Established in 1854, the British Journal of Photography is the world’s longest-running photography magazine. Over the years, the magazine has changed forms numerous times—from a weekly industry publication to a more artistically-focused, luxurious monthly publication.
For over a dozen years, Simon Bainbridge has been an integral part of the British Journal of Photography’s editorial direction. He has helped oversee two major re-designs of the Journal as well its decision in 2013 to become an independent publishing entity.
We’re thrilled that Bainbridge has agreed to serve on the jury for our Emerging Talent Awards 2018. Curious to learn more, Alexander Strecker reached out to Bainbridge to hear his opinion on the development of the magazine and the future of photographers in print media. What follows is a wide-ranging interview filled with insights that will be valuable for any emerging photographer.
LensCulture: Why is photography special to you? What is it that first drew you to the image as a way of relating to the world? And what keeps you coming back?
Simon Bainbridge: It’s a kind of fetishism. There’s an innate magic or mystery to photographs that’s not easily explained.
The first photographs I remember appreciating in and of themselves were found in The Face, which—along with i-D—was the prototype for so much of the media we have today. Both publications started in 1980, and both treated high and popular culture with the same sense of seriousness and irreverence; they didn’t just capture the zeitgeist, they defined it. But although the writing and design was excellent, it was the photographs that I most looked forward to—they seemed to innately embody the ideas and the sense of excitement and energy of the late 1980s.
Later, while I was studying photography, it was that moment of alchemy in the darkroom. And later still, when I volunteered at a photography gallery after studying history of art at university, there was a formative moment: I was fixing these quite boring images to the walls, then fixing the captions. As the words went up alongside the picture, they turned the nondescript scenes into powerful messages about sexual violence and its everyday occurrence. It was the first time I’d understood a photograph for what it was trying to say, rather than its aesthetic appeal. And I understood that as a photographer you have this freedom to use everything around you as your work.
Photography, like writing, is a common currency: the medium itself isn’t a barrier. Yet if you want to be heard, you really have to have something interesting to say about the world or yourself.
For me, photography continues to offer a fascinating window into the world. It offers different viewpoints to the media or advertising or even the art world—with their particular codes and agendas—which is mediated by people driven by a great sense of curiosity and inquiry. It’s the things right in front of you that you don’t see, reconfigured and transformed. Magic!
LC: Several years ago, BJP went independent from a larger media entity. It seems to parallel the way in which many photographers were once part of larger media entities (newspapers, magazines, traditional agencies) and have since become much freer. What have been the most exciting parts of BJP’s independence? The most daunting/challenging? From what you’ve learned from these experiences, what would you tell a photographer looking to strike out on his/her own?
SB: The best part of being independent is that the chains are off. It’s also the worst part. There’s no one but ourselves to blame if something goes wrong, or if we bite off more than we can chew (which we probably did in our first year). But the positives are many: no one to can tell us “No,” so we can do whatever we want. In particular, we’ve been able create the magazine we wanted and also incorporate events and exhibitions into what we do.
One of the most important lessons for anyone starting up is that you’ve got to be lean and prepared to adapt. You try new things, and you run with them if they work, or you learn from what went wrong and try something else. You can only do this if both you and your audience understand your core proposition—the main thing that you do and will always do. So my advice is this: focus on doing a few things well.
LC: More recently, the BJP underwent a major re-design, embracing the movement in publishing towards producing unique printed objects rather than disposable, cheaply printed paper. Personally, you curated a show called UK: Paper, Rock, Scissors that showcased British constructed images. The two seem related. What would you say about the trend in photography of construction and amalgamation (both physical and digital)? Where does it come from, what has it brought us, where is it going?
SB: You could see both as a contradiction to the prevailing logic—that we’re increasingly moving away from the physical realm of the object to the virtual reality of the digital sphere. I think they’re counterpoints to the increasing invasiveness or distraction of digital media and devices—though I don’t see them in opposition so much as complimentary. They serve different pleasures, needs and impulses.
But people do seem to put more value on physical objects, and that’s certainly one logic we followed with our last two major redesigns (in March 2010 and March 2016). And many of the works in Paper, Rock, Scissors were unique, hand-crafted objects or site-specific responses.
We usually come across online content by following our existing prejudices or desires, putting a phrase into search, or getting there via social media. Thus, our discoveries have often been unknowingly vetted by some mix of our like-minded friends and a bunch of anonymous algorithms.
Print magazines should surprise. They should be playful, disruptive, challenging.
Print magazines should make you want to find out more about a subject you might not have even thought about before. Yet at the same time, you should want to keep and covet them, not just as a reference, but as objects you appreciate.
LC: Working for a print magazine, what do you do about limited space—and limited budget? How do you approach the questions of selection and editing when print space is at such a premium? Do you have a philosophy of triage?
SB: It’s not just a problem for print; we have to think about the download sizes of our iPad and iPhone editions, and to some extent, page-load times for our website. But I get what you mean. We could fill the magazine 10 times over each month and still want space for more. But this is a kind of existential problem for photography: how do we find gravity and potency in this torrent of images? How do we even get heard? I doubt there’s much to add. The answer is in cutting—selecting, editing—and thereby revealing.
My priority is the photographer’s voice and what they are trying to articulate. So the challenge in editing for a certain amount of pages is not so much the limitation of how many images you can reproduce, but how you put images together to convey ideas—while at the same time introducing play and surprise.
How do you get someone to turn the page, or linger on a spread?
It’s about creating a tension or harmony. A magazine is much like a photography series in that respect—you are aiming for something that is more than the sum of its individual parts, otherwise it’s just another shard in the stream of content.
LC: For anyone who would like to become the editor of a magazine some day, what advice do you have? Where does one start? What are the best forms of training? How does one get better? What have you learned over the past 15 years that you wish you knew back at the start?
SB: I don’t have any training, but since I was a small child, when my dad would bring home little stacks of coloured paper, I’ve loved to put things together in little books and magazines.
Like anything worthwhile, improving comes from practice and analyzing what you admire—and then following your instincts. College is a good place to start, because it gives you the time you rarely get when you’re in the melee of production cycles and deadlines. But there’s no substitute for actually doing it. You need to learn the mechanics of it, and how to work with other people in a team.
Ultimately, it all comes down to desire and curiosity. For me, on the heels of a history of art degree (and disillusioned with the field’s purposefully mystifying language and navel-gazing, something that also accompanies much of contemporary art), photography spoke much more about an exterior world. I’m a terrible photographer, so editing a photography magazine is the next best thing.
I set about exploring contemporary photographic practice and trying to make sense of it—and that’s what I’m still trying to do today. I’m not a philistine. There’s a place for theory. And much of the work I love most is esoteric; it’s difficult to explain where its power comes from. But, while I recognize its limitations, I still believe in journalism as a set of tools and standards and values that can help us understand the world.
Absorb yourself in your subject, then trust your intuitions. Try not to think too much about what is expected of you, and think more about the really basic questions that drive the people you are communicating to—not so much the questions about how to get ahead in a career, but the dreams and fears and motivations that lie beneath the surface.
When I started in the early 1990s, it was the beginning of a revolution in publishing. For the first time, you could create professional-looking magazines from a small room with a few people and a couple of Macs. I went to my first magazine pitching ideas for articles, having studied what they did, and made myself aware of how all the sections worked. These days there’s more opportunity to show you can write, even if it’s just writing for your own site or blog. Employers are looking for evidence that you can do the job before you’ve even started, and you no longer have to wait to be commissioned to show them you can do the basics.
LC: Finally, as both the editor of BJP and when serving as a juror, you’ve said that you like to see “work that has the photographer’s signature, rather than their influences.” What do you think is the best way for photographers to develop this signature? Is it by going to school, necessarily, or are there other avenues that can work as well?
SB: Learn from others instead of referencing them. Try and understand what makes something work instead of using it as a style guide. Think and analyze—and let that seep into your practice. Practice a lot. Follow your instincts and see ideas through to their conclusion.
Then do the opposite. Follow blind alleys. Go places you don’t want to be. Work hard, even when it’s not working, and eventually your ideas will lead to interesting photographs, and interesting photographs will lead you to ideas.
School may be possibly the worst place to discover all this, but I’m a big believer in starting from something, anything, and then, if necessary, kicking against the pricks.
—Simon Bainbridge interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ note: Simon Bainbridge will be judging entries to the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2018—enter now for your chance to get your work in front of Bainbridge and the rest of the world-class jury. You can find out more about the competition on its Call for Entries.