A few weeks ago, veteran photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke announced the creation of The Curious Society, a membership-based, quarterly print publication for contemporary photojournalism. While some might reflexively balk at starting a printed magazine in the digital age, Jarecke believes there is a market for people who want a tactile experience, and one that forces them to more slowly appreciate photography – and if he’s right, he’ll also be paying photographers a meaningful licensing fee in return.
Audacious? Undoubtedly. But the news of the past 12 months (from COVID-19 to Black Lives Matter protests to the Capitol Siege) has been a constant reminder as to the power of photojournalism in recording history in ways that the written word cannot convey.
This interview is lightly edited, and was conducted via email
You started The Curious Project in 2018, which led to the publication of a few issues of Curious Magazine. What did you learn through that experience?
The Curious Project was a way for me to get back into print. I used it as a kind of sketchpad. I needed to remember how photographs work on the printed page. Like everyone else, the medium my work was mainly appearing in was digital. No gutters, no figuring out how images affect one another when they’re sitting side by side, no narrative concerns, just one image after another in a never ending, online slideshow. I had to relearn all of that.
What was the impetus to expand The Curious Project into The Curious Society – a membership-based publication in 2021?
I started The Curious Project knowing that it would become something real. Though, I didn’t know how long it would take or what that final form would be. I thought through every scenario regardless of how crazy they were. I thought about a limited edition magazine for example. The conflict was how to make it both available and desirable, then somehow pay for everything. This is what I came up with. I didn’t want it to be a vanity project, or a coffee table book, I didn’t want to create a boneyard for old relics like myself or some self-serving homage. It had to be a living, dynamic thing that feeds off of the enthusiasm and energy of fresh eyes. Just thinking about that exchange, a young person seeing their work in the kind of platform that hasn’t really existed before, really inspires me to do this right.
Well, maybe something like this kind of existed in Stieglitz’s Camera Work with tipped in photogravures and whatnot. Now that I think of it, that was a limited edition magazine, but I’m guessing it wasn’t very democratic. I suppose one had to be a rich “gentleman” photographer to get published there, but who knows?
Although not perfect analogs, there are publications like Aperture and the British Journal of Photography that seek to curate and showcase great photography in printed form. How do you see The Curious Society differentiating itself from the pack?
Both of those are great publications, so that’s good company to keep. I don’t know a lot about the inner workings of them to properly comment, but I can tell you what we’re planning.
Our working philosophy at Contact Press Images was to approach everything we did as if we were shooting for a twenty page spread in the world’s greatest magazine. Robert Pledge and David Burnett [ed. note: Pledge and Burnett founded Contact Press Images in 1976] introduced me to this concept the very first day we met… at a photography workshop with something like fifty other students… so it wasn’t a secret or anything, just a great way to approach every assignment or personal project.
Later on, once they invited me to work with them, I asked them what magazine they were talking about that day, was it Life or maybe some foreign magazine that I’d never heard of? Because of course that’s where I wanted to show my portfolio. They laughed and told me the thing didn’t exist. Which was quite a letdown. I really thought they were talking about a real magazine during the workshop. Later that day Pledge took me aside and broke the news about Santa… not a great day for me.
Then I said, if it doesn’t exist why don’t we create it. Did I mention I was naive? Of course, it didn’t make any sense back then. We had hundreds of magazines to market our work to around the world and a lot of them had deep pockets. There was no need, no reason.
Now, I think there is a need. I think it makes sense as well. It’s still crazy and there’s a lot of risk involved, but I really believe a publication like this can make a difference in today’s marketplace and the wonderful photographers working today. They deserve it.
But to answer your question, we’re producing the greatest magazine (and at 11×14.5” one of the biggest) that ever existed, and we’re going to publish a lot of twenty page stories in it.
It seems rather audacious to have a print publication as your flagship when most photography is consumed digitally nowadays. The website mentions two key factors: 1) print is the best way to experience photography, and 2) the collectability makes the publications more valuable over time. Can you expound on your philosophy of print?
Yes, it is audacious, and like I said earlier, a little crazy. My answer might sound equally crazy.
When you look at photos on a phone or laptop, you’re interacting with a device.
To your brain, there’s no tactile difference between looking at the work of Sebastiao Salgado or a grab shot made by a reporter forced to illustrate their own words (for an example, not to pick on overworked writers). There are no physical clues to tip off the brain, so the mindset is the same.
The same can be said for the viewers eyes… the visual experience is much the same. Maybe if you expand Sebastiao’s image you can see the higher quality or whatever, but there’s still something really lacking there.
That’s not even getting into the bigger issues. The narrative issues, the ability to control exactly how one’s work is presented on the end user’s device, the motor reflexes that power one through their Instagram feed… most pictures need to be seen more than a half a second to be digested… right?
Which brings up an earlier issue… how does it affect me, as a photographer, when I know my images are only going to be seen briefly and then immediately swept away into the internet abyss? Will I even work to make nuanced images when I know they’ll never be “liked”?
I think they used to say advertisements in print had 1.5 seconds to make an impact with the consumer. That seems like an eternity today.
A beautifully produced print magazine, with wonderful images is the final product. What we produce is what the viewer sees. The medium forces them to slow down. The weight of the thing makes them pay attention. It’s like vinyl records on a turntable, you got to change them, maybe look at the album cover when you do so… the main difference being what we’re producing here is like an album that you don’t need a state of the art sound system to properly enjoy… or even a record player for that matter. It’s a complete, standalone self-contained object. One doesn’t need a special device to interact with it, just their eyes, a little window light, maybe a cup of coffee. That’s it.
Your extensive (and very entertaining) FAQ articulates the need for 4,000 paying subscriber members prior to the publication of the first issue with an aspirational goal of 20,000 members to get to a $500/page rate. Rightfully so, the first subscribers seem to be photojournalists. How do you intend to expand your audience beyond “the converted” and convince people outside of the PJ industry to take notice?
If more than 5% of our membership base is photojournalists, we’re doing something very wrong. That’s a losing bet. We’ve built, I think it’s over a dozen now, different membership models. (Evidently this is what people who know how to market things do.)
One of our top models is, fifty-five or older, has disposable income and fond memories of waiting for Vogue to arrive in the mail each month.
Another is twenty-eight, lives in an apartment, works online, makes good money, and is desperate for an experience that the other members of their social circle don’t have.
We’re slow-rolling the launch. We did one posting on a closed Facebook group as a shakedown cruise of sorts, and used that feedback to improve the text and make sure the website was properly working. So if you’re a dentist with an M3, get ready to hear from us.
Did you consider other crowdfunding platforms like Patreon and Substack as a means to both test/identify a paying audience, as well as starting with a “simpler” digital platform?
Not really. I know that’s the smart way to do things, and although I’ve been accused of working like that, I’ve never been convicted.
No, the short answer is it’s not a counterpoint to the Photographer Bill of Rights.
The code of ethics itself was something I thought was crucial for the times we’re living in, as polling shows how distrusted the press is across the entire political spectrum. So it had to be something from the heart that wasn’t written by a committee or a law firm. It had to be something I thought all of us journalist types could agree on as well. It wasn’t designed to be earth shattering or controversial. If it is a reaction to anything it’s just current public opinion polling.
You spend a few sentences describing the advertising-driven economic model of contemporary media outfits, and how you’re seeking to escape this “consumer as product” reality by asking people to pay the actual costs of producing the rag.
Yes, well it’s like anything we buy. There are hidden costs that we pay, we just don’t pay them at the time we’re making the purchase. What does it cost us when a big corporation doesn’t provide proper healthcare for their employees, or they don’t pay local taxes, or proper postage rates? We pay for all of that… eventually.
This $300 amount is the real, non-subsidized cost of producing this product. At least I hope it is, our budget depends on it not being any more than that.
We’re a nonprofit. We need to cover our costs, but we’re not driven by the bottomline. That’s why our space rate rises as our membership numbers grow. Normally the cost per unit spent on content goes down as the subscription numbers go up. The amount we’re spending on content will go up. The end result is everyone is rewarded for our collective success.
At least some of the language and positioning of The Curious Society feels like it’s coming from a place of nostalgia. The optimist in me is excited to see where this all might lead. The cynic in me can’t help but wonder whether the ship has sailed, and that we live in a harsh reality with crappy rates, WFH, etc. What’s your take?
I’ve used the vinyl analogy way too many times. But I don’t see this as a nostalgic or hipster thing.
I think there are better ways to listen to music than from a record. I’ve got my iTunes and Apple Music (family subscription thank you very much). I’ve got the good speakers to sync with my phone. The listening experience is important to me and these things deliver. I don’t want to deal with the hassle or cost of plastic. I want to listen to what I want, when I want.
So yeah, what are we really providing here? What are we giving people that they don’t get from their phones, or even a 27” iMac?
I think part of it is the experience. The idea of being part of something that’s important, and part of a like minded community as well. There’s the excuse to unplug. Reading the New York Times, that’s like a Sunday experience, where everyone is juggling different sections and the thing is spread out across the floor. That’s a nostalgic memory to be sure, but it may also be the very best way to absorb the information, knowledge and (yes) entertainment that’s in those pages.
Nobody wants to answer the phone on a Sunday morning right after they’ve cracked open the Times. I think we can deliver that same experience.
The other side of the coin is delivering that experience. If this is worthwhile, and obviously I personally think it is, shouldn’t that be passed along to a younger generation? Is it okay to just throw one’s hands in the air and just move along?
I had a good run. This isn’t something I need to do, it’s something I want to do. A big part of this is giving others the chance to have a good run as well. We need to shake this business up. I’m not saying The Curious Society will have billionaires rethinking their successful business models, but it can’t hurt to give photojournalists options.
Right now, where do you go when you’ve produced your Country Doctor? How do you get it seen without signing over a bunch of rights? Do you even bother attempting to do great work today knowing it will have a hard time being properly seen?
The world doesn’t need a costly, photojournalism driven, print only publication, the question is, do four thousand, or better yet, twenty thousand people want one?
In terms of what you’re seeking from photographers, are you looking to republish great essays? Different edits of existing work? Will you ask for embargos or exclusivity?
We’re looking for fairly current, original work, though I won’t throw anything off the table. I could imagine a photographer who worked in Shanghai thirty years ago, revisiting the same locations today and producing a really great essay using both bodies of work, for example.
Something I can say for certain is we’re only publishing work that is owned by the photographers who made it. We want to encourage photographers to keep their copyrights and give them a reason to (at least) think about why copyrights are important to them.
We will be licensing for first-time North American rights, so it would be nice if we got them… once again, nothing (besides that other thing) is off the table.
We’ve not discussed the embargo issue yet. It will be interesting when we do. That discussion will happen with the board of directors and an agent or two (I imagine).
I would think, when we get up to a decent space rate, we should have an embargo in North America for three months. The hope being that the print edition drops here and is then used by photographers and/or their agents to market their work for resale in non-competing markets overseas. I think that would be both fair and a win/win.
We wouldn’t want to go to press and then see the same photos appear in a readily available domestic publication the following week. I don’t think our doctors with Nikons will appreciate seeing that in their lobbies either.
Where can people sign up?
I encourage everyone to visit our website, www.curioussociety.org whether they think they’re interested or not. It’s a good read and makes a decent case for our project. It’s super easy to become a member there as well.
Cover image is a mock-up design for illustration purposes.