Q&A with SF magazine’s ALEJANDRO CHAVETTA

10Dec10

SanFrancisco magazine Art Director, Alejandro Chavetta, is part of the team that designs the city’s leading lifestyle magazine. Photo driven and beautifully designed, each issue features the work of 12 – 15 of the Bay Area’s top photographers. Responsible for hiring and art directing the talent, he is a favorite AD among local photographers, known for his creativity and open and collaborative approach.

Tagged by James Chiang, Alejandro agreed to be interviewed by POP. We talked about how he finds, selects and works with photographers, the role of personal work in the decision process, and what he looks for in a photographer in today’s market and much more. A prolific and talented collage artist and photographer in his own right, I asked him to share some of his amazing personal collage work with us as well (jump to the end of the interview for a sneak peek).

A big thank you to Alejandro for taking time from a very busy holiday schedule to talk with POP.

December 2010 Cover - Photo by Cody Pickens

For full interview, please click on link below.

POP: What is your background?

I have a BA in Visual Communication/Graphic Design from San Francisco State University. Before moving to the US (from Mendoza, Argentina) I was studying Journalism, a degree that I pursued at City College of SF until I transfered to SFSU, and changed majors. Before SanFrancisco magazine, I was the Associate Art Director at the (now defunct) Official US Playstation magazine for three years. I have been the AD at SanFrancisco magazine for four years.

POP: As the Art Director at SanFrancisco, in addition to designing and helping to lay out each issue, what is your role in hiring photographers?

I do design and layout the magazine, with the Design Director and the Associate Art Director. I mostly do features, and some front of the book  pages. We discuss which ones are the best, and proceed to make an order-of-preference list.

We discuss the assignments/stories and come up with a list of photographers that would be good for the assignments. We pick our faves and begin to assign stories. Depending on the story, we either ask an editor/writer to write a paragraph about their article, which we send to the photographer along with the shot list, story, and ideas we came up with during our brainstorming.

POP: What role does photography play in the pages of SanFrancisco?

SanFrancisco is a photo-driven publication. It was designed that way. With the 2005 redesign, we tried to communicate as much as we can about a story with the use of photography.

A good example is the Click section which focuses only on photography. Sometimes there is a news hook and sometimes it is just about an amazing shot. We run three images each month. Click is spearheaded and photo edited by the Associate Art Director Monica S. Lee. She spends endless hours looking for the right shots to include in the mix.

Photo by Navid Baraty

Photo by Mona T. Brooks

Photo by Mark Saldana

Photo by Jason Rosete

Photo by Chris Brennan

POP: You hire mostly local photographers and spend a few hours each day looking at online portfolios. The Bay Area must have a very large and talented pool of photographers.

There is a huge amount of talent in the Bay Area, and we try to work with new people as often as possible.

I find there is a lack of a regional database of sorts, in which creatives can find photographers. Photoserve is a good resource, however the search/organization is far from friendly.

A complete and properly sorted database of photographers and reps would make it possible for creatives to find the right fit at the right time. Hey Flickr! if  you are listening; get cracking on a regional search that works. People would love it. And yes. I believe all photographers should have a flickr page. It is free.

POP: What sources do you use for finding new photographers and how do you use them?

I follow a lot of art, photo, and design blogs as well as creative networks such as Behance.net and CargoCollective. Flickr is a fantastic place. The search engine is terrible, however I do manage to look and find people there.

It takes time, but I do follow photographers and check on their new work often. Behance is more comprehensive since it allows for geographical searches and to add people as contacts or to just “follow” them. In Cargo you pretty much check on the updates of the people you follow and see who they follow. Also you can look at other creatives and look at who they follow.

POP: Any others?
Jeff Hamada’s booooooom.com
photo devotion
AMERICAN SUBURB X
iGNANT
SOME/THINGS
feature shoot

POP: What is the best way for photographers to reach you? Email, mailed promo, in-person portfolio review?

In order 1) simple mail promo 2) email 3) call me (then we meet)

POP: How often do you hire new photographers? What convinces you to take a chance on a new photographer?

Great work and versatility. You have to do many things and never say “no” to an assignment. It can open doors and it gets your work out there. For our Style Counsel section, we send photographers out on location. If they can look past the assignment, shoot it and get details, it’s successful. We look for photographers who can do a lot of different things. And also by what they are interested in. Sometimes is as simple as just falling in love with their work.

POP: How does a photographer’s personal work come into play when you’re
reviewing their portfolio?

Always show it to show what you’re really interested in. One recent project that illustrates this point was for a regular section called The Drinker. We have a spirits writer. The story was about Calvados. Usually the shot is of a man drinking, a sommelier, a brewmaster, etc. Basically a bottle and a person. And no women. For this piece, we were shooting the distributor for Calvados.

I looked into Scott Peterson, an awesome food and product photographer. He’s been doing Dutch Master still life photos as a personal project. We had the opportunity to hire someone who got to do what he wanted to do. So he hired his own stylists, etc. If you can appeal to that, then everyone wins.

Photo by Scott Peterson

That’s why it is extremely important to have personal work in your portfolio. It does not have to be a prominent section, but it has to be there. It tells a lot about the photographer and how they see themselves. Their personal works is a projection of their vision. It helps me to see what their interests are, what drives them, where they want to go.

We hired Stan Musilek for a fashion shoot. We thought we had a cool idea and so did he. But he showed us some solarized images he was playing with and we ran with it.

Photo by Stan Musilek

Photo by Stan Musilek

Photos by Stan Musilek

Another example is Rod McLean who shot a couple of professional climbers for a cover and feature on health. Rod loves climbing, so I called him to shoot people he admires. Rod had shot for us several times, but this time it was all about something he would really enjoy.

Photo by Rod McLean

Photo by Rod McLean

POP: What about established photographers who have sites with little to no commercial work on them? The entire site seems like personal work?

It is about narrowing down the type of work they are interested in doing…narrowing down the type of people they want to work with. Like I said in the previous question, it is about showing their vision. All the technical skills are there, in every shot, no matter what it is.

On the other hand, I do find it annoying when there are no sections in portfolios. Creatives searching for photographers should be able to easily navigate someone’s work without having to figure them out.

POP: You’ve been mentioned to me by a number photographers who say they love working for you, that you’re collaborative, give them a lot of creative freedom and have great ideas. What is your approach to giving assignments that assures you get the shots you need and the photographers have such a good experience working with you?

My job is to give them a set of parameters they will be happy with and be content to run with. A seed of inspiration. We try to come up with ideas/directions that would be good for particular photographers. I look at what they are interested in doing by reading their blogs or looking at their personal work to see if there is something there that we can incorporate into the assignment.

To me it is as simple as giving a photographer a list of shots I need and things to look for along with the feel that we wish to achieve for the particular assignment. Once that “punch list” is done I encourage all of my collaborators to explore different angles, ideas and approaches that may work better. It is important for me that the basics are taken care of.

That is where planning comes in. Photographers know what we need, so in order to expand on the assignment they have to wisely manage their time and resources.

POP: You work with some of the top Bay Area photographers, both editorial and commercial. What, in addition to exposure, helps you attract such top talent?

SanFrancisco is designed to attract photographers. We work really hard to make our magazine look as good as possible. Making our photographers feel that their work is shown within the right context and with respect is very important.

Editorial also gives them the creative freedom not found in commercial/advertising jobs and exposure to a great demographic. I like to think of assignments as collaborations in which we all learn from each other while making something for others to enjoy.

POP: How do you make the most of your editorial budgets?

Several ways. One, we pay by assignment. For example, we might assign multiple locales and/or assignments to one photographer. Also by planning ahead, which allows photographers to include my assignments into their busy schedules. The more lead time I have, the more inclined a photographer would be to take on the assignment. I have at times offered my photo intern as a helping hand to go on shoots. Sometimes I can offer photographers the option to correct one shot, that later on will be matched (step-by-step) by our imaging team. This way they don’t have to spend tons of time at their studio correcting images while they could be shooting something else.

POP: Do you generally give younger photographers front-of-book assignments to see how they do or do you sometimes hire for a feature first time out?

Yes. It is easier that way. If something were not to work, it could be remedied more easily than a bigger assignment/feature.

POP: What would make you not hire someone again?

We give them a list and they need to go down the list and get the shots. They’d have to not follow any guidelines.

When I send a photographer on an assignment I expect that they would represent SanFrancisco magazine as if they worked there. If a photographer is not personable, respectful, tactful and professional, I won’t bother calling back. The last thing I want is a subject of a story complaining about a photographer.

POP: You have photographers you have longstanding relationships with. What keeps you hiring them?

Their talent, ideas, and willingness to understand the hardship in which print publications find themselves in nowadays. Even though I don’t hang out with my contributors, I feel as if I do have relationships with them. A friendship of sorts that opens the channels of communication in a way that allows for a more fluid collaboration.

POP: Do photographers ever ask you for feedback on their work for the
magazine?

Yes. I gladly give reviews. I tend to give my feedback/praise when taking care of the business part of things at the end of the process.

POP: Any advice for photographers working in this economy?

Now is the time to take chances, pitch ideas, try new things. To find a way to make people happy. So few of us are lucky enough to be doing what we love, so we have to try to get it done even if we don’t have enough money. If you do it right, people will like you. Find a way to collaborate with others to learn new skills, and meet people. [Now is not the time to be difficult.]

POP: Who are some designers past and present that inspire you?

Fabien Baron
Edward Leida
Carl De Torres
Anton Ioukhnovets
Deb Bishop
Michael C Place
Surface to Air
non-format

POP: What magazines past/present inspire you?

NY Times Sunday
NY Times T
GQ
Wired
W (before their recent changes )
POP magazine (UK)
Vision (China)
Monocle
National Geographic
Neo2

POP: You’re also a collage artist, photographer and graphic designer. Your collages are so elegantly designed. What is your inspiration?

It’s a way for me to use the side of my brain I use at work, my work skills, but that has no use whatsoever. Every creative person should do this.

Also, other people’s work. I like to look at what other people are doing. It is an incredible (and humbling) feeling when I’m blown away by someone else’s project/work, and I just have to go  to my studio put on some music, and make something for myself. There are works that carry an incredible amount of energy with them.

As far as subjects/things: architecture, photography, music, and science are my main inspiration. Making collages feels natural to me, since that, in essence, is what I do as an art director: look for images, materials, and put them together into a composition. The difference is that these do not have a practical purpose.

POP: What is your process? Analog? Digital?
Now is mostly handmade. I will go the digital route if it is for a project that requires it.

POP: Do you have any current or upcoming shows? And where can we see your collage work?

I am proud to say that I was invited to be part of the Cutters exhibit in Cork, Ireland this coming February.

I also have some work showing at 360SEE Gallery in Chicago.

My online portfolio is on Cargo Collective.

Again, a big thank you to Alejandro for the interview and for sharing some of his own work with us.







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