Going Indie

Getting your foot in the door with independent publications.

Beyond the magazine rack at the checkout aisle of Whole Foods, there is a world. It exists on the back shelves of bookstores, in your favorite boutiques (the ones that sell Palo Santo sticks and mugs with Beyonce quotes), and if you’re lucky, your local library. On these shelves, alive and well—pending funds to print—is a display of independent magazines with the kind of innovative imagery you set out to make when you checked “photography” as your major.

Examples of these types of pubs include Puss Puss for hip cat lovers, Cherry Bombe for progressive women food enthusiasts, Tidal which “pairs East Coast sensibilities with a laid-back West Coast vibe” and a slew of others devoted to fashion, a certain lifestyle or even idea. These are not the kinds of magazines that publish monthly or hire Mark Seliger to shoot their covers. Many of them are self-funded passion projects that publish quarterly, biennially or even yearly, making them more of a collector’s item than rag you flip through at the nail salon.

 

However, it’s these types of magazines where young photographers with dreams of mass circulation are free to explore, building their portfolios from the ground-up and showing bigger names and brands what they’re capable of.

“My whole portfolio was built on those kind of assignments,” says New York-based photographer, Spencer Wells. Shooting professionally for five years and focusing on editorial portrait work, Wells’s early professional experience depended on independent publications like Stereogum (for which he shot The National at the Eaux Claires music festival), and Bitchslap Magazine. He also collaborated with BEST, a print offshoot of BEST Creative Studio, to shoot a beach series for its spring/summer 2014 edition. “All of my strongest work has come from these collaborations and independent projects,” he says. “Generally these projects also allow my work to live alongside other content that I'm excited about and contextualize it editorially.”

 

Lifestyle photographer Sidney Bensimon has had a similar experience after moving from Los Angeles to Brooklyn in 2012. Needing to establish herself in a new city, Bensimon contacted “literally every magazine,” and was eventually introduced to Cherry Bombe Creative Director Claudia Wu through a friend. After seeing her work, Wu hired Bensimon to shoot for the magazine’s second issue. “Through them I’ve met so many people,” says Bensimon, whose shot for every issue since. While editorial projects for independent publications may not be the most profitable, they’re justified when the work to leads to bigger jobs or more exposure.

With the Cherry Bombe photographs in her portfolio as well as work for Soho House’s internal magazine House Four, Bensimon went on to shoot native ads for Bon Appetit, the cookbook Vegan with Phaidon press, and work with creative agencies who represent food brands. “When you shoot for smaller companies, you have more creative input as a photographer, so it’s a good way in helping shape your portfolio,” she says.

Plus, a fact that will never change: “Bigger jobs always want to see a similar thing that you’ve shot already. If I want to shoot for REI, for example, I’ll take my friends camping and take some photos of that, so if the opportunity ever comes, [I can say] ‘here are some camping photos, i’m totally good for this job.’”

 

But another truth remains: thousands of photographers exist, and there are only so many publications. How do you get an independent editor’s attention?

“I go to my favorite book store, I take every magazine that I like, look at the masthead and try to find email addresses of the staff.” But before she contacts anyone, she does her research. “It’s really good to be up on what they’ve been working on, so for Down East (the magazine of Maine), I contacted the art director and was like, ‘your summer issue was so cool, I checked out two of the swimming holes that you suggested, and I really appreciated that story.’ And in the email, I attached photo I shot of my friend at the swimming hole they mentioned. That went over really well.”

Ashley Owens, founder and editor of SUITED, a thick biannual fashion and art publication using black and white photography to highlight what its subjects are “well-suited” for, says many of her collaborations with photographers come from hearing their name. “When a photographer is active in the field, you start to come across each other,” she says.

Personal introductions beat all forms of communication, and second to that, “messaging us on social media; Instagram is a great way that people review portfolios now,” Owens says. Photographer Joshua Woods, who shot his first fashion editorial with SUITED got in contact with Owens through mutual friends and on Instagram. “We became friends and I saw his work develop,” Owens says. “We set up an editorial shoot with him, and it was a risk in some sense because we hadn’t seen his work in a multi-page editorial, but seeing how he was working hard and being consistent allowed us to take that risk. [The shoot] turned out to be one of everyone’s favorites for that issue.”

Puss Puss editor Maria Joudina says that showing you fit the publication can also work in your favor. “It’s great when people send specific mood boards and ideas so that we can see that they ‘get’ our vibe,” she writes via email.

Bensimon says is educating yourself on the brand is key to this point. “It took me a while to realize that even though I sometimes love a magazine, my photos aren’t necessarily a good fit because they have a certain emotion or color palette, and the magazine’s is different,” she says. “I couldn’t call Vogue and say ‘hey, i want to shoot an editorial piece for you’ because that wouldn’t be a good fit for me, I don’t do fashion work. I can appreciate a magazine for what it is, but they have to stay within their aesthetic.”

When planning each issue, Joudina works closely with fashion director, Heathermary Jackson, to put together a list of photographers who may fit the mood. With high profile subjects (like Grace Coddington or Chloe Sevigny), the photographer needs to be approved, but when choosing new photographers: “It’s such a subjective area that there isn’t really anything specific I can describe.” Joudina says. “it’s just something we see and like straightaway, something new and fresh and not trying to copy or emulate someone else’s style that’s currently in demand.”

What doesn’t work? “The blanket contact email isn’t successful for anyone,” says Owens. “We get a lot of submission emails and it’s hard to keep up with them because we don’t have a full time staff; this is a passion project for our editors.”  The better way to get on SUITED’s radar echoes Bensimon’s tactic: getting in direct contact with a producer or fashion editor and starting the conversation. “The power of suggestion is the biggest way [to shoot for us],” Owens says. “And being consistent with your work.”

While a career in photography is always a hustle—and pitching yourself is a constant part of the job—Bensimon’s suggestion is to get organized. “A dear friend of mine suggested that I have a day each week where I use the whole morning for marketing, I call it ‘Marketing Monday,’” she says. “And I know that on that day of the week, I’m going to reach out to clients or publications that I want to work for. Ninety percent of the time you’re not going to hear from them, but it only takes one to open a door.”

An issue of Puss Puss magazine. 
 Photo © Jon Gorrigan