Purvis, Pugliese and a Pitbull. ("The Process" Special)
The editors at SPD.org have been asking design directors from across our community to tell us about their "process" and share some insight into the art of publication design, (check out more at the site's Process channel).
Benjamen Purvis' contribution to this ongoing series was such a great entry we thought it deserved a bit more play which is why we're posting it here on Grids.
Email your sketches/development ideas or killed layouts to firstname.lastname@example.org today.
Benjamen Purvis: In early July, I joined Runner's World as the new Design Director. One of the features I began working on during my first week on the job was an intense, untitled story by writer John Brant, about a family of runners who were attacked by dogs on an unmarked desert trail bordering the San Pasqual Indian reservation in Southern California By the end of this horrific attack the boys were spurting blood, barely able to stand up and all alone in the quickly darkening, chilly desert. Limping, shivering, and in shock, the boys walked for more than an hour until they spotted a house with a light on, and were helicoptered to the hospital for emergency treatment. I had a very visceral reaction to this story, and when I was done reading it, I immediately reached for a pad of paper and pencil. I quickly sketched out this idea of pairing a dramatically lit shot of a pit bull--expressionless, just like the dogs were before they suddenly attacked the boys--with a pair or bloody, dusty shoes and socks. I thought that those two images juxtaposed against one another would stop readers in their tracks, and trigger an instinctive fear inside all of us. A woman interviewed in the story said something to the writer that kept going through my head: "Don't go out in those hills. There are dogs out there." I imagined pairing those words with the photos, so I jotted the quote down under my sketch, as a suggestion for the headline.
Editor John Atwood really liked the idea, but knew its success would be determined by its execution. As a safety precaution, we decided to commission studio portraits of the boys, which could also be considered for opener options. I wanted to bring in a photographer who could do dramatic portraits, and who would treat the dog and shoes as he or she would a human subject. Associate Photo Editor Renee Keith included Joe Pugliese--a photographer I'd never worked with--on her list of recommendations. I loved his lighting for his celebrity portraiture. But there was nothing like this in his portfolio, so I was concerned that he might not be interested. I asked Renee to send Joe my sketch, and I anxiously and nervously waited until the next day for his response.
Joe Pugliese: When I was told what the shoot was going to involve, I imagined that it would be illustrated with environmental portraits of the victims. I was interested in the piece and wanted to shoot it. But when I was sent Ben's sketch for the opener, I was blown away. As a portrait photographer, it's rare to get a chance to illustrate a story conceptually. And I thought Ben's direction was spot on. Add to that the fact that we would be also shooting the victims at the location of the attack as well as in the studio, and it added up to a dream assignment.
Benjamen: Once Joe was onboard, I knew we were in good hands. We were indeed hoping to bring the boys back to the scene of the attack for the first time since it had happened nearly seven months ago--which they had mixed feelings about. But once they saw Joe's work, and once they found out I'd requested a remote-controlled, helicopter-mounted camera to fly over them and document the location (in lieu of illustrating a map)--they were encouraged and even excited. Mark Lipsky at Flying Eye Photo handled the aerial photography. I was going to leave the props to Joe and his team, but I spotted a pair of used running shoes in the recycling box that we keep here at Runner's World. I loved their look, and the fact that they were naturally broken in (turns out they'd previously belonged to Editor-in-Chief David Willey). I had them overnighted from Emmaus, PA to Los Angeles, CA.
Joe: The first task that my studio manager and I had was to cast the dog. Initially we were all thinking of the classic, stereotypically mean pit bull, which was depicted in the mockup. We thought of ways to get one for the shoot, without going the route of a professionally trained dog and handler. (There were many options available to us, since we are in Hollywood.) We then thought of contacting a rescue organization, but as dog lovers we felt uncomfortable depicting a specific breed in such a negative light, especially one that has such a bad--and often inaccurate--reputation.
We then started to talk about dogs that we knew that could work, and figured that it would be more powerful to show a dog that is not immediately and obviously threatening. The idea that you might not be able to predict if a dog is dangerous or not--especially a loose dog out on a trail--seemed to make more sense for the story.
Benjamen: This is actually more faithful to the truth than the muscle-bound dog in my hasty sketch is.
Joe: We recruited my first assistant's dog Millie (a Staffordshire terrier with natural ears) for the job, and it was the first time I had ever shot an animal portrait. She took some cajoling to sit and look into the camera, but after an hour or so of simple commands and rewards, we were able to have her pose and peer right into the lens. She was happily running around the studio, and slept on her bed while we did the still life of the shoes.
Benjamen: When Joe's team sent me some low res shots of Millie, I thought, I can't show this to editors yet. Without the contrasting image to pair it with, it's just a beautiful shot of an expressionless dog. They'll lose faith in the idea.
Joe: We of course shot many variations for the shoes, but it was interesting how the position that Ben sketched was the most powerful and worked the best in pairing with the dog. I emailed more samples to Ben from the studio, and he made suggestions and tweaks until we got it.
Benjamen: When I showed editor John Atwood the two images paired together on my iPhone the next morning, he gasped. After studying the diptych for a moment, he finally said, "You were so right to keep the dog expressionless. This looks menacing."
Joe: In the end, the layout is one of my favorite features I've shot this year, and it underscores the reason why I think editorial photography is so exciting. From the initial concept to the production before and after the shoot, every part of this shoot was challenging and rewarding in equal measure.