Founded in 1932, Esquire magazine was one of the only publications to actually flourish during the Great Depression. Contributions by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald further solidified its refined journalistic approach – and the photography followed in its footsteps.
It’s clear just from picking up a copy of Esquire that their photographic standards are high. At the same time, there’s rarely anything conventional about it, and yet that’s just what makes it stand out.
I spoke with Whitney Tressel, who was a Photo Coordinator at Esquire, to get an inside look at their artistic and hiring processes. Here are Whitney’s 6 tips for working with a magazine like Esquire, plus a look at some of Whitney’s favorite and most successful shoots to date.
1. Research the readership
Editorial publications will likely hire you because they envision your style fitting with their style. Still, if you’re reaching out to photo editors for the first time, it’s smart to research their readership and determine if you’re a good match. “The goal is to appeal to a spectrum of men, aged widely from post-collegiate to approaching retirement,” says Whitney of Esquire. “‘Esquire men’ are fashion forward and conscious of what it means to be an educated, opinionated, and a masculine man in a multitude of ways. Economically, the readers are mostly middle-to-upper class.”
2. Actually flip through the magazine
This seems obvious, but all too often photographers cold-email lists of editors or buyers without considering whether they can offer the clients what they’re looking for.
“The publication is filled with rich content, from the underlying concept to the bitsy marginalia,” Whitney says. “Esquire pushes the limits of journalism with daring imagery, amazing writing, and creative, cohesive design. Esquire‘s photography presents itself as a large range, including but not limited to: environmental portraiture, stripped down studio shots, fresh fashion spreads, rich food photos, conceptual stills, gritty photojournalism, fine art projects and photo essays.”
3. Understand that typically the story precedes the photography
“Most of the time, the story comes before the photography,” Whitney tells us. “We’d either receive the initial concept or full text, and then from there meet creatively with the art team before assigning a shoot.”
At that point, the team moves forward with building the photography around the story. As far as the photographer’s viewpoint is concerned, Whitney says, “This depends on the story or content itself, also if we are present at the shoot or not. Before the shoot, Esquire’s photo department does a very thorough job of relaying ideas and needs while staying consistent with the brand’s identity. We are also very open to hearing the photographer’s thoughts, too, as there is always great care and reason in who we specifically choose for each assignment. We want their style and voice spoken loudly in the piece too.”
4. Be realistic about changes in editorial photography
Photographers often cringe – if not cry out – when they hear that editorial publications are increasingly using stock photography. But the industry is changing, and it’s a reality that we have to accept sooner or later.
Especially given the current economic situation, there may be less budget for commissioned shoots. “The economy has most definitely affected magazines and the budgets in which we are granted for executing the art,” says Whitney. “Pick-up art of existing photography, heavily researched and properly curated, has increased since the economy trouble simply because it’s a cheaper route to go. Esquire does a fantastic job at, if given no choice but to use existing art, making it seem as if it was shot originally, fitting perfectly into the brand.”
If you chose to sell stock, keep in mind that you’ll obviously need to license more to mimic a commissioned salary.
5. Read the contract before your sign
Every client has their own unique contract, so it’s crucial that you pay attention to each one. If you’re commissioned for a shoot, how long does the client retain rights to your photos? Can you use the images for your portfolio? Where else is the client allowed to use your photography? These are things to look out for.
At Esquire, Whitney says that “the commissioned photographer’s agreement had been leaning towards all-inclusive flat rates, including the rights to use an assigned shoot’s imagery, in-context, on the print, online, and iPad platforms. The standard day rate has remained the same, matching industry standard, as well as standard expenses for the most part, and is most definitely accounted for within the flat rate.”
6. Get your photo to be the magazine’s favorite
I asked Whitney what she thinks makes the photography at Esquire stand out:
“The photography at Esquire stands out because it takes risks. Shooting for Esquire traditionally means pushing the limits. It’s a publication that has great street-cred for presenting imagery honestly and in beautiful raw form. Whether it’s a controversial celebrity, a decadent dish, or a classic fashion piece, Esquire’s photography is purposeful.”
Below are some of her favorite and most successful shots:
“I helped out Photo Director Michael Norseng with a fantastic cover shoot of Tina Fey. James White photographed a “Tina’s night out” concept at Asia de Cuba & a Morgans group hotel. We staged Tina “acting out” by walking across the restaurant’s table-top causing a raucous, putting on lipstick by using the back of a spoon as a mirror, and drinking champagne carelessly in the hotel bath. It was hard work as it was highly produced, but it turned out to be an amazing time all around and Tina was amazing.”
“Another shoot that was very interesting for me was called ‘What I’ve Learned on Woody Harrelson’. We actually ended up having his two daughters Deni and Zoe, who at the time were fifteen and twelve years old, photograph him out and about in Hawaii. I sent them two Diana cameras and many rolls of film and as a result our art team had lots of great heartfelt imagery to collage into a beautiful full-page piece of art. I was honored to be art directing with a celebrity’s family rather than the famous person directly. A very cool memory.”