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Design Spotlight: Fabrice Frere

CITY's creative director talks about digital photoshoots, outsourcing your design staff, and how to win the most awards on the cheapest budget.

By Greg Lindsay - February 4, 2005

WHEN TINY, UNHERALDED CITY magazine won the National Magazine Award for photography last spring—upsetting Vogue and Martha Stewart Living in the process—the universal reaction by guests at the awards luncheon was: "Who?" The answer to that question, as far as CITY's consistently excellent visuals are concerned, is Fabrice Frere, CITY's creative director and chief operating officer. [Full disclosure: I am a past and future CITY contributor.] Frere, a veteran of Art Cooper's GQ, traded in the streams of Condé Nast cash at his disposal a few years ago for the freedom found at the top of CITY's masthead. Since then, he's outsourced his art director (even while CITY was nominated for a NMA in design), embraced digital photography, and succeeded in doing more than his rivals with a fraction of the budget.

Mediabistro: Where do you start when you're a magazine as small as CITY competing in categories like fashion, travel, and lifestyle against well-endowed competitors like Condé Nast and Hearst?

Fabrice Frere: I grew very frustrated when I was at GQ with Art Cooper because it was very formulaic. Not that CITY doesn't have a formula—we have a grid, we have layouts that prescribe to that grid—but what's different is that we are reinventing the photography and the visuals. Our commentary is more visual than written, and we achieve that by giving photographers freedom. We've become a little bit of their playground.

Photographers have two lives. They're doing either advertising or catalogues and are usually micromanaged by just about everybody in their field: "Just put the girl here, make sure she is smiling, make her look happy." Those are the kinds of comments that plague photographers. And then, when they get to shoot for magazines, sometimes the bigger ones completely overrule any creative agenda they may have.

I think the pool of magazines that will let you do a kooky idea—but where you can still get respect and not look like a fool—is very small. There are plenty of very independent magazines, sure, that will let you do whatever, but you may not want to associate yourself with them. The key to luring photographers is finding that balance between being respected and still letting them pull off something great.

"The pool of magazines that will let you do a kooky idea—but where you can still get respect and not look like a fool—is very small. There are plenty of very independent magazines…but you may not want to associate yourself with them. The key to luring photographers is finding that balance between being respected and still letting them pull off something great."

The best comment I ever received about CITY came from John Varvatos. He was looking at an issue, and he said, "It seems like people are having fun making this magazine."

Mediabistro: But what are the mechanics of recruiting the talent you need to implement your vision? W is very similar to CITY in the sense of giving its photographers ultimate freedom while commanding incredible respect. And it has the money to command the A-listers. Are you continually looking for new talent because you're priced out of even semi-established names?

Frere: We have photographers who are completely established and who finally came around and said, "The paper's good, the publication is doing much better; you know, I'd love to be a part of this and get the exposure." But I also harvest the new talent coming up, and usually, that's where we find some of the best ideas for the magazine—their fresh, forward thinking. For every 10 books you see, you might actually see one that catches your eye and has a new point of view, a new way of treating fashion. I think those are the moments we live here for.

We don't do celebrities, thank God. That's when you really do need budgets. I remember being at GQ when Art Cooper—I was sitting across from him at his desk—was on the phone with Sharon Stone. Sharon Stone wanted to be featured in GQ, but she wanted to be shot with zebras. It was kind of hard to get zebras to New York, and she wanted to be shot in a zebra suit, sort of cuddling or holding two zebras next to her. And Art Cooper's response was: "It's not gonna happen." He photoshopped them in later. And that's what you get with celebrities. You've got to fly them first class, you have to have the champagne waiting at the photo shoot. It just becomes a very expensive thing, so we've stayed away from that.

Mediabistro: CITY's reputation is based almost entirely on its visuals. Can visuals alone carry a magazine for the long term, or will the words eventually have to keep up? Are you trying to achieve a balance, or did you have to pick your battles and choose to win photography while surrendering a bit when it came to stories?

Frere: I think we've gone astray, and I'll tell you why. Bob Cato, who I think of as a private tutor, was a consultant for Condé Nast while I was there, and he very clearly expressed to me that, in a magazine, the art is there to support the written word. And I think we've completely violated that rule and that with the visuals supporting the magazine, the words almost seem incidental sometimes. Obviously, we're working hard now to balance that out. Last year, we won 19 photography awards. I think it was nine from the [Society of Publication Designers] and nine from the AIGA awards. So last year was good.

"In a magazine, the art is there to support the written word. And I think we've completely violated that rule, and that with the visuals supporting the magazine, the words almost seem incidental sometimes. Obviously, we're working hard now to balance that out."

Mediabistro: And you still see the magazine as broken and needing to be fixed?

Frere: In a way, totally. And I think some of the changes we've made recently with the editorial staff are going to reflect that. But I've never heard anyone open a magazine and say, "Oh, this story reads really well." The first thing they'll say is, "This is ugly," or "This is beautiful." And it's usually the case with our magazine that people open it and say, "This is nice to look at," or "It's easy to navigate." And then we'll suck that someone in.

Mediabistro: How does your relationship with your art director, Adriana Jacoud work? She isn't in the office and she's not an employee, either. Is she responsible for CITY's look and feel?

Frere: No, originally it was Mariana Ochs, who was actually a girlfriend of mine. When I left Condé Nast and met up with [editorial director] John [McDonald], the publication had just been launched. I think three issues were on the way, and they didn't look like anything really. There was no reason to the layouts or to the photography.

Mariana and I sat down and basically designed the template and the identity of the magazine. The mission at the time was: If you found a page from the magazine lying astray under a car or something and picked it up, you would know where it came from.

We did a first issue and then tweaked the design—things like scale, size, perfecting the fonts, limiting the fonts, applying rules, style sheets, and all that stuff. That took about three or four months, and we've building on that ever since.

Adriana came later. She used to work with Mariana in New York, and when Mariana moved back to Brazil, she came on board and we picked it up from there. Then she moved to Pennsylvania. She's more of a graphic designer than an art director, actually. To me, an art director would go to photo shoots or conceptualize things with an editor and bring the visuals to the story. Adriana basically logs into our server once everything's been shot, the copy is together and everything has been put on a mock layout. She picks it up from the server, and we have a few conversations about what the piece is, what it should reflect, and where it belongs in the magazine. And from there she spends about a day or two in the layout.

Mediabistro: What are the trade-offs of that arrangement? It strikes me as pretty unusual that a magazine with the visual reputation of CITY would have an art director with such a weak presence.

Frere: It's unusual because there's sometimes a disconnect between what you might be thinking graphically or typographically. That's easy to fix with a quick instant message session or phone call. What's also nice is that she has a fresh eye on it after we've been staring at it a little too long. It works well. It's certainly much easier for me financially.

Mediabistro: If you can do this with a fraction of what the major glossies spend, why are they spending so much in the first place? Is it just because Condé Nast's magazines can't or won't rein in their overhead costs?

Frere: We had a little saying that we printed up, something to the tune of: "For love or for money, there's no in-between." I still let it be known that we have small means, that we are not ashamed of it, and it's OK.

I saw ghastly amounts of money being spent at magazines. For something like a front-of-the-book one-pager, which was going to get one small, quarter-page picture, I've seen them shoot on location, booking a van for the models and catering. I mean, that's something you can shoot with your digital camera today.

I don't know if they realize that. I think they play the entire game. And when I say "the game," it's everything. It's having 30 people on a set, when you really don't need 30 people. I've seen cover shoots at Condé Nast that cost $60,000-$70,000. Why? With that many people on the set, your subject is now frozen, shy, and confused about whose direction to follow. And there are people there who are basically just chatting on their cell phones. I just don't know why it has to be such a big production.

Mediabistro: So what are the shortcuts you've discovering for slashing those costs? Besides shooting digitally, how many processes have you managed to streamline?

Frere: A lot. Our first big cut—and most magazines have done this by now—was going direct to plate. We've skipped the whole match print process, which was really expensive. When we did it, we immediately saved $80,000 a year. This is how I could afford a photo editor.

More recently, I think a lot of publications and catalogs have started to use digital photography, but for a long time, they weren't sure, and didn't really believe in the technology being ready yet. I can tell you that we have become beta testers of just about everything under the sun. I think the turnaround time for digital is amazing, and I've done shoots where you really can't tell the difference.

Mediabistro: What do you use? Are there any best practices yet?

Frere: Most of the photographers actually shoot medium format, and they'll put a digital back on the camera, connected to a fancy Powerbook with a very large hard drive. And they'll snap 300 photos in a day. But since you know what you're getting, it allows you to save time in the studio.

Mediabistro: Every shot is effectively a Polaroid?

Frere: Every shot is the Polaroid, every single shot. And you know when you have "the shot," whereas you might think you have the shot with a Polaroid, but then you switch to your film, and whatever you have on film you won't know about until the next day at best.

So, shooting digital saves you time. I think the quality is there now, and it's only getting better now, day by day. I've heard rumors of cameras being developed that are actually 35-millimeter but capture so much information from that little frame that medium-size cameras might be obsolete, and you'll be able to do it with these smaller ones. I've shot things with my 5-megapixel consumer camera that have appeared in the magazine, and you really wouldn't know what I used.

We find photographers who completely embrace the technology, because our embrace makes it more attractive for them to shoot. They're not looking at $3,000-$4,000 in personal expenses for film, film processing, making prints, and all that business. When they're done, they're just like, "Here's the disk." And they're just paying the cost of the media. We can edit those photos that night and pretty much put them in the layout the next day. If you can do that, why wouldn't you?

Mediabistro: Well, what happens to the magazine industry in the long run when every photo editor in the business realizes they can?

Frere: It's changing already. Look at the number of photo labs that have closed down in the last three or four years. They used to be everywhere, and now they're either closing down or adapting by offering digital services. How is it going to affect the rest of the industry? Just as everyone is becoming a musician, writing and remixing songs of their own, I think everyone is becoming a photographer. It used to take someone a lifetime to become an established photographer, through a lot of trial and error and whatnot.

" Just as everyone is becoming a musician, writing and remixing songs of their own, I think everyone is becoming a photographer…. That's all because of digital."

Today, I know a photographer who decided he was going to become a photographer three years ago, and now he's getting write-ups everywhere and shooting celebrities. That's all because of digital. Otherwise, you drop a lot of money the old-fashioned way, on one shoot, and never recover it.

Mediabistro: Speaking of dropping money, how did CITY manage to win the National Magazine Award for photography last year? Because of the way the awards are judged, you didn't compete with Vogue or Martha Stewart, but with a sort of platonic ideal of your own magazine. But how, with the budgets Vogue has at its disposal, does it not achieve its platonic ideal every year?

Frere: Vogue—American Vogue—is not that engaging. Even as far as the fashion goes, there's so much more room to play with, and they're not doing it. I used to think that in the old days at GQ, where we would just say "Oh, let's get two models, put them around the pool, and it will be fun," and that's it. I think the idea is what matters most. Before you even take the shot, you have to have a very solid idea, and I think that's where the money goes wasted. It's the idea that if you throw enough money at it, it will be great. I

I've seen it in catalog shoots as well. I had to do one shot where I had to rent a kitten at $750 for two hours. This was a shoot with money. The kitten made more than I do in a week!

Greg Lindsay, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, has covered media for and Women's Wear Daily.

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