OK is not OK
Photo editor: I have the pictures we shot for the Death of a Steel Town story.The above conversation didn't actually happen, but similar ones have. In fact, they happen all the time these days. I'm the photo editor in question and I admit it, I've become guilty of the sin of saying OK. I'm not fighting it out with editors as much as I should be. Not the ugly fighting of course, but the great back and forth that leads to exciting stories and strong layouts, brilliant pictures, and award-winning illustrations. OK is the safe choice. OK is business as usual. OK is sticking with what you know. OK is not taking chances. OK is not asking that one time too many for the extra spread you think your story deserves. OK is not risking the black eye you might get if you push back with your boss about that opener you believe in.
Editor: How are they? Not too dark, right? I mean, not too depressing?
Photo Editor: They're great. A little dark, but dark in the right way. Really powerful.
Editor: We shot in color, right?
Photo editor: We shot it in color and black and white, but I think the black and white is stronger. I want you to see them.
Editor: I'll look at them, but I think I'll want color. I don't want to run dark pictures.
Photo editor: OK.
Editor: They're not too down, are they? I mean, not too depressing and dark?
Photo editor: We should look at them. Probably better to talk after we've seen them.
Editor: All right, but make sure they're not too dark and down. Make sure we have some smiles. We need smiles.
Photo editor: OK.
Photo Editor: It's pictures of laid-off workers, so I'm wondering if smiles are ... well, you know. But, sure, yeah, OK.
Editor: [Walking away] Smiles! Color! Energy!
Photo Editor: OK.
Times are tougher than ever for magazines. We all know that. Seems like everyone you know has been laid off, is afraid of getting fired, has worked at a magazine that just went bust, or is simply running scared. Ads aren't rolling in, to say the least, budgets are getting cut, staffs are getting smaller and smaller and, well, it's just about as grim now as it's ever been. Not to mention the ongoing conversation about print being on its death bed. I hear people saying all the time, "Well, at least I have a job." I say it too. And I mean it. I'm happy not to be one of the people who's calling headhunters and inviting former colleagues out for a drink looking for my next gig. I've been there. It's not fun. People can't be blamed for being scared. Of course they can't.
But something else is happening these days that I've noticed. People aren't pushing it. I include myself in this group. No one wants to be the one who rocks the boat. People are saying OK instead of saying what about trying this? They aren't fighting it out with an editor over a picture, a layout, an illustration, or an idea. Editors aren't fighting it out with publishers when they request 10 pages of ad-driven edit in a disruptive middle-of-the-book configuration. Hey, it's advertising. Don't knock it! Designers aren't pushing back with editors when brilliant illustrations are killed because they're "too dark." Hey, at least I have a job! I acknowledge that I work at a conservative company, at a business magazine. I'm not at Details, where I worked as the photo director for almost 10 years. Anything and everything was cool there. You could never be too out there. But even then we fought like crazy for what we believed in. Then we went out after work and played together. But something is different now. People are playing it safe now and, in my opinion, safety and creativity don't mix.
I'm not saying that editors, art and photo people have given up or become hacks. Far from it! The world of magazine editorial, art, and photo departments is filled with incredibly hard working, supremely talented people. People with integrity who believe in quality and the power and value of A+ work. And I'm not suggesting either that magazine editors are clueless as to what a great picture, a brilliant illustration, or a sophisticated layout is. Of course not. Editors have corporate masters who are on them like never before. Money and circulation is often all that seems to matter. But something is happening where I work, and I hear it from people at other companies as well. People don't want to get fired, so they're keeping their heads down. They don't want to be the squeaky wheel. "If they're firing people," the thinking goes, "they're going to go after the problem kids first. The troublemakers. Better not cause trouble. At least I have a job!"
I understand why editors are making conservative choices. I understand why the editor in the fictional conversation at the beginning of this rant says he wants smiles. It doesn't come from stupidity; it comes from ... well, I think it comes from fear. Stick to what you know. Now's not the time to take chances. Ads are down, subscriptions are down, maybe now is not the time to run that black and white photo essay on Sudan. Maybe we should keep the energy high and run an up! picture instead of that edgy David Hughes illustration. Maybe we should run the layout with lots of fun pictures instead of the quiet, elegant layout with the Dan Winters pictures. Make that hed bigger! I've never understood what the fear was about exactly. Will readers cancel their subscriptions if the magazine runs a black and white Jim Nachtwey photo essay, or an insane Ralph Steadman illustration? And what exactly will happen if there's no eye contact in a turn-page portrait? Will Toyota pull its ads if no one is smiling in a fashion portfolio? Maybe, but I don't think so.
During the '90s the great ad agency Wieden + Kennedy did some of the most creative, inspiring work anyone had ever done. Remember the Nike work and Just Do It? There was a saying at the agency: The work comes first. No matter what the client said or did, no matter what the budget issues were, no matter what was conspiring to get in the way of creativity, the only thing that mattered was that the work was superb--the best. I feel that more than ever this idea should be applied to what we do. It's so easy to lose sight of this when there's the fear of losing an advertiser, or of getting laid off, or of going over budget. But I think this fear may be getting in the way of what matters most: great work. The work comes first.
Readers are going to cancel their subscriptions if the magazine isn't brilliant. They'll walk away if the work is uninspired. Readers are smart. They have access to amazing work online, in alternative magazines, and in cool books. They expect genius from magazines. Why shouldn't they? They'll forget magazines, and the work we do, if we don't deliver the most creative, intelligent, surprising work we have ever done.
Imagine if Harold Hayes at Esquire in the '60s had said to George Lois: I love your Muhammad Ali cover, but can you show me one without the arrows? And imagine if George had said OK. I know that was eons ago. The world was different then. No Internet, a few fuzzy black and white channels on TV, etc. Magazines were where you learned about the world. Print was healthy and alive. You could do things then that you can't do now. Creativity was embraced, and people took chances and, well, every art director in the country has Covering the '60s on his or her shelf.
I don't understand the intricacies of magazine ad sales, and I don't have any brilliant insight into why people subscribe to magazines in 2009, but it seems to me that more than ever before, now is the time to push it, to try new things, to take chances creatively. Not only to justify print's existence but to justify the time and the effort we put into our work. Now is the time to shake it up. Now is the time to say, No way, man! Color is not OK for this story. The way to go on this is black and white. Or, I know it's sort of brutal, but Richard Burbridge really must shoot this. Or, this kid whose work I just saw at a student show at Parsons is a genius. She could draw the opening illustration for this feature story. I know it!
If people, and advertisers, are asking if print still matters, won't they question its validity even more if the print in question--magazines, newspapers, etc.--is safe and expected? Won't readers simply get bored and go somewhere else? And conversely, won't readers stay with us if what they get every day, week, month is brilliant, fun, and surprising, and exciting and smart?
Now's the time to assign a feature to that young photographer whose work you love even though she's never shot a magazine assignment before. Now's the time to give that illustrator a shot even though his work is sort of dark and spiky. Now's the time to say yes to that Magnum photographer when she asks "Can I shoot it in black and white?" even though your editor wants "sun-drenched" pictures. Everything in you will tell you to say no, better not, better play it safe, we should do this in color. But if the pictures are brilliant and you've made your decisions with care, chances are you won't get fired for shooting a story in black and white. And yes, now's the time--more than ever--to fight with your editor for what you believe in. That genius opener you worked so hard on, for example. Not the nasty kind of fighting. The good fighting--the kind of fighting with passion and love for what you believe in. And above all, now is not the time to say OK.
So the next time your editor says, I know this is the best picture, but I think we should run this other one instead because the subject is smiling, there's eye contact, or you can see the clothes better--maybe don't just say OK. Fight for the best art. Push, cajole, try. If you lose, so be it. If you fight it out with a smile on your face and a twinkle in your eye, you won't get fired. Your editor will love you because he or she will see that you really care about your work. If you really go for it and you make brilliant work, you might just get what you want.
Greg Pond is the photo director at Fortune.