed is familiar, but when compiled together in the 200+ pages of each issue, Permanent Food creates a unique, slightly scary, but almost nostalgia-inducing archive of modern life.
American project Found magazine presents a lighter reflection of our lives. Based around a website that requests contributions, the magazine publishes collections of found stuff they get sent. Shopping lists, love letters, random pictures, school sick notes, shop signs are just some of the items that have been included. Nothing is too minor – the more inconsequential the better. This is the real everyday; meaningless, mundane and often unintentionally hilarious.
The magazine also publishes occasional issues of Dirty Found to cover the vast quantity of graphic sexual material they get sent. These issues are extraordinary records of everyday sex lives. Handwritten adolescent male fantasy stories combine with the photographic attempts of ordinary people trying to replicate the sex of movies and advertising to make you realise how slick the professional image-makers are. The backgrounds of the images alone are enough to justify the name Dirty.
These magazines of found imagery are useful reminders that when used in the right context any image can hold weight and importance. In a time when more and more people have access to the ability to shoot more and more imagery, the desire and ability to combine and edit pictures as a series is more important than ever. And where better to do that than within the magazine format?
Useful Photography and Found magazine feature in an exhibition (along with Ohio magazine) at The Photographers Gallery. ‘Found Photography’ runs from 20 April through 17 June 2007.