The Cinematic Photography of The California Sunday Magazine

February 2, 2015

By Conor Risch

In the letter introducing the first issue of The California Sunday Magazine, founding editor Douglas McGray notes that “most media gets made in New York.” This new monthly magazine, on the other hand, draws on California and the West for its perspective and sense of place. “The West is huge and fascinating and influential,” McGray writes. “We’re surrounded by great stories.”

California and the West also have specific vibes and esthetics, which are reflected in The California Sunday Magazine’s subtle design and the primacy and space it gives to photography. As editorial clients go, California Sunday should excite a lot of photographers.

“We want to surprise readers with every issue,” says Jacqueline Bates, the magazine’s photography director. “California Sunday imagery feels cinematic, it’s bright; when we photograph people, we want to represent them in an authentic way, with an emphasis on place and setting. You won’t see a lot of stylized studio photography in the magazine.”

“Cinematic” is a buzzword the staff are using to describe the magazine’s photography. Creative director Leo Jung says that means they want to create a “sense of a narrative through a sequence of images” that accompany a story. To do this, they “give a lot of real estate to the photography,” Jung notes, and pay particular attention to the settings where the stories take place. “When we’re shooting subjects and portraits, it’s really important to see them in their own spaces or in the place where the story takes place,” Jung explains.

Another way the magazine achieves a cinematic feel is with a “two-beat cover,” meaning utilizing both a standard cover image and the inside front cover spread of the magazine. For instance, the magazine’s November issue, its second, featured a graphic, close-up Richard Misrach image of a woman standing behind a border fence that separates San Diego County and Tijuana, Mexico. The fencing forms a tight, square grid, through which the woman’s face and upper body are barely visible. On the inside front cover spread, readers saw a pulled-back photograph of the same fence, this one revealing its scale, the rusting steel posts that give it structure, and, in the foreground, what appears to be a blood stain on the stonework on the U.S. side of the border. “As soon as you turn the cover, there’s space for us to use the page to continue the story that we’re introducing on the cover,” Jung notes. “Instead of having words tell you what the story is about, we’re hoping…we can introduce the story through a sequence of images.”

In the case of the November issue, the cover story is about Misrach’s collaborative project with sound artist Guillermo Galindo, “Border Signs.” Since 2009, the pair have collaborated to create a body of work about the U.S.-Mexico border. The full exhibition and Aperture-published book won’t appear until 2016, but Misrach and Galindo chose to debut the work in The California Sunday Magazine. “The opportunity to work with the CSM people, as well as recent developments and pressure for political action regarding immigration, made us feel it was time to contribute to the dialogue,” Misrach told PDN via email.

The artists’ decision to debut the work in the magazine was appropriate—their collaboration began when they met at one of McGray’s Pop-Up Magazine gatherings, at which writers, photographers and others share stories with a live audience. It was from these popular events in San Francisco that The California Sunday Magazine emerged.

While it’s sold in select bookstores in the Bay Area, L.A., Portland and Seattle, the magazine is primarily distributed in Sunday editions of the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee. (The first three issues were also distributed to select New York Times subscribers in California.) In designing the magazine, Jung considered the wide, diverse audience, as well as California’s laid-back attitude. An East Coast native who worked previously at The New York Times Magazine and WIRED, Jung says he “wanted to be able to capture what I felt like was a different vibe and essence on the West Coast.”

For the “Shorts” section of the magazine—short articles that appear in the front of the book—Jung uses color gradation in the headlines as a “reflection of the different type of light” on the West Coast. He also chose a rounded slab serif for the magazine’s main typeface, which had “the serious qualities of the serif,” but could also feel lighthearted when he used the bolder versions of the typeface, which conveys “that sort of casualness of California.” Despite these subtle nods to region, Jung says he aims to keep the design “secondary” to the reader experience of the magazine and digital products. “The important thing,” he says, is to “enhance the experience whenever possible, but be a lot more subtle.”

“Leo’s design, and the simplicity and the elegance of it, really elevates the photography,” Bates notes. “He lets it breathe, whereas in many other magazines, you don’t always have the luxury of having all of these big, beautiful images.”

Misrach says he “loved” working with Jung, Bates and writer Kit Rachlis on the piece. “They came to my studio where they found a huge project (I have made over 12,000 photos thus far) and they were able to hone it down to a poignant essay. This was an amazing feat,” he enthuses, adding that Jung’s print layout “knocked my socks off.” In print, a panoramic image of a beach bisected by steel fencing was given a gatefold spread in the center of the magazine. The design for California Sunday’s digital editions, which they publish on their site and in smartphone and tablet apps, “was even better,” says Misrach.

The first issue of the magazine featured a Holly Andres photograph on its cover, which introduced a story about virtual reality. And Brian Finke’s portrait of chef Roy Choi ran on the cover of the December issue. “We’re trying to make these deliberate decisions to make each cover feel like it’s very different from the previous ones. And that’s part of being a really effective general interest magazine,” Jung notes.

Andres was the only photographer Bates thought of for the cover story about virtual reality, she says. Bates and Andres met in 2009 at the Photolucida portfolio reviews in Portland, OR. “Her images create such fantastical narratives that she was the perfect fit for what we were trying to achieve,” Bates explains.

While she plans to build a small roster of photographers she will regularly work with, Bates says she’s “very interested in also working with artists that haven’t shot for a magazine like ours before, from up-and-comers to established photographers.” Through the first three issues, Bates notes, they’ve worked with many female photographers, something she is “thrilled” about. Previously a photo editor for W and Elle magazines, Bates says she looks for photographers by paying attention to gallery shows, photo blogs and arts journals as well as Instagram. The magazine also features stories on Latin America and Asia, so her needs go beyond the region. She also relies on word of mouth from friends and photographers. She notes, “I’ve been seeing a new wave of photographers who are less competitive with each other and eager to share their friends’ talents with me. The sense of community is really wonderful to see.’”

For a December story about a family clashing with a community of Mormon fundamentalists on the Utah/Arizona border, Bates hired Jim Mangan. “I was looking for an opportunity to have him shoot something along the lines of his otherworldly series of aerial photographs of Utah,” she recalls. Mangan was a fit for this story because it was “so much about the awe-inspiring landscape—which, when viewed from the outside, concealed a drama unfolding in the community,” Bates explains.

The California Sunday Magazine also welcomes pitches from photographers, and from photographers and writers who’d like to work together on a story. “We’re really looking for stories that are beautiful and arresting,” Bates explains. “It can be a fully formed project or a work in progress, but we want it to be super special…we want all the photography to be unseen and unpublished.”

Creative freedom is one of the biggest advantages of working on a new magazine, Bates says. “Some photo editors can get stuck hiring the same photographers, because you know they can deliver, and there are such tight budgets and deadlines nowadays that you can’t afford to re-shoot if the edit comes back and doesn’t work. We don’t have the same pressure to fit into the tight constraints of an already established brand. We’re creating a visual language with each issue, from scratch. There is a sense of freedom in that. We can take chances. The best part of my job is commissioning photographers to experiment and challenge themselves.”

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