Alejandro Chavetta, San Francisco magazine

Thursday, March 18 by Juliette Wolf-Robin, ADBASE

Posted in: Buyer Interviews

Juliette Wolf-Robin speaks with Alejandro Chavetta, Art Director of San Francisco magazine, part of the Modern Luxury Group. Chavetta has been with the magazine for about three years. He is also a photographer, collage artist and a freelance graphic designer/art director.

  • The San Francisco magazine style
  • Why photographers should "curate" their websites
    and blogs
  • The importance of customizing promotional mailings

Interview Transcript

This is an edited transcript of Juliette Wolf-Robin's interview with Alejandro Chavetta, Art Director, San Francisco magazine.

Juliette Wolf-Robin:

Tell me a little bit about the style of the magazine, the culture of the magazine.

Alejandro Chavetta:

San Francisco magazine is a city magazine that includes a lot of in-depth reporting. Unlike other city magazines, it's San Francisco so it can be a sort of a provincial small magazine. So, we have this style that tries to convey how cosmopolitan San Francisco is and how stylish, that also goes with our brand. We're owned by Modern Luxury Media-that's where our change of format happened a few years ago, before I was here.

Juliette:

So, before it wasn't part of Modern Luxury? You saw the style of the magazine change when the ownership changed?

Alejandro:

Yes, when the ownership changed. That's part of the whole deal they had, when they moved over. [The magazine] got bigger and it changed the style in which they present the information. It got a lot simpler, too.

Juliette:

How do you think it differs from other city magazines?

Alejandro:

Well, I think that we have a different way of designing things... [we're] heavily reliant on photography. My job here-as well as the design director, my associate, here-is to have a magazine that looks the best possible. So, we're able to call the best photographers we can, and they want to work with us because of that.

The difference is that we do... I feel like... a little more edgy. I wouldn't want to take the credit, because this is the wrong word, but we do things in a different way here... which allows us to call photographers and say, "Okay, you want to do this interesting thing with your own point of view. Let's try something."

Juliette:

Right. Are you hiring local photographers or can the photographers can be from anywhere?

Alejandro:

Local, unless there's something that comes up. Let's say we had someone in D.C., and it needed to be shot, and it was a same-day thing... so just get somebody out there to shoot. Also, same thing, we had this story that was taking place in India. So, we couldn't move to India. We had to coordinate with the photographer in India. So, yeah, we do hire people from other places.

Juliette:

But of the shoots that you do, are most shot in San Francisco?

Alejandro:

Shot local in San Francisco? Yes.

Juliette:

Of the work that's shot, how much of it is on location versus studio?

Alejandro:

I'd say 90% of it is on location.

Juliette:

Location, okay. And how do you choose artists?

Alejandro:

Well, we have a pool of people that we really like... That's part of my daily life, to spend hours looking at portfolios online and checking my email because people send me emails all the time to keep me posted on what they're doing. I look at portfolios all day long and we know two months in advance what we're doing, so we try to think ahead and say, "Okay, who would be good for this?" as we plan the story. And that's how we select people.

Juliette:

Let's say you came across a photographer and you liked their work. Would you then say, "Oh, this is perfect for this story? Call that person and see if they're available?"

Alejandro:

Yes. What we usually do... we have that one person, like, "Oh my God, this guy is great." But then we have other options because you'll never know... People are working. They're on assignment. We have sort of a three-person list and we go that way... We look for people who have similar qualities sometimes so that we're not stuck in a position where we say... "Oh, now we have to start from scratch again." So, we look at it that way, we're like, "Okay this time we'll be good for this. This would be good for this person." Or we'd sort of set up the stories, if it's a different type of story, and have a pool of photographers that would all shoot the same story. So, if someone is not available the other ones can compensate for that.

Juliette:

Right. Usually, with advertising, you have a very specific layout. With editorial, is it that you're just telling them a story and then they go out and bring you back material and you pick from that?

Alejandro:

Well, it differs because we have departments. The front of the book is very highly-templated... and we have the restaurant section... we review a restaurant. For that we have very specific things, we shoot certain meals that are served there, certain plates, we shoot environmental... That's pretty straightforward. Then, we have a drink were we have an item that is called "Eat This." So, it could be candy. It could be a dessert. So, those things are also straightforward.

With this either style or product photography we say "You have to shoot this." Then we decide whether it's going to be on location or studio. Sometimes, if it's a drink, it's much better to shoot this thing in a studio to make it look beautiful. But sometimes the restaurant or bar looks really cool. So, we have to go there.

Juliette:

Mm-hmm. And do you go on the shoots?

Alejandro:

Sometimes. Usually we go on shoots that require assistance or the subject matter is a little bit sensitive. Then, we go to help out and make sure that everything is okay... We try not to micro-manage. I really like to have the way I assign things... where we hand over these set of parameters and ideas that we have. And it's often enough that photographer can go and play within that. It leaves a lot of room for them to work with. So, that's our idea-that we assign something as a solid idea. We always welcome their input and everything. It's just that we want to make sure that things get done within these parameters we have.

Juliette:

How many people here are involved in the decision making of an artist?

Alejandro:

It's usually three people: Design director [Ellen Zaslow], I'm the art director, and Monica [Lee] is the associate [art director]. So, we all go together and as we do the photo editing-we don't have a photo editor-so, we all do that.

Juliette:

What about illustration? Do you all get involved if you need an illustration?

Alejandro:

Exactly. We all do research. We decided if it's okay. Now, we go sit down and look at illustrators for these things and we all come back with ideas.

Juliette:

So, you all do your own research in your own way, come back and...

Alejandro:

Come back and see what fits best and then we discuss why things are working and why things don't work the same way with photography, like, "Okay, why is this person right and why is this person not."

Juliette:

Are there certain resources that you like better? Do you like awards books? Do you like shows? How do you like to find talent?

Alejandro:

You know, now more than ever, I feel like I've been looking at other people's blogs. I feel like some people are doing some really interesting work here curating their blogs. I feel like the word "curating" works better because they really invested into really getting really good images in them, rather just featuring a photographer. So, they pick that one image that we always look for in a book. You have them there and online, but the one thing, the downside of that, is that you have too many things going on. There are too many people doing that.

I still like to go to sites. When I see that photo, I'll definitely go to that site. Usually, people are doing a good job. But getting that one photo, or two photos, for their blog to send someone-to this photographer's site-to be able to [say] "Oh, it's representative of their work."

Juliette:

What do you like or don't like in a photographer's or an artist's website?

Alejandro:

I like very simple sites. Photographers should not over-design their sites. It's awful when they have all this stuff going on. I'm a book person. I like seeing books... That's the most minimal, simple way to see photography. I like the same thing for a website. I don't like fancy animations, slides, scroll. [Make it] easy, nothing that is too complicated, nothing that requires a plug-in. A lot of people tend to get too creative with the design. It should be very simple... your work should speak for itself.

Juliette:

Do you need to call in a portfolio from that? Or can you hire a photographer from their website?

Alejandro:

I can hire from the website and sometimes, usually because we're in San Francisco, a lot of people come through here... they will call and say, "Hey, do you mind if I stop by?" If I have the time, I'll definitely have 15 minutes to sit with them and go through their book because it's a nice thing to have a personal relationship with somebody.

Juliette:

Right.

Alejandro:

If I meet someone and feel like, "Oh my God, you're such a nice person." I feel like, if we have a subject that is very sensitive, I would like for you to go. I sort of trust people better if I see them in person.

Juliette:

How important is their ability to produce the shoot itself? Do you get involved with the production or do you expect that they need to know how to do that?

Alejandro:

I expect that they would do that. If they need help they can get it from me. But, I really like resourceful photographers and I feel like now, more than ever, that's also something important that they should keep in mind-to be as resourceful as they can... through their network, friends. It's a hard time for everyone and the more resourceful they are in producing something, the better. We just had a fashion shoot that was done last month... and [the photographer] produced everything. From getting all the equipment in the studio, to building the steps that we used for the shoot-they did it by hand. I really love when people are able to do that. They came here two days ahead. They managed. They find a place to stay. They find the truck. They got it all done and it looks amazing. It's just because they were able to do everything. The good thing about it is that they maintained control of the entire shoot, which was great for them. It's that they got what they wanted.

Juliette:

Yeah.

Alejandro:

I got what I wanted, too.

Juliette:

What about the initial contact with them? If you see something you like, do you email that person? Do you call them? What is the normal way that you start to do business with somebody?

Alejandro:

If I have an assignment-and I keep my list of photographers, either bookmarks or postcards, promos, anything like that-I keep them in a stack. If I see something comes up, a story, I check with the other people on our team and then we'll [say], "We should call this person." And then I proceed. Rarely, I will send an email saying, "Hey, I'd like to meet you." I don't do that because we have a small team and it's really hard for us to meet with people.

Juliette:

What about working with a rep, or not through a rep? Do you prefer to work with the talent directly or does it matter?

Alejandro:

I usually respect the photographer's decision... if they have a rep, we'll go to the rep. I don't have issues with that. Most of the time, they're very helpful. But it's one of those types of things that you don't want to make them feel weird about going directly through them if they have a rep.

Juliette:

What about the fees that the photographers are getting these days. Has it changed at all for editorial?

Alejandro:

Not for us for the last three years. We have been paying the same lousy amount. It's painful and that's where, like I said before, it's my job to keep the magazine looking great so people want to be here. [The fees haven't] gone up, and they're very likely to go down in the next month or so. So, I'm struggling with that.

Juliette:

What about the amount of art that's being commissioned, has that changed at all?

Alejandro:

Yes, because the number of pages has dropped. So, there are fewer stories within the magazine. There are fewer assignments.

Juliette:

Is there a preference for using the amount of photography that you use versus illustration? Do you have an idea of how much you want use every month or does it depend of the story?

Alejandro:

It depends on the story. We usually rely on a lot of photography. Since I've been here, we've tried to do more illustration but yes, mostly photography. We try to get all illustrations for stories that are very difficult to shoot and also to break it up because sometimes it gets relentless with so much photography.

Juliette:

Right. How do you find illustrators?

Alejandro:

Again, I look through a lot of blogs and there are tons of people that I admire that I always want to work with. I just always go back through their sites and I just contact them directly.

Juliette:

Are there certain types of artists that you see that you think, "This photographer/illustrator represents our magazine well." Is there a certain style or is it just that it's high quality? What do you think represents a style of an artist that you would look for?

Alejandro:

Like a name of a photographer?

Juliette:

No... is there a genre or a typical... do you usually need artists who work in this kind of field or style?

Alejandro:

People that do portraiture tend to be more flexible because they spend a lot of time focusing on shooting people. So, they're able to do different things and I like that. Same thing with people that shoot food, but not just food on a plate but food in restaurants. They're actually very resourceful. They can do a lot of things.

Juliette:

Do you find that it's a different kind of photographer? A photographer can do food at a restaurant... where they can do this whole story for you versus somebody who shoots food typically in the studio?

Alejandro:

Yes. They're very different people and I have assigned stories to people that shoot restaurants and environments. Other stories are not food-related because they may be travel-and they're great. [It's] more like neighborhood stories where they go and they try to condense an entire neighborhood into between four and nine shots. So, those guys are great for that.

Juliette:

What do you look for in the promos that are sent to you? Let's say you get a card or an email, what helps you think, "Oh, this is somebody I wouldn't even consider."

Alejandro:

It has to be something... you know, when people send promos and emails, I know it's difficult to customize your mailings and all that, but you should be careful where you send your stuff. Like something that is applicable to me. I get sports photography and car photography. We don't really use that and a lot of people sometimes take their time and write a little line like, "Oh, I'm in San Francisco. It's great. I think I'll work good in this section." So, the more they're familiar with our publications the better. And I do get a lot of good photographers but it doesn't really apply to us. It's a lot of advertising and things like that.

Juliette:

How often do you find yourself working with new talent versus working with people that you've already worked with before?

Alejandro:

We're sure to get new talent in all the time. That's part of our thing. We try to give people an opportunity. This is a city magazine... San Francisco is one of those places where you have to experiment, but we help people that we love and we really like to work with. They keep on reinventing themselves and having this amazing work out there. Also, these people that we worked with, some of them are very successful commercial photographers that keep on working with us because we allow them to do something that they don't do when they're shooting, like, sports campaigns. But, we do like to use new talent and younger people.

Juliette:

What expectations do you have when working with a photographer? What's the ideal working relationship? What do you want them to bring?

Alejandro:

I like clarity. I don't like snags. I like to convey the story as well as I can, I'll send them the story. What I expect is that these guys will go out with a solid idea, then come back with good work. I'm trying to be as transparent as I can with them because I know that I'm not paying them much. So they should know well ahead, even though I'm paying this much I expect you to still do your best. And people have no issue with that.

Juliette:

Do the photographers ever come to you with a story idea and say, "This is something that's going on in San Francisco."

Alejandro:

Yes. We try to keep that in mind because a lot of people think about the same thing all the time. So that's a very touchy subject, when somebody comes in with an idea and you're like, "Okay, we have been working on something like that or something similar." We have to let them know that there's something in the works that is similar, or that we are thinking about. Or, if comes up later, we'll mention to them, "You know what, we talked to somebody who is thinking about this. Maybe, this would be the right person so we should work with that." But, yeah, we get people pitching ideas. We have a front section called "Click" which is three double truck photos and I don't think many people send those. We actually had to look for those.

Juliette:

Oh, really? But they could... send in things that you would put there.

Alejandro:

They could and we give a stipend for those, and it's a full spread photo. It has to be within the last 30 to 40 days and it just has to be a good photo... I keep on telling people all the time, even when they come in with their portfolios, or send me email all the time, "Why won't you send me a shot? There is a chance it will run full-spread and you get maybe some money for it."

Juliette:

Right.

Alejandro:

So... those things apply in our magazine. If somebody has an idea, it works best if they have this idea for a series and they're shooting it, they send me a piece of that and that also puts them out there-like a big photo of their work that they can link to their site.

Juliette:

Do you share resources with other Modern Luxury magazines? Do you talk about artists or talent?

Alejandro:

Yes, we do and usually people from the west coast. They call me if they need recommendations for photographers, if they need me to set something up for them. They do have a photo editor who's great and I actually call her sometimes if I need help down there. We share-we have a common pool of photographers. Usually if their people-and I really like the fact that this is sort of a broken-down [i.e. regional] national publication-if someone comes in and they're like, "I live in New York. I go between New York and L.A," I definitely put them in touch with the photo editor there because she has 12 other magazines she's working with. So, there's more chance that they would be able to do work for Modern Luxury if they can get in touch with her. So, I try to make the connection for them as well. I just try to help people as soon as I can.

Juliette:

Is San Francisco magazine doing anything with their website for photography in that regard?

Alejandro:

Yes. We do try to link things. We're in transition now with the new site and we're trying to polish everything. We've kept our old site and now our new site is being revamped. We had a photographer-not a staff photographer... Mona, who has a photo blog and she keeps on creating to that blog. She's like our photo person. But yeah. Now, we're trying more and more to have sort of behind-the-scenes, or progress of photography, during the month just to make it more interactive.

Juliette:

Would you like to see photographers also doing video for your website?

Alejandro:

You know, at this point, we're not there yet. I think that we'll get there soon. All this is changing... we're going to this iPad reader... everyone's going to go there. I think that's where things are going to change. The problem with that is, then you have the same person doing two jobs. It's a little bit iffy there.

Juliette:

And if you have the budget for that, too. Right?

Alejandro:

Yeah, and you don't want to assign somebody a shoot and then say "Okay, shoot the video too." I'm interested to see how that develops.

Juliette:

Okay, great. Well, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.

Alejandro:

You're welcome. Thank you for coming.

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